Thursday, 25 November 2010

Higher Education, Why We Shouldn't Advance The Merit Argument - Part 1

On various student demonstrations, I have seen placards and other material putting forward the argument that access to Higher Education should be based on merit rather than ability to pay. I've heard the same argument being put at various times by people opposing the rise in Tuition Fees. Its a very dangerous argument.

I am old enough to have grown up in a generation where access to “higher” education WAS based on merit. When I was 11, I had to sit my 11 Plus Exam, along with millions of other kids, to decide whether we were part of life's losers or winners, whether we had sufficient merit to deserve the State lavishing more resources on our education than others, and thereby providing us with an even bigger advantage over them than our supposed higher intelligence level already gave us. It determined whether we were to be educated in a Secondary Modern School, which essentially meant you were a failure, and that you'd just be educated up to the minimum level that Capital required for workers who were going to be employed in various unskilled or semi-skilled jobs, or whether you would go to a Technical School, meaning you might have some aptitude to become perhaps a draftsman or other such skilled manual work, or whether you were to go to a Grammar School, in which case you were already one of life's winners, and would thereby merited the benefit of the best teachers, the best schools and equipment, and the general ethos and culture that led inevitably towards either University, Polytechnic, or at least a job somewhere on the lower rungs of management.

Only a few years before those consigned to the Secondary Modern Schools left for the world of work aged 14. For my generation that was raised to 15. Looked at objectively, this actually did mean that those who were already most disadvantaged, and who left school at 15, started to pay taxes, a part of which went to the State paying the wages of the teachers in the Grammar Schools, the Sixth Form Colleges, and the Universities and Polytechnics to whom those who already had the advantage of a higher level of academic achievement had access. From a socialist perspective there really is something wrong with such a state of affairs. It really cannot be right that workers already disadvantaged, pay taxes to support the education of those for whom, and for whatever reason, life has already provided the advantage of a higher level of intelligence, and from which they will, on average, continue to benefit for the rest of their lives, and be able to pass on to their children. As a socialist, I am no more happy about a society divided into classes based upon the possession of intellectual “Capital”, than I am one based on Money Capital. In fact, as Engels sets out in his “The Origin Of The Family, Private Property, and the State”, although it is only when material conditions allow society to be divided into classes, because sufficient can be produced that some can live without the need to work, that Primitive Communist Society broke up, it is almost certainly the fact that some individuals had natural advantages over others, stronger, fitter, more intelligent etc. that played a major part in determining who it was that occupied the positions in society that enabled them to take advantage of that situation, to make themselves the ruling class.

We are less likely to recognise this argument today because the idea of Grammar Schools disappeared in the 1970's with the introduction of Comprehensive Schools, which abolished the idea that access to better education should be based upon merit. Even most Tories today shrink at the idea of them re-introducing Grammar Schools, even if their education proposals attempt to sneak the principle in by the back door. And, of course, although the principle of access to better education based on merit was abolished, in practice it continued. Comprehensives streamed students simply reproducing stratification based on academic achievement within the school, and the middle classes, amongst whom academic achievement was always higher because of the other life advantages they have, were able to simply move into those areas, where needed, where the better schools existed. Even so, we are less likely to recognise this argument today, because generally rising living standards meant that more families could afford to allow their kids to stay on at school, to go to the Sixth Form, and to even go to University or Polytechnic. Even so, only a minority go to University, but it is a much bigger minority than when I went to University in the 1970's, when the number of people in total who had a degree amounted to just 2% of the population. Even that was a larger proportion than in Marx's day, and which prompted him to write in his “Critique of the Gotha Programme”,

“"Universal compulsory school attendance. Free instruction." The former exists even in Germany, the second in Switzerland and in the United States in the case of elementary schools. If in some states of the latter country higher education institutions are also "free", that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts.”

Marx saw no reason why those who already enjoyed such benefits should be subsidised out of general taxation, which in fact, meant out of the wages of workers, who by and large had no possibility of enjoying those benefits. The argument can, of course, be advanced that the State SHOULD raise the finance to cover these costs by taxing the rich, by taxing Capital. Perhaps it should, perhaps in a post-capitalist society it would indeed be possible to adopt such proposals, or to decide that a proportion of society's wealth should be devoted to making the most of the talents of those who demonstrate such academic proclivities. But, as Marx says, we have to deal with the State we have, not the State we might want. He says,

“The German Workers' party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words "present-day state", "present-day society", and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

"Present-day society" is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the "present-day state" changes with a country's frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The "present-day state" is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of the "present-day state" in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.”

In other words, in a moralistic sense, it might be fine to raise the idea that the present State SHOULD pay for higher education – and many more things besides – by taxing the rich, Capital etc., but as Marx points out there is no reason why a Capitalist State WILL do so, and as he says, to raise demands that it should simply instils in workers the delusion that it might, that it is in some way neutral between classes, rather than the instrument of Capital. He says,

“But the whole program, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect's servile belief in the state, or, what is no better, by a democratic belief in miracles; or rather it is a compromise between these two kinds of belief in miracles, both equally remote from socialism.”

Anyone who doubts that should simply look at the fact of how much tax even low-paid workers actually pay, not just in Income Tax, but in VAT, in Excise Duty, in Council Tax, in National Insurance and so on, and the extent to which the truly rich are able to avoid tax almost completely. The fact, that £120 billion is unpaid in taxes is regularly repeated, but it is a situation that has existed for a very, very long-time, and no one seriously believes that any potential Government within the confines of a continuation of Capitalist dominance is going to do anything to seriously change it. As Marx again points out, criticising the idea put forward in the programme that a “single progressive income tax”, could act in some way to redistribute wealth by making the rich pay for the things needed by the poor,

“Taxes are the economic basis of the government machinery and of nothing else. In the state of the future, existing in Switzerland, this demand has been pretty well fulfilled. Income tax presupposes various sources of income of the various social classes, and hence capitalist society. It is, therefore, nothing remarkable that the Liverpool financial reformers — bourgeois headed by Gladstone's brother — are putting forward the same demand as the program.”

In fact, the only reason that Marx and the First International put forward the proposal for a single progressive income tax, was not for such idealistic reasons, but the exact opposite. They raised it so that workers could see by how much the State was ripping them off, and thereby act to limit its expenditure. In the Program of the First International, Marx wrote,

“(a) No modification of the form of taxation can produce any important change in the relations of labour and capital.

(b) Nevertheless, having to choose between two systems of taxation, we recommend the total abolition of indirect taxes, and the general substitution of direct taxes. [In Marx's rough manuscript, French and German texts are: "because direct taxes are cheaper to collect and do not interfere with production".]

Because indirect taxes enhance the prices of commodities, the tradesmen adding to those prices not only the amount of the indirect taxes, but the interest and profit upon the capital advanced in their payment.

Because indirect taxes conceal from an individual what he is paying to the state, whereas a direct tax is undisguised, unsophisticated, and not to be misunderstood by the meanest capacity. Direct taxation prompts therefore every individual to control the governing powers while indirect taxation destroys all tendency to self-government.”

As I have pointed out in my blog posts Value Theory And The Transformation Problem,

“But, clearly as I point out in that post the situation is different where what we are talking about is not the government machinery, but goods and services – commodities – produced and sold by the State. As I point out there, and as I have argued in Part 3 here, if this production is of commodities, which form a part of the wage bundle that constitutes the Value of Labour Power – and as I have pointed out it does not matter that the commodity healthcare or education is purchased collectively by the working-class, even though consumed individually – then essentially there is no difference than had workers purchased these commodities from any other Capitalist. All we have here is a collective payment for these commodities, in the form of tax paid by workers to the Capitalist State, which provides the contracted service as and when required, just as an insurance company provides the contracted service to get a car or house repaired as and when required.”

What we have, in fact, is the working-class purchasing collectively things such as Education and Healthcare via the taxes they pay to the Capitalist State. There is no deduction from Capital here, any more than when workers buy any other commodity. In fact, to the extent that these commodities are then made available “free” by the Capitalist State, Capitalists tend to obtain them for free, because they are frequently able to avoid paying those taxes. And, precisely because of the advantages they already have, they are able to avail themselves of these free commodities even more. Health services and drugs are more readily available in more affluent areas, the rich can move to where the best schools are, and with all the other advantages they have, their kids are more likely to gain access to the better Universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, providing the same route into the upper reaches of the permanent State machinery and business that they have always done.

To the extent that this taxation does effect any kind of redistribution, it is not a redistribution from Capital to Labour, or even from the truly rich to the working-class, but merely a redistribution from one part of the working-class to another. The better off sections of workers subsidise the less well off via transfer payments of tax and benefits, the less well-off subsidise the better-off via the payment of tax, and subsidies of higher education etc. That is why in all countries, after 100 years of such redistributive policies the effect has been absolutely zero.

Forward To Part 2

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

You might be interested in this article:

Marx said that education should be paid by employers. How employers were to pay, however, is the main thrust of the thread above.