Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Why I Don't Oppose Grayling's New Private University - Part 1

Most, if not all, of the Marxist Left have fallen in behind the Liberal objections to the new private University of the Humanities, being proposed for London, by A.C. Grayling and others.
In fact, there is no reason for Marxists to oppose it. Indeed, doing so, simply perpetuates the myth, propounded by Liberals, that there is something progressive, or egalitarian about the existing State Capitalist Education system. There isn't. It also misunderstands the issue of Marxists' attitude to privatisation.

Let's take the question of Education in general first, before looking at Higher Education specifically, and then look at Marxists and privatisation. Marx's attitude to Education was quite clear, and set out in a number of places. Marx was completely opposed to the State or Church being involved in the provision of Education. He called it “wholly objectionable”.

The only role for the State, he argued, was in the setting of Minimum Standards, and the employment of Inspectors to check they were being implemented, in the same way that was done with Factory Inspectors. He supported something along the lines of what existed in the US, where small communities got together to establish their own schools, and to finance and control them. Marx certainly did not believe that Education was a means of workers obtaining any kind of meaningful equality with Capitalists.

In the Gotha Programme the Lassalleans had raised the demand, accepted by the Eisenachers:

"The German Workers' party demands as the intellectual and ethical basis of the state:

"1. Universal and equal elementary education by the state. Universal compulsory school attendance. Free instruction."

Marx points out that “free” education existed in a number of places. In fact, of course, its not free. Its paid for by taxes deducted compulsorily from workers wages by the State, in the same way that employers used to force workers to buy from the Company Store via the Truck System. The Monopoly of the Truck System meant that provision was poor quality, limited in range, and high priced. It was one of the reasons workers got together to create their own Co-operative stores.

Whether Capital could facilitate such “free” education depended upon the extent of development, in just the same way that workers consumption of any other commodity depends upon the extent to which Capital has reached a stage of needing to extend the horizons of workers consumption. The more Capital is accumulated, as Marx points out, in the Grundrisse, the more it satisfies workers basic demands, and is led to develop an ever wider range of commodities, to sell to workers, in order to realise Surplus Value. Things such as education and healthcare are just such commodities. Moreover, as Capitalism develops, and its initial huge Reserve Army of Labour, created by the pushing of peasants off their land, is used up, and as Capitalism becomes more technological, it has a need for workers with a Minimum level of Education and Health in order to ensure itself with a secure Supply of Labour Power.

Capital has a direct interest in having its State take control of these functions to force workers into expending this Minimum level of their income, on these areas of consumption, and in controlling the quality and content of what is provided, via its large scale, Education Factories. Moreover, as I've demonstrated elsewhere, in creating large, State run, Health and Education industries, producing commodities for workers, (and as Marx points out in the Grundrisse simultaneously producing Labour Power itself) Capital also established the bases of Economies of Scale, in training, Research and Development, etc. that extends into the versions of these commodities it consumes itself, thereby massively reducing its own costs of consumption. If only Capitalists consumed cancer drugs and treatments, for example, just think what the unit costs of that for them would be? As Marx points out, to the extent that Higher Education was dominated by kids from rich families, free, State Higher Education meant workers subsidising the rich. In opposing the Lassallean formulation, Marx writes,

“"Equal elementary education"? What idea lies behind these words? Is it believed that in present-day society (and it is only with this one has to deal) education can be equal for all classes? Or is it demanded that the upper classes also shall be compulsorily reduced to the modicum of education — the elementary school — that alone is compatible with the economic conditions not only of the wage-workers but of the peasants as well?

"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...

"Elementary education by the state" is altogether objectionable. Defining by a general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school. Particularly, indeed, in the Prusso-German Empire (and one should not take refuge in the rotten subterfuge that one is speaking of a "state of the future"; we have seen how matters stand in this respect) the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.

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.”

Critique Of The Gotha Programme Chapter 4

But, the point is not whether it could be provided free or not, the development of Capitalism, and change in the regime of accumulation, meant that not only could Capitalism provide it, but, as part of developing Welfarism, and to meet its needs for the reproduction of Labour Power it had an incentive to do so, which is why Bismark established a National Insurance Scheme in Germany in the 19th Century, and why his measures were copied by Tories such as Chamberlain, and Liberals like Lloyd George in Britain. It is also what formed the basis of "Fordism", the raising of workers wages by Henry Ford, and the provision for them of various forms of Welfare. It is marked a sharp change in the regime of accumulation from extensive to intensive accumulation.
The point is that such education could never be “Equal”. Even if it were not the case that education varies greatly from school to school, and, like healthcare, is better in more affluent areas, then the advantages that kids, from more affluent backgrounds, have, outside school, will always mean that they are advantaged in terms of their educational experience, and achievements.

But, also, the focus on this question, by the Left, itself is wrong. It suggests that inequality and access to wealth and power are a function of educational achievement. They are not. The ability to “consume” education, like the ability to consume any other commodity is a distributional issue, that is it is dependent upon the ability to purchase and exercise control over a portion of society's production. But, that ability, as Marx points out, is not determined by things like what job you do, or how clever you are, but by your ownership or non-ownership of Capital. As he puts it in the CGP,

“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”

Critique Of the Gotha Programme, Chapter 1

To paraphrase Marx, the ownership of Capital makes even the most dull-witted person into a genius, because the ownership of Capital, means that whatever skills or ability are required, can simply be purchased.
To suggest that it is access to education, which is the solution to workers problems is to leave the ground of Marxism, and to move to the ground of Liberalism. Workers problems do not stem from the fact that they do not have the same access to education as Capitalists, but from the fact that they do not have the same access to Capital! If every single worker in the country was the proud possessor of a good quality Ph.D., it would not change their position one jot, as a class. It would simply mean that the Capitalists had a huge number of very well educated workers to exploit in a much wider range of uses of their labour.

Unfortunately, also what it essentially does is again to focus on the wrong target. It focusses on the Middle Classes, and their marginally better access to Education, rather than on Capital. As such, the measures and demands raised, are then against the Middle Classes rather than Capital, and, like much of the rest of the Left's Fabian, redistributive, Socialism, acts to drive a wedge between the working-class, and its natural allies amongst the Middle Classes.
Its no wonder the Tories have such an easy job then in winning the support of those sections of society, and the sections of the working-class whose outlook, lifestyle and aspirations tend to mirror it.

The reality is that if the rich want to buy a better education for their kids they can already easily do it. They can send their kids to Eton, Harrow, Westminster or any of the other top Private Schools, as a conveyor belt into Oxbridge.
For those unable to get into Oxbridge, then they can simply go to one of the U.S. Private Universities such as Harvard. So what would be proposed then? Should we ban freedom of movement to stop them going to these overseas Universities? Perhaps we should build some kind of Berlin Wall to restrict movement? The reality is that these kinds of proscriptive solutions are not Marxist but Stalinist in nature. They aim to establish such proscriptions as a means of defending existing Monopolies, and the inefficiencies and deficiencies that go with them, rather than seeking to go beyond those Monopolies, and to generate something better, and more efficient.

Forward To Part 2


Mike Macnair said...

You are right on the issue of principle - and in any case private universities already exist: Oxford and Cambridge are not state-owned but merely state-subsidised and Buckingham is fully independent (which means, in practice, selling a fairly narrow range of courses to overseas students).

However, Grayling's operation appears to be a con-job: what is on offer is a crammer for the existing London University External BA exams, to be sold to credulous parents on the basis that a few 'stars' will give a few lectures.

The Oxbridge 'cachet' is not at the end of the day about the tutorial system (though employers like it because it makes students work harder) or about the academic stars. It is about a combination of (a) privileged relations to the UK state elite, and the accompanying undergraduate 'networking', i.e. social integration of new money with old money, dating back before the 1800s but continuing to this day; and (b) going along with that, college endowments (small by Ivy League standards but massive by UK standards) which allow (i) massively more favourable staff-student ratios than elsewhere, and (ii) many more library books and library seats per student.

Boffy said...


Thanks for your comments. Yes, I should have pointed out that most English Universities including Oxbridge are only quasi-state institutions. I don't think the fact that Grayling's University is a "con-job" should be a reason for marxists to oppose it, though it may be a reason for us to point out that it is a "con-job" in the way we'd point out that other things, I don't know, say debt-management companies, were con-jobs. That doesn't mean that were a number of Big companies such as Virgin, TESCO, or whoever to decide to enter the market, and establish a string of Universities throughout the country they could not offer high quality education, at lower tuition fees due to higher levels of efficiency.

I take up these issues in Part 2.