Yanis Iqbal presents the first part of a critique of the different ways in which educational policies under neoliberal capitalism suffocate revolutionary thought and action
According to Karl Marx, the inherent contradictions in a capitalist society would lead to a revolution which will mark the end of this exploitative system. These contradictions appear as antagonistic class relations between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, based on the inequality of ownership of the means of production, which will result in a massive proletarian upheaval – a revolution of some kind.
The class-based divisions which lead to conflict and revolution are heavily influenced by many cultural factors, including education. The way education is conceived, managed and delivered has facilitated the development of modern-day neoliberal capitalism in several crucial ways, which are the focus of this article.
How to avoid a working-class revolution
The global dominance of neoliberal education has helped capitalism avoid a working-class revolution. Before exploring how it does this, it is necessary to understand the two-pronged function of neoliberal education.
Firstly, it has provided a massive marketing platform for international corporations. By turning education into a business like any other, a new market has been introduced where commoditized knowledge can be sold. Secondly, it has constructed a discursive space where the ruling elites articulate, consolidate and legitimize their vested economic interests. The second function is imperative when it comes to moderating the intensity of relations of productions.
Neoliberal education radically influences and alters the culture of society. It initiates the devaluation of Liberal Arts, Humanities and Social Science, and aggressively peddles techno – managerial skills. This devaluation enables positivism and objectivism to become ideologically dominant, and erases the idealism and subjective cultural creativity necessary for the vibrant existence of a community.
The trivialization of normative political theory opens up a theoretical vacuum which is filled by what is known as ‘parochial pragmatism’, which makes revolutionary activism becomes extremely difficult. We have to transcend this pragmatism in order to attain a dialogical space where we can disseminate our objectives. But with the weakening of normative political theory, all the talk about radical transformations, rebellions and uprisings against the state sound like utopian eyewash.
Idealism provided the dynamic force which persuaded us to strive, experiment and work towards realizing a better world the actualization of different objectives – but the absence of idealism has produced a ‘social stasis’. It gives rise to a complex social arrangement in which the inherent contradictions of a capitalist society exist in a kind of suspended, half-hidden state. The inability of the intelligentsia to articulate their objectives, due to the absence of a discursive space and due to limitations imposed by parochial pragmatism, does not allow the proletariats to acquire the subjective class consciousness needed to make change happen.
How to intensify the exploitation of labour
Neoliberal education allows the bourgeoisie to continuously redefine what is normal and acceptable. For example, labour regulations in countries like India are portrayed as inhibiting rapid economic development. This has led to enormous laxity in the enforcement of labour laws. So neoliberal education justifies and legitimizes the exploitation of labour by capitalists – which is actually the unjust and inhumane economic bedrock of a capitalist society.
The devaluation of the study and practice of Liberal Arts and Humanities due to neoliberal education creates a proletariat which becomes insensitive to injustice and exploitation, and also don’t feel any need to protect the communitarian sensibilities which have been weakened by the individualism and consumerist cultures generated by capitalism. This weakening of communitarian sensibilities results in the atomization of society, fear and suspicion of others, and preference for security rather than liberty, which reduce the prospects for revolution.
Neoliberal education in places like India also involves the development of a ‘monopoly of knowledge’. This control over the body of ideas shapes the way we perceive the various institutions. Neoliberal education constructs a system of understanding in which a sanitized version of the various institutions is presented to us, omitting the unpalatable aspects of our various institutions. This newly structured depiction of our society is safely distanced away from the rather harsh reality. This depiction involves the unnecessary glorification of the various governmental machineries like the judiciary, executive etc.
Once this sort of discourse is established in which infallibility becomes the characteristic hallmark of all established social, political and judicial institutions, criticism of them is invariably pushed into the category of defamation and vilification. So the activist who criticizes them has to face wrath of the masses and right-wing populist politicians, who interpret their criticism as ‘political incorrectness’ and ‘promoting class war’ – a destructive attack on the integrity of the institutions which, they have been persuaded, protect them.
How to use violence to defend neoliberal educational policies
The consequences of criticising institutions are dangerous. Recent political events in India indicate the extent to which violence can be used to preserve this neoliberal discursive structure. In India, various public universities acted as the spearhead of an anti-neoliberal education campaign and prominent among these universities was the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Throughout its history, JNU has acted as a critic of the government – in this specific case, a critic of its neoliberal educational policies.
On 5 January, 2020, it was attacked by more than 50 masked goons equipped with iron rods and acid. This sudden violent incursion went on for roughly 3 hours and the police forces did not intervene. Even after this brazen blitzkrieg on a reputable public university, not a single person was arrested. This chain of events shows the growing audacity with which fascist forces are destroying any form of dissent or of challenges to the rich and powerful.
With the resurgence of right-wing populism, social reform activism has thus declined. By portraying state interventionism as oppressive and stifling, populists pursue an extreme policy of privatization and financial deregulation to unleash the ‘animal spirits’ of the market. In this whole pro – corporate process, free and accessible public education is destroyed to provide a commodious space to neoliberal education.
Neoliberal education is emerging as the new control center for the maintenance of capitalism, and it will inevitably lead to a constrained, instrumental and philistine approach to the arts and cultural activities generally, where the underlying measure of value will always be the relevance and usefulness of the cultural activity to capitalist exploitation.
What we need is a new educational strategy which will generate socially conscious and sensitive students and adults, so that we do not become numb and passive consumer of capitalist realism. This new strategy will be the subject of my second article.
Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India.