Book Review from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
David J. Blacker: The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame. Zero Books £15.99.
Remember Tony Blair and his ‘Education, education, education’? That was how he set out his priorities in 1997, supposedly as a way of improving people’s lives and also making British capitalism more efficient and competitive. But with the recession leading to cuts to education budgets, things have not quite worked out that way.
David Blacker’s title is a nod to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the view that, as technological progress continues, the proportion of constant capital (machines, buildings, etc) to variable capital (paid out in wages) will rise – see here. But as it is only labour that produces surplus value and so profit, it follows that the rate of profit (profit as a proportion of total capital) will fall. However, there are so many counteracting forces that this is at most a tendency. One consequence of technological progress, though, is a reduced demand for labour power, including educated labour power. Hence, according to Blacker, not just increases in unemployment and part-time jobs but ‘an abandonment of the ideal of the universal distribution of education’, or ‘the falling rate of learning’.
His book has a mainly US focus but the general points are more widely applicable. One response has been to see education as itself a source of profit, with widespread privatisation. Another has been to transfer much of the cost of higher education to students/workers themselves, by means of loans and debt. US student debt is now well over $1 trillion, and debts pursue many workers throughout their lives, since (unlike with credit cards) education debt is not discharged by personal bankruptcy. But if attending college and being weighed down by debt is an unpleasant prospect, not gaining a degree is even worse, as it can lead at best to a minimum-wage job (‘the fear of McDonalds’).
Blacker classes medical bills together with educational loans as ‘existential debt’, which can haunt people for decades. They should, he suggests, be a focus for protest, part of a campaign for free higher state education. At the same time, though, he argues that educational activism is a waste of time, on the grounds that reforming schools will not usher in serious social and political reforms. It is certainly true that schools and colleges essentially reflect the society around them, and that it is only a revolution in the way society is organised that will lead to proper changes in the function and content of education.