|Living in Capitalist Times
The Canada eZine - Economics
Survival of the Wealthiest
By P. S. - 2008.
It’s not whether you win or lose but rather about how you play the game. We have all heard this common cliché, but have we ever considered if this basic principle hold true? In today’s world, it seems as though no matter how well you play the game, the competition will always be fierce. Consequently, the question that I often find myself wondering is whether the competition is fair or whether there are inequalities that exist within the social structures of society that create different opportunities and life chances for individuals, dependent on their socio-economic status? Is hard work, passion, and ambition really all that you need to travel the path to success? Among students, the pursuit of higher education is dominated by the mentality that time is money and that education is the key to the success that they desire to attain in life.
To commence, I turn to economist Milton Freidman who was a strong advocate of capitalism. His ideological values were linked to the notions of freedom and the self-regulating market. Firstly, Friedman proposed that individuals should be allowed to maximize their freedom and have the ability to make their own choices. Next, Freidman stated the free market would allow enterprises to in international trade and investment and he reasoned that this was the best way to increase economic growth since it would allow for total freedom of movement for capital. In order to achieve this self-regulating market, Freidman argued that there should be little to no government intervention in the market. More specially, he advocated that for cuts in public funding for social services, deregulation of anything and everything that would get in the way of profit-making and privatization and the to sell off state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors.
In his interview with Pearl Rock Kane, he revealed his feelings towards the current education system and his views on the role of government, teachers, and his recommendations. According to Friedman, government should neither finance nor administer education and correspondingly, all of the other services required for schools to function, including administration should be privatized (Kane, 2002). Moreover, Friedman was not a fan of teachers. He opined that the problem lies within the teachers who aren’t doing their jobs and run schools for their own benefit, not that of students. He further disputed that it is the teachers unions’ that are against the privatization of the industry of education to introduce more charter schools and his recommendation of the school voucher system. The recommendation for voucher school systems came from the basis that it would promote competition among schools both public and private to improve their schools so as to attract potential consumers.
Freidman stated that the implementation of the voucher system would benefit students from lower socio-economic statuses because they were given the opportunity to attend private school. Friedman articulated that what the education system needs is competition. Hence, if the government-run schools are as good as the teachers say they are and if parents are given vouchers and the freedom to choose where to send their kids to school, let the best school win. However, the goal of these voucher systems was to promote competition, not equality. These vouchers will only be the basic amount per child allocated by the government, who would help to finance the rest of a child’s education? Therefore, the implementation of voucher systems will prove to be beneficial to those who are already wealthy as they will have the funds available to finance other aspects of education. A simple consideration of the amount of travel time and money that will need to be invested for children of lower incomes to get to their private schools is enough to realize that it makes more sense for children to attend schools that are within their geographical region.
A more plausible solution would be to invest in improving the conditions of schools that currently exist and opening more schools rather than the closing of public schools and replacing them with private schools. In spite of the obvious changes that ought to be made, education reform continues to follow the policies that favour privatization. This can be attributed to the fact that social policy decisions which relate to social issues and to the economy are often made in a particular political and economic context.
Over the last 30 years or so, there has been an ideological shift from Keynesianism to a form of disaster capitalism. In short, Keynesianism was the economic model that advocated a mixed economy model whereby both the government and market were equally important for economic progress. According to Keynes, at times it was necessary for the government to intervene. For instance, Keynesianism ideology was embraced by Canadians shortly after the World War I when the economy was facing the Great Depression. During this era, Keynesianism policies that were implemented included the development of a welfare state which introduced social programs like family allowance and unemployment insurance to help offset the difficulties experienced by Canadians.
During the 1970s, there was an ideological shift that was initiated by corporate leaders who mobilized their collective resources in an effort to increase their power and control in the global economy. The movement became known as a form of advanced capitalism which maintains the same principles as capitalism but pushes for change at an even faster pace and it involves a complete “re-thinking” of the role of the state by replacing its functions with that of the market. Additionally, this advanced form of capitalism is strategically designed further promote policies of deregulation, privatization, deficit reduction, business-friendly tax reform, trade liberalization, etc. I say it was strategically designed because in order to advance their economic and political restructuring that the corporate members of society wished to impose, they needed to create institutions that would legitimatize their policies and procedures.
A good example to illustrate this point is the dramatic changes that were made to unemployment insurance during this time. The new privatization agenda made several amendments to the legislation which translated into stricter criteria to be considered eligible for unemployment insurance and encourage workers to accept low-wage jobs. Moreover, the key point of these amendments was that it reflected a shift away from the view that failures such as unemployment could be attributed to the market. Rather, it was supported that failures had to be the result of supply-side issues such as individual attitudes and behaviours. Hence, even the name “unemployment insurance” was altered to “employment insurance” so as to conform to this shift in values and ideals. The underlying basis was to reduce disincentives to work and to encourage workers to establish more stable employment patterns. In effect, this would reduce dependency on “unemployment insurance” and as a result, social spending would be reduced as well.
Furthermore, academic capitalism has had major implications on higher education. Academic capitalism can be defined as a term to capture the ideological shift of higher education facilities such as universities and colleges shifting away from their foundations of research and teaching to developing their market potential. While it can be disputed that post-secondary institutions have always engaged in market-like behaviour from professors who publish their textbooks for profit or campus stores selling school branded merchandise, the difference lies in the breadth and depth of the behaviour. For instance, since post-secondary institutions have been faced with decreasing government support, they have turned to the market to sell products that they produce commercially in the private sector so as to establish a basic source of income.
What’s even more is that today higher education institutions are seeking to generate revenue and profits from their core educational, research and service functions. For example, the research that is conducted within universities is often funded by corporations which can lead to the production of knowledge which assists to obtain patents. Another example is that more and more universities and colleges are outsourcing services such as food and maintenance simply because it cuts costs and essentially saves money for the schools.
As aforementioned, there has been an ideological shift in values and priorities among students which moves away from the very function of education of learning to that of securing future employment. In the 21st century, the Canadian economy has become a knowledge-based economy and it is within this context of such knowledge-based economy that the concept of academic capitalism is encompassed to view knowledge as a commodity. What has occurred is that higher education is now seen as a mechanism by which one can remain competitive in the job market. It is my understanding that the underlying principle of knowledge as a commodity circles around the idea that in order to be successful; you must invest in your own growth and development. With that being said and the rise of academic capitalism within the educational realm, it becomes very obvious that the pursuit of higher education is the assurance that if one was a product, one would remain competitive and productive.
If education reform in Canada continues to change at the pace that it is, are we destined to eventually sell out? Firstly, I think that it is important to understand that within capitalist economies, the dynamic of the corresponding set of relationships is designed to keep power and wealth in the hands of a select few but of course at the expense of the rest of society. Secondly, I believe that it is important to recognize that the select few capitalists are highly organized and thus maintain a high degree of social and political interaction among its members which further solidifies their bond and their ability to set forth to achieve their goals. Thirdly, it is most important to remember that power is relational and that the current capitalistic ideology that is in place is not set in stone but rather it was a specific agenda created to push the values and interests of a certain group. Fourthly, I argue that it is not too late to change the fate of the education system to represent a more democratic and public spirited view of higher education.
The plausible solutions to overcome the current ideals is to resist and while it may sound simple in theory to resist the implementation of such changes, it is imperative to remember that resistance is difficult considering that the current ideologies are so deeply entrenched within our attitudes, culture, as well as our institutions. One example of resistance is evident in the British Columbia teachers’ strike of October 2005. During the course of the strike, the union actively imposed policies that were being implemented by the government without their consent. The government decided to legislate a takeover of the College of Teachers which basically meant that the government wanted to remove current board members to include more government appointed board members so that when the government proposed policy changes, the government appointed board members would vote in favour. The teachers’ union did not back down. It worked together and collectively withheld their licensing fees until the government eventually gave in. While the union was still charged for going on an illegal strike, the union’s resistance served to develop confidence that collective action, when strategically orchestrated, can bring about the desired change to unfair work policies.
In conclusion, we have examined the implications of academic capitalism by taking Friedman’s capitalist views and analyzing the basic principles with the particular contextual framework of education. We also looked at how the changes in ideology reflected Canadian society. Clearly, in today’s society, academic capitalism is associated with the ideas of viewing knowledge as a commodity and corresponding viewing ourselves as products of the market economy as well. The fate of the Canadian education system is not doomed and that if students, teachers, and parents worked collectively to resist the privatization agenda. As previously alluded to, I have experienced an ideological shift as to how I view higher education and have come to the understanding that resistance is a viable option in refuting the attacks on education. Further, the prevalent social forces in our society are strategically designed agendas created to serve a specific interest and “there is no reason to consider that these power structures are any more permanent than those which existed in the past” (Brownlee, 2005). Having said this, you can increase your own life chances and opportunities in this game of life and end up a winner.
1. B. Singh Bolaria ed. Social Issues and Contradictions in Canadian Society. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, 2000.
2. Brownlee, Jamie. Ruling Canada: Corporate Cohesion and Democracy. Halifax: Fernwood, 2005.
3. Clement, Wallace and Vosko, Leah F. Changing Canada: Political Economy as Transformation. Montreal/Kingston: McGill/Queens University Press, 2003.
4. Kane, P. (2002) An Interview with Milton Friedman on Education. Occasional Paper no. 67. National Centre for the Study of Privatization in Education. Columbia University.
5. Kuehn, Larry. “The New Right Agenda and Teacher Resistance in Canada:, Education’s Iron Cage and its Dismantling in the New Global Order. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2006.