Education still riddled with class inequalities

A couple of quotes from another excellent article by George Monbiot reminding us of the persistence of class inequality in the education system in Modern Britain –

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/05/24/universal-cure/

‘A new report by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) shows that intelligent children from the 20% of richest homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%’

‘People from upper middle class, public school backgrounds dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships, most importantly through our attendance at the top universities, we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, shows that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools(6). Even the beneficiaries should be able to see that this system is grotesque, invidious and socially destructive.’

KT’s comment –

One of the most important lessons a Sociology student can learn about Modern Britain is that the wealthier someone’s parents are, the more opportunity they have to get a decent education and succeed in life.

As Monbiot reminds us, this is simply the statistical truth and it distresses me when students deny the truth and come back at me with pitiful examples of people who have come from a poor background and succeeded (Alan Sugar is an often cited example) or, worse, just straight forwardly deny that the inequality of opportunity has any kind of bearing on their own lives.

Let me make this very clear – if you are from a poor background you have less chance of getting decent grades, going to university and getting a decent job than someone from a richer background, even if you are as intelligent as that richer child. If you are 16/17 then they have already benefitted from thousands of pounds, maybe tens of thousands of pounds of extra investment because of their wealth.

If you are from a poor background and do manage to get into one of the better universities, you are a statistical anomaly and should be congratulated – but you should still feel aggrieved, even if you do succeed, because you have had an uphill struggle compared to those from wealthier backgrounds who you have been competing against – even once you are in university the wealthy are less likely to need to get a part time job, and more likely to have their parents paying at least part of their fees.

If are one of the poor losers in our education system – remember this – you do not owe the successful anything – their success is at least as much to do with money and luck as it is with their ability. 

Incidentally, now the Tories are in power, and we have a millionaire prime minister, deputy prime-minister and chancellor, this inequality is set to get worse.

Where to go next

  • Please read this! This is an interesting blog post from a Sociology teacher who works in an American community college. This is a review a book about the ‘myth of meritocracy’ followed by som interesting comments on how her students find it difficult to accept the fact that we do not live in a fair society.

http://globalsociology.com/2009/10/28/book-review-the-meritocracy-myth/

 

  • You might also like to read Monbiot’s post on private schools – bear in mind that he himself went to a private boarding school!

http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/01/22/unsentimental-education/

 

  • Also look out for my future blog on the Conservative policy of ‘free schools’

An interesting question for you to think about is this – why is it so hard for us to accept that social class background has a profound impact on life chances?

A multi-layered critique of capitalism

I’ve spent a few years reading around this subject now, and to my mind there are four levels of critique that seam to be levelled at the Capitalist system – advanced by numerous voices with the Anti-Capitalist movement. I name this my ‘multi – layered critique of the Capitalist system’ – Each is progressively deeper and more difficult to understand, especially no.4!

There are different political view points within the movement – anarchists have different logics of critique to Marxists for example, and there are different theories on how important the state is in relation to Capitalism, these four layers of critique do not relate to those, this system of categorisation is just one way of looking at some of the different angles people take on criticising this callous economic system.  

1. The most basic criticism that the anti-Capitalist movement makes of contemporary Capitalism is that the pursuit of profit often leads to social and environmental harm.  Most of these criticisms focus on Transnational Corporations and Individual capitalists themselves. Examples of this would be a Transnational Corporation exploiting cheap labour in the developing world; polluting an area in pursuit of oil and not clearing it up; or a company profiting from war.

2. Deeper criticisms, in my view, are levelled at the institutions that set the ‘rules of trade’ that allow Capitalists the freedom to do harm while pursuing profit. Clearly, there are laws that prevent corporations making a profit out of killing or enslaving people. We could also establish laws of trade and investment that force Capitalists to pay people enough to have a decent standard of living; we could establish laws that force them to bear the full cost of clearing up any pollution they create, and we could enforce laws that force them to invest in socially useful enterprises, but such laws do not exist, and if anything the rules of global trade tend to favour the Capitalist class over people and planet. The ‘rules of trade’ are set and enforced by global institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund. Many within the Anti-Capitalist movement are very critical of such institutions.

3. The third layer of critique focuses on the underlying dynamics of the Capitalist system. Two examples of this are Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine – in which she argues that pro-corporate, Neo-Liberal policies are often brought in after a society experiences a ‘shock’ – a natural disaster (the Tsunami) or a war (Iraq), for example – thus neo-liberal forms of capitalism require disasters and misfortune in order to advance. Another well developed, yet less known body of theory is that of Zygmunt Bauman who reminds us that Capitalism is a dynamic system which destabilises local communities – and the central dynamic and central problem of Capitalism is that a globally mobile Capitalist elite destabilises the world in pursuit of profit, and the globally immobile poor are left relatively disempowered with communities that are more unequal, more fragmented and more unstable than before Capitalism arrived. He reminds us, and this is important, that the poor are much less able to escape the problems Capitalism creates than the wealthy. Another example of this type of theory would be Wallerstein’s World Systems theory and one might even argue that Habermas’ theory of the colonisation of the lifeworld fits into this  too.

4. The fourth, and deepest, layer of critique comes from David Harvey, and what he calls the ‘unresolved crisis tendencies of Capitalism’. In other words, the means whereby the Capitalist class seeks to increase its profit and wealth actually undermines their ability to maintain profitability in the long term – thus the ‘internal contradictions of the capitalist system’ means that economic growth will only ever occur for relatively short period, say a decade or two, and then the rate of growth will either decline or stagnate, which is what we call an economic crisis. When this happens, Nation States, or international economic institutions typically step in to solve the ‘economic crisis’ – but, according to Harvey, whatever measures are taken to ensure sustained economic growth are doomed to failure mainly because as the international economy grows it becomes harder and harder to maintain the same level of growth. 

Where to go now – see my blogs on these different types of criticisms of the Capitalist system

Book review – Naomi Klein – The Shock Doctrine

shock-doctrine

Naomi Klein is one of the leading thinkers in the anti-capitalist movement and this book is one of the most important historical narratives of this century.

 

Taken from the web site –

‘At the most chaotic juncture in Iraq’s civil war, a new law is unveiled that would allow Shell and BP to claim the country’s vast oil reserves…. Immediately following September 11, the Bush Administration quietly out-sources the running of the “War on Terror” to Halliburton and Blackwater…. After a tsunami wipes out the coasts of Southeast Asia, the pristine beaches are auctioned off to tourist resorts…. New Orleans’s residents, scattered from Hurricane Katrina, discover that their public housing, hospitals and schools will never be reopened…. These events are examples of “the shock doctrine”: using the public’s disorientation following massive collective shocks – wars, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters — to achieve control by imposing economic shock therapy.’

 

My summary –

The Shock Doctrine is the story of how “free market” policies have come to dominate the world. Klein systematically explores how neo-liberal economic policies have been pushed through following ‘shocks’ – typically either natural disasters or wars ore oppressive state apparatuses.

Klein argues that these policies work against the interests of the majority because they transfer wealth and power from the people to the global corporate elite, thus why elites need to implement these policies of in times of shock following disaster.

The book traces the origins of the ‘shock doctrine’ back fifty years, to the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and follows the application of these ideas through contemporary history, showing in detail how the neo-liberal agenda has been pushed through in several countries following shocks

Some of the events Klein covers include –

  • Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973,  
  • The Falklands War in 1982,  
  • The Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989,  
  • the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,  
  • the Asian Financial crisis in 1997  
  • The war in Iraq 2003 
  • Hurricane Katrina 2006 

All of the above are cases where the Corporate Elite, often in conjunction with the US government and oppressive regimes in some of the countries above have sought to profit out of times of disaster. Most of feel sympathy for people at such times – neo-liberalists see opportunity.

Once again, for me, the most important argument Klein makes is that Neo-Liberalists require situations of Shock to push through their policies of privatisation, deregulation and cut backs to public spending because the majority of people would not accept such policies because they mean a transfer of wealth and power to corporate elites.

Towards the end of the book, Klein talks about an extremely worrying trend in the USA – which is the privatisation of war and security – both of which are used in times of disaster – and we now have a situation where Capitalism benefits from disaster.

All in all this is an excellent book highlighting the links between advanced capitalism and growing human misery – as Klein says, you should read it and make yourself shock resistant.

NB – SOME MIGHT ARGUE THIS IS NOW GOING ON IN THE UNITED KINGDOM – WE ARE GOING THROUGH AN ‘ECONOMIC CRSIS’ (IN SHOCK) AND SO MILLIONNAIRE TORIES ARE NOW CUTTING PUBLIC SPENDING AND OUTSOURCING MORE AND MORE OF OUR PUBLIC SERVICES TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR!

See also –

http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine – the web site is an excellent resource that provides more contemporary examples of how neo-liberalism shafts the majority.

http://www.zimbio.com/watch/iIZMtUS-owU/The+Shock+Doctrine/The+Shock+Doctrine

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPTBZrBmlfI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dubkrQ7HfG8

Neo- liberalism is an economic and political ideology that believes state control over the economy is undesirable and seeks to transfer control of the economy from the state to the private sector. It gained popularity amongst politicians and influential economists following the economic crisis of the late 1970s. It involves three main policies –

  • Deregulation – Nation States placing less restraint on private industry. In practise this means fewer laws that restrict companies making a profit – making it easier for companies to fire workers, pay them less, and allowing them to pollute.
  • Privatisation – where possible public services such as transport and education should be handed over to private interests for them to run for a profit.
  • Cut backs in public spending – taxes should be low and so investment in public services would be cut back.

Marx Key Ideas

Many contemporary criticisms of Neo-Liberal strains of Capitalism  have their roots in the thought of Karl Marx. I thought it might be useful to post this to remind us of some of Karl Marx’s basic ideas. This is especially relevant to the A2 Theory and Methods part of the syllabus – the sub section on Marxism

This is a slightly modified version of the AS Sociology intro handout on the basics of Karl Marx’s thought.

Karl Marx (1818- 1883) was alive in the middle of the 19th century, and it’s important to realise that his theories stem from an analysis of European societies 150 years ago

karl-marx354x440Marx travelled through Europe during the mid and later half of the 19th century where he saw much poverty and inequality.  The more he travelled the more he explained what he saw through unequal access to resources and ownership of property, wealth. He argued that the working class (proletariat) in Britain (and elsewhere) was being exploited by the ruling class (bourgeoisie).

The ruling class paid the working class less wages than they deserved, made them work long hours in poor conditions, and kept the profit from the sale of the goods produced. Thus, the ruling class got richer and the working class became increasingly poor, and had no way of improving their prospects, unless… Marx argued, they all came together to overthrow the ruling class in a revolution. Equality for all in the shape of Communism would replace an unequal capitalist system. 

Because Marx’s theory is based on criticising Capitalism, you really need to understand what Capitalism is – see the separate Handout/ blog ‘what is Capitalism’?

   Key Ideas of Karl Marx

1.    Capitalist society is divided into two classes:

 The Bourgeoisie or the Capitalist class are the ones who own and control the wealth of a country. These control the productive forces in society (what Marx called the economic base), which basically consisted of land, factories and machines that could be used to produce goods that could then be sold for a profit.

 The majority, or the masses, or what Marx called The Proletariat can only gain a living by selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie for a price.

 2.    The bourgeoisie increase their wealth by exploiting the proletariat

 Marx argued that the bourgeoisie maintain and increase their wealth through exploiting the working class.

 The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the Capitalist pays his workers (their wages) is always below the current selling, or market price of whatever they have produced. The difference between the two is called surplus value. Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. Because of this extraction of surplus value, the capitalist class is only able to maintain and increase their wealth at the expense of the proletariat.  To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.

 Marx thus argues that at root, capitalism is an unjust system because those that actually do the work are not fairly rewarded for the work that they do and the interests of the Capitalist class are in conflict with the interests of the working class.

 3.    Those who have economic power control all other institutions in society

 Marx argued that those who control the Economic Base also control the Superstructure – that is, those who have wealth or economic power also have political power and control over the rest of society. 

Economic Base(The Mode of Production) Consists of the forces of production (tools, machinery, raw materials which people use to produce goods and services)and the relations of production (social relations between people involved in the production of goods and services). Together these make up the mode of production
Superstructure All other institutions: The legal system, the mass media, family, education etc.

 

 4.    Ideological Control

 Marx argued that the ruling classes used their control of social institutions to gain ideological dominance, or control over the way people think in society.  Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling classes were presented as common sense and natural and thus unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm.

 5.    The result of the above is false class consciousness

The end result of ideological control is false consciousness – where the masses, or proletariat are deluded into thinking that everything is fine and that the appalling in which they live and work are inevitable. This delusion is known as False Consciousness. In Marxist terms, the masses suffer from false class consciousness and fail to realize their common interest against their exploiters.

Commodity FetishismA fetish is an object of desire, worship or obsessive concern. Capitalism is very good at producing ‘things’. In capitalist society people start to obsess about material objects and money, which is necessary to purchase these objects. Material objects and money are worshipped in capitalist societies. Some people even need material objects to construct identities – this is partly responsible for keeping most of us in ‘false consciousness’

 

6.    Revolution and Communism  

As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth – Capitalism was unjust but people just hadn’t realised it! He believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. Eventually, following a revolution, private property would be abolished and with it the profit motive and the desire to exploit. In the communist society, people would be more equal, have greater freedom and be happier.

 Find out more-

How dressing as a giant banana may reduce littering

http://projects.rsablogs.org.uk/2010/07/importance-dressing-giant-banana/

Lord knows its hard to find interesting articles on Social Policy – but this fits the bill –  part of the article talks about how the London Borough of Southwark (from 2004) adopted the policy of ‘stalking litter’ – hiring people to dress as giant bananas and other ‘commonly found items of litter’ to create scenes around town such as applauding people who put their rubbish in the bin – the theory being that we are more likely to change our actions (in this case stopping littering) if we are subjected to frivolous and unusual stimulae.

You might like to think about how effective this is as a means of reducing minor crimes and how generaliseable it is to more serious crimes.. You might also like to use the freedom of information act to find out how much money they actually spent on their banana actors…. http://www.ico.gov.uk/what_we_cover/freedom_of_information.aspx

The Corporation – A must see documentary for all A2 Sociology students

 

It may be a while since its release in 2004, but this is one of the best educational documentaries ever made. The film has an outstanding web site with a wealth of resources http://www.thecorporation.com/ and is based on the book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan.

One of the main strengths of the film is the interviews with numerous corporate insiders and leading members of the anti-capitalist movement such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky

This documentary effectively documents the huge social and environmental harms done by corporations in the pursuit of profit. By extension you could also see the film as a critique of the neo-liberal policies which gave these corporations the freedom to do these harms and of the whole capitalist system which is based around the competitive accumulation of capital.

Social and Environmental harms done by Corporations

These are just some of the harms that Corporations are responsible for with occasional links and examples

1. Exploitation of people in sweat shopsNike in numerous countries http://www.nosweat.org.uk/

2. Doing Environmental harm to keep costs down (externalities) Shell in Nigeria/ BP in the USA/ Union Carbide and Bhopal  – http://www.bhopal.org/

3. Profiting from the poor through the privatization of things such as water – Bechtel in Bolivia http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoID=2015806822

4. Profiting from selling goods that are harmful to people and the environmentMonsanto

5. Profiting from war and fearHalliburton in Iraq/ Coke in Bolivia – see relevant chapter in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, also see http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine

6. Working with oppressive regimes in order to make a profit – Coke and the Nazis, Bechtel in Bolivia

7. Manipulating children to buy products they don’t need – McDonalds and Coke

8. Co modifying everything – Corporations try to own everything – some are patenting genes, and some have tried to ‘own water’ – critics say that there should be some things that are not for sale!  

Excerpt from the web site

To assess the “personality” of the corporate “person,” a checklist is employed, using diagnostic criteria of the World Health Organization and the standard diagnostic tool of psychiatrists and psychologists. The operational principles of the corporation give it a highly anti-social “personality”:

  • It is self-interested,
  • inherently amoral, callous and deceitful;
  • It breaches social and legal standards to get its way;
  • It does not suffer from guilt, yet it can mimic the human qualities of empathy, caring and altruism.

Concluding this point-by-point analysis, a disturbing diagnosis is delivered: the institutional embodiment of laissez-faire capitalism fully meets the diagnostic criteria of a “psychopath.”

Interestingly, despite the huge amount of evidence that Corporations can be monstrous, there is recognition that the individuals within the Corporations may be the nicest people you ever meet, and the documentary concludes that what makes Corporations so bad is the competitive economic system in which they have to survive – Corporations, in other words, are seen as products of the Capitalist system.  

The film is very easy to watch over a number of days because of its clear breakdown into a number of distinct chapters.