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Susan Robertson “Just Educational Futures”
Thomas Piketty and colleagues (Piketty 2020; Gethin, Martinez-Toledano and Piketty 2021), amongst others, point to what appears a paradox; that in many Western societies, a significant rise in the level of social inequalities over the past two decades has not been accompanied by an equivalent rise in political demand for redistribution, via class-based politics. Jonathon Mijs (2021) also points to this same paradox. Using International Social Survey Data, he shows that citizens in general in more unequal societies are less concerned about social inequalities than those in more egalitarian societies.
This is not to suggest there have been few frictions or little turbulence across these polities. Far from it! From the election of authoritarian populists like Trump in the USA, to Brexit in the UK, and the rise of far-right politics, there is considerable evidence of dramatic upheavals in these political and social systems. Is the rise of xenophobic ‘populism’, Piketty (2020) asks, the outcome of these inequalities, or are they the result of longer-run structural changes? In authoritarian populist polities like the UK and USA, Piketty and colleagues show that less well-educated low-income voters who have historically voted left have moved to the political right, whilst once conservative, better-educated higher-income voters have moved to the political left. They go on to identify two kinds of political elites: a high education low-income ‘Brahmin Left’ and a high-income low education ‘Merchant Right’. Central to their argument is that levels of education appear to be a key demographic variable in these shifts.
Is the rise in levels of higher education across different societies, Piketty asks, a consequence of the transition to a knowledge society, resulted in the transformation of values, political alliances, and voting behaviour? Could it be that this represents a realignment, and cleavage, along education lines (Gethin, Martinez-Toledano and Piketty 2021: 6; see also Bovens and Wille 2017). And if so, what are the implications of this? Would the promotion of greater access to higher education be a means of stimulating a shift to a left political agenda? In Capital and Ideology (2020), Piketty embraces this as a solution to the problem of inequality and the basis for a more radical liberatory politics of the kind that Rosa Luxemburg envisaged (Mills 2020).
In this paper I problematise these seductive knowledge societies/cleavage accounts in several ways. First, they promote an overly teleological, cosmopolitan, view of the knowledge society as an inevitable shift from industrialisation to a new mode of production (Kitschelt and Rehm 2021). I contrast this with the ongoing work by corporate elites, multilateral agencies, and political power to advance a knowledge economy premised on services, human capital formation, innovation, digital technologies, and intellectual property (Robertson 2009).
Second, that the work logic tied to the rise of people-to people occupations (Oesch 2006) are assumed to be part of the state and presumed to engender a left politics. I argue that many of these occupations are part of a privatised social policy sector; it therefore does not follow that the work logic of person-to-person labouring sits outside neoliberal governing. Rather, many services sectors, such as education, care and health work, are themselves governed by the ‘engines of anxiety’ and ‘cruel optimism’ of neoliberalism (Epseland and Sauder 2016; Davies 2018; Mijs 2022; Ibled 2022).
Third, higher education is black boxed and placed beyond ideology. However, Mijs (2021) shows that being well educated does not necessarily result in the embrace of structural accounts of social inequalities. Instead, in highly unequal societies, its citizens (both well-educated and less well-educated) are more likely to explain success in meritocratic terms, as ‘individual effort’. This accords with findings from our own research (see Martini and Robertson 2022; Robertson and Martini 2023) where we trace out discursive transformations over two decades of higher education policies in the UK aimed at developing globally competitive knowledge economies, on the one hand, and the inclusion of higher education into the services economy, on the other. We show that Young’s (1958) conception of ‘meritocracy’ (ability and effort) has now been replaced with ‘neoliberal meritocracy’ (effort) as a legitimating ideology. In doing so it erases visibility of the structural inequalities that account for the highly unequal outcomes in UK higher education.
Fourth, treating higher education as a ‘variable’ (the holder of a higher education qualifications, or not), along with income, makes invisible the dynamics that Luxemburg (1951) pointed to in The Accumulation of Capital: capitalism is dependent on expanding into new spheres of social life whose dynamics include commodification (education as consumption), differentiation (stratification/value/worth), imperialism (international markets/brain drain), precarity (zero hours contracts/indebtedness), and militarism (securitisation/policing of free speech/knowledge espionage). Using UK higher education as a case, I show its progressive incorporation into processes of capital accumulation. In doing so, higher education as a sector, together with its workers and students, experience ongoing crises as it is caught in the tensions and contradictions of capitalist expansionary development.
I conclude by arguing that higher education itself needs to be cleaved from the jaws of what Fraser (2022) calls ‘cannibal capitalism’. Drawing insights from Wright’s (2010) real utopias, Luxemburg’s work on social transformation through mass strikes, spontaneous and organised action, and learning through social organising, and Freire’s (1970) conscientisation, I argue for a radical reworking of higher education as a key institution engaged in knowledge production that enables it to be constitutive of social democracy, social transformation, and social justice.