In the midst of a crisis, it is tempting to look to the past for answers. Perhaps, unsurprisingly Karl Marx is making a comeback not least because we have not yet fully recovered from the 2007-2008 meltdown.
As George Magnus described, almost ten years ago:
Policy makers struggling to understand the barrage of financial panics, protests and other ills afflicting the world would do well to study the works of a long-dead economist: Karl Marx. The sooner they recognize we’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis of capitalism, the better equipped they will be to manage a way out of it.
(Bloomberg Business Week, Give Karl Marx a Chance to Save the World Economy. August 28, 2011).
Alright, Marx was wrong; capitalism has not fallen, but he did bequeath tools to consider the current economic state of the world. Back to the future? Maybe, but we do require novel ways of addressing global economic change post-covid19. Suffice to say education will be central to it.
As Peter Drucker put it:
(…) one thing is predictable: the greatest change will be the change in knowledge; in its form and content; in its meaning; in its responsibility; and in what it means to be an Educated Person.
So, what will the nature of change be and what has it to do with Marxism? At the risk of being simplistic, Marxists argue that capitalist economic models work by exploiting labour and material resources. In an ideal world, this leads to better products and services because it encourages innovation and risk; the surplus is re-invested to create more wealth and prosperity.
However, there are inherent contradictions; first, those resources are finite. If success is dependent upon exploiting labour and material resources, then how do you measure success? When workers cannot afford to live, or the planet is not able to sustain life? Second, there is nothing to prevent those who generate a surplus from taking it for themselves. Or, not re-investing it in the kind of technology and human resource, which leads to improved productivity, higher wages and increased profits. It is a vicious circle but also a familiar narrative.
In the past, scientific innovation has come to the rescue, green initiatives such as solar and wind-generated energy replacing fossil fuel is just one example; however, science is struggling to keep up because the pace of change is increasing.
Srnicek and Williams describe the extent of the digital revolution:
The most recent wave of automation is poised to change this distribution of the labour market drastically, as it comes to encompass every aspect of the economy: data collection (radio-frequency identification, big data); new kinds of production (the flexible production of robots, additive manufacturing, automated fast food); services (AI customer assistance, care for the elderly); decision-making (computational models, software agents); financial allocation (algorithmic trading); and especially distribution (the logistics revolution, self-driving cars, drone container ships and automated warehouses).
In every single function of the economy – from production to distribution to management to retail – we see large-scale tendencies towards automation.
As Paul Mason describes, this creates new contradictions that capitalist systems have to negotiate.
The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next.
More pressingly, what happens to human resource when a rapidly automating system designed to exploit it no longer needs it? On the flip side, could workers benefit from this paradigm shift and become more autonomous, enjoying a better work-life balance? Perhaps salvation for capitalism could be the recognition that there is profit in well-being and enhanced productivity beyond the marketing opportunities.
There is a second related problem for capitalism. If the capitalist economic equilibrium is being-disrupted, then so are its democratic processes. Tribal loyalties are changing evidenced by the collapse of the red wall, in the 2020 UK general election. The reasons for the collapse are complicated, but the party that traditionally represented labour seemingly cannot rely on its support anymore. The main principle of a two-party parliamentary democracy is both parties can win, or at least provide checks and balances when in opposition. As Iversen and Soskice point out, there is a complementarity between capital and labour in capitalist democracies. The relationship between the two is always evolving, but what happens when it faces permanent disruption? Answers on a post-card.
Of course, we have been here before, Engels predicted the end of capitalism over 150 years ago; he was wrong. Capitalism may yet survive, but the Educated Person will still be central to its survival.
If we can ignore the provocative nature of such a concept, we can perhaps ponder what constitutes it? In my view, the Educated Person is not a category with some included and others not; it is a way of knowing applied to a multiplicity of human endeavours. A healthy democracy cannot afford to leave a sizeable number of its citizens behind.
In his book, Drucker identifies two contentious opposing categories positing a view on the nature of the Educated Person. On one side, there is the post-Marxists, radical feminists and other antis who argue against the idea of an Educated Person because each gender, ethnic group, race, minority, requires its own separate culture and identity.
On the other, are the humanists who scorn the present system demanding a return to the nineteenth century, to the Liberal Arts, the Classics, the German Gebildete Mensch. Drucker argues that both are wrong; the knowledge society must have at its core the concept of the Educated Person precisely because it is global: in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology, its central issues, and, above all, in its information.
According to Drucker, the Educated Person will need to appreciate other cultures and traditions citing the example of the great heritages of China, Japan; in addition to, the philosophers and great religions of the Orient and Islam. The Educated Person will receive a far less exclusive and traditionally classical education than the Liberal Education of the Humanists; for example, training in social perception would be as useful as statistical analysis.
Drucker imagines this new kind of person emerging as a hybrid fusion of the managerial and intellectual classes. The ability of the manager to apply knowledge combined with the intellectual’s use of pure concepts. Such an individual would be the opposite of the polymath; those rare people who are simultaneously expert in Mandarin Chinese and nuclear physics. The Educated Person would, on the contrary, be able to run with the output of expert research; for example, applying chaos theory to economics, data mining to social history or neuroscience to customer service.
In purely curriculum terms, the Educated Person needs to understand the epistemic and disciplinary aspects of a field more than its knowledge base. More than that, the Educated Person needs to understand its digital landscape and be able to leverage an extensive personal network to interact with others on its unfolding paradigms.
Technology will eventually pose a serious threat to the capitalist economy and its democratic processes. It will facilitate the spreading of fake news by uber-networks of political actors both for and against the status quo. It will also disrupt the relations between capital and labour; neither market nor state will be able to prevent such disruption because they are inextricably linked.
The Post-capitalist digital economy, therefore, cannot be built on the opposing ideologies of market or state but, as Drucker points out, it needs the ability to fuse:
(… ) separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, onto a common concept of excellence, and onto mutual respect.
Individuals cannot resist change, but the power of a critically aware networked collective will protect the many from the few. The challenge facing education is not only to deliver the knowledge and skills required to drive this new Post-capitalist paradigm but also to educate the future citizen to participate in future democracy without traditional tribal loyalties.
Your guess is as good as mine!
Most of the ideas are derived from the following thinkers:
Drucker, P. F. (1994). Post-capitalist society. Routledge.
Fuchs, C., & Mosco, V. (2016). Introduction: Marx is back–the importance of Marxist theory and research for critical communication studies today. In Marx in the age of digital capitalism (pp. 1-21).
Iversen, T., & Soskice, D. (2020). Response to Carles Boix’s review of Democracy and Prosperity: Reinventing Capitalism through a Turbulent Century. Perspectives on Politics, 18(2), 547-548.
Marx, K. (2018). Das kapital. e-artnow.
Mason, P. (2016). Postcapitalism: A guide to our future. Macmillan.
Srnicek, N., & Williams, A. (2015). Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a world without work. Verso Books.