Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Price is Right

What links the iPad and the future of democracy? The answer is commodification, which is affecting both education and political support. An example of the former is the news that schools now expect pupils to buy tablet computers in the same way as they do compasses and set squares. The headteacher of Hove Park school says this is necessary so that pupils can "engage with future employers as fully independent learners confident in their use of modern technologies". Such high-tech kit schemes often collapse due to loss, theft and the inability of technology to mix with chips and fizzy drinks. A more profound reason for failure is that the delay between use and graduation means that the skills gained are largely outmoded unless you commit to constant upgrades - "modern" has a quicker turnover for technology than French grammar or Shakespeare. Were the kids given Windows Vista laptops in 2007/8 the lucky generation?

It should also be borne in mind that tablets are sold on their ease-of-use, i.e. they can be mastered by a functioning idiot within a few hours, so it's hard to imagine that having "experienced Nexus 7 user" on your CV is going to make all the difference for that job application. Tablets can't even be considered as educational "tools" as such, as you can't easily access the OS or write and run programs in the way that you can with a PC. This focus on hardware rather than software (Wikipedia is a genuine tool and cut+paste is a valuable technique) is typical of the ideological stranglehold of the education technology industry, which has long pushed capital equipment and restrictive licences (such as MS-Office). Individual pupil tablets are no more necessary to learning than pencil gonks.

If you think the headteacher was reading from the neoliberal hymn-sheet, Brighton and Hove city council take it to a whole new level: "Hove Park school has been able to negotiate discounts with suppliers. We welcome the fact that the business plan ensures that no child is excluded from the project through inability to pay for the equipment." The school aren't providing the tablets, they are expecting the parents to pay for them outright or rent them from the school. The negotiated discounts will be marginal (the quoted price of £200 is no bargain), as the suppliers want a captive market and guaranteed profits, not the opportunity to make a donation.

The use of the phrase "business plan" tells you how schools are increasingly seen as sites for commercial services. The suspicion is that the tablets (as e-readers) will eventually be used in place of course books, with the bulk of the delivery cost thereby transferred to parents. Once you're paying for uniforms, course e-books, trips and all the other extras that have crept in over the years, it will be difficult to resist paying a fee for a qualified teacher or rent for your child's desk, even if the classroom is only being used as a means of control.

The commodification of democracy is a central tenet of neoliberalism. Oona King trots out the party line in a New Statesman article praising Ed Milliband's "trade union reforms": Milliband is being radical; we must move away from "stitch-ups"; "machine politics are the death throes of the old order"; One Nation = participative democracy; "unions themselves are not as working class as they used to be". It's not obvious what her point is in that last observation, beyond self-justification for being a member of the Labour party's middle-class nomenklatura who secured a union sinecure before election as an MP. Unions are sectional and unrepresentative of the "nation" because they are meant to be. Their job is to represent their members' interests, not those of "Worcester woman" or some other mythical embodiment of Middle England.

This is an example of the modern tendency to eschew representative politics - i.e. the idea that parties or factions should represent sections of society - and replace it with the politics of the homogeneous market. We are all assumed to be equal consumers with equal access, despite the real inequalities in resources. This appears both pro-democratic and empowering - everyone has rights and we can all exercise choices - but it leaves us atomised and effectively powerless because we lack any collective voice. King's own website is full of the tepid terminology that distinguishes this pro-market attitude, such as "Managing diversity and building social cohesion are key challenges of our time" and "there can be no real democracy without effective engagement". I was particularly amused by "Modern democracy was founded on the principle of no taxation without representation". It wasn't, not even in the USA (see the Civil War, civil rights etc). In the UK, where we continue to shower money on a monarchy and indulge the anti-democratic House of Lords (in which sits The Baroness King of Bow), modern democracy remains more theory than practice.

The problem is that such calls for "participative democracy" are unworldly. If you allow people to genuinely participate (and I'd be the first to agree that the Labour party has historically done its best to discourage this), then you should not be surprised when they coalesce into blocs with common interests. What the neoliberal hegemony of the Labour party seeks to do is ostracise any oppositional blocs as anti-democratic. The historical irony is that the "hard left" insurgency of the 1980s was beaten off with the votes of soft-left and right-wing union blocs. Since then, Labour has sought to concentrate its funding on an ever-smaller group of rich individual and corporate donors. The very antithesis of "participative democracy".

Following King, the normally sensible John Naughton suggests that Labour should emulate the US Democrats successful model of crowd-funding via the Internet. A cynic would observe that if securing lots of small donations from ordinary folk led to changes in policy, then Guantanamo would have closed by now. In reality, while online donations increased hugely in 2012 during the Presidential election, the bedrock of financial support remained large donors (individuals and committees) with a distinct pro-business bias. The Democrats shift towards large-volume small donations online is partly the consequence of the technology, but largely the result of the decline of US unions. Small donations make up some of the shortfall, but they also obscure the degree to which the party is now dependent on corporate donors.

The attraction for the Labour party of a funding model based on a mix of individual small donors and a few large donors is that it has the appearance of democracy (lots of donors and a low average contribution) without ceding significant "voice" to blocs outside the neoliberal core. Len McCluskey is presumably hoping that Unite and the other unions can maintain their influence in the party through discretionary donations from the surplus of their political levy funds. As such, they are adopting a neoliberal tactic - viewing power as a commodity that can be bought at a price.

1 comment:

  1. £200 is actually a mark-up of £0.01 on what I paid for my Nexus 7.