Capitalism and learning: a form of parasitism

IT is difficult to engage with sociological issues about schooling without engaging economics. So much of how we think about schools, skills and success is now completely framed in economic terms, with pockets of resistance scattered across the globe.

Given that the dominant mode of economic arrangement is now capitalism and has been a particular flavour of capitalism for the last 30 years, it is inevitable that this blog will touch on this relationship frequently. Many terms are used to refer to the contemporary economic flavour: ‘neoliberalism’, ‘fast capitalism’, ‘late capitalism’… I won’t unpack these too much in terms of an explainer, as plenty has been written on these  elsewhere. Now and then sometimes their deployment warrants some careful scrutiny (e.g. Jessica Gerrard’s excellent paper “Public education in neoliberal times: memory and desire” takes the political left’s use of the word ‘neoliberal’ to task.). But today’s post is the exploration of a thought that struck me while reading Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, and tries to unpick a bit of the relationship between a capitalistic approach to production and economy, and the process of learning. Here goes.

The Dialectic of Capitalism and Learning

An interesting conundrum sits at the heart of the relationship between capitalism and learning: a dialectic (no, not an Hegelian dialectic, for all you philosophers out there… alas there is no synthesis). By dialectic, rather, I mean a germ of an idea that contains its own refutation. A paradox.

There is something inherently contradictory in the relationship between capitalistic arrangements of production, trade and consumption, and the project of learning (which, one could argue, is the project of being and becoming).

Critical to the nature of capitalism as a process is the need for constant growth. This is achieved through expansion into new spheres of markets, through conquest, cooperation, or the fabrication of whole new areas of supposed ‘need’ to generate previously non-existent demand (the latter is often achieved through commodifying previously non-monetized entities: water, air, time, attention etc.)

But such consistent expansion and growth requires adaptation. That is: learning. “Learning” in this sense is not necessarily cognitive, considered, concious or institutionalized. Rather, it is the acquisition (and appropriation) of new information and knowledge in order to better achieve a particular outcome or aim (telos), and this can be overt or covert, deliberate or accidental. In the case of capitalism, that telos is profit.

[Unsurprisingly, when we look backwards at history, we can see how large strides have been made in technological development–mapping, linguistics, military analysis, timespace compression etc.–through the expansion of capitalist market arrangements.]

It is important to note that capitalism depends on learning, but not vice versa. That is: adaptation is necessary for capitalism (in its absence, growth is not possible), but adaptation can–and has–existed for aeons in the absence of capitalism. The assumption of symmetry (or simultaneity) between the two is false, but often used by the proponents of capitalism as ‘natural’ and ‘without alternative’ in a rather neo-Darwinian manner.

Capitalism has had (and continues to have) an extraordinary influence on our conceptions of what constitutes ‘learning’. It’s almost as if, by being so dependent on the process of learning, the capitalist imagination seeks to ‘claim’ learning as its sole right and manifestation. One of the mechanisms of this claiming, is that learning or adaptation that is not to the benefit of the capitalist project is ‘less than’ or of questionable value. Art, philosophy, political studies, music, sport… have all been either interrogated regarding their true ‘value’/usefulness (in the most utilitarian of manners) or appropriated towards commercial ends (even if that commodification is hidden under layers of denial or misrecognition). Institutions of learning are forced to synchronize their aims, outputs, terms and frames of reference to that of the economy, or risk extermination through ‘irrelevance’. Learning for the sake of learning, for discovery, personal development or curiosity, is rapidly losing ground.

Such appropriation is critical if the capitalistic project is to survive. Any learning that is not for is necessarily against: in a world where constant growth and expansion is paramount, all non-cooperation is at best inhibitive and hence antagonistic, or, more radically, a potential for alternatives, for rupture.

Learning that can not, or will not, be appropriated towards the specific aims of capital threatens the totality of that system’s ability to reach and shape discursive reality i.e. to present itself as ‘without alternative’ (whatever that alternative might be, whether anarchy, a return to feudalism, communism, species extinction or any myriad of alleged utopias or dystopias). Uncommodified/uncommodifiable learning punctures the capitalist hold on our imaginations of what might be.

So where’s the contradiction?

Capitalism will cease in the absence of learning. The parasite will die if it kills its host. And yet, the continuation of the project of learning at all times threatens the hold of capitalism on the collective psyche. The discovery and considerations of alternatives continues to draw back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, inviting fresh creativity that may or may not be aligned with the ends of monetization and commodification. Wherever, whenever, people are learning… are thinking new ideas, previously unthought… there is the possibility that they will think of a world beyond constant commodified growth.

If we recognise this dialectic, we are forced to consider then the continued permanent vulnerability of all systems and moments of learning to appropriation and co-option towards profiteering. In the presence of capitalistic economic arrangements, activities and meaning, in which learning is always the fuel that drives the engine, and yet threatens to rupture, there can not–and never will be–a moment in time when the arrangements, activities and meanings of learning are not beseiged by attempts to be commodified. Consider the example of the very word ‘disrupt’: previously reserved for deviants, political upstarts and anarchists, from street protestors to uncontrollable students in the classroom, the word ‘disrupt’ has now been brought into the monetized fold, been gilded as a descriptor for people who ‘shake up the market’ or ‘reinvent how things are done’. Even terms used previously in the pejorative are co-opted. And due to such a system’s constant need to grow and eliminate all alternatives, learning can expect no relief from commodification forces while a kernel of capitalism remains.

Far from being deterministic, this contradiction gives anyone who is concerned with capitalism and its effects genuine hope. Because built into the machine itself, at its very beating heart, are the seeds of its own defeat–that new ideas, learning, fresh thought and creativity remain, and these pursuits provide the starting point of imagining something different and more humane.

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I'm a mathematics teacher currently working in the area of teacher development at the University of Cape Town. I've an interest in language in education, education policy and sociology and general ideas around equity and adequacy in public primary and secondary schooling in South Africa and other developing contexts. I'm currently doing my PhD at UCT. When not thinking, reading and writing about education issues, or working with teachers, I can normally be found either somewhere on the slopes of Table Mountain with my dog, or behind a piano.

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