On education, ideological control and debt peonage in liberal societies

Up until 2008, I had mostly been ignoring economics as an area of study, as the subject bored me, and I found the mindset too unpleasant. The 2008 financial crisis made me realize that was a mistake, as it made me realize that economic policy couldn't be left to experts. But where to start?

Because I figured I should avoid economics textbooks, I did the next-most responsible thing: I started reading the serious and specialist media, paying particular attention to what the critics I found there had to say. Most of their explanations struck me as unconvincing, though, as they said little about the role played by elite fraud and grifting, even though it was perfectly obvious that the run-up as well as the "rescue" were wildly profitable to the already-rich. And I'd already noticed that the media carefully avoided talking about the blatant grifting that was going on in the context of the invasion and "rebuilding" of Iraq and Afghanistan. So I broadened my search, and encountered Naked Capitalism, and shortly after that David Harvey's work.

That was over a decade ago now. Today, the orthodox economic theories that treat crises as a fluke still mostly dominate the debate. And even in alternative circles, frustratingly few people seem to understand the structural reasons why crises happen, while austerity politics have dominated nearly everywhere in the west, if to differing degrees. And while this didn't surprise me too much (given that I have more time, interest and energy than most people), the lack of fellow travelers among my peers did puzzle and sadden me. Many people seem frustrated with the status quo, yet few -- and especially few educated people -- seem interested in these questions today, let alone in doing something about it; while most of those who do either don't read, or they read books that point them in the wrong directions.

Now of course, part of this is that my expectations of educated people are too high: they have never been as radical as they like to portray themselves in the history books they write. But it made little sense to me that most of my peers were unable to see through the lies, when more people have university degrees than ever, and given that the right is still telling horror stories about how 'radical' everyone was during the the 1960s and 70s -- something which is just about wholly absent today. So I became interested in the question what gets in the way of the belief in solidarity on the one hand, and willingness to challenge establishment thinking and institutional power on the other.

There obviously is no simple answer to this question. But thanks to Tom Frank's Listen, Liberal, Marshall Rosenberg's, David Harvey's, Michael Parenti's and Noam Chomsky's work, I do think that I've identified the most important elements of the answer as to why these most educated generations (and the political parties they people) are so silent and apathetic, especially when it comes to issues of economic justice, institutionalized inequality, and public and private abuse of power. Which is what I'd like to say a bit about, here.

As Chomsky has occasionally mentioned, and as Rosenberg has explained, the institutions responsible for the "indoctrination of the young" are structured and run in ways that are consciously anti-egalitarian. So they not only promote theories that rest on meritocratic principles, but they also institutionally embody those principles, while increased tuition fees and other costs of living ensure that students have ever less time to explore their interests. The former wasn't always the case, as the university system used to be rather more open to heterodox theories. But thanks in no small part to decades of anticommunist repression, coupled with a lot of selection pressures exerted on teachers and academics, very little of this remains. The latter also used to be better, as the bureaucratization of the educational experience has really curtailed people's sense of freedom, though the structure has always been meritocratic, and therefore reactionary.

When it comes to theory/substance, the educational system, especially in the ideological disciplines, exclusively promotes theories that build on the liberal premises outlined by John Locke (and by the Romans before him, who were similarly concerned with justifying colonialism, imperialism, slavery, indigenous expropriation and genocide). Modern economic theory is an especially egregious example of this, with its supposed "scientists" frequently bemoaning the fact that reality doesn't fit their pet theories, rather than adjusting their theories so as to more accurately describe reality, but politics, philosophy, and the other social sciences are all affected by this. And when it comes to the deed, you can find a more detailed account of the mechanisms here, but what meritocratic institutions generally, and schools especially try to inculcate is the following:

  • 'respect' for institutional power and those who wield it;
  • obedience towards those with institutional power, who determine what is 'right' both morally and epistemically, and who get to choose what institutional inferiors must do to prove themselves and get ahead (with authorities often deliberately choosing boring and repetitive tasks to test for obedience);
  • sensitivity to rewards and punishments (intended to motivate you, and to get you used to the idea of working for extrinsic rewards rather than from intrinsic motivation);
  • a conviction that rewards and punishments are (individually) earned;
  • hierarchical thinking and experiencing shame (via rank ordering students, grading, awards, plus the bullying that tends to occur in schools); and lastly,
  • a focus on learning about 'approved' subjects (to the detriment of others), irrespective of your own interests.

Given that nowadays all westerners -- and necessarily people with credentials (esp. college degrees), who are the most likely to end up in influential positions -- are exposed to this moral logic for up to two decades, by the time we're adults, we have been well-trained:

  1. to instinctively accept and value the opinions of authority figures (i.e., those with credentials or titles in an area of 'expertise', and institutional power),
  2. to regard their opinions as 'facts' (because they determine what's right);
  3. to ignore people who lack said credentials or institutional access, and who aren't platformed by the establishment structures (i.e., the corporate and state media).

In these ways, the democratization of access to tertiary education has strongly contributed to the (self-)domestication of a large swath of the population that might've otherwise been much more critical and independent-minded. At the same time, the same system serves to filter and demoralize those who do rebel against it, and who have anti-authoritarian tendencies, as they end up either hating learning, or they are 'disqualified' due to 'inappropriate behavior,': think 'anger,' 'hyperactivity,' and so on, whose behavior is grating to the people who view themselves as cultured and civilized for having 'gotten an education'.

Furthermore, since tertiary education becoming (nearly) free after World War 2, this led to a far larger number of people with degrees. And this demographic shift meant that having a degree could become a societal expectation, at which point it became possible to start increasing tuition fees again. And by now, anyone who wants a decent job feels they must agree to go into debt to gain the credentials they need to participate in and be a full member of society. Which creates a further barrier to having and sticking to your principles, as that debt burden makes it more important for you to desire and land a well-paying job post-graduation, at least if you want to have any hope of 'freeing' yourself from said burden (by becoming a wage slave, and someone who at the very least pretends to embrace capitalist values).

And the same reasons lurk behind other increases in costs of living. While housing costs used to be about 30% of a single (white male's) income, it's now up to 40% of a dual income family. Consequently, both partners must work far longer hours to make a living. (And likewise for health insurance and the like.) At the same time -- and not accidentally -- job security and pay have stagnated or declined for the bottom 80% or so, for various reasons. All of these things obviously affect how much time and energy people have available for self-education and organizing.

This makes it easier for the cultural managers and propagandists Chomsky talks about in the video at I've embedded to do their work. In it, he provides a good high-level explanation and summary of both the importance and the mechanics by which elites create and maintain 'public opinion'. He explains how they steer the debate by deciding how much airtime any given issue receives (to name a few that I feel should get much more attention given how relevant they are to people's lives: global warming, the financial crisis, corporate abuse of power and fraud, wars, strikes and demonstrations, police brutality), and who gets to speak on it. And he explains why this kind of cultural control is of particular importance in 'free' societies, where you can't get away with violently repressing the (upper) middle class, so that you need different ways of keeping people in line.

One thing I'd add to his discussion is that the fewer alternative news platforms and networks (including unions, church groups, political parties) there are, the greater the reach and measure of control of the opinions of the elite media becomes. And the internet has made it immeasurably easier for the elite media to confront people with their take on everything, since literally everyone with an internet connection can now read and reference the NYT, WaPo, LA Times, Guardian, which is something many ordinary people sadly value, because they were raised to take those media outlets seriously.

The same dynamic is also at work in academia, where, as Parenti in e.g. Land of Idols has documented, liberal -- that is, meritocrat -- is just about the furthest left you're allowed to be, if you are to be allowed to indoctrinate the young. Hence why in most disciplines very much including my own choice of philosophy, most of the reading will rest on Lockean liberal principles, which is an ideological framework that's highly compatible with social darwinism, capitalism, imperialism and colonialism, as documented by e.g. Domenico Losurdo, as well as by David Harvey in an underrated classic. And needless to say, I think that problematic, both morally speaking, and from the perspective of someone interested in intellectual rigor, and understanding how the world works.

I hope this talk plus my comments help folks to better understand why these most educated generations in history are so docile, and why most self-identified progressives largely stick to the boundaries established by what's part of Lockean liberal orthodoxy. And I hope that this helps you to more effectively push back against the instances of this happening, or to feel less dejected. It of course is quite troubling to realize that so many are so blind to the fact that their view of reality is skewed, but I think this way of looking at it also suggests a few avenues that you can take when fighting it, such as asking people to think about why it is that inconvenient truths disappear as soon as the media are able, and why people invariably stop talking about it when it does, no matter how big the story (think Snowden leaks, or the way disfavored foreign leaders can so easily be public enemy and a Huge Concern or Existential Threat on week days, and completely okay once they fall back into line, or when the propaganda story falls apart (e.g. the taboo chemical weapons / OPCW whistle-blowing scandal, or the "privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.”). There are openings like that every day, once you become used to looking at the "news" this way.

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