The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services

Introduction

This is a continuation of a previous post (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In the previous post in this series, I argued against considering the expansion of free public services as socialist and for supporting the struggle for such free public services while simultaneously criticizing the limitations of such a struggle. The expansion of free public services in no way is the same as the beginning of a socialist society.

In this post, I expand on the limitations of the view that free public services amount to a socialist society by looking at the provision of such free public services from the side of the people who receive or use such services.

General Considerations: An Illegitimate Assumption 

Dhunna and Bush make the following claim about their aims:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services. Compared with universal basic income, universal basic services cost less, meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people, and affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure. That’s our bread and butter.

They assume what they must prove: that there is an identity between “publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure.” What does “publicly operated infrastructure” mean? It must mean–operated by the government or state. They imply that the shift from private to public ownership somehow entails democratic control over “publicly owned infrastructure.” Publicly owned infrastructure is supposed to magically become operated–by the public–or operated democratically? They provide no evidence that the mere shift of services provided by the private sector to the public sector or the government somehow involves democratic control over the government.

In my previous post in this series, I acknowledged the positive side of state services that do not involve the user in having to pay personally or directly for such services in; in Canada, the classic example is free and universal basic health care. I have had cancer twice now (invasive bladder cancer diagnosed in 2009 and rectal cancer, diagnosed in 2015 (with metastatic liver cancer diagnosed in 2017). I certainly appreciate the fact that I did not, personally and directly, have to pay for health services connected to both the diagnosis and the removal and elimination of the cancer through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

The social-democratic left, however, do not focus on the negative side of such services to any great extent; alternatively, when they acknowledge it, they usually refer to the cliche of working “in and against the state.” The fact is that they mainly work within the state and pay lip service to working against the state.

Dhunna and Bush do not even acknowledge how their reforms will involve both positive and negative aspects–contradictions. Such services often simultaneously enable and alienate those who receive their services. From Adrian Little (1998), Post-Industrial Socialism: Towards a New Politics of Welfare, page 38:

As such it [the welfare state] cannot necessarily be regarded as an egalitarian institution because, as Baker suggests, ‘the present welfare state is a compromise which serves many interests. It helps people in need, but it also helps to keep them in their place. It is a system of support but also of control.’ In short, Baker argues that ‘the welfare state is designed for an unequal society’ (Baker
1987:10).

An enhanced welfare state is certainly preferable to a welfare state stripped of protections–but it is still a welfare state that presupposes that workers are to work for a class of employers–and that those who receive services from the welfare state are to be controlled to a greater or less extent in one way or another. Dhunna’s and Bush’s neglect of the issue of control over work and their focus on free public services ignore the negative side of public welfare in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated general economic, political and social structures.

As Primož Krašovec argues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=25&v=T6HIhwVmgh4&feature=emb_title), the left’s idealization of the public sector–as if it were a haven of democracy–hardly provides an accurate picture of the nature of public sector work. Although the Canadian public sector is more heavily unionized than the private sector, to assume that higher unionization means democracy and control over our lives is just that–an assumption that requires justification.

Mr. Krasovec asks why some people–other than the rich–support neoliberal policies. His answer is that such neoliberal policies do address–unlike the social-democratic policies–some concerns of the ordinary worker about the public sector–such as the bureaucratic, neo-feudalist status of the state in the public education system. Both students and workers do not like these rigid hierarchical structures. Neoliberal policies may indeed be misleading about the efficacy of market policies in destroying these hierarchies if they are introduced into the public sector, but they nevertheless touch a real concern of workers and students. This applies not only to public education but also to state administration in other public services. We cannot pretend that long lines at the doctor’s office do not happen, or that superficial treatment does not occur, or that bureaucratic incompetence does not arise–because people experience them every day in their dealings with these institutions. To fail to recognize these experiences and to take them into account when formulating policy is to feed into the neoliberal backlash.

This idealization of the public sector will unlikely convince many who have experienced the negative aspect of public services since it does not correspond to their own experiences.

I mentioned above that I have been diagnosed with cancer twice (and diagnosed with metastatic cancer once). Given free public health care, as I said, I certainly appreciate the free treatment that I received. However, when we look at the wider context, the treatment also has negative aspects. As I argued in another post: (see Class Harmonies in Health Care? The Social-Democratic Way):

Today, though, many social determinants are largely ignored in favour of focusing on caring for those already sick. Consider breast cancer. It arises in many instances from environmental conditions, and yet most money is allocated to caring for those already inflicted with the disease rather than with preventing it from arising in the first place. From Faye Linda Wachs (2007), (pages 929-931), “Review. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. By Samantha King,” in Gender & Society, volume 21, number 6 (December), pages 930-931:

Recent studies reveal that simply removing known carcinogens from products and our environment could prevent thousands of cases annually (Brody et al. 2007). However, funding for such research is limited, while the monies for identifying and curing existing cases is the focus of most efforts. Indeed, many of the companies that fund survivorship continue to use known car cinogens in their products. King points to the fact that despite increased awareness, rates of breast cancer have increased from 1 in 22 in the 1940s to 1 in 7 in 2004. Even if one considers women’s increasing longevity, this still indicates an increase in the prevalence of breast cancer. Moreover, structural factors that affect risk and survivorship, such as socioeconomic status, remain woefully understudied.

Other experiences with the bureaucracy also tends to alienate the public from the public sector. Humiliation of the unemployed by office workers occurs, for example, and to not acknowledge such facts as a problem is to feed into the neoliberal ideology. So too does invasive surveillance of mothers by state bureaucrats. So too does humiliation of residents in public housing.

Nowhere do Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush acknowledge relations of domination and subordination in the public sector. Such experiences also alienate the public from the public sector. Mr. Krasnovic, by contrast, argues that it is necessary for the left to engage in a critique of the public sector in order to acknowledge the real problems that real people experience in relation to state institutions and state inequalities. It is necessary for the left to acknowledge these problems if they are to address neoliberalism and how it feeds off of the daily experiences of people in relation to the state.

Nowhere do the writers really address the nature of the problem of “the market.” despite the title of their article. On the assumption, though, that they oppose in fact the exploitation and oppression of workers in the private sector (a big assumption since many social democrats merely pay lip service to opposing exploitation and oppression since they really have no intention of aiming for the beginning of a movement towards the abolition in the present but rather push such a goal to the vague future–see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three–as Mr. Krasovec points out, it is hypocritical to criticize exploitation and oppression of private sector workers while not doing so in the public sector. Mr. Krasovec, like me, does not believe that any just society can arise as long as the capitalist state exists.

General Oppressive Structures and Relations in Public Services 

Dhunna’s proposal for expanded public services would be different from present-day life, but not that different–as John Baker (1987) notes in his Arguing for Equality, pages 9-10:

Equality and the welfare state

For nearly a century, equality has been linked with the idea of the ‘welfare state’: income support for the elderly, unemployed and disabled; publicly provided education for all, with a trend in the direction of comprehensive, mixed-ability schooling; a free, comprehensive health service, at least for the worst off; public housing for people on low incomes; and a variety of social services for people with special needs. Would an egalitarian society mean more of the same? Since the welfare state does stand for more equality than ‘free market’ alternatives offered by its opponents, there are certainly good reasons for supporting and defending it. But there are two major reasons why an egalitarian society might turn out to be very different.

First of all is the issue of democratic control. The present welfare state is a compromise which suits many interests. It helps people in need, but it also helps to keep them in their place. It is a system of support but also of control. In some areas, particularly in housing, users and providers of public services are starting to cooperate in making the system more democratic, but there’s a long way to go. Too much of the system still runs on the belief that the bureaucrats know best and that consumers should be grateful for whatever they’re given.

The second reason is that the welfare state is designed for an unequal society. Many of its policies and problems would be transformed by more equality. For instance, there’s a lot of argument in education over how to promote equality of opportunity in an unequal society. There are bitter conflicts over the use of limited funds, with parents fighting over the means to protect their children’s futures. Schooling is seen as a major cause of achievement in adult life, and since all children are in competition for advancement there is no limit to the demand for educational resources. Even a good school could be better, making a crucial difference to children’s educational success. No wonder there are disputes over private schooling, mixed-ability classes, examination systems, busing! In an egalitarian society, there would still be disagreements over the best ways to ensure that every person had the opportunity to develop their ability in a satisfying and fulfilling way and over how to use our resources — disagreements that it would be impossible to sort out now. But there wouldn’t be conflict over access to privilege; the penalty for ‘failure’ wouldn’t be poverty; there wouldn’t be a contrast between inner city ghettos and middle class suburbs.

Undoubtedly the welfare state provides some of the materials for the social institutions of an egalitarian society, as well as a great deal of experience in providing for people’s needs. But it would be wrong to imagine that an equal society would just be a bigger welfare state. It would be in many ways a different society altogether.

Or, as Wolfgang Streeck (2016) argues, the building of protective layers over top of the capitalist economy seeks a different form or variety of capitalism–and not its dismantling. From How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System:

Fred Block’s notion of an ‘always embedded’ capitalism subject to a ‘primacy of politics’ radiates an optimism that conspicuously resembles what European social democrats have for a long time made themselves believe: that socialism, as defined above, could be had, preserved and surreptitiously expanded on top of a capitalist economy-cum-society, by serving its inexorably growing functional need for collective governance. Looking back at the past four decades, however, we see a sustained process of institutional transformation, slow but irresistible and driven, not by democratic politics but by the dynamic logic of capitalist development, that has effectively destroyed most if not all of the political safeguards whose establishment had been the very condition for capitalism being allowed to return after the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century. That logic, and the reorganization – or disorganization – of social life that it dictated, culminates today in the dual crisis of the global financial as well as the national democratic state system. Decades of ‘reform’ aimed at meeting the ever more aggressive demands of capitalist markets have only exacerbated the capitalist wear and tear on the social fabric, often with the connivance of blackmailed states and governments, including social-democratic ones. Is this experience really compatible with a theory that considers ‘market society’ to be at the disposition of politics? Or does it not rather speak for attributing to capitalism as a social action system a life, a logic, a power and a dynamism of its own, on which social-democratic post-war politics as usual has more and more lost its grip? If one comes to conclude, as I have, that it is the latter that is the more realistic perspective, is it then still responsible to invest one’s time and energy in developing responsible ideas as to how responsible governments may repair ‘the system’ or turn one variety of capitalism’ into another? Or would it not be much more constructive to be less constructive – to cease looking for better varieties of capitalism and instead begin seriously to think about alternatives to it?

This post does try to focus on some of the negative sides of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Oppressive Public Educational Services

Grades or Marks in Schools

Another problem with their article is that they assume that public or state or government services need only be expanded rather than fundamentally or qualitatively altered (something they share with Sam Gindin, former research director for the large national union Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor) and the academic leftist Jeff Noonan (see, for example, The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two). In the area of education, for example, they simply advocate free access to university.

The school system, of which the university is a part, is simply not considered. For example, are not grades (marks) an oppressive feature of the modern school system (including universities)? Do they not function to sort the “intelligent” from the “less intelligent?” Of course, assessment of some kind must occur, but all assessment could be in the form of feedback for improvement (formative assessment) and not in any form of quantitative assessment. As I wrote in an article (see in my Publications and Writings section, “Dewey and Assessment: Opposition to the Modern School System):

A few years ago, I was the chair of the local Equity and Social Justice Committee of a teacher’s association. I sent off articles and some of my thoughts to the Equity and Social Justice Ning (a kind of blog) of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. At a school where I worked in Manitoba, I also placed the same articles and my own thoughts in binders in the staff lounge for the staff to read. At one point, I argued that there was a conflict between grades and teacher feedback (usually in the form of written or verbal comments) that is supposed to improve teaching and learning. My own experience in receiving both teacher feedback and grades was such that I almost always looked at the grade first and only then (if at all) looked at the teacher’s comments afterward. I doubt that my experience is unique.

At a meeting with Janet Martell, the superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, and the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, Ms. Martell stated that she considered my argument about the contradiction of grades and teacher feedback via formative assessment to be faulty and would address it later during the meeting. She never did.

Grades, or what in educational circles is called summative assessment, is characterized by the following. From Shujon Mazumder (2020). “Critical Education: Increasing Student Achievement through Formative Assessments.” The Organizational Improvement Plan at Western University, 149. Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/oip/149, pages 10-11: 

According to Frey (2014), the defining characteristics of summative assessments include:
• Assessing student learning at the end of a period of instruction.
• Is typically very formal with defined test-taking rules and scoring procedures.
• Its main purpose is to determine grades. (p. 91)
Summative assessments view students as receptacles of information, and learning is measured by how well they can restate facts and knowledge given to them by their teachers.

The typical summative procedure of grading proceeds as follows page 11): 

Table 1
Traditional Sequence of Activities in Student Assessment Cycle

1. Students are given instructions and advice about how to approach the assessment.
2. Students may undertake developmental, formative assessment to gain some feedback on their progress in this area of learning, before submitting their formally assessed (that is, summative) work.
3. Students prepare for their summative assessment, either individually or in collaboration with peers (where the latter is permitted and required).
4. Students undertake the assessment (e.g. write the essay; complete\the group project; give the presentation; sit the exam).
5. Students submit the assessment to the assessors, who are already experts in the field.
6. Students await feedback on the assessment.
7. Feedback and/or marks are made available.
8. Students may or may not access the feedback on their work. Students may or may not assimilate the feedback and actively use it to inform future approaches to learning and assessment.

How many reading this post have experienced the oppressive nature of grades–which is counterproductive to real learning? How many can identify with the following comments on the experience of grading in schools (dated February 11, 2018):

Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

Reading The Case Against Grades brought up a TON of emotions for me this week. Some of the emotions this pieced evoked from me were anger, frustration rage and even a bit of embarrassment. I’m not embarrassed for my present self, but embarrassed for my younger self, the me 10-15 years ago who wasn’t among her high-achieving peers in the classroom. I went to school in a county, on a particular side of the county where high grade marks and straight A’s were an expectation of almost everyone. As hard as I tried, I wasn’t one of those students. I excelled in my elective classes like music/choir classes, home economics/teen living and sociology but could never seem to master’s subjects like physics, geometry and chemistry. It was embarrassing to receive my test scores and they sometimes were significantly lower than my peers.

In The Case Against Grades, Kohn mentions that several of the effects of grading are that grades tend to diminish what students are learning, grades create a preference for the easiest possible task and that grades tend to reduce the quality of students thinking. All of these statements resonate with me on a personal level. … Essentially, students are not taught to think at all. Grades are a way of inhibiting students learning. If students do not receive good grades, they are thought of as less than adequate and labeled as “problem” children when, in fact, many of those labels could not be further from the truth.

The oppressive nature of grades is similar in many ways to what I referred to in an earlier post about external or bad aims (which are oppressive) (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three). Internal or good aims link our goals to what we are doing now and the means available to us by organizing present activities and means; they link the future with the present and the present with the future in a logical and coherent manner. External or bad aims, by contrast, involve a disconnect between means and ends. In the case of grades, the goal is to obtain the highest grade possible, and there is no intrinsic connection between that goal and the organization of present activities and means as internally related to each other. Such an external aim as obtaining the highest grades often leads to focusing on satisfying the teacher rather than the specific nature of problems–and hence diminishes the power of children and adolescents to address the problems that arise in the process of living.

Alfred Kohn (see link above) has this to say about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in relation to grades:

Motivation:  While it’s true that many students, after a few years of traditional schooling, could be described as motivated by grades, what counts is the nature of their motivation.  Extrinsic motivation, which includes a desire to get better grades, is not only different from, but often undermines, intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn for its own sake (Kohn 1999a).  Many assessment specialists talk about motivation as though it were a single entity — and their recommended practices just put a finer gloss on a system of rewards and punishments that leads students to chase marks and become less interested in the learning itself.  If nourishing their desire to learn is a primary goal for us, then grading is problematic by its very nature.

I mentioned above another form of assessment–formative assessment. This form of assessment is supposed to provide feedback to students without quantifying it–it is more qualitative and narrative. However, as Alfred Kohn notes, when it is linked to summative assessment, it performs a subordinate role and thus is still linked to an oppressive practice. From Kohn (see the link above):

It’s not enough to add narrative reports.  “When comments and grades coexist, the comments are written to justify the grade” (Wilson, 2009, p. 60).  Teachers report that students, for their part, often just turn to the grade and ignore the comment, but “when there’s only a comment, they read it,” says high school English teacher Jim Drier.  Moreover, research suggests that the harmful impact of grades on creativity is no less (and possibly even more) potent when a narrative accompanies them.  Narratives are helpful only in the absence of grades (Butler, 1988; Pulfrey et al., 2011).

Unsurprisingly, given the title of this blog, it would be better to aim for the abolition of grades in order to facilitate internal or intrinsic learning and to abolish the oppressive nature of grades and external or extrinsic learning. What is needed is only formative assessment or narrative (and personal interviews and personal forms of assessment).

For those who are parents, it should be obvious that you never quantify your assessment of your child’s or adolescent’s performance; you provide verbal feedback mostly in order to guide the child or adolescent. 

The Oppressive Curriculum, or the Oppressive Program of Studies

In addition to the oppressive nature of grades for some students, there is the question of the adequacy of current curriculum structure and content to address the learning needs of children and adolescents. As I argued in another post (see Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure), most educational research assumes that the current educational system is the standard, with only variations (reforms) around this standard conceivable (similar to the social-democratic or reformist left).

The expansion of public services such as education is then conceived only in terms of–more of what is essentially the same. For an alternative (socialist) educational system, which does not foresee a mere expansion of existing educational services but a major restructuring of the curriculum in order to contribute to the abolition of the separation of manual and intellectual labour and life, see Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Three: Education ).

The imposition of grades as external motivators then permits the creation of a curriculum that involves the learning of many irrelevant things that have little to do with addressing present problems and interests. This in turn leads to the weighing down of the mind by unused and irrelevant facts, leading to the dulling of interest and the wonder of children in the world around them. From Katherine Mayhew and Anna Edwards (1936), The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903, pages 21-22: 

“He must learn by experience” is an old adage too little heeded by modern methods of schooling. Too often these methods take for granted that there is a short cut to learning, and that knowledge apart from its use has meaning for the developing mind. The memorizing of such knowledge has come to be a large part of present-day education, with the result that great masses of young lives have been denied the thrill of experimental living, of finding the way for themselves, of discovery, of invention, of creation. The fine aspiring tendril of childhood’s native curiosity, like the waving tip of a growing vine, seeks the how and why of doing its intellectual food. It is early stunted in many children. The strong urge to investigate, present in every individual, is often crushed by the memorizing of great masses of information useless to him, or the learning of skills that he is told may be useful to him in the far-away future, the sometime, and the somewhere. Only those in whom the urge to know will not be denied break away into new trails by virtue of individual and experimental effort, and when directed in the use of the scientific method, climb to the highest peaks of living; the majority travel a wide made-easy
way of schooling into a dead level of mediocrity.

Are not most schools public? If so, then they must fall under Dhunna’s and Bush’s idealized view of public services: schools, as public institutions, “affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.” Quite to the contrary. Public schools ‘affirm the oppressive power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.’ Merely because citizens do not pay for such services does not mean that oppression does not form part of such services–as long as there is a class of employers, along with the associated economic, political and social structures of such power.

Dhunna’s and Bush’s idealization of public services is typical of the social-democratic left. As I noted above, Mr. Sam Gindin, former research director of the former Canadian Auto Workers union (now Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada) merely views a socialist society as an expansion of public services rather than the abolition of oppressive structures in such services. He has this to say about public services in a socialist society:

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs [my emphasis].

Conclusion

There is little recognition of how “the public sector” can be oppressive. Referring to social services, such as “education” as if schools  and the school system were identical to non-oppressive services leads not only to the perpetuation of oppressive conditions but also to members of the working class becoming right-wing since such left-wing rhetoric fails to capture and express their experiences in this world. The social-democratic left, by idealizing the public sector, contribute to the right-wing backlash that has been raging for more than four decades. 

Dhunnah’s and Bush’s solution–expanded public services in the form of free education that do not involve the purchase of such services–does not solve the problem of an oppressive situation. Their critique of the principle of universal basic income, therefore, loses some of its legitimacy. 

In future posts, I may refer to the other side of the coin in education–not from the side of children and adolescents but from the side of those who work in schools, including teachers and custodians. Or perhaps health services (although I have already referred to some problems with the health sector (see Health Care: Socialist versus Capitalist Nationalization)–and therefore may not. Since most readers of this blog have provided little feedback or discussion, I will write on topics as I see fit–unless there is more feedback and discussion. 

However, I will definitely address in another post the criticisms of basic income that Dhunna and Bush offer–such as they are. 

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