School Rhetoric: Ideological Use of the Concept of Social Justice, Part One

Social justice has now become a buzzword these days. There is social justice this and social justice that, here a social justice, there a social justice, everywhere a social justice. This buzzword forms the ideology of the social-democratic left, for example, as well as the conservative right. After all, who is against social justice?

The winter 2015-2016 edition of Leaders & Learners (the official magazine of the Canadian Association of School Administrators, or CASS) has as its title “Social Justice and Social Responsibility.” The content of that particular journal expresses the limited definition (and views) of its middle-class authors.

Let us look at the most radical article in the publication: “The ‘Great (Un) Equalizer’: Using the Bourdieuian Lens to Understand ,the Paradox of Education,” Victor Brar uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital,” among others, to criticize schools. Brar argues that academic achievement is a function of the individual’s cultural capital, which is accumulated as a child experiences the world to form their habitus–the specific way of looking at the world and responding to it. This world, however, is not unitary but riveted by separation through the existence of social classes. Individuals belonging to different classes will have different kinds of cultural capital and different habituses.

In schools, some kinds of cultural capital and habitus will be treated as more valuable than others, forcing those who lack the characteristic cultural capital and habitus of the school system to conform to external requirements–which leads to symbolic violence.

Brar then uses more specific categories of class to criticize the school system. Those children who lack the cultural capital and habitus of schools are “from low SES [socio-economic statu] backgrounds” and will, in a vicious circle, fail to achieve relatively to those students who do possess the cultural capital and habitus of the school; the lower SES students will thus remain in the low SES.

Brar specifically uses the socio-economic status criterion for determining the nature of the lower and middle classes, page 35:

This achievement gap, if further compounded by the fact that because schools are unfairly oriented towards middle class dispositions, then the children from higher SES backgrounds perform comparatively better, thereby widening the achievement gap between themselves and their low SES peers.

Using levels of income (SES) to define class may be useful in some circumstances (for example, in deciding the likelihood of support for certain socialist policies related to housing), the use of levels of income is a social-democratic method of excluding most people from the working class.

The absurdity of classifying people as middle class on the basis of income can be seen from one article on distribution of income in some so-called Third World countries. This article refers to earning $2-$4 a day (presumably in American dollars) as the lower end of the middle class in Guatemala and $6-$10 a day to be the upper end in Guatemala. They justify such a classification in the following manner. From Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, “What is Middle Class about the Middle Classes around the World?,” Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 22, Number 2—Spring 2008, page 5:

In what sense should people living on between $2 and $10 per day be called “middle class”? These households are still very poor by developed country standards; the poverty line in the United States in 2006 for someone who lives in a family of five, for example, was $24,385, which when divided by five people in the family and 365 days in a year, works out to be about $13 per day.

On the other hand, the middle class in these countries are clearly much better off than the poor, who live on less than $1 or $2 a day.

This definition of middle class is purely in terms of relative level of income and takes no account of how this so-called middle class obtains its money. It is a definition based on a “standard of living” concept–a consumerist concept.

Consider the situation of my wife. She was born in Guatemala and earned around 2,800 Quetzales a month–around $373 US a month, or $12,44 US a day. How can anyone call her a member of the middle class? Her last job in Guatemala was a salesclerk in Guatemala City. Before that, she was a receptionist (earning about the same amount), but the company downsized and consolidated positions, throwing her out of work. She was unemployed for several months afterwards, with no income. In all her jobs, she had a boss who evaluated her performance and ultimately controlled her work and indeed whether she would work at all (power to fire). This is the situation of a member of the working class.

This does not mean that there is no such thing as the middle class. My sister-in-law’s husband is a doctor in Guatemala and has his own practice. He sets his own hours, fees and so forth. His work life is much more independent than was the work life of my wife. He can be considered part of the Guatemalan middle class.

Using levels of income or SES to define class implies that everyone can become middle class in a capitalist economy. Thus, if only everyone could achieve a level of income above the poverty line, then there would be no “poor” or working class.

Compare this view with the Marxian definition of class. In the Marxian definition of class, classes are mainly defined in an antagonistic fashion: one class emerges at the expense of another class through control over the conditions of work. One class gains what the other class loses, and the class that loses often tries to regain what it has lost, so there is a class struggle that only ends when either the two classes mutually ruin each other, or the lower class defeats the ruling class and creates a new form of society (with or without classes).

In the context of modern society, it is not the level of income but the fact that most workers have to work for an employer that characterizes class relations. Brar, by defining class in terms of levels of income, fails to develop an analysis that looks beyond the relationship of employer and employees; indeed, his definition of class according to levels of income actually hides the real class relations by excluding a concept of class that involves the exploitation of one class by another.

Even apart from the issue of exploitation, there is the additional issue of treating workers as things to be used by others. In a capitalist society, class power relations are linked to control over things–human beings are controlled through control over things that have social power (such as money, but also machines, buildings and so forth). Things gain human-like power, and human beings become thing-like (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Brar’s use of level of income as the basis for defining class not only fails to capture the need for class exploitation but also fails to capture the need for treating human beings as things and the need for things to gain human-like powers (what can be called commodity fetishism, money fetishism–treating things such as beer, money and means of production as possessing inherent social powers independently of human beings).

It is true that there are members of a middle class in modern society, but they should be seen as related to the two other antagonistic classes. Thus, just like my brother-in-law, doctors can usually be considered part of the middle class, but not just because of the level of income but because they control their own work, on the one hand, and they lack control over many workers lives on the other. Supervisors and lower-level managers could also be considered part of the middle class in that part of their function is to control the work of workers while, on the other hand, they themselves are hired workers who depend on a wage or salary to live. Superintendents undoubtedly can be considered part of the middle class.

Principals may also be considered part of the middle class, but approach perhaps more closely to the position of the working class since they are further down in the dictatorial hierarchy. On the other hand, the extent to which principals  function as oppressors of members of the working class also needs to be taken into account. On a practical level, whether a principal is a member of the working class or the middle class would have to be determined organizationally–whether in fact they oppose the working class or support them.

Despite these limitations, Brar’s characterization of lower SES and higher SES does have some usefulness in characterizing school experiences. Some parents who are members of the working class do see schooling (what they call education) as an investment in the future of their children and seek to ensure that their children have the wherewithal to be successful as defined by school authorities. Other parents of the working class do not. Similarly, some children of the working class do identify with such expenditures whereas others do not.

This view of schooling as investment is, however, characteristic not of the middle class per se but of what Hadas Weiss (We Have Never Been Middle Class) calls middle-class ideology. The ideology functions as a competitive belief in “investment,” whether it is in schooling, housing, pensions, stocks and bonds, etc., with the expectation that the sacrifice required for the expenditure will pay off in the future. The fact that those who make such sacrifices have to work for an employer is simply ignored. Such an ideology, another words, papers over the need for members of the working class to accept their subordination to the class of employers if they are to be “successful” in this social world.

This ideology has undoubtedly served to limit the class struggle of the working class since workers then are prepared to subordinate themselves to the power of employers in the present in hopes of reaping rewards in the future.

Since the level of sacrifice needed in neoliberal times has been increasing and the returns for the increasing levels of sacrifice have been diminishing, this middle-class ideology is being threatened.

Returning to Brar’s article, Brar, rather than exposing the limitation of middle-class ideology and criticizing it, relies on the distinction in order to criticize schools. He does not question whether those who have higher levels of income are in fact members of the middle class or not. He assumes that they are. His criticism of the school is therefore limited. His implicit concept of social justice remains entirely bound to the present social order of a class of employers, on the one side, a class of employees on the other, with another class–the middle class being neither one nor the other. The middle class, then, cannot be determined except in relation to the two dominant classes in a capitalist society.

If Brar’s article, which is the most radical article in the superintendents’ journal, forms an inadequate basis for criticizing schools, then all the articles referring to social justice are bound to form an even more inadequate basis for criticizing schools–as we shall see in future posts.

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