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.

Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism)

While doing some research for a post on this blog, I became aware of how many Marxists claim that workers really work for the capitalist class or the class of employers rather than a particular employer. I asked my wife, who worked in Guatemala as a saleswoman, whether she thought that she worked for a particular employer or for the class of employers. She replied that she worked for a particular employer.

Although this is true in one way, it is also false in another way (I will elaborate on this below). Nonetheless, from the point of view of the experience of workers, they generally conceive of the relation between their working lives and their employer as a particular relation and not as a class relation. Marxists often ignore this concrete experience of workers and, as a consequence, limit their capacity to communicate with workers and to organize them.

First, I would like to provide quotes from several radical socialist sources to show that they often ignore the concrete experience of workers in relation to employers. All words in boldface are my emphasis.

From Alexander Berkman (2003), What is Anarchism, page 11:

Are you not compelled to work for an employer? Your need compels you, just as the highwayman’s gun. You must live, and so must your wife and children. You can’t work for yourself; under the capitalist industrial system you must work for an employer. The factories, machinery, and tools belong to the employing cl ass, so you must hire yourself out to that class in order to work and live. Whatever you work at, whoever your employer may be, it always comes to the same: you must work for him. You can’t help yourself You are compelled.

In this way the whole working class is compelled to work for the capitalist class. In this manner the workers are compelled to give up all the wealth they produce. The employers keep that wealth as their profit, while the worker gets only a wage, just enough to live on, so he can go on producing more wealth for his employer. Is that not cheating, robbery?

Again: From Socialist Party of America, National Platform, Adopted by the Thirty-Sixth National Convention, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, July 18-23, 1983, page 1:

Under capitalism, society is divided into two principal classes–the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalist class consists of the wealthy few who own the means of production and distribution. The working class consists of the vast majority who own no productive property and who must in order to live, seek to work for the capitalist class, or for the present government it controls.

Another example is from Great Britain (from the website Socialist Party of Great Britain):

Today, a world working class is forced to work for a wage or salary, and confronts a world capitalist class who live off unearned incomes from rent, interest and profit.

This one-sided emphasis on the capitalist class also can be seen in the following 1904 report by James Moroney, Report of the Australian Socialist League to the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam:

The Working Class, in order to secure food, clothing, shelter and fuel, must sell their labor-power to the owning Capitalist Class — that is to say, they must work for the Capitalist Class [my emphasis]. The Working Class do all the useful work of Society, they are the producers of all the wealth of the world, while the Capitalist Class are the exploiters who live on the wealth produced by the Working Class.

To be sure, there is recognition that the workers do work for a particular employer. From James O. Moroney (1904), the Australian Socialist League. Report of the Australian Socialist League to the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam:

In most of the Australian States the railways, and in some the tramways, are owned and managed by the government on strictly commercial principles. In other directions the State has extended its functions and employs labor direct. But the worker remains in Australia, whether employed by the State government or the individual private employer, and exploited wage slave, as is his exploited fellow wage slave in other countries.

These two views are often not integrated in a coherent manner. Workers do both. The reality of working for a particular employer in the private sector hits home when the private employer closes shop for whatever reason–as the workers working for GM in Oshawa, Ontario, relatively recently experienced; around 2,500 direct workers were out of work due to the shutting down of the GM auto plant in Oshawa in December, 2019.

Workers who work in the public sector may also experience severance from their particular employer as government departments are down-scaled or reorganized. They do not just work for “the government,” but in a particular field, department or political division.

This experience of working for a particular employer needs to be recognized when radicals write and give speeches. Marx recognized that the form in which workers work for the class of employers, which constitutes their immediately lived experience,  needs to be taken into account. From the notebooks Marx drafted in 1857-1858 called the Grundrisse (Outlines), in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels (Marx’s best friend and comrade), Volume 28, pages 392-393):

To start with, the first presupposition is the transcendence of the relation of slavery or serfdom. Living labour capacity belongs to itself and disposes by means of exchange over the application of its own energy. The two sides confront each other as persons. Formally, their relation is that of equal and free exchangers. That this form is mere appearance, and deceptive appearance at that, appears, as far as the juridical relationship is concerned, as an external matter. What the free worker sells is always only a particular, specific measure of the application of his energy. Above every specific application of energy stands labour capacity as a totality. The worker sells the specific application of his energy to a specific capitalist, whom he confronts independently as a single individual. Clearly, this is not his [real] relationship to the existence of capital as capital, i.e. to the class of capitalists. Nevertheless, as far as the individual, real person is concerned, a wide field of choice, caprice and therefore of formal freedom is left to him. In the relation of slavery, he belongs to the individual, specific owner, and is his labouring machine. As the totality of the application of his energy, as labour capacity, he is a thing belonging to another, and hence does not relate as a subject to the specific application of his energy, or to the living act of labour. In the relation of serfdom, he appears as an integral element of landed property itself; he is an appurtenance of the soil, just like draught-cattle. In the relation of slavery, the worker is nothing but a living labouring machine, which therefore has a value for others, or rather is a value. Labour capacity in its totality appears to the free worker as his own property, one of his own moments, over which he as subject exercises control, and which he maintains by selling it. [my emphasis] 

John Sitton draws out the effect of the immediate experience of working for a particular employer on individual members of the working class. From John Sitton, editor, (2010), Marx Today Selected Works and Recent Debates,  pages 19-20:

Since the wage-laborer must sell his or her labor to someone in the class of employers, Marx often states that this “freedom” is an illusion. “The Roman slave was held by chains; the wage-laborer is bound to his owner by invisible threads. The appearance of independence is maintained by a constant change in the person of the individual employer, and by the legal fiction of a contract.” But Marx himself admits that this “appearance” of individual freedom is reinforced by the fact that the worker, unlike the slave, is also an autonomous consumer. “It is the worker himself who converts the money into whatever use-values he desires; it is he who buys commodities as he wishes and, as the owner of money, as the buyer of goods, he stands in precisely the same relationship to the sellers of goods as any other buyer. Of course, the conditions of his existence—and the limited amount of money he can earn—compel him to make his purchases from a fairly restricted selection of goods. But some variation is possible as we can see from the fact that newspapers, for example, form part of the essential purchases of the urban English worker. He can save or hoard a little. Or else he can squander his money on drink. But even so he acts as a free agent; he must pay his own way; he is responsible to himself for the way he spends his wages.” Given this reality, Marx did not anticipate how class identity could be effaced by the status of consumer. The status of independent— although severely constrained—owner of the commodity labor-power, and of owner of money who can spend it as he or she pleases, makes it easy to see how in people’s minds class differences come to be considered as merely differences in income.

This “appearance” of freedom is bolstered in an additional way. As Marx acknowledges, although class situation greatly reduces the range, there are some differences in individual wages depending on skill. For a worker, there is therefore “an incentive to develop his own labor-power” so as to increase his or her wages. “[T]here is scope for variation (within narrow limits) to allow for the worker’s individuality, so that partly as between different trades, partly in the same one, we find that wages vary depending on the diligence, skill or strength of the worker, and to some extent on his actual personal achievement. Thus the size of his wage packet appears to vary in keeping with the results of his own work and its individual quality. . . . Certain though it be that the mass of work must be performed by more or less unskilled labor, so that the vast majority of wages are determined by the value of simple labor-power, it nevertheless remains open to individuals to raise themselves to higher spheres by exhibiting a particular talent or energy.” Marx is not explicit, but, combined with the possibility of changing one’s employer, this opens up the prospect of some, although small, measure of social mobility. Marx is correct that this does not abolish the essential nature of wage-labor as oppression. However, Marx greatly underappreciated the effects that even these limited opportunities have on an individual’s perception of life under capitalism and the sense of belonging to a class.

The possibility of advancing one’s economic situation by developing one’s individual talents or simply through greater “diligence” encourages many members of the working class to believe that one can “make it” through hard work. It is no surprise that many people believe that an individual’s prospects are not determined by class structure but by individual virtues or the lack thereof. These facts of working class existence, raised by Marx himself, make the class analysis of capitalism, whatever its broader theoretical cogency, less convincing to great numbers.

In the Manifesto, Marx asks, “Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?” What Marx failed to understand is that freedom to choose employers, the equal autonomy of consumers, the limited but real possibilities for individual and generational advancement, and the limited but real political possibilities of democratically managing the economy are the lived experiences of individuals under capitalism. These shape how people today perceive their lives and how they perceive the legitimacy of the existing order. For the Marxian tradition to find a larger audience, it must be able to connect its broad theory of capitalism as a class-structured society with the actual experiences of individuals in capitalist society, rather than dismissing those freedoms as illusory. Workers do not experience them as illusory, and this makes it plausible for them to blame their economic situation on themselves, rather than on a class structure.

It is not only Marx who underestimated the importance of the lived experiences of individuals under capitalism. The radical left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) fail to take into account the importance of the often ideological nature of that experience and how it must be subject to criticism when any opportunity arises. The radical left here do not engage in any systematic recognition of the limited nature of the lived experiences of workers and the need to engage in criticism of such experience in order to connect up systematically the lived experiences of workers critically with the class structure. Often they call for revolution–without considering the need to engage systematically and in the long-term with the lived experiences of workers.

Alternatively, they indulge the beliefs of the workers (fearing to criticize them), practically becoming social democrats or social reformers, thereby failing to develop the critical capacity of workers and community members. Either way the lived experiences are not transformed but remain as they were before.

Indeed, social democrats and social reformers often limit themselves to focusing on the immediate exchange between workers and employers–as I pointed out in another post (see  Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two). The social-democratic or social-reformist left often pay lip service to class relations and workers working for the class of employers, but they then commit the opposite mistake to those among the radical left who one-sidedly focus on working for the class of employers.

I will address the issue of the one-sided error of focusing mainly on individual employers or group of employers while not really addressing the issue of working for the class of employers in the next post.