The Political Economy of Education

Robert Kurz

The capitalist mode of production is rich in internal self-contradictions. The field of education and training is no exception. Knowledge in itself does not produce surplus value, but it is a factual necessity for capital under the dictates of productive force development. Since in this society every expense must appear in the form of money, the education system is a “dead cost” in the capitalist sense, i.e., a deduction from social surplus value. Therefore, the need for educational investment is invoked everywhere in the name of location competition, but at the same time the production and distribution of knowledge is put under enormous cost pressure.

This contradiction has intensified historically. The same development of productive power that forces that expansion of knowledge and education has, on the other hand, thinned out the real value-added producing sector (especially the industrial base) by making labor superfluous there to an increasing extent. While the famous “productive” working class relatively declined and today forms a social minority, the largely “unproductive” new middle classes of the education and knowledge sector grew in mirror image. In capitalist terms, this development could only be represented as increasing credit financing of the corresponding “dead costs,” an aspect of the general financing crisis that has hardly been addressed.

According to the laws of the labor market, the massification of higher education (in the FRG today, about half of a cohort graduates from high school) and thus of the supply leads to a devaluation of the qualified labor force. In conjunction with the cost pressure on the entire capitalistically “unproductive” education system, this has led to even the academically educated strata progressively being made to live in precariousness. The old educated middle class is doomed. Added to this is the discrepancy between qualification and cyclical requirements. Since the social context is not subject to joint planning but to blind dynamics, some qualifications suddenly become superfluous or oversupplied, while others are lacking. Training, however, is only possible in the long term, while the requirement profiles in global competition change by leaps and bounds.

In the meantime, we are dealing with the same problem worldwide. There are similar names in all countries for the condition that is called “Generation Internship” in this country and illustrates the true social imbalance of “Generation Facebook.” Precisely because the educational gap between the capitalist centers and the periphery has been partially leveled, the lack of prospects for the educated young generation in the poorer countries is particularly drastic. This (along with the explosion of food prices) is one of the backgrounds for the current revolts in the Arab world. But also in China or India, mass qualification and employment are diverging. It is not a matter of so-called democratic deficits, but of a capitalistically insoluble structural contradiction in the relationship between education and economy.  The question is whether the globally masculinized “academic proletariat” translates its precariousness into the idea of a new social emancipation for all, or whether it merely wants to assert itself in capitalism and ideologically processes the necessary disenchantment. In the second case, the worst is to be expected.

Originally published in Neuen Deutschland on 03/07/2011

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