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The National Advisory Committee for Education is meeting this weekend in Derby. It meets at a strategic turning point with privatisation and funding cuts threatened. "Education is at the service of capitalism but is also a source of its greatest threat", writes Robert Wilkinson.

The assumption that teachers and other workers in education, like any Public Service workers, do not produce Surplus Value is not only incorrect but dangerously divisive.

To appreciate the arguments against this assumption it is necessary to return to the writings of Karl Marx contained in ‘Wage Labour and Capital’. In this publication, Marx states as the basis of his argument that ‘Labour power, therefore, is a commodity, neither more nor less than sugar.’

He goes on to argue that ‘The exchange value of a commodity, reckoned in money, is what is called its price. Wages are only a special name for the price of labour power, commonly called the price of labour, for the price of this peculiar commodity which has no other repository than human flesh and blood.’

There is already a contradiction in what Marx has already said because it is evident that ‘human flesh and blood’ is capable of rational thought (and reflection of and upon its circumstances) and therefore is not simply ‘more nor less’ than sugar. However even sugar is normally refined in order to make it suitable for human consumption and capable of being exchanged as a commodity. It is certainly true that human ‘labour power’ as a commodity requires a great deal of ‘refining’ before it is capable of being ‘realised’ as an exchange-value on the modern labour market.

This is where the education (and health and social services) comes into play. Although it cannot be denied that the family still plays a vital role in what may be seen as ‘primary socialisation’, in producing an articulate (and reasonably literate) and physically healthy human child, this has most probably already required inputs from the health services (and the media) in order to ‘refine’ the human commodity to this extent.

Even before birth the health and living conditions of the mother will have had a profound effect upon the development of the human embryo. Contrary to the assumptions of bourgeois philosophers, we are not all born equal, and the vast majority of the population continue their existence in chains, even if some are made of iron, some of brass and some of gold.

It became evident as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution that the institution of the family was no longer sufficient to provide the standard of refinement of the proletariat required by the bourgeoisie. It was recognised that educational institutions were necessary to ensure that the proletariat were socialised in such a manner that they could play their part in the production and reproduction of capitalist society. This was not simply the provision of a level of training and acquisition of skills sufficient to labour productively in the factories, mines and workshops but also the imposition of an ideology that kept the proletariat ‘in their place’ and accepting of the current social order.

This dual function of education for capitalism could not simply be left to the individual capitalist to provide training on-the-job as it were, for this would be insufficient in meeting the needs of capitalist society for a proletariat that would be capable of responding to the ever changing scientific and technological innovation that drives forward profitable returns on investments.

Engels in his Forward to Marx’s ‘Wage Labour and Capital’ speaks of ‘discoveries and inventions which supersede each other at an ever increasing rate’. It is not simply a development of the machinery however that is required by this need for expansion of the productive potential of the technology. It also requires a corresponding development of the technical expertise of the producers. Engels continued in his Forward to recognise ‘the productivity of human labour which rises day by day to an extent previously unheard of’. This is made possible not just by the increased efficiency of the mechanism of production but also by the increased effectiveness of the producers in their operation and maintenance of that machinery.

Engels like Marx recognised that ‘In our present-day capitalist society, labour power is a commodity, a commodity like any other, and yet quite a peculiar commodity. It has, namely, the peculiar property of being a value-creating power, a source of value, and indeed, with suitable treatment, a source of more value than it itself possesses … With the present state of production, human labour power not only produces in one day a greater value than it itself possesses and costs; with every new scientific discovery, with every new technical invention, this surplus of its daily product over its daily cost increases …’

The productivity of labour power is expanded enormously by the development of the skills and expertise of the labourer and this remains an essential function of the education system. The education system takes in the partially processed raw material of human labour-power and refines it to be of greater potential profitability to the capitalist. The economic reality of this productive process is disguised by the socialised nature of the production but it exists nonetheless.

Marx argued that ‘… the same general laws that regulate the price of a commodities in general of course also regulate wages, the price of labour.’ He went on to say that ‘… the price of labour will be determined by the cost of production, by the labour time necessary to produce this commodity – labour power. What then is the cost of production of labour power? It is the cost required for maintaining the worker as a worker and of developing him into a worker.’

It was evident even in the 1850s that the cost of production of skilled labour power was higher than that of a general labourer. What has grown enormously since that time has been the increase in the cost of ‘developing him into a worker’, one who is capable of producing a vastly greater quantity of surplus value for the capitalist.

While Marx concluded that ‘The less the period of training, therefore, that any work requires the smaller is the cost of production of the worker and the lower is the price of his labour, his wages’, we need to turn this on its head in order to see the reality behind what has happened since.

So it could reveal a significant principle of the education system:

The more the period of training, therefore that that any work requires the greater is the cost of production of the worker and the higher is the price of his labour, his wages.

This principle would also apply to the cost of production of the teacher, although in this case, as with any other cost to the capitalist, the tendency will be to simplify and therefore to lower as far as possible the salary that will be the price of ‘his’ labour. The increasing ‘deprofessionalisation’ of teaching is part and parcel of this tendency to bring about the reduction in the cost of production of a teacher to its lowest possible amount.

As early as 1848 in the ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ Marx and Engels saw that the ‘professions’ would be reduced in their cost of production to the lowest possible level. ‘The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers.’

If anything, the salaries of teachers might well be reduced below the cost of their production as the prevalent culture of ‘professionalism’ has been perverted by the employer to ensure that there is no limit to the hours and intensity of the labour process involved. The commitment of the teacher, as with many other public service workers, has been abused such that the ‘price’ of their labour power is within reach of their ‘consumers’.

Yet this reveals another dichotomy. Who then is the ‘consumer’ of the productive process of education?

On the one hand it has often been assumed that it is the ‘product’ itself that ‘consumes’ the process of education. It is this assumption that often causes the teacher to accept the increasing intensity of the labour process as justifiable ‘for the sake of the children’.

Beneath this cloak of ‘public service’ lies a deeper reality. Once we grasp the fact that the pupils are themselves the product of the education system, it is easier to appreciate that the price of this product will vary according to its quality.

The capitalist employer will pay a price appropriate to the productive potential of the commodity. The greater the ability to produce surplus value that this commodity has, the higher will be the remuneration offered to purchase the product.

The task of the education process as far as the capitalist is concerned is to produce the greatest value in terms of the productive potential of the product of the system, the skilled and highly efficient worker.

However there is something else that is required for the worker to be willing to enter into this relationship. As was pointed out at the start of this argument, the ‘product’ of the education process, the worker, is capable of reflection upon their situation and might well be unwilling to participate if its reality were to be revealed.

Initially, the workers themselves have an obvious self-interest in raising the value of their labour-power to its highest possible level. Each individual worker may see themselves in competition with every other in obtaining the greatest refinement of their productive potential so as to ensure the maximum remuneration possible by their employer.

The commodity itself therefore has a self-interest in maximising its value. The education system therefore has an instrumental function as far as the pupil is concerned. It is a means to an end; a system that enables the worker to find employment at the highest remuneration possible. It has perforce a ‘vocational’ function, whether it be as a doctor, architect, cleaner or sales assistant, one of the main expectations of the education system is not only to prepare the pupils for their future employment but to ‘sift and sort’ those most appropriate to perform these various functions.

The role of the teachers is to evaluate the products brought before them so as the discriminate effectively between them. It is no wonder therefore that the education system has the effect of widening the social divisions between the various strata of the working class, contrary to the expectations and the assumptions of those involved in its delivery.

The late General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Steve Sinnott, always argued that ‘Education is the Great Liberator’ and this remains true insofar as it enables the pupils to gain an objective understanding of the world about them. But this world is one of hierarchy and individual self-interest, motivated by the goals of maximising the ownership of property, although in the vast majority of cases, almost entirely restricted to the ownership of the means of consumption.

Notwithstanding the reality of living within the capitalist economic order, the pupil is still required to obtain some scientific knowledge that will enable them to be productive in its application to their life as a worker and as a reproducer of labour power, largely within the family structure. On reflection this is in conflict with the ideological reinforcement of capitalist values of selfish individualism. The reality of the social nature of the productive process and the need for an appreciation of the interdependence of the members of society, keeps forcing its way into the consciousness of the producers.

It is this that results in the contradiction not only of the education process but of the social order itself.

Whilst teachers are obliged to serve the capitalist system in producing commodities that it can exploit to the most profitable degree and of reinforcing the ‘ruling ideas’ of the ruling class, they also have an opportunity to reveal a scientific understanding of society and the material world of which human society is but a part.

Education is at the service of capitalism but is also a source of its greatest threat – a conscious and reflective proletariat.