The Elephant in the Classroom.

We apologise for our prolonged absence but the last month has required a substantial reflection on exactly what is happening to the world in general and English as a Foreign Language teaching in particular. We have been struck by the bloody barbarity in which the poor and disadvantaged of Thailand were driven from the streets, the savagery of Israeli soldiers attacking a peaceful aid convoy in international waters, and the speed and severity in which European nation states have increasingly turned on public sector workers and services. This is not to say we are innocent to the brutality, selfishness and irrationality of ruling elites, but surprised at the degree of their boldness, given that their ideology of international peace, progress and prosperity (through neo-liberalism), has been lying in a quagmire of economic collapse, growing inequality and unwinnable imperialist wars. In short, we were conscious of the attacks that were coming (indeed we warned of the very same) but, even we, were taken by surprise at the speed and scale at which the ruling class has moved. Even Thatcher and Regan were not so bold. Moves too, which are largely irrational because they bring the elites nearer to their own dissolution.  The murder of red-shirt activists in Thailand does not lay the basis for stability, the illegal seizure of a boat in international waters and the murder of nationals from a country which was, until the attack, a close political ally does not make the Israeli state more secure, and the cuts in public services and public sector does nothing to stimulate the economy but threatens to strangle the fragile shoots of economic recovery.

Luke Cooper wrote this only six months ago:

The productive forces have grown over the heads of the ruling class and to a greater extent than ever before in history. That is also what constitutes the historic scale of the current crisis. The world economy faces a situation that demands global, rational and conscious planning in order to secure further development, the development of the productive forces and the creation of truly human living conditions. The ruling classes are, of course, incapable of this.

What indeed the ruling class are capable of is desperate acts. Without any solutions to the problems affecting the world in terms of environmental degradation, depleting natural resources, rising unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, and war, they believe that by simply continuing to feed their own troughs and follow their failed ideologies they can secure their futures. Of course, capitalism and the global hierarchy of power and alliances can (theoretically) re-organise and save itself from this malaise but show no sign of doing so. They believe that by driving down wages and public services they can create stability and growth. This is a far cry from the noises about speculation and greed that were made when the financial system went into free fall and governments agreed to socialise the banks losses in order to prevent an economic collapse on the scale of the 1930’s. Now all the talk of is of workers’ responsibility, about balancing the books, about common sacrifices to allow for a slimmer more profitable economy. Of course there are some critics of this return to supply side economics, they warn that by sabotaging demand, the economy will fall into a double dip recession. They are most probably right, but are wrong to believe Keynesianism can save the system. The problem is neither demand nor supply, although at times it might take on this particular manifestation. The real problem is an economic system that is doomed to perpetual crises (with every crises solved the conditions of the next crises are created. In the 1970’s, strong workers organisation, full employment and the welfare provision had exacerbated declining levels of profit and capitalism sought to drive down wages and welfare provision. They achieved this and restored profit levels. The problem is, however, demand has been suppressed by low wages. This would not have mattered if capitalism had embarked on an ambitious cycle of investment, but returns on investment in production are not as high as in speculative activities. Quite simply, capitalism has not been able to do anything with its surpluses other than offer credit to those who can’t afford to pay. Eventually the underlying reality of the economy would assert itself and it did. This is what happens when a society is built around the anarchic pursuit of profit rather than the satisfaction of human need.

Here is a graph produced by the US state department showing wages and productivity (see below).  We can see that wages have stagnated while productivity has boomed.

It is no good saying, therefore, that we have to engineer greater conditions for wealth creation by greater worker flexibility, less public services and lower wages. We have spent forty years doing this and it has brought us to the abyss. Nor can we pretend Keynesianism can solve our problems. It failed in the 1970’s and will fail again. Quite simply Capitalism is a dead system that refuses to accept its fate. It has long since outlived any usefulness it might once have had

The average worker is working longer hours, now the average household requires two regular full-time incomes, most households are immersed in debt, workers are seeing real wages fall not increase, workers are being asked to postpone retirement and all this was during the “boom” and not as a result of the crises. The golden age of capitalism is finished. There are those with time on their hands with no money and little future and there are others forever working to keep up with the demands of their job, sacrificing their personal lives in order to keep their house and not drop into the unproductive sector.  But surely, wealth should be measured in how much free time and security we have not the facilities for credit which the banks “so kindly” offer  (provided, of course, we maintain our current employment). If a slave is beaten by a whip for not working hard we call this barbaric, if, in a society of plenty, a worker is denied a job because they had seven days sickness in their previous job, they are over 50 or have childcare commitments then this , we are told, is rewarding the hardworking. Moreover, as Joseph Choonara points out:

It is estimated that lost output, the goods and services that went unproduced during the crisis (2008), amounts to $4 trillion – enough dollar bills to stretch to the sun and back twice over. That sum would also be sufficient to provide basic education, healthcare, sanitation and nutrition to all those on the planet currently denied them, and to do so for 30 years.

The point is, however, that such wealth will never be used for such purposes because it is antithtical to profitmaking. Even when it is functioning capitalism cannot satisfy the needs of human beings. It is no use rescuing the system, it needs to be buried and a new rational system devised which is about the development of  human beings not profit.

English Teaching

We have seen English as Foreign language expand massively since the 1970’s, it has been a flagship for neo-liberalism. It too has promised peace, prosperity and progress and it too is in a quagmire of its own contradictions. In Thaliand the British Council continued to recruit teachers for its EFL programmes despite the growing unrest on the streets and the British Foreign Office advice not to travel to the cities where it has its offices. It spent tax payers’ money promoting English universities and English exams which act, like the International Schools there, as a gatekeeper for privilege The poor from outside Bangkok came to the city to demand a share in the wealth that had been created. They only had education until 12, they were not going to a British University. They were not going to see greater social welfare because the well-paid in Bangkok cannot afford high taxes and an English education for their children. The New Zealand, Australian and British Governments have been fighting over this market (promoting the necessity of English) when what Thailand needed was Social Justice. When protesters were about to be gunned down on the streets, The British Council explained that the Cambridge exams were postponed because of transport problems. The British Council, The New Zealand and Australian governments have blood on their hands. They have poured petrol on the flames of inequality and turned their heads away at the inevitable result.

Our commitment

We apologise for our absence but we promise to return fresher, sharper and more eager than ever to place EFL teaching in a proper historical, political and economic context. Our aim is to raise awareness, not to tell you what to think. The start of any resolution,however, is a basic recognition of the problem. Of course there is debate concerning the nature and scale of the problem, together with its possible solutions, but first we must recognise that a problem exists. And it does. There is an elephant in the classroom; this elephant is the collapsed ideology of neo-liberalism. Until we recognise this huge creature pushing us against the walls, crushing us in its desperate attempts to overcome the constraints of these walls, we can do nothing. Until we recognise that this elephant was there from the beginning and that we have been consciously or consciously feeding it, we can do nothing to save ourselves, nothing to free ourselves from being slaves of this enormous creature with its sick insatiable appetite.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Elephant in the Classroom.

  1. Welcome back!

    On a blog break too at the moment, due to unbelievable pressure at work: cuts are being made, so they’ve got teachers by the you-know-whats and making us jump through ever higher and more humiliating hoops lest we are for the chop.

    Your graph says it all: immense productivity coupled with low wages.

    “Capitalism” finished in about 1973. Ever since it’s been state (i.e. tax-) supported from top to bottom. Without state support it would collapse.

    Apologies for this, but I quote at length Kevin Carson, who can put in words better than I:

    “State capitalism, with industry organized along mass-production lines, has a chronic tendency to
    overaccumulation: in other words, its overbuilt plant and equipment are unable to dispose of their full output when running at capacity, and the system tends to generate a surplus that only worsens the crisis over time.

    According to Walden Bello the capitalist
    state, after the resumed crisis of the 1970s, attempted to address the resumed crisis of overproduction with a long series of expedients—including a combination of neoliberal restructuring, globalization, the
    creation of the tech sector, the housing bubble and intensified suburbanization, and the expansion of the FIRE economy (finance, insurance and real estate)—as successive attempts to soak up surplus capital.

    Unfortunately for the state capitalists, the neoliberal model based on offshoring capital has reached its limit; China itself has become saturated with industrial capital. The export-oriented
    industrialization model in Asia is hitting the walls of both Peak Oil and capital saturation.

    The choice of export-oriented industrialization reflected a deliberate calculation by Asian
    governments, based on the realization that
    import substitution industrialization could continue only if domestic purchasing power were increased via significant redistribution of income and wealth, and this was simply out of the question for the region’s elites. Export markets, especially the relatively open US market, appeared to be a painless substitute.

    Today, however, as “goods pile up in wharves from Bangkok to Shanghai, and workers are laid off
    in record numbers, people in East Asia are beginning to realize they aren’t only experiencing an
    economic downturn but living through the end of an era.” The clear lesson is that the export-oriented
    industrial model is extremely vulnerable to both increased shipping costs and decreases in Western
    purchasing power—a lesson that has “banished all talk of decoupling” a growing Asian economy from
    the stagnating West. Asia’s manufacturing sector is “linked to debt-financed, middle-class spending in
    the United States, which has collapsed.” The Asian export economy, as a result, has fallen through the
    floor”

    Kevin Carson:

    http://homebrewindustrialrevolution.wordpress.com/2010/01/11/contents/

    • Thanks 26 letters, much appreciated.

      During the “blog break” it became apparent that the now dominant metaphor of the media is the idea of “balancing the household budget”, the idea that good housekeeping would put the economy in good working order. This of course ignores the fact that countries like Greece and Spain are having problems keeping their budget deficits down primarily because of cuts in revenue generation (i.e unemployment and low growth) and secondly because the financial markets are squeezing them for every possible centeme of profit.

      This debt metaphor suggests that there is insufficient money (time to tighten our belts) when, as you say, the reverse is true, there is too much money. Too much money trying to find a profitable oulet. People are starving, losing the roof over their head, working ever longer hours because of abundance and not through scarcity. The consequences of compound growth of profits for the human race is that their efforts (their blood, sweat and creativity) are floating around financial markets unable to guarantee continuing “sufficient rates of return”. This is the monster we are talking of and we need to counter the media’s distortion by reminding ourselves that debt has been created by an irrational profit system and not by the mismanagement of household finances. If the capitalists didn’t steal our money we wouldn’t need to borrow it back from them at extravagant rates of interest.
      It seems that Graddol’s triumphalism about EFL needs to be reassessed in view of the collapse of the neo-liberal paradigm. Learning English, like working harder or running up a credit card bill, is not going to guarantee a proper future for vast majority of inhabitants on this planet, but it will fill the pockets of the few. There is a difference between learning English to increase “career opportunities”/economic productivity and the learning of a myriad of languages in order to build the fabric of a better world, one which takes social justice as its starting point.

      Really enjoyed the link you provided too (will read more). As we think of a different ways to organise production along rational and democratic lines we can also begin to think of different ways to learn lanaguages.

      The battle now, as we see it, is to challenge the incoherent ramblings of an ideology in free-fall, desperate to find a footing in popular consciousness but struggling. We want to see it fall into an abyss before it drags us all there. It is great that there are websites such as yours equally as keen to expose the absurdities of this system and propose alternatives.

  2. I always enjoy reading your stuff but must say, this one really was more in the vein of a “comic book”.

    What gets me is why I don’t see the end logic of your thinking – a kind of pessimism that has no hope and would make the hardest of us reach for the knife and end our days.

    You can’t shake the magic and miraculousness out of mankind. You just can’t. And thank god. Because for all the violence etc… that it brings, it is nothing to that which would be the case given, “rational man” – the man you would wish would appear.

    Please, as one wonderful surrealist said long ago with dead seriousness, “do not deny us our sedatives”.

    David

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