September 20, 2021

The Primordial Substitute Teacher – Neoliberalism, Racial Capitalism, And The Ideology Of “Students First”, Part 1 (Thomas Joyce)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

Teachers in Title I urban schools inhabit a unique place in society unlike most other professions.  Title I schools are schools with over forty percent of their student population on free or reduced lunch. In urban settings these schools are often racially segregated with the concentration of poverty well over forty percent.

The National Equity Atlas’ data illustrated that in half of the hundred largest cities in the U.S., African American and Latino students “attend schools where at least seventy-five percent of all students qualify as poor or low-income,” and the National Center for Educational Statistics indicated that about three-fourths of all African American and Hispanic youths attended schools where most students qualified as low income.

Title I schools are at the center of the opportunity gap, so they are the focus of most education reforms. Since the Nation at Risk (NAR) report under Ronald Reagan, education reform shifted from poverty and integration to a market-based approach. Under Reagan the scrutiny of schools increased as Americans feared a failing education system would cost America its dominant status as the world’s economic superpower.

This intensified with the passing of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under George W. Bush and Race to the Top (RTTT) under Barrack Obama. Starting with the NAR, but exploding under NCLB and RTTT, neoliberal marketplace reforms became the dominant method of reforming schools. Charter schools, alternative teacher certification programs, Teach for America (TFA), school improvements plans, philanthropy, standardized testing, accountability measures, and other attempts to insert a neoliberal market logic into schools replaced reforms centered around improving working conditions, empowering teachers, and desegregation.

These market-based reforms coincided with an emphasis on putting students first. Students first is the dominant mantra of the school reform movement and education in general. Infamous neoliberal education reformer and former superintendent Michelle Rhee named her organization Students Firsts, TFA emphasizes students first and teachers’ relentless pursuit, and Denver Public Schools listed putting students first as their top core value.

It seems like commonsense for schools to put students first. Objecting to putting students first would be unconscionable for a teacher seriously dedicated to their students. However, when a statement is accepted and unquestioned, it is an excellent site to investigate the ideology behind it. Rather than a universal truth or obvious common sense, students first operates as neoliberal ideology to mask the Real. of class conflict. This “value” is necessary to construct a teacher subject for a neoliberal school system, and such a system is necessary to extract wealth and maintain racial segregation in U.S. schools.

Students first represents a specific mindset and approach to education. Damen Lopez founder of the No Excuses University illustrated what it means to have a students first ideology from a leadership perspective. In a YouTube video for a message to teachers, he stated that the “reasons” students struggle is not an “excuse” for teachers to shirk their responsibility. He called on teachers to no longer be “jaded” and “take the profession back.”

The opportunity gap is always the responsibility of the teacher to close. Framing the opportunity gap in socioeconomics terms, as opposed to teachers’ mindsets and effort, constitutes being “jaded” and making excuses.” His solution was for teachers to individualize instruction. He stated, “this idea that I [the teacher] don’t have time to individualize instruction, we need to get beyond that because there is nothing more important that we can do.”v Sacrifice and individual responsibility of teachers is essential to putting students first for reformers like Lopez and others.

At the teacher level this ideology is typified by a collection of interviews produced by Michelle Rhee’s organization Students First. Jane, a statistics and economic teacher, asserted, “teaching is about having a whatever it takes mentality. It’s not about its three o’clock the bell rang it is time for me to go home…………… ”

An elementary teacher, Steve, echoed this sentiment stating, “it’s not about me, it’s about the 26 kids… whether or not I wasn’t feeling well or wasn’t particularly excited about what I need to teach it wasn’t about me. It’s about them.” All focus needs to be on the students. If not, according to Allison, a tenth-grade math teacher, “we [teachers] do not need to be here [teaching] anymore.”

An elementary teacher, Steve, echoed this sentiment stating, particularly excited about what I need to teach it wasn’t about me. It’s about them.” All focus needs to be on the students. If not, according to Allison, a tenth-grade math teacher, “we [teachers] do not need to be here [teaching] anymore.”

Whether or not there are enough books or adequate supports is irrelevant because the teacher is not supposed to make any “excuses.” Failure to do this causes students to “suffer.”  Barbra, a learning specialist, makes it clear that this suffering is specifically caused by teachers, when she asserted “when we have to contract out how many hours a teacher spends, how many hours they get paid for after school, if they stay after school, how many hours they are required to be on school premises, that’s not putting students first.” Putting students first is an ideology of sacrifice revolving around doing “whatever-it-takes,” teachers knowing that “it’s not about them,” and unpaid labor to overcome all issues created by neoliberalism.

Failure to do so amounts to a personal and moral failing on the part of the teacher. While these are just two examples, they are paradigmatic of the hegemonic value system in education. This ideology is essential to the functioning of neoliberalism in schools.

The purpose of labelling students first as an ideological position is not merely to “unmask” the hypocrisy of education reforms claiming to put students first when in reality these reforms are detrimental to students. It is to illustrate how this ideology operates and perpetuates educational inequities. Additionally, it relates to the unique positionality of teachers, and the construction of a teacher subject.

Their positionality situates them in the gray area between the promises of neoliberalism and the realities of capitalism. Teachers are looked to create a link to the future, to prepare students to enter the workforce, and to overcome any and all societal obstacles to ensure students, regardless of zip code, receive a high-quality education. Thus, a teachers’ subjectivity shaped by putting students first becomes essential to the functioning of the education system and, by extension, neoliberalism.

The teacher subject is a highly contested space. Most prominent educational researchers such as Michael Apple or Stephen Ball utilize Michel Foucault’s framework of governmentality and biopower to explain power relations and subjectivity within schools. However, the teacher subject is not a Foucauldian subject. The teacher subject is best explained through philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s conception of the void subject through Lacanian psychoanalysis. Utilizing this framework, I argue that a teacher subject, due to their position, gives them access to the Real defined by Zizek as class struggle, and students first structures an ideological fantasy to mask the Real allowing for a neoliberal teacher subject. This is necessary to maintain existing power structures.

Neoliberalism and Racial Capitalism

Neoliberalism has been the dominant economic system around the world since the fall of the Soviet Union. It originated in the 1930s, but neoliberalism was not the hegemonic until the late 1990s. Neoliberalism and racial capitalism are the dominant organizing structures of
American life, especially the education system.

The neoliberal economic system promotes individualism and personal choice as the highest freedom as expressed through the market. The free market emphasizes personal responsibility and private enterprise as the epitome of efficiency. Governments represent inefficient bureaucracies, which need to be privatized. This privatization is coupled with a deregulation of businesses to allow for the free market to thrive. It can be summed up by the simplistic notion “public is bad, private is good.”(744)

This simple conception is not grounded in fact, but an ideology. Urban planning professor Elliot Sclar noted, “by sidestepping the issue of how concentrated economic power arises and sustains itself in the actual operation of contract markets, privatization advocacy often amounts to little more than an endorsement of changing rather than correcting the problems we face.”

Privatization of public goods or services consolidates power and capital in the hands of a few key contractors. This happens for a few reasons. First, governments perform specific tasks, and the amount of companies who can take on those services is only a select few. Secondly, contractors ensure “that the public market structures work to their advantage. Therefore, they are willing to invest the necessary resources to shape public markets in anticompetitive ways.”(10-11) Thus, the axiom of public bad, private good is not grounded in truth, but advances privatization and the expansion of markets. Markets are not inherently more efficient or cost-effective than publicly run services.

Neoliberalism is not necessarily about dismantling all government structures, just shifting those structures to benefit the expansion of capital. Neoliberalism argues for the public sector to operate like a business, so the role of the government is reduced to opening markets and ensuring proper conditions for them to thrive. As Naomi Klein argued, this often takes place outside the democratic sphere. She noted the authoritarian nature of neoliberal reforms as it often requires “large-scale crisis” to implement neoliberal reforms because “authoritarian conditions are
required for the implementation of its [neoliberalism] true vision.”(12) These crises can be real or manufactured.

The continuing expansion of markets is a necessary feature of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism results in “overaccumulation” which “within a given territorial system means a condition of surpluses” of labor and capital. This consolidation and surplus requires absorption through a series of displacements: temporal displacements such as an investment in education which “defer re-entry” of capital well into the future; spatial displacements which open new markets, productions, resources, and labor; or a combination of both.(10)

Capital must expand into new markets or reconceptualize space to alleviate and displace internal class tensions. This leads to a “new” imperialism.xiv This new imperialism, according to historian David Harvey, requires violence and monopoly. Harvey explained, “the corporatization and privatization of hitherto public assets (like universities) to say nothing of the privatization of water and other public utilities that has swept the world, constitute a new wave of enclosing the commons… even against public will.”(701)

For, neoliberalism to continue, it must dispossess peoples and nations through violence, symbolic or objective, in order to expand capital and alleviate internal contradictions. Defining neoliberalism as merely an economic does not full encapsulate it. Neoliberalism is a value system that “becomes increasingly focused upon the production of subjectivity…”(85)

Neoliberal values are hegemonic and depicted as natural to create what Mark Fisher identified as “capitalist realism the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Neoliberalism requires a “hollowing out of a democratic political culture and the production of the undemocratic citizen.”(692) Citizens conceptualize political and social spheres as driven by market logic under neoliberalism.

The market is not just economics, but the structure of societal and individual relations. Neoliberalism produces “citizens as individual entrepreneurs and customers whose more autonomy is measured by their capacity for self-care—their ability to provide for their own needs and service their own ambitions… neoliberal political rationality produces a governance criteria along the same lines.”(694)

Citizenship reduced to self-care does not value the common good or political liberty. The political rationality of neoliberalism requires individual solutions to societal problems.(695) An excellent example of this depoliticization of societal problems and the displacing of solutions onto the individual is Mark Fisher’s discussion of mental health issues.

Under neoliberalism mental health issues are depoliticized and normalized as a natural fact. However, the commonness of anxiety and depression are correlated with the rise of neoliberalism. This is what Fisher referred to as the “privatization of stress.” Fisher argued, “the mental health plague in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.”(19-20) The impact of neoliberalism is it disguises societal problems as individual problems, and neoliberalism offers only individual solutions.

The value system of neoliberalism not only reduces social issues to hyper-individualism, it shapes the discussion around equity as well. Nancy Fraser named this “progressive neoliberalism.” Fraser defined progressive neoliberalism as:

alliance of new social movements (including feminism), on the one side, and the high-end ‘symbolic’ and service- based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other. In this alignment, what passes for the forces of emancipation are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, and especially financialization…. Progressive ideals (diversity, women’s and LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism) gloss policies that devastate manufacturing and the populations who once forged stable middle-class lives from engagement of in it.(281-2)

Fraser reframed neoliberalism from a conservative economic policy to a progressive social policy, which serves the interests of capital while using the language of emancipation. Philosopher Carl Raschke argued, “neoliberalism has captured the moral passions and sentimentality of educated cultural progressives in the developed world to advance the causes of the new planetary captains of industry.”(22) These neoliberal values reinforce the dominance of capital, while “demanding every good citizen commit to the higher values incarnated in the soft governance of the neoliberal state.”(27)

This allows for companies who commit real and symbolic violence on disenfranchised communities to adopt a progressive persona in lieu of redistributive policies. Progressive neoliberalism claims a “moral superiority in championing the marginalized and the oppressed,” but it empowers the financialization of the economy which explicitly dispossesses and disempowers those same groups.

Neoliberalism does not offer an emancipatory program, but reduces societal problems to the individual and makes it their responsibility to act. This is not just because neoliberalism’s answer to societal ills is buying the “right” products or spending money at the right kind of stores,but because of what Cedric Robinson articulated as racial capitalism. According to Robinson, racism and nationalism were inherent to the origins of capitalism. Racialism was inherent to European feudalism, and permeated feudal society. For Robinson, capitalism was not a break from feudalism, but a continuation. Capitalism from the onset required migratory/immigrant labor comprised of a racialized other with Slavs being the first. This allowed for the bourgeoise from the twelfth century onward to “nurture myths of egalitarianism while seizing every occasion to divide peoples for their purpose of domination.”

Robinson argued:

Racialism insinuated not only medieval, feudal, and capitalist social structures, forms of property, and modes of production, but as well as the very values and traditions of consciousness through which the peoples of these ages came to understand their worlds and their experiences. Western culture, constituting the structure from which European consciousness was appropriated, the structure in which social identities and perceptions were grounded in the past, transmitted a racialism that adapted to the political and material exigencies of the moment.(66)

The answer to ending the oppression under capitalism cannot be found in ideas produced by western capitalism. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley argued, “capitalism was racial not because it was to divide the working class; racialism already permeated western feudal society.” Racial capitalism is inherent to all forms of capitalism, including neoliberalism, meaning racial capitalism structures neoliberalism.

Racism as an inherent part of capitalism is significant because the dominant model of education reform in the United States to address the racialized opportunity gap is the market. Racial capitalism and its modern variant progressive neoliberalism cannot produce an equitable society because capitalism in all forms requires a racialized under class, or what Marx referred to as an army of surplus labor. Neoliberalism in this context conceals, according to Raschke, “its underlying agenda of economic exploitation and predation… maintain[ing] control over those whom it has already subjugated.”(3) A truly equitable society cannot be produced by the market. Instead, interjecting the market will exacerbate these inequalities, as is the case with education reform.

Thomas Joyce is a high school social studies teacher in the Denver public schools system and a doctoral student at the University of Denver.

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