Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Teaching Moment

The Chicago teachers’ strike is another fine example of how “reform” becomes an instrument of class warfare.  There are certainly any number of serious problems with the public school system in Chicago and elsewhere that need to be “reformed,” but the current offensive is using the concern for those problems to do something else entirely – undermine the public school system as a whole, and place it increasingly under the domain of private capital.  The goal is not to get better schools, but profitable ones.  The goal is not to create a better school system as a whole, but a system of different classes of schools that includes a class of schools which, although still state-subsidized, is also a field of profit maximization.  Correspondingly, the goal is not to create better teachers, but cheaper ones.
Anyone who doubts this should reflect on what Greg Palast recounts:

This is a true story.

CHICAGO.  In a school with some of the poorest kids in Chicago, one English teacher–I won't use her name–who'd been cemented into the school system for over a decade, wouldn't do a damn thing to lift test scores, yet had an annual salary level of close to $70,000 a year.  Under Chicago's new rules holding teachers accountable and allowing charter schools to compete, this seniority-bloated teacher was finally fired by the principal.

In a nearby neighborhood, a charter school, part of the city system, had complete freedom to hire.  No teachers' union interference. The charter school was able to bring in an innovative English teacher with advanced degrees and a national reputation in her field - for $29,000 a year less than was paid to the fired teacher.

You've guessed it by now:  It's the same teacher.

Does anyone doubt this is exactly what is going to happen, routinely, with the vaunted “charter schools”?  They are going to hire the same teachers at lower pay.  Sure, they are also going to hire some new, enthusiastic young teachers, at even lower pay, who will hang around for a couple of years.  But they are surely also going to draw time and again on the pool of those who have experience, and are – how convenient – newly available.  This is one job that can’t be outsourced to China.

Since this job cannot actually be outsourced, it will now be “internally outsourced” by creating an indigenous pool of qualified labor that now must work for closer-to-Chinese wages.  Of course, as in any battle in the war of capital to increase its power over labor, achieving this requires destroying the best weapon that working people have in their arsenal – their union.  To do that, Rahm Emanuel and the corporate interests he represents have at their disposal the law, the police, and – the most important weapon of all – the ideological armory of “reform.” This armory is wielded by compliant media, politicians, and personalities to cudgel the union into submission and ultimate defeat.

In the vanguard of this ideological offensive, it almost goes without saying, are the Obamican “liberal” Democrats. Rahm is, after all, Obama’s guy (or vice-versa), as is Arne Duncan, Obama’s “chartist” Education Secretary.  As part of its convention festivities in Charlotte, the Democratic Party, through former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s Students First group and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), held a special screening of Won’t Back Down, Hollywood’s ideological feature companion to the documentary Waiting for Superman. In Won’t Back Down, single mom Maggie Gyllenhaal teams up with teacher mom Danny Glover Viola Davis to fight the villainous teachers’ union for the sake of their children’s education.  They triumph by ejecting the teachers’ union and establishing a charter school.  This screening was another carefully-staged event, from which the Party kicked out two real moms from Mecklenburg (the Virginia county Charlotte is in).  Carol Sawyer and Pam Grundy, who helped form MecklenburgACTS, ”a grassroots coalition of parents and citizens working to build community commitment to equity and excellence in ALL schools” [emphasis theirs], were ejected from the screening, despite being duly registered and threatening no disruption, because they dared to dissent from the “chartist” line.  As Carol remarked:

We find it somewhat amusing that these well-funded groups seem to regard us as such a threat, … But more important, we are troubled by the way that these forums on education – a subject which is so essential to our children’s and our nation’s future – seem to be so thoroughly orchestrated that they leave no room for real debate or discussion.

Won’t Back Down apparently carries an effective emotional punch.  It even made the head of the National Education Association cry: “It’s a great movie. It made me cry three times.” The “it’s just a film” crowd includes the director, Daniel Barnz, who describes himself as “a ‘liberal Democrat’ from a family of educators. … [who] doesn't want his work to be perceived as an issue movie.” “Its primary purpose,” he says, “is to entertain and inspire."  To such “inspired” liberals, Carol and Pam have a sharp riposte:

Now a movie is a movie. From what people had told us, Won’t Back Down was just that – a classic Hollywood fantasy, complete with heroes and villains, a bit of romance, and a happy, hopeful ending.

But Students First wasn’t just showing the movie to inspire people. It was aggressively turning this feel-good fantasy to political ends, to advocate for parent trigger legislation and charter expansion across the country – strategies that in our minds do more harm than good. We wanted to make it clear that while such strategies might shine on a movie screen, they didn’t work in real life.

Mecklenburg schools Hollywood on culture and ideology.  There is a political agenda here, and, while it has nothing to do with empowering concerned moms, it has everything to do with using their concern as a front for other purposes. It’s a shame that liberal Democratic celebrities and union leaders can be so easily blinded to that fact by “a bit of romance, and a happy, hopeful ending.”  As one commentator notes, “Nothing illustrates the captured state of our politics better than a supposed union leader praising a film dedicated to destroying the power of working men and women.”

We see the easy emotional pitch every time: well-organized, and therefore relatively well-paid, public workers fight to advance their rights, or even (what it’s mostly come down to now) just against cutbacks, capitulation, and union-busting.  We’ve seen it time and again with the transit workers in New York City.  How dare those selfish, overpaid workers go on strike, taking away something “we” need to get by every day, and making life harder for the rest of “us” who are struggling just to make ends meet!

It is disgusting but not surprising that this line of attack comes from billionaire and millionaire politicians and media moguls, for whom selfishness is the highest capitalist virtue, and who make more income every night while sleeping in their beds than the highest-paid transit workers or teachers make in a year at work.  That it is swallowed whole by many sectors of working people is a testament to the success of the capitalist media disinformation machine, and the worst disgrace of all.

It’s even easier, and more emotionally effective, to mobilize these sentiments in regard to education and teachers.  The appeal is not just to what’s happening to parents, but to their children.  Every parent wants his/her children to get the best education possible.  No parent wants to, or should, accept that his/her children’s education is sacrificed in some scheme to keep lousy schools and burned-out teachers limping along.  So along come some billionaires who send their children to private schools, and say:  “Wouldn’t you like to be able to send your kids to something like a private school?  We can set that up for you, with spiffy new charter schools, if we can just get the teachers’ unions out of the way.  After all, we all have the same concern: the children.”  (There’s that ”we” again.)  And the billionaires, with the help of liberal and conservative politicians and taxpayer money, set up a few demonstration schools that draw in the most motivated students and teachers, and everything looks wonderful, and so what if they make a few bucks along the way, and I want my kids in a charter school, too, damn it.

One doesn’t have to think on this too long to see that this model cannot be extended without undermining the entire concept of public education.  It is a model that replaces the idea that society as a whole has an obligation to educate every child as well as it can, with a notion that every individual family has to figure out a way to wrangle its own children into the few decent schools that still exist.  Can all schools become charter schools?  No, it’s self-evident that, if you haven’t solved the problems that bedevil public education, then those problems will just get replicated in what is now the “new” public education.  But the real answer is: No, because the private interests behind charter schools do not want to educate everybody; they want to pick out the easiest to educate, and leave the rest to the “public” schools, which will be even more bereft of resources.  Can charter school teachers unionize, or are they going to be forbidden to by law?  When “semi-private” charter schools are no longer loss-leader demonstration projects but have become a large corporatized segment of the now “semi-public” education system, won’t they adopt all the cost-cutting and profit-maximization strategies we know and love so well? Would it not be their obligation to their shareholders to do so – their primary obligation, as we have all been taught so insistently in Capitalist Economics 101?  Oops, where has that obligation to the children gone?

Really, think just this far, and you’ll see that the phony concerns for “the children” are not being used to solve any of the problems of public education, but to create a parallel, parasitic educational system for the purpose of opening new profit centers. The “public” education system will be divided into a tier of private school simulacra, controlled by corporations, which soak up the most motivated students and more and more public money, while leaving, “Bantustans of un-chartered, cheaply-run dumpster schools within a government system.”  The purpose is not to help the public education system, but to further demolish it, making the charter schools seem all the more attractive. And when the charter school system eventually fails, because profits cannot be maximized any further, the corporations will have taken the money and run.

The purpose of all this, in other words, is to extend the domain of capital over our lives, and our children’s lives.  Attacking and destroying unions – the most effective tool of labor’s power – is a crucial prerequisite for this project. That so many, especially professed liberals and progressives, are fooled by bits of romance and happy endings into thinking that something else is going on here is a tribute to how utterly ignorant, or amnesiac, or co-opted, they are.

The word “reform” is used by the Rahms of this country the way the word “democracy” is used by the US in international affairs.  It helps to persuade many people of na├»ve good faith that the agenda is something more benevolent than it always turns out to be.  The primary objective, in the respective contexts, is usually the same – not real educational “reform” or political “democracy,” but the seizure of new territory for the domain of capital.

The answer to the problems with public schools is to fix the public schools.  That requires also addressing the underlying social problems that help make education so difficult in the USA.  These include the hopelessness that exudes from families with no jobs and no future, as well as the dominant ideology of individual selfishness underlying the capitalist ethos, which does, you know, trickle down from the top. These solutions involve changing how public schools are financed, and putting the resources that are needed into fixing the problems, including raising all the taxes necessary from the people who are also inspired to spend $40,000/year to send their kids to private schools.  As I’m sure Maggie and Viola and Daniel and Rahm will agree, any tax code that compensates in any way for a discretionary private tuition nut like this is a policy that undermines public schools. 

And if part of the solution involves letting go of incompetent teachers, well, sure, why not – as long as you have a full-employment economy, and those dismissed teachers are assured of another decent job.  If not, you’re just adding to the social problems that end up plaguing the public school system.  If not, then teachers, like all other workers who haven’t amassed private fortunes in an every-person-for-him-or-herself social economy, have the same right as anyone else to fight to protect their jobs and pensions.  Are paycheck-to-paycheck teachers supposed to accept poverty and homelessness because Rahm Emanuel and others who live off the interest don’t want them to be selfish?  The problems of public schools are social problems, intertwined with the problems of the social economy and the social ideology.  Are we ready to address the very difficult problem of an economy and a social ethic of individualistic, narcissistic acquisition that also engulfs children? Are we ready to build another kind of shared social economy and social ethic, based, maybe, on a solidarity that trickles up?  By all means, let’s fix all these problems – unselfishly, for the children.  Until then, let’s stop preaching to decently-paid workers in very tough jobs that it’s their duty to be unselfish.

One should address the pernicious argument that well-paid workers should not strike because doing so has the immediate effect of hurting people who are making less money. This is really a commandment that there never be an effective strike, and that the working-class simply surrender. The reason teachers have decent wages and a good pension plan is because they have a strong union.  That's also the reason they have some capacity to fight the fight that will benefit everybody.  In fact, the reason why anybody has decent wages and a decent pension plan (including Social Security) is because, from the depths of a depression, militant labor organizers fought – through nasty, inconvenient strikes and other actions – to force capitalists and their government to make these concessions.  That is the only reason decent working and living conditions for the majority of people were and/or are achieved anywhere.  And destruction of the unions will be the main reason that they are lost.

For the past thirty years, Republican and Democratic neo-liberals have been trying to recreate the social characteristics of that Depression and pre-Depression society. They are almost there. They are militant and vicious, and do not care whom they inconvenience, or what child is left behind.  Allowed to crush the unionized $70,000 a year worker today, they will come right back for the isolated $30,000 a year worker without losing a minute of their well-remunerated oh-so-unselfish sleep. 

That is why, for the sake of all working people, and their children, it is absolutely necessary to support the Chicago teachers’ union and their strike. 

That this strike is happening in the midst of a presidential election is particularly embarrassing for the Democratic Party and the liberal political class, who like to claim that progressive interests are somehow tied up in the re-election of a Democratic president.  As the pitch goes, if we submerge progressive demands to Obama’s electoral campaign needs now, it will pay off in progressive results later.  Yet, right now, there is a Democratic mayor, Mr. progressives-are-fucking-retards, Obama’s right-hand man for years, attempting to irreversibly destroy the power of labor in a grass-roots struggle in a major American city.  Working people will get no payoff down the road for submitting to this.  What we’re seeing here is the payoff for capital, now and for the foreseeable future. It is what the Democratic Party does, what Democratic candidates are hired to do, and it’s on display for everyone to see.  It’s what you’re getting from them, and what you’re going to get.

Like the Wisconsin working people’s revolt, the Chicago teacher’s strike is more important than the presidential election.  Victory for, or defeat of, the popular forces in campaigns like this will have a greater effect on the prospects for reversing the tide of neo-liberal austerity that is upon us than will the victory of any presidential nominee.  To those who say we must support the Obama campaign, I ask: If one cannot thoroughly support the strike because one must thoroughly support the campaign, what should one do?  I think the answer for progressives is clear: Up with the teachers. Fuck the campaign.

That the Obama and the Democratic Party either stand aloof from these struggles, or directly oppose them, and that the union movement – including, perhaps, the Chicago teachers’ union itself – is going to subordinate itself to the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party, is the ultimate testament to how “captured” our minds and our polity are, and how little hope there is for an effective progressive politics.

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