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From senseless working to senseless learning

by Erich Ribolits Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 at 3:26 PM

Up to the threshold of modern times, work - as the traditional term for externally determined action(!) - had been perceived from the perspective of the biblically mediated, divine curse. It was regarded as a bitter necessity imposed on people.

From senseless working to senseless learning

Lohoff, Ernst; Trenkle, Norbert; Wölflingseder Maria; Lewed, Karl-Heinz (Ed.): Dead Men Working. Instructions for Work and Social Criticism in Times of Capitalist Amok Runs, Münster 2004, pp. 124 - 135

by Erich Ribolits

[This chapter is translated from the German on the Internet,]

It is now taken for granted that the competitiveness of economies correlates to a large extent with the level of education of the working population. And economic success, in turn, is once again seen as a prerequisite for positive developments in terms of national living standards, employment levels, individual opportunities and social conditions. In addition to the three classical economic factors, land, financial capital and labor, the qualification profile of the workforce, known as 'human capital', is currently considered to be of the greatest importance for the prosperity of the national economy.

Accordingly, education spending is now almost exclusively proclaimed as an investment in human capital; an investment that is supposedly worthwhile for everyone. The correspondingly qualified workers - so it is claimed - profit in the form of increased job opportunities and higher wages; 'the economy' may calculate with optimized production possibilities as an essential prerequisite for an improved capital utilization. Education is thus ultimately elevated to a level that meets the interests of 'buyers and sellers of labor' equally and dissolves the opposition of capital and labor inherent in capitalist societies.

Just over 30 years ago, the well-known German social scientist Elmar Altvater was extremely critical of such a combination of the two dimensions of 'education' and 'economy'. He said at the time in one of his texts

"If in the concept of education, in the humanist tradition, human education, the ability to reflect in solitude and freedom, still appears as the constitution of the autonomous bourgeois individual ..., then the concept of the economy of this education [reveals] the moment of education, the conditioning of the individual for professional practice within a society with a differentiated division of labor and - above all - the calculation of costs and benefits that a specific education causes.

In the meantime, however, the idea that the term education aims at more and different things than the acquisition of qualifications relevant to the labor market seems to have been largely displaced from the general consciousness. Today, the education system is seen almost exclusively as a supplier to the economic process. The traditional ideological superstructure of schools, universities and adult education, the orientation toward 'comprehensive education', has receded far into the background. All that is left is to impart (key) qualifications that will enable the subject-like elements of the exploitation process, which have recently been apostrophized as 'labor entrepreneurs,' to market themselves optimally.

Since transnational capitalism is forcing the nation states more and more into a competition for the maximum 'capital exploitation friendliness' and the scope for political decisions that are not subordinated to the market logic is rapidly diminishing, the arguments concerning the educational sector are also increasingly determined by "economic rationality". This one-sided economic view of education leads to the fact that socially organized learning today is almost exclusively oriented towards vocational usefulness and thus always represents vocational training at its core.

This is precisely the reason why the permanent appeal for lifelong learning must be met with the greatest skepticism. The learning demanded there quasi up to the last breath is not - so to speak by definition - to serve to enable people to participate self-confidently and maturely in the organization of living together. Its goal is to create 'usable' - economically exploitable - workers. The lifelong learning demanded of people should enable them to function as cogs in a political-economic system whose driving force is 'transformation of money into more money' and certainly not 'humanization of the world'. Learning should not set in motion an act of liberation, but one of submission. The goal is to accept the alienation that defines life in the economy dictated by rates of growth and profit.

There is hardly a school or university graduation ceremony today that does not have at least one of the speakers proclaiming that the educational qualification currently attained is merely an intermediate step in the lifelong learning process and that no one can afford to withdraw from learning now. Anyone who wants to stay on the ball and not fall hopelessly behind in the omnipresent competition for attractive social positions must constantly keep fit in learning in order to be able to demonstrate as many of the qualifications currently required. In this sense, it goes without saying that the unemployed should not simply claim the insurance benefits provided for this case and wait to find a new job. Rather, it is clear that whoever falls out of the labor utilization process must join the learning machine.

The current idealization of lifelong learning cannot be separated from the view of learning as a systematic production of human capital. Permanent learning should be a means of providing the qualifications currently in demand on the labor market. The goal is 'employability', a term that makes all too clear the need for permanent adaptation to the economic exploitation requirements to which workers in the market society are subject. It seems forgotten that the slogan 'lifelong learning' once meant something completely different than the ongoing 'update of human resource utilization units'. What is addressed today when people talk about lifelong or - even a little more diffusely - lifelong learning has in any case nothing to do with the humanistic ideal, with the hope that people will be enabled to lead a reasonable life through the acquisition of knowledge. Lifelong learning does not address the possibility of a lifelong 'broadening of horizons', but only the compulsion to 'lifelong adaptation'.

The modern work ethos, which is characterized by the fact that it has largely detached itself from the existential problem of mankind, to give meaning to its existence (without, however, ever being able to answer the question of meaning rationally), has spread to learning. While for about two centuries attempts had been made to compensate for the 'consequences of the fall of mankind' through work, the way to salvation is now sought in learning. The current decline in the number of gainful employment makes the glorification of life subject to the obligation to work increasingly questionable; instead, the lifelong obligation to learn is now being idealized. Learning is currently subject to a similar reinterpretation as that which has happened to working before.

Up to the threshold of modern times, work - as the traditional term for externally determined action(!) - had been perceived from the perspective of the biblically mediated, divine curse. It was regarded as a bitter necessity imposed on people, as the 'need of existence' which everyone who could afford it was unable to meet. Only then did a process begin in the course of which work was increasingly 'ennobled'. As the special nature of man was seen less and less in his immortal soul and more and more in his ability to shape his fate through intelligence and willpower, work became the new defining factor of man. It was reinterpreted as the fact that - as Friedrich Engels later formulated it - apes were turned into humans. This new view of work had its origins in the early modern era, with the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, it began to assert itself on a broad front, and at the turn of the 20th century it finally achieved - with the active support of the labor movement - its present general acceptance.

The labor movement has - in the truest sense of the word - made a virtue out of the misery of its clientele by finally disavowing the 'feudal parasitic laziness' and anchoring the bourgeois striving for achievement in the minds of the people. In an unprecedented exaggeration of the ideology of its oppressors, it reinterpreted the enslaved and oppressed worker as the hero of history and alienated labor as the Song of Songs of the Industrial Age. Ultimately, it elevated the social disciplining of labor - in the context of a profit-oriented economy(!) - to something worth fighting for. Work had broken away from the attachment to the satisfaction of needs and had thus become an 'end in itself' - the working society was established.

As a consequence of this development, the qualitative content of work today counts as little from the standpoint of the owners of labor as it does from the standpoint of the owners of capital. It is only about 'jobs' and 'employment'. What and for what purpose and with what human, social or ecological consequences is produced is ultimately as indifferent to those who have to live from the sale of their labor as it is to the buyers of the 'commodity labor'. Just as some are only interested in their profits, others are only interested in their material survival. The question of a meaning of work that goes beyond this - or the demand for a social order in which work is freed from its self-purpose - has long since been outside the general horizon of thought.

If the term 'meaning' is still appropriate in the context of work, then for the vast majority of all employees it is limited to wages. What Günther Anders already concluded from this fact almost 30 years ago in his book "The Antiquity of Man" is thus more valid today than ever. "Since the majority of our contemporaries living in the highly industrialized countries only know and can only know this sense [of earning money by working], we must say of this majority that they lead a senseless life. Whereby, however, Anders also had to admit "that 'senseless work' is not more meaningful, but certainly more bearable than the senseless vagabonding of the unemployed, who are not even allowed to work senselessly. And thus he summarized his criticism of senseless working with the sarcastic remark: "There is nothing more heartbreaking than the homesickness of the unemployed for the good old days, when they were still allowed to work senselessly. It is in this spirit that new work is currently being conjured up from all sides. Because, even if they behave otherwise quite divided, in this point all political groupings and interest representations agree: A goal of the policy has to be the creation of new jobs. Some want to create new jobs through environmental measures, others through the deregulation of the economy, and thirdly, they expect an offensive location policy. All political slogans point in the same direction: No matter how and no matter which - the main thing is that there is work! The fact that not so long-ago people considered any kind of work - even that which satisfied their immediate needs - as a curse is simply no longer comprehensible to those people who are chained to senseless work at the price of their social declassification.

This situation represents the ideological background for the fact that the promise that new work could be created through permanent learning is today largely unquestioned. In the meantime, huge sums are being diverted from retained unemployment insurance contributions for further training and retraining measures. Interestingly, despite the widespread evaluation mania, there is hardly ever any attempt to verify whether these funds actually have any influence on unemployment rates. Those who are not prepared to submit to the qualification dictates are immediately cut or even completely cancelled from unemployment insurance benefits. The central slogan of the labor society, that those who do not work should not eat either, has been expanded: Those whose labor is not needed at the moment have a right to eat only if they are willing to pant after the changing qualification expectations of the labor market.

In place of senseless working, more and more people are learning senselessly. The confession to lifelong learning, which is put forward like a prayer wheel, only represents an updated version of the generally internalized work ethic. And just as the qualitative content of work is not discussed today, the qualitative aspect of learning is not addressed. Hardly has the question ever been asked about the conditions of learning that would enable people to become self-confident and responsible and could help them to see through social conditions or to participate in deciding what is produced under which conditions and with which use of resources. Learning does not serve to promote self-confident individuals, but rather unconscious adaptation. In accordance with the monopoly of having over being in society as a whole, the ability to learn is also attributed to the dimension of having.

The concept of education was originally a synonym for the idea that human beings differ from other living beings not only in quantitative form but also qualitatively. He is the being that is forced by nature only to a small extent into the narrow paths of strictly prescribed development and behavior. Man is fundamentally free; he is able to decide autonomously and maturely about his way of existence. Although he himself is part of nature and dependent on it, he is at the same time able to relativize this dependence through reflected action. To do so, he needs knowledge about the world around him on the one hand and ideas about a responsible use of this knowledge on the other.

In its original meaning, education aims at a 'release of thinking'. When the idea of education was used as a reference, it was never just about training the ability to think, i.e. about the brain being able to carry out the most complicated tasks within the framework of externally determined guidelines at the push of a button. The concept of education has traditionally not been limited to the promotion of an 'instrumental use' of reason. Rather, it has always included the notion of a person who has reached the progressive development of his humanity; a person who, through the power of his reflective capacity, 'discovers' his fundamental freedom and thus increasingly emancipates himself from dependencies.

Man can make himself and his behavior the content of his thinking, and he can measure his behavior by criteria whose value he has recognized by reasonable reflection. His brain is not only a huge information store - a biochemical supercomputer, so to speak - which links information in the sense of any rules imposed on him 'from outside'. Man has the fundamental ability to consciously decide whether and in what form he wants to use his knowledge. Thus, he is not merely capable of an instrumental use of his reason, he can apply his knowledge self-reflectively. This means that man can - and, in the final analysis, must - assume responsibility for his actions.

But the criteria of a responsible life are not predetermined for man, they can only be developed in social discourse. Only educated people who are prepared to apply knowledge self-reflectively and not just for their own material advantage can contribute to such a discourse. In this sense, education means stepping out of the sphere of mere utility. Through education man wins himself as a free being and is - as the German educational scientist Heinz Joachim Heydorn once formulated it - able to recognize that the chains that cut into his flesh are put on by man and not by an inescapable fate, but that it is thus also possible to break them. Such a subject, capable of self-liberation, is certainly not promoted by a learning process that is geared to the goal of adaptation. Such learning is ultimately only a contribution to incapacitation. Learning that is not oriented to the idea of the educated - i.e. self-determining - individual degenerates into an activity devoid of meaning, just like working that has detached itself from the goal of satisfying needs.

The more education degenerates into an instrument of selection in the competitive system, the more it is reduced to the character of preparation. While modern thought once claimed to break the subjugation of human life to higher powers, the capacity for rational reflection is now in turn degraded to an appendage of the currently generally worshipped 'God' market. The market, however, does not grant its favor to those who have brought their human potential to the highest possible perfection, but to those who submit themselves as well as possible to the conditions dictated by the buyers. Therefore, what only counts in the context of learning today is the exchange value - the question of the extent to which people become more marketable through learning processes. In the end, this turns the aforementioned content of education into its complete opposite. The facade of terms still in use serves to enforce the reduction of humans to the status of 'intelligent animals'. It is only a matter of qualification - making humans useful for the requirements of their profitable exploitation. The permanent reference to the importance of the 'education factor' for the economic process - including the beautiful slogan of lifelong learning - only reveals what it is really about: not the 'education of individuals', but only the 'education of capital' through the qualification of subjects to the needs of potential buyers of the commodity labor. Education and qualification are, so to speak, in the same relationship as love and sexuality. Sex, tenderness and friendliness are not the same as love, they are, so to speak, merely their quantifiable part. Qualification can also be characterized in this sense as the quantifiable part of education. And just as love cannot be turned into a commodity, sex and flattery, on the other hand, can certainly become an offer for sale within the framework of the profit economy, education cannot be turned into a business either; qualification, on the other hand, can certainly be subordinated to the profit mechanism of the commodity society.

In some cases it is still idealized today that education is power. However, the statement only addresses the fact that those who have been able to accumulate much of the 'commodity qualification' by successfully passing through the education system gain the power to use the market society's department store more than others. Powerful are those who can prove high school and university degrees only within the 'ideology of having', because they possess more of that commodity qualification, which they can exchange - but only as long as there is a corresponding demand on the market - for money and social prestige. For them, too, it is by no means a matter of education, the utility value of which would lie in the satisfaction of the human need for growth and development, but of contributing - even reduced to a commodity - to the growth of the return on capital.

From the beginning capitalism was confronted with the contradictory task of increasing the usefulness of people for the process of economic exploitation, but at the same time it had to prevent the growth of liberating knowledge. What is nobly referred to as 'education' is intended to force the revolution of the productive forces under the conditions of commodity society, but to prevent the revolution in people's consciousness. With the 'end of the nation-states'-which does not mean their actual disappearance, but their irreversible reduction of functions to mere guarantors of legally stable spaces for conditions of exploitation-this paradox, however, acquires a new dynamic.

For today the nation states are increasingly no longer in a position to shape the framework conditions for the acquisition of education in accordance with the bourgeois sense of justice, i.e. in a greyhound race to create attractive social positions for what we have learned to call equal opportunities. Financially more and more starved, they are forced to give up their democratic alibi function to an increasing extent. In the official reading this is called the retreat of the state to its core competencies.

At the same time, capital in its permanent search for exploitation possibilities has now discovered the educational sector as a source of profit. It is therefore only a matter of time before the educational sector ceases to be merely a social sector that is concerned with the preparation of human capital and the employment of minds in the interest of later profitable exploitation. The education sector is increasingly developing into a profit-oriented industry in its own right. While it has so far merely served as a supplier for recycling, it is now to become a recycling sector in its own right. And since education has long since been perceived by the general public as nothing more than a commodity, it is to be expected that this change will take place largely without friction.

The education-economics perspective outlined above provides the basis for the next step in the reduction of education to a commodity. In connection with measures for further liberalization of the economy - keyword: GATS - an increasing market economization of the education system is taking place. Like the health care and pension system, the education sector is to be incorporated into the value-added production machine. Whereas previously only the continuing education and adult education sectors were predominantly market-based, the organization of all learning is now to be placed in the hands of the market. After all, UNESCO estimates the volume of the education market at around two trillion dollars - and it is rising. Profit-oriented private providers currently have a share of just 20% in this market. It is obvious that the profit monster develops desires in view of such volumes of money.

In addition, technological developments are increasingly making it possible to break through regional marketing boundaries in the education sector as well. Now that education is only understood as the internalization of marketable knowledge and correlating skills, the importance of personal encounters in the educational process can hardly be argued. Consequently, learning with the help of information and communication technologies is today praised by all sides as enormous progress. Technologically mediated learning opportunities are also ideally suited for transnational marketing. And it is certainly easier for a large international corporation to raise the necessary investment funds to develop learning opportunities that make the best possible use of the possibilities offered by information and communication technologies than any national education agency. The current trend toward market economy in the education sector is in line with the prevailing logic. Those who rely on the market as the all-dominant regulator of human coexistence should not be surprised if at some point there are even more buying and selling relationships between people. The market functions according to criteria of utility; the human being, the ability of humans to rise above the dimension of utility and give meaning to their lives, has no place there. The market does not know what cannot be turned into a profit-making commodity; there is only what is expressed in sounding coin.

The view of education as an investment in human capital represents, in a way, the current form of the 'banker concept' of learning that Paulo Freire critically analyzed more than 30 years ago. Freire argued at the time that the usual arrangements under which learning takes place in schools and adult education transform learning from a possibility of expanding the creative leeway of individuals into an instrument for their adaptation and subordination.

Critical consciousness - which always arises only in connection with the realization that it is possible to influence the 'course of the world' - is systematically undermined by arrangements in which learning is presented as something that serves to adapt to an ostensibly objectively given constraint. Learning no longer enters the consciousness as a means of understanding the world and enabling us to help shape it in terms of our own interests and needs. It perverts to a ritual of submission to necessities that appear to be natural laws. Learning then no longer intends to liberate from constraints, but rather to internalize them, and thus plays into the hands of those who maintain them.

What the Social Democratic politician Karl Liebknecht postulated as early as 1872 in his famous speech on the founding of the Dresden Workers' Education Society still applies - even if the diction may sound a little antiquated today. "Through education to freedom, that is the false slogan of false friends. We answer: Through freedom to education! Learning that is imposed on those who have to live from the sale of their labor under the threat of losing their livelihood otherwise corrupts the idea of liberation through education. The appeal for (lifelong) learning, transported with market arguments, serves as an objective constraint to internalize the logic of the market. Critical consciousness and emancipation - objectives of 'real' education, the liberating effect of which consists precisely in transcending system-compliant thought patterns - is thus systematically undermined and prevented.

If learning enters consciousness only as an investment, its emancipatory power is taken away. It can then no longer turn into liberating education - in the sense of education that makes people socially responsible - and thus ultimately turns out to be an element of general depoliticization. In summary, the assertion that the contradiction between capital and labor can be neutralized through market-oriented education and training ultimately aims at nothing other than undermining the last resistance to the blind rage of the market dictates. Humanization would be exactly the opposite!

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