The Power and the Mediocrity of the Sign

In “What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland’s School Success,” Anu Partanen reveals capitalist Anglo-America’s elephant-in-the-room-sized blind spot, why its focus on competition and “excellence” results in diminishing performance in order to promote concentrated power and idealism.

The Finns (Per Sahlberg) on education reform that demands accountability from teachers: “There is no word for accountability in Finnish. Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” In Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.

The Finns (Samuli Paronen) on competition: “Real winners do not compete.” There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The driver of education policy in Finland is not competition amongst teachers and schools, policy forcing the ideal conservative conditions of bellum omnia contra omnes, but rather cooperation. School choice is not an issue, nor is putting education in the hands of the private sector and profit motive. This is in distinct contrast to America, Sahlberg observes, where “schools are a shop.”

The Finnish education reform goal was always equality and equity, never “excellence” or whatever conservative daydreams that word stands in for. “Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” What the world dominated by conservative Anglo-american capitalist dogma still cannot face is that it is equality that most efficiently produces star performances and substantive excellence.

Tiger Moms’ genius boys in Shanghai and Singpore can put in 20-hour days of rote memorization and exhaustive cramming, and only manage to approximate in performance the Finnish children who are simply well cared for and supported by valued, independent, unionized teachers and their egalitarian society. Surely, the East Asian genius boys are better poster boys for conservative capitalist discipline; but just as surely they are inefficient…and 99% of these memorizers and crammers will never be able to write a non-plagiarized essay, that is, communicate independently, like humans can.

Why does egalitarianism more efficiently make excellence? The answer is right in front of our nose, right in front of our blind spot. It’s because in the inequality tradition, poor people are overwhelmingly, structurally prevented from attaining their human potentials, and, a factor that perversely torments conservative theorists much more, the rich enjoy the comfort of knowing that surrounded by throngs of shackled “competitors,” they can enjoy many a good old slack.

In such a conservative culture, it is the appearance and ideal of excellence that matters, because the sign unmoored is directed by and justifies power. To be chosen is a sign, necessarily imposed upon the material world. The grim “play” of signs, only ordered by the mystified, atopic distribution of power in a reified collective imagination (a world not made but given, or made by all because you cannot choose unfreely), is Anglos’ obsession, and the more people you can induce to submit to this obsession, the more human life chances are allocated by market power and the more absolutely necessary capitalism (or its feudal and slavery complements)  is for any life chance at all.

At or adhered to central nodes of global capitalist accumulation, Anglo-Americans are altogether too kind, too attentive to, too solicitous of the promotional, the unmoored sign, constantly mistaking it for the legitimate, autarkic limits of knowable (meta)reality. Our literature, for one example, is far too ready to believe that the con man is the true knower.

Distinguishing social democracy

Distinguishing social democracy:

Under left-liberal (as opposed to soc dem) regimes, organized labor does not participate in mid- to longer-range socio-economic planning. However, left think tanks can contribute mid- to long-range planning analyses.

Conversely, there are a variety of ways in which business leaders contribute to public policy formation, because business (public and private, but not cooperative) is regarded by the lib-left govt as the engine of growth.

This exclusion of cooperatives from the field of perceived contributors to growth indicates that lib-left govts may also be distinguished from social democratic govts by an assumption that growth is a product of “efficient” social-hierarchy-inflating organizational forms.

In lib-left regimes, labor views its role, and the liberal government views labor’s role as (often obstructive) ballast to economic growth initiatives that are seen as the natural concern of business. That’s labor’s negative role. It’s not a leadership role.

Labor’s positive role in capitalist democracy thus largely devolves to delivering votes to the left-liberal govt, because although the lib-left does not regard labor as a central social or economic policy resource, as opposed to conservative govts the lib-left govt will not actively try to break organized labor and it may implement those modest proposals of labor that do not impede the business-driven growth planning.

Hence, with a range of ruling (capitalist) political perspectives that always preemptively block information from labor (except what little leaks obliquely through the market), we repeatedly sink into crisis cycles–crisis of profit begets > capital deregulation and overmobilization, working class overregulation, demobilization, and dispossession beget > speculative bubbles/primitive accumulation beget > underconsumption crisis begets > further primitive accumulation, repeat. We fixate on the speculative bubbles moment in the midst of all this autistic failure, hoard wealth, and laud ourselves endlessly for being such top-notch managers and philanthropistes.

This is why for Rawlsianism to work, socialist politics and the communist horizon must be more highly valued, and even defended– by liberals.
As far as I know, this seeming impossibility has only been (temporarily) accomplished in Scandinavia and Minnesota. (While Latin America leftists tried to forge a left-lib coalition from scratch, the US destroyed this effort and enforced conservative rule in Latin America, see Greg Grandin.)

In “Right-wing Rawlsianism: A Critique” (forthcoming in Journal of Political Philosophy) Samuel Arnold argues that if liberals agree that agency is the essence of justice, then liberals have to pick which side they are on–because economic democracy fosters more agency than Trickledown provides.

Arnold’s is a clever detonation of a bridge from liberalism to conservatism, using some of the bridge-builders’ own ideal theory tools. (Particularly with respect to Rawls’ difference principle: A liberal justice-maximizing directive to choose the political-economic system that maximizes the least-advantaged group’s expectations for an index of primary goods that include income and wealth, but also status (qua capacity for agency in the workplace and self-respect in society).)

Upon deriving the optimal realization of liberal justice (agency) in workplace democracy, Arnold concludes (p. 32),

Milquetoast liberal egalitarianism is unstable: liberal egalitarianism must move far to the left in order to avoid being jerked far to the right.”

We need to keep heaping on the demonstrations that economic democracy fosters more agency than GDP/GNP tumescence.

For one example, insofar as political-economic systems can be said to have intentions, how plausible is it that capitalism does not intend to support social pathologies (Arnold, p.29)? Studies of primitive accumulation, the WEB DuBois tradition, socialist feminists, Harvey et al have a lot to say about how capitalism “intends to” (is built and maintained to) and does depend upon and support social pathologies. This approach apprehends the connection between economic (eg. workplace) tyranny and racism, sexism, colonialism, etc., for a powerpunch assertion that inequality is both fundamental to capitalism (even if it is shifted around across some social groups, over time and space) and fatally (from the perspective of justice) undermines agency (power to).

…& on the matter of historical-materialism’s putative incapacity to deal with difference (from a postmodern POV), from Arnold (p. 29):

Patriarchy, discrimination against the weak or the different, pressure to conform, and countless other social practices that prevent people from realizing their full agential potential: how long can these pathologies withstand the countervailing winds of a social democracy, with its democratic workplaces, its flattened division of labor, its robustly egalitarian public institutions?”

Iceland & Primitive Accumulation

Here’s Silla Sigurgeirsdottir and Robert H. Wade’s Monde Diplomatique article “Iceland’s Loud No.” Here’s a good English-language Icelandic journalist covering the transformation of private (capitalist) losses into public (working class) debt throughout Europe.

Iceland prosecutes predatory bankers, December 2011.

Iceland exits the recession, December 2011.

From November 2011:

 Deena Stryker’s adaptation of the Italian article “Iceland’s Ongoing Revolution” is on the alternative news, essentially arguing that Iceland’s response to the transformation of private investor losses into public (cross-national and cross-generational working class plundering) debt throughout Europe is not adequately covered by the English-language press. She argues that this may be because Iceland has been striving to find alternate ways to pay off British and Dutch investors, other than working through the IMF (like Malaysia did successfully in the 1997 East Asian crash), and Icelandic people have been working to reform their political system to prevent plundering capture by global financial capital.

 This is an important contribution because, first, the question for smaller-economy Western countries ultimately is: When Iceland/Greece/etc. govts are forced by global capital and larger-economy (more powerful) governments to strip wealth off their own citizens to pay off British and Dutch etc. investors, with interest, how much wealth will be transferred to the big-economy investors and their bankers?

 Those investors were gambling. If it were just an economic market, they should have to absorb the risks and take the losses of their own gambling. But economics is also political, because it’s about amassing and maintaining power. British and Dutch political regimes exist in capitalism to take up the sticks and guns and punitive trade strategies to make sure that there is all profit (growth) and no risk to British and Dutch investors, and by extension the bankers that served them–That the costs of Accounting-books economic “growth” are confined (inasmuch as is possible–Aye. There’s the rub.) to the Icelandic, Greek, Spanish, Irish, US, British, etc. tax-paying working-class. That Accounting-books economic “growth” (AKA unregulated, state-backed investment) is a successful wealth-plundering strategy (AKA primitive accumulation). In this way big economies hope to attract capital and stay big, and smaller-economy countries hope to ride upon and not be eaten by bigger ones.

 So there is the vital second question, which Ms. Stryker has tapped, of how much wealth transfer will be forced and must be conceded by various populations. This is an ongoing political fight involving: 1) the blackmail capitalist claim that the global capitalist economy cannot be restored until the wealth transfer is realized as exclusive private accumulation, 2) coercive and coerced enforcement of this transfer by governing regimes, and 3) many countries’ working class populations, their range of beliefs about how political-economies can work, and their capacity to resist and fight. It is necessary for liberationists and democrats to engage those working class political-economic beliefs, as Ms. Stryker is doing by gesturing to the Icelandic differences, if nothing else to raise a reflexive working class limit on predatory financial capitalist machinations around the globe. (Well, that’s the liberal ideal outcome. I can think of more ambitious outcomes.)

The carping about Stryker’s article in Iceland’s The Grapevine is about journalists’ endemic quick and dirty deployment of econ stats in service of political extrapolations, in the midst of ongoing political contention in Iceland. It’s nice that The Grapevine is clearing up the stats and reassuring Icelanders that le jeu n’est pas fait; but their critique  is not essential to Stryker’s argument. The constraints are similar; but there is a difference in the Icelandic popular political-economic imagination and strategies–a difference that, if not decisive, other working class populations need to see.

It’s not helpful when, as at The Grapevine, journos confuse bank relations with investors with the state guarantees to those investors’ powerful countries, and feed into conservative obfuscation of what is at stake in “bank bailouts.” Moreover, you can expect The Grapevine critique to be blown out of proportion by conservatives who are on the primitive accumulation warpath. Yet I do not think The Grapevine editor is conservative. His Davidsdottir recommendation (above) is helpful; and he and his commentators are right in urging Stryker to correct the article–if not to pay respects to more precise  Icelandic understanding of Icelandic political-economy stats and affairs, then to make her contribution  more robust to right-wing attack.