Education and Agorism Part I: The Role of Ideology

From The Radical Reconstructor

This is the first part of a two-part series on education and agorism. Part II: The Road Forward is available here

Anarchist intellectuals have historically been adept at presenting visions of a better world, and relatively less so at articulating a revolutionary praxis.  The City of God has long stood shining on a hill, but the road there is dark- exceedingly so.  A salient exception is Samuel Konkin III whose New Libertarian Manifesto argued for a framework of anti-state activity Konkin called “counter-economics.”  Counter-economics urges black market activity as a means of robbing the state of moral authority and tax revenue, slowly pushing hearts, minds, and pocketbooks out of the reach of the state and into a voluntaristic society that Konkin called “agorism.”

But Konkin’s emphasis on consistency between means and ends as well as the broader aim of counter-economics – the removal of one’s activity from the purview of the state- points toward a praxis broader than mere illegalism or even “economic” activity narrowly defined.  Konkin was well aware that the obstacles to agorism were as much cultural as political and economic.  The realization of the agorist project, then, might be furthered by activities not formally prohibited by the state but which are discouraged by cultural, political, and economic structures.  In this context, I’d like to meditate a bit on the implications of one such discouraged sphere of activity- home schooling- for the status quo and for the uphill battle standing between us and a voluntarist future.  Recent growth in private alternatives to public education provide a perspective on the “soft power” exercised by the state, and in this article I will focus on the nature of this soft power and on the ways in which it is ultimately predicated on coercive authority- “hard power.”  In analyzing the interplay of these forces I rely on insights from several schools of thought often considered ideologically incompatible.  My focus is primarily on the working and lower-middle classes- families for whom professionalized private education is difficult or impossible to afford and for whom the decision to home school would be the most beneficial. In an article soon to follow I will argue for a place within agorist theory for homeschooling and other activities not formally prohibited by the state.

For your average American, illegalism would be a hard sell.  The disincentives at work here are fairly straightforward; smuggling or selling drugs is dangerous in the extreme and violating the will of the state on these matters can trigger violent reprisal.  But when we turn our attention to the evasion of public education it becomes readily apparent that change is hindered by a more subtle complex of structures than state violence alone.  Despite the growing evidence that homeschooling is superior to the public option (more on this later,) timeworn cliches about homeschoolers’ lack of socialization, and the suspect quality of their education demonstrate a George Romero-esque resistance to death. While this is no doubt partially attributable to ignorance (after all, these criticisms were at one time fairly accurate,) I believe another mechanism is at work here.  Many of these parents might consciously or unconsciously recognize in homeschooling a superior if labor-intensive alternative to the status quo.  These parents- often sure that dietary deviations will leave their children covered in rashes and gasping for air- are uneasy that their charges’ education is more akin to what’s purchased at Burger King than at Whole Foods. Unwilling or unable to provide their children with this alternative to the cut-rate junk education doled out at public schools they denigrate homeschoolers whom they nervously suspect of having better parents than their own kids.

We can safely assume that most parents wish to maximize the possibility that their children will succeed in life- defined in the American context as something along the lines of “being happy and economically secure.” Austrian economics teaches us that human beings chase utility, that they always opt to maximize “good” and minimize “bad.”  But this calculus occurs within a matrix of subjective valuations that makes full comprehension of human motives difficult and prediction of behavior sometimes impossible.  We all seek to maximize utility, but this might mean anything from setting oneself on fire in the name of religion to reading Chaucer.  While we can never access an individual’s motivations in acting, we can weigh expected behavior against actual behavior and theorize on the discrepancy.

So, why would parents pursue a less-than-optimal course in their children’s education?  First of all, there are a range of material considerations discouraging home schooling.  Poorer parents often cannot forego remunerative labor in order to home school, and while the struggle for shelter, food, and clothing might crowd out educational concerns for the poor of any society, government policy systematically incentivizes use of public schools at the expense of home-based options.  The state has already made a claim on these parents’ earnings in the name of public education and a vast array of other sub-par services the family may or may not utilize. Further, state-engineered inflation hurts disproportionately those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Forced into wage labor in part by the depredations of the state, poor parents have no time for homeschooling and the public schools are resorted to as babysitter of last resort.

Secondly, and much more importantly, parents are often unwilling to home school because of their own cultural conditioning.  Invested in their careers, in conspicuous consumption, or in hobbies, middle class parents are often more than willing to allow junior to make due with the default public option.  But it is important to recognize the ways that this transparently dysfunctional valuation of priorities is propped by state epistemology. The preferred national narrative for the American statist is one of triumphalist populism- the slow but unerring erasure of regional “backwardness;” the realization of racial and economic justice;  and the forging of a generically “American” polity committed to the platitude that “it takes a village to raise a child.” In accordance with this narrative, homeschool families are suspected of hatred for racial minorities and at the very least of being unconcerned with education as a “public good,” as if one more mal-educated idiot might alleviate the social damage done by public schooling. Apologists present private and home schooling as an anti-social act, part of the general move towards a culture of neo-liberal insularity and privatization, and they assert that home schoolers have forfeited this collective American birthright for no less pathetic a mess of pottage than a fifth-rate education and a life of social retardation.

Conversely, state apologetics implies that public school parents can congratulate themselves on having sent their children out into the “real world” and on having gone the socially conscious route. Shoulder to shoulder with their sociologically diverse classmates, their children pledge allegiance to an American flag committed to universalistic humanism and take their lessons in “the best schools in the world.”  For their parents the self-fulfillment of of a career, of getting and spending, of homes and washers and dryers and cable television awaits.   Between this ideological stick and carrot the choice of most middle class parents is easy.  While Junior is off at PS 666, mom and dad motor noiselessly off in their hybrid Toyota to their public sector job, tenuously assured that they haven’t shortchanged their children’s future and ignoring the coercive mechanisms employed in supplying this “public option.”

Twentieth century Marxists recognized the role of ideology in reconciling the herd to the contradictions of the status quo, and counter to their “vulgar Marxist” predecessors argued that ideology was central to the project of capitalistic domination.  Particularly useful is the model provided by Antonio Gramsci.  Gramsci argued that since elites are numerically inferior, control of society can only be maintained if the dominant class justifies its domination through ideology.  In turn, the dominated classes are complicit in the manufacture of this ideology and are able to subtly influence it’s contours to suit their needs albeit in a way that preserves elite hegemony.

This model works particularly well for the present investigation because it emphasizes the dispersed origins of ideology.  The motives of the state and its apologists are transparent.  Even without resorting to an argument about social control, the expansion of bureaucracy is- for the bureaucrat- an end in itself.  Growing and maintaining the bureaucracy’s sphere of influence ensures political power, prestige, funding, and jobs.  In order to justify and perpetuate this sphere of influence its defenders repeat loud and often the bureaucracy’s many manufactured virtues. Unfortunately, applications of Gramscian hegemony (which historians have poured out by the score) usually do not articulate how this joint project works and we must look elsewhere for an explanation for why the targets of this propaganda accept its truth so readily.

Though it is a lesser-known aspect of his thought, Ludwig von Mises believed that individuals might very well pursue incompatible goals.  This divided self, in turn, often turns to self delusion to explain away his frustrated aspirations….

“Shortcomings in the choice of means and in acting are not always caused by erroneous thinking and inefficiency.  Frequently frustration is the result of irresoluteness with regard to the choice of ends.  Wavering between various incompatible goals, the actor vacillates in his conduct of affairs…. A man who is obliged to justify his handling of a matter in the eyes of other people often resorts to a pretext… Rationalization is the name psychoanalysis gives to the construction of a pretext to justify conduct in the actor’s own mind.” (Theory and History, 281) [emphasis added.]

Contrary to leftist accusations that Austrian economics simplifies subjectivity, here Mises problematizes- however tentatively- the assumption of a unified “self.” But even this problematized notion of self is assimilable to a utility maximizing conception of the actor.    For parents at the lower rungs of the economic options are stark.  One one hand, the status quo ensures unrewarding wage labor for parents, and unrewarding, unedifying public education in dilapidated crime-ridden schools for their children. This option would seem to conflict with the universal cultural premium placed on stewardship of one’s offspring.  On the other hand, these parents are faced with the choice of subverting the state-propped political economy through illegal activity.  This option offers the possibility of economic upward mobility and a more expansive field of possibilities for one’s children, but ultimately runs afoul of another nearly universal desideratum- self-preservation.

For the lower middle class the choices aren’t quite as dire, but they represent a dilemma nonetheless.  On one hand, the status quo promises stultifying Prussian-style education for their children, though usually of a higher quality than that faced by the poor and working class and in safer surroundings.  On the other hand are private options each with its own disincentives.  Private schools are expensive and threaten to cut into parents’ capacity for conspicuous consumption, while homeschooling might cast the family into the long-skirted, bouffant-coiffed, snake-handling dregs of white society.

But what if a third alternative existed?  What if by a strategic suspension of disbelief these parents could make a virtue of necessity?  Poor parents could take solace knowing that however miserable their own lot, Junior is getting the best education on Earth.  The unpleasant reality- that his experience in the public schools is preparing him for a life of crime and incarceration- might necessitate desperate, dangerous, and illegal action.  The ersatz reality is valued precisely because it resolves that dilemma.  For the lower middle class the same myth obviates the distasteful choice between foregoing personal status and achievement on one hand and recognizing one’s neglect of one’s children on the other.  No need to choose, because they can “have it all.”

Within a Misesian framework, it can be said that the rationalization works in both cases to maximize utility by effecting a subjective attainment of two goals that are actually mutually exclusive.  To extend the economic metaphor it might fairly be argued that this form of utility maximization is disincentivized by its high transaction costs, that there is always a heavy price to pay for willingly assuming a diluted conception of reality.  As it happens, it is precisely with those persons who have the most to gain from this kind of rationalization (and who can therefore afford the high “transaction costs,”) that we see it exhibited.  Lower middle-class individuals for whom material acquisitions and careerism hold a particularly elevated valuation seem particularly prone to rationalization, particularly (as is often the case) if they live in an economically marginal area where schools are mediocre.

Again, Antonio Gramsci’s framework is invaluable in understanding how all classes- the dominant and the dominated- are complicit in manufacturing ideology.  But where Gramsci and similarly revisionist Marxists err is in failing to understand the nature of the state/capital nexus.  Corporate propaganda covers our urban and suburban vistas, fills our airwaves, assails our eyes and ears every hour of the day, and indeed influences the way we think.  But the fundamentally decentralized nature of market forces ensures that corporations- even within the present crony capitalist status quo- seldom exert the kind of epistemological leverage attributed to it by the Marxists. Further, to the degree that corporations are able to consolidate economic and epistemological monopoly they are unfailingly the beneficiaries of state-propped privilege.  Conversely, the very nature of the state ensures that it is capable of ideological manufacture in a way that corporations are not.  In my next article I explore why otherwise lucid people accept transparent falsehoods in making utility calculations that involve the state, and then return to the larger issue at hand- the place of home schooling within anarchist praxis.

Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

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