Commodities do not produce critiques

Deepak R. January 3, 2011

Prabhat Patnaik speaks at Third International Congress on Kerala Studies.


We often find ourselves in a crowd where any mention of the larger picture of capitalist world order is rubbished as mere rhetoric. But this was surely not the case when the discussion panel was chaired by Dr. K. N. Panikkar, convened by Shri. C. P. Narayanan and was constituted by Shri. Prabhat Patnaik, Shri Nainan Koshy, Shri Pannyan Raveendran and Shri P. K. Biju. Venue: Session on "Education System for Kerala in this Changing World Order" at the second day of Third International Congress on Kerala Studies.

Prof. Patnaik focussed mainly on the cause and effects of commodification of education. This is gist of the talk he delivered.

He opened his address by trying to make clear what he means by commodification in this context. Education system has always been a means of production and all those who have undergone a formal education are products of the system. But what makes the present different is that, as opposed to a diverse and vernacular production process, the present trend is to standardise the education system. Just like many products lost its identity when the production agent changed from a skilled craftsman to an automated factory, the products of present day education system also stand a chance to loose their individual identities and become a stock of standardised, labeled and tagged products. Needless to say, such commodities do not produce critiques.

Next, he went on to identify the cause of this commodification. In a country like India with a large reserve army of unskilled labourers, unskilled labour can be bought by capital at subsistence rates. But the production process also demands some amount of skilled labour. Here, since the size of the (skilled) reserve army is small, the salary levels tend to be much higher. This salary gap generates a class which is ready to spend heavily for the education of their children and there by an opportunity for the capital to again pitch in and sell education as a commodity.

He pointed out that this commodification of education is antithetical to the social purpose of education for the following reasons.A standardised education system, geared towards mass producing skilled labourers, leaves no room for creativity. Such an education system not only de-socialises the students, it results in a systematic destruction of resistance itself. In his opinion, IITs and IIMs can be considered successful not when they feature in the Times Higher Education rank list, but when their products refuse to take dowry, rise above casteism and shed their feudal vestiges. In reply to a question from the audience, he mentioned that the present metrics used to measure the quality of an academician, like the number of publications in refereed journals, number of patents, amount of funding etc are imperialism's ways of exerting its control over our education system.

In my experience as a teacher for five years, I had so often come across the symptoms of commodifciation of education. Though we had put up some fragmented resistances, there was no clarity on larger picture. Hence I rushed to meet Prof. Patnaik after his talk, and asked him what can people in the academia do to reverse this process of commodification. May be I get too naive when excited! He replied:

"You cannot fight imperialism just from within a campus. That fight has to be fought on a larger stage. Let us realise that the best we can do with in a campus is a holding on exercise."

He had no confusion on that. There is no alternative to class struggle. This was a great relief to us after hearing so many romantic proposals for soft revolutions during the last few days.

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Do not agree

Deepak sir,

There's no alternative to class struggle?? I do not agree! That only class struggle can bring a just society is clearly a failed ideology - there are only examples of failures, any society which was built on this political ideology had an autocratic educational system where no free thinking is allowed; Mr. Patnaik or others who believe in it as the only solution will find little company in the intellectual world of the day (the same world which contains Chomsky, Zinn, Said etc among others). In my opinion, the best we can hope for is a liberal democracy with a strong and efficient government, with pro-people policies, and strong institutions - judiciary, police, media, etc. Even in a poor, fledgling setup like India, we do have our JNU and Shantiniketan, so lets not talk in terms of Black & Whites.

Arun

Means vs End

Dear Arun,

Liberal Democracy is a form of governance, while class struggle is a means to change from one form of governance to the other. If your best hope is something; for example, a liberal democracy with all your mentioned toppings, and If you feel that our present system is not yet there, then how do we bring in the transformation? Is it possible by disconnected philanthropic or extremist interventions or do we need a larger scale class struggle bringing together all the people who are oppressed by the present form of governance? As fas as I understand Marxism, it stresses necessity of the latter. It is in this sense that you should read the statement "there is no alternative to class struggle".

Secondly, let me comment on your opinion that liberal democracy with the mentioned toppings as the best form of governance. Shouldn't we also think whether the absence of pro-people policies, pro-justice judiciary and pro-truth media in our present democracy is an accident or is it the rule? In other words, should we not inquire whether there are some structural reasons so that no democracy under capitalist world order can ever truly uphold pro-people policies.

Re:

Dear Deepak Sir,

"how do we bring in the transformation? Is it possible by disconnected philanthropic or extremist interventions or do we need a larger scale class struggle"

None of these. Instead, through democracy, the simple democracy we have, with the same constitution. Through politics within the democracy, sustained campaigns for justice.

People also can have legitimate concerns beyond class, especially in a country like India, for example, women's rights, gay rights, caste problems, etc, and class based struggle cannot solve them. Even the CPI(M) these days recognizes that in India sometimes a caste struggle may be required, instead of considering class as the sole legitimate sense of association. Another question worth pondering is why the so-called class based struggles always degraded into mindless tyrannies.

"Shouldn't we also think whether the absence of pro-people policies, pro-justice judiciary and pro-truth media in our present democracy is an accident or is it the rule"

I do not think that this is completely true. That is, they are far from being completely absent. VP Singh came through democracy, so did Nehru, EMS, and Mayawati. So it is indeed possible to have genuinely positive changes through democracy. The same about judiciary, with all the negatives, also have several great rulings to its credit, and have stepped in several cases when the legislature crossed the boundaries. Same with the media, so many corruption scandals are out, even though late, and see, we have at least a few media that criticize say a Binayak Sen judgement, or the verbal attack on Arundhati Roy , or the Batla House encounter. I mean, I do not think it is the system itself that is the problem. At least it is much, much better than an autocracy which almost always degrades into a tragic tyranny. And it is indeed possible to find better solutions within the system.

Arun

Reforming Democracy

Many left governments have been elected to power. They have been able to implement many pro-people policies too. But have they been able to do it to the level of their satisfaction? Or were they constantly kept under threat of capital withdrawal and resulting job stagnation by the capital?

Since you argue that the system itself is not the problem, can you elaborate on what is the source of the problem?

A clarification - when I

A clarification - when I wrote that it is not the system itself that is the problem, I meant that the theoretical setup of a liberal democracy with strong institutions and strong social support policies itself is not the problem (in order to be replaced by some other setup).

Source of the problem? The source of poverty, of caste, of communalism & religious fanaticism, of racism, of dowry, of sexual harassment, of environmental pollution, of deaths in police custody, of throwing garbage in the street? There are several sources, and not merely ONE - that of "class wars" - that is my only point. The world is a lot more complex, the problems in politics are lot more deeper than that can be solved by a simple prescription of class war.

Thank you for the patient reading and comments, Arun

*"IITs and IIMs can be

*"IITs and IIMs can be considered successful not when they feature in the Times Higher Education rank list, but when their products refuse to take dowry, rise above casteism and shed their feudal vestiges." *

Dear Deepak Sir, I think this line of thought has a problem. IITs and IIMs are currently professional educational institutions, and the reason for their establishment is to train normal, good students in certain professional fields. Even in a non-capitalist society we do need Engineers, Researchers and efficient Managers. It is not only the students from IITs and IIMs that should rise above dowry, casteism and feudal vestiges, it is all the kids who have been to basic education. While IITs and IIMs should build on this, and make the students really sensitive of the social situation in the country and the world , and encourage critical thinking and creativity, but along with it it should teach the student the field the student is interested in.

You cannot fight imperialism just from within a campus. , and the link to class struggle.

Chomsky, Zinn and Said fought from campuses, so are the students in JNU, and the protests in Jamia and Osmania, and in even several places in Kerala, so there is much more than class struggle that is possible.

Arun

Fighting imperialism just from campus.

Dear Arun,

Please do not ignore the word "just". And also don't ignore the rest of the statement which says that you can do a holding on exercise at individual avenues. Hence your examples of protests in campuses do not contradict the statement in the article. In fact we should encourage such protests. But the message here is that, in addition, we also need to organise at a much larger scale.

Sure Sir, I was only taking

Sure Sir, I was only taking issue with the statement "there is no alternative to class struggle",I agree that larger interventions are required if you look at the larger scale of things. However, there is nothing to ridicule individual and localized endeavors - while some people may have the energy and interest to do things in the larger scale, several people can make a difference "just" by being in a campus.

Thanks, Arun

On the role of IIMs and IITs

Dear Arun,

I think, here we differ at the level of basic assumptions itself. Even though the role of say an IIT is to train a student in a particular professional field, it is not expected to do it at the cost of sacrificing the overall development of a student into an individual who is useful to the society. I do not agree that that part of the grooming can be completely done at school level.

My point is that - the IITs -

My point is that - the IITs - as the best technical institutes of a poor country like India - which needs science & technology to advance ( same can be argued about social sciences etc, about IIMs etc.), has to not only produce a well developed individual, but also science & technology for the country (or the world).

Its not mere IITs and IIMs

Its not mere IITs and IIMs producing a "class-i-fied" products or helping in freezing of certain pigeonholed notions of class/caste/sex identities, just have a close look around... see through the bubble around and it will be apparent that the process has penetrated to its dangerous level i.e to the primary-level school. in order to justify the position - class or caste (both are interchangeable in many scopes) wards are being enrolled in the schools best suited to respective class/caste. within in school further takes place filtering again as per the projected/perceived social strata. then entire process of imparting education in the schools is about conditioning the kids to the best possible level without any attempt or labour be invested in knowing if that conditioning/learning genre suits the child. Huh! who cares? teachers are paid only for conditioning and hammering the individuality while management has no interest in letting the children to explore themselves after all, the 5-star/3-star/highly tagged position in any newspaper or magazine earns them well to fatten their vaults. but yes, as a part hogwash exercise they are always prompt in publicizing the hobby classes, personality development programs and blah-blah, much to do with what i call as 'extortion of money' in a suave manner.

As far as Prabhat Patnaik's opinion is concerned, thats quite factual, however, educational campuses have a significant role to play in sowing and sprouting of seeds of dissent and critical thinking. I, personally think that a really evolved teacher would always stimulate and accommodate alternate ideas rather than making conformist pupils.

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