‘The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame’ reviewed by Hans G Despain

The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame

Zero Books, Winchester and Washington DC, 2013. 319pp., £15.99 pb
ISBN 9781780995786

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


The marketization of education is disturbing and dangerous. Intrinsic aims and values of education, such as civic engagement, personal development, self-awareness, cosmic wonder, etc., are quickly being reduced to mere development of human capital skills – human capital skills to be employed in capitalistic production, to maximize profits, within totalitarian workplace environments.

David J. Blacker, a (Marxian) philosopher of education, argues in his new book The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, that recent developments are far worse than marketization. The essence of his argument is that millions of Americans are no longer needed in the economy. Their social labor has been technologically “eliminated.” Consequently, the need to educate this surplus population is no longer necessary. As such there is an attack on the schools themselves as being redundant and not “worth it” (196). Blacker contends the ultimate aim of neoliberal educational reforms is not merely privatization for market purposes, but “educational eliminationism” (12), and to disassemble any commitment to universal education for all (188-220). Educational elimination need not be the conscious intent of neoliberal educational reformers. But whether conscious intent or not, according to Blacker, “education as a mass phenomenon will, if present trends continue, be eliminated” (201). Education elimination is the logical outcome of the neoliberal capitalist structural dynamic (118-21).

According to Blacker educational eliminationism is fourfold. First, as stated above is the elimination of mass education as a public good (188-220). Second, there is a falling rate of learning toward an elimination of learning (35, 226). Third, is the elimination of student “voices,” autonomy, and personal efficacy within the process of school (150-87). Fourth, is the elimination of personal autonomy and personal efficacy outside of schooling, following the mounting-up of student debt (122-49) and creation of a “new educational debt bondage” (138) to labor markets with low pay and poor working conditions.

Blacker’s conclusion is highly pessimistic and cynical. According to Blacker, “education under advanced capitalism is too far gone” (232); the logical end is human and environmental elimination (240). The only thing left is individual critical pedagogies “here and there” (232), and a Pandora “Hope” that neoliberal processes will not run to completion in eliminating human beings and the environment (240). Blacker’s cynicism pivots on his failure to develop any potent sense of political agency.

In the rest of this review, I will first argue that Blacker’s reliance on the analogy of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) is interesting, but that he has misunderstood the political economy of Marx. This critique is hardly fatal, but it does suggest Blacker’s ‘falling rate of learning’ may be exaggerated. Rather than a TRPF/“falling-rate-of-learning” analogy, Marxian political economy may suggest a class-struggle/pedagogical-struggle analogy. Second, capitalism is more resilient than Blacker portrays. Third, Blacker is not critical enough of human capital theory as the essential paradigm of educational theory today. Fourth, Blacker is impressively successful in developing (an implicit) immanent critique of human capital theory in the context of the fact that there are not enough (well-paying) jobs for the academically credentialed (i.e. high school and college graduates) and the severity of the debt-peonage result of school loans. But he is less successful in explaining the intrinsic value that education potentially offers human beings.

Blacker uses Marx’s notion of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF) to express two primary elements of his argument. First, there is a corresponding analogy between the TRPF and the falling rate of learning in schools. Second, the TRPF suggests to Blacker the impossibility of capitalism. He employs the TRPF to describe the structural dynamic of capitalism. Blacker underestimates the resilience of capitalism. The Althusserian tradition provides the philosophical argument of capitalism’s ability to metamorphose and self-perpetuate, while the Dobbian tradition provides the historical record of contingent “stages of capitalist development” and historical self-perpetuation.

Blacker maintains that the logical outcome of the so-called “profit squeeze” on capitalists and financiers (10) is “economic eliminationism” (28) whereby millions of jobs and the need for millions of Americans in the labor force have been eliminated. The elimination of jobs further means the elimination of consumers (48) and the tendency toward underconsumptionism (81). Additionally, economic eliminationism refers to the elimination of investment opportunities for capitalism, hence overinvestment in narrow areas of finance and creation of a euphoric boom and bust economy (29-32) well captured by Hyman Minsky’s “financial instability hypothesis” (89-91). Educational stratification between tier-one schools and other schools further “mirrors” the economic inequality of capitalism (92), whereby “the rich have grown richer and moreover have increasingly insulated themselves against the rest of the population via a geographical stratification” (33).

This all sets the stage for the correspondence between school and the society, albeit a “weak” correspondence (53). Just as Nazism yields Nazi schools, Communism communist schools, capitalism yields capitalistic human capital schools (99). This weak correspondence establishes the relationship between the economic eliminationism, of profits, jobs, consumers, and investment opportunities, and “the eliminationism we are now seeing in education” (28). The human capital motive of education has dominated schooling for several decades (196). Put simply there has been a “massive overaccumulation” of human capital skills, and neoliberal policy is aimed at no longer paying for this overaccumulation, hence the elimination of education (97).

This is an interesting argument. However, there are some problems. Blacker leans on the TRPF too much. As a metaphor or analogy to understand happenings in education it seems powerful. There is a fall in the rate of learning, because human capital skill development as a motive to learn is highly stratified and at a structural level overaccumulated. The overaccumulation of credentials creates a discouragement and disinterest in schooling and has a negative impact on learning.

However, Marxian political economy does not depend on the TRPF as explained by Blacker. At one point Blacker theorizes competitive capitalism and a constant profit squeeze (68-74). This is simply not Marx. Never does Marx theorize capitalism as competitive. This is because capitalism, according to Marx, is a class struggle, aimed at the production of surplus value, with a macro dynamic toward concentration and centralization, i.e. away from the competiveness of vulgar political economy and neoclassical economics. The production of surplus value and reproduction of capitalistic social relations depend on two crucial occurrences: the presence of exploitable workers with human capital skills and evading mass discontent.

The point can be captured by analogy. Consider a slave master directly exploiting slave labor. The slave-master expropriates all the surplus product of the slaves. However, the masters must still worry about rebellion and losing their position as appropriators. An effective way to avoid this is to use surplus product as a means to circumvent rebellion.

Masters may do this in numerous ways. For example, the slave-master may hire slave drivers, create a plantation militia or police force, and use other coercive means. The slave-master may create a patrimonial class of slaves, with various prized commodities as payment for loyalty. The slave master may also employ cultural forms such as modes of entrainment, religion, and education. These cultural forms could be geared ideologically for the slave to develop a consciousness that accepts the structural conditions, and/or that rebellion is immoral, unjust, and futile.

This slave analogy allows us to point out a weakness in Blacker’s argument. Blacker finds his paradigm in Joan Robinson’s dictum: ‘the only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist, is not being exploited at all’ (102). Blacker believes that it is toward ‘not-being-exploited-at-all’ that capitalism is evolving. This is an exaggeration. Exploitation is alive and well. There is no reason to assume that employment is disappearing. Capitalism is far more resilient.

Blacker seems to believe that if workers are not producing a material product, they are not producing surplus value (e.g. 201, 203). However, there has been an explosion in service sectors jobs. There is no reason to believe that this will not continue in health services, finance, clerical work, retail sales, marketing and education. If there is a limit on the elimination of jobs, then consumerism can remain strong. Indeed Harry Braverman (1974) showed that monopoly capitalism had already begun a transformation from material production of manufacturing to service sector jobs. The postindustrial society theory of Daniel Bell (1976) also gets at similar phenomena, as do the “liquid modernity” theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman (2000).

Thus, I have suggested that TRPF is not as problematic as is suggested by Blacker (TRPF does generate a particular and crucial macro-dynamic of boom and bust). Likewise I believe his arguments on job and consumer eliminationism are greatly exaggerated. Capitalism transforms to increase relative surplus value. The struggle then becomes the control of the workplace and the effect of the workplace on personal lives and personal well-being. If the correspondence theory that Blacker advocates is correct, we should find an analogous site of struggle within schools.

Nonetheless, he is on stronger ground regarding the increased (Minskyian) instability of monopoly-finance capitalism and rising inequality. This makes a commitment to a “return on investment” from schooling precarious and volatile, but an urgently necessary risk for students to take. But these phenomena have less to do with TRPF and far more to do with the production of surplus value, reproduction of society, and class struggle.

Much like our fictional slave driver, neoliberal policy makers will be anxious to create cultural forms that successfully reproduce society and minimize class struggle. Oligopolistic firms, both financial and nonfinancial, will be anxious that the production of surplus value continues and profits remain high. Indeed, Minsky’s financial instability hypothesis necessarily depends on profits being rather robust for some firms and industries. Thus, there is a particular tension between Blacker’s interpretation of TRPF and Minskyian instability.

In neoliberal unstable monopoly-finance capitalism, institutions of education will remain crucial. First for the neoliberal ideology they are capable of generating. Second, they also function as a justification for inequality. Third, I suspect there may very well be an expansion of educational institutions as a way to absorb surplus labor and to create jobs (for example 2008 Presidential candidate Barack Obama had proposed a 100,000 person teacher corps).

Blacker does eventually contend that “elimination” does not necessarily mean campuses are being physically shut down. “There may even be a building boom.” Rather “education elimination” refers to the loss of pedagogical sovereignty and directional autonomy of institutions of higher education (117, 198-9, 201). But making these statements 100-plus pages into the argument seems a rather radical amendment to the letter of the text in the first 100-plus pages. In the earlier pages, Blacker maintains that education is no longer needed because jobs no longer exist for the entire labor force.

This is not the only confusion in Blacker’s argument. It is not education that is being eliminated by neoliberal capitalism, but the need for ‘schooling’ geared toward the mere development of human capital skills. Blacker simply has not been careful in differentiating the various aims of, and moments within, education. At the most surface level, education is schooling for human capital skills, and following Pierre Bourdieu (1977) this can be extended to include cultural and social capital. More generally still, this is what Bowles and Gintis (2011) called the ‘integration function.’ It is an important moment of education that today dominates the classroom, pedagogy, and educational policy. But there are other important pedagogical aims and moments within the educational experience, such as civic engagement and civic participation; personal development and empathy; self and social perspicacity; and cosmic wonder and awareness.

Blacker’s falling rate of learning is on solid grounds concerning the decreased need for human capital skills. But there is an increased need for the other moments within the educational experience (these will be sites of pedagogical struggle within educational institutions). It is probably accurate to say that neoliberalism has little concern for these other pedagogical aims. But this is where there exists a potential site of resistance and struggle.

Blacker’s argument against student debt is persuasive. He maintains that the language of the Brown v. Board of Education case provides the argument for education as a basic human right (141-2). With student debt now above the trillion dollar mark, it is time to make public education a public good. The costs of education would be paid by tax payers, and any debt incurred would be “transmogrified into social debts” (149). In short, Blacker convincingly argues that we need to abandon the neo-feudal debt-peonage-like result whereby students are required to borrow from a private bank to start a life (122-49).

But neo-feudalism or not, the aim of education cannot be reduced to human capital skills. 23 percent of jobs in the U.S. pay above $50,000, more than 30 percent of the population graduates with a four-year college degree. The maths here is simple – there are not enough well-paying jobs to justify human capital schooling and the indebtedness for this impoverished schooling. We need to argue for a depth pedagogy that includes civic engagement, personal development, self and social perspicacity, and cosmic wonder and awareness.

Pedagogical battles within the academy matter more than Blacker acknowledges (229). At the same time I fully agree with Blacker that the social assemblages outside education are the more urgent activist sites (228). There is no educational reform without labor market reform. Labor market reform is empty without transforming capitalistic production and totalitarian ruled workplaces. Capitalism is no alternative (CINA) (see, Despain 2013).

Thus we can certainly accept Blacker hyperliberal educational strategies of affordability, inclusion, and augmentation of student voices (213-4). Likewise we must embrace Blacker’s more radical position that it is more important to change the political economy outside of education. To Blacker’s credit he never suggests merely creating new jobs or raising pay, and continuing under human capital theory pedagogy. This is false and violent toward social being. The emptiness of vocationalism and credentialism is rather easy to demonstrate in this neoliberal era. The lack of well-paying jobs means that student indebtedness is not sustainable. The site of struggle must thus turn pedagogical and fully develop the notion that capitalism is no alternative, CINA.

22 May 2014


  • Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000 Liquid Modernity Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Bell, Daniel. 1976 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting New York: Basic Books.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2011 Schooling in Capitalist America: Education Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life Chicago: Haymarket Books.
  • Braverman, Harry. 1974 Labor and Monopoly Capitalism: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • Despain, Hans G. 2013 It’s the System Stupid: Structural Crises and the Need for Alternatives to Capitalism Monthly Review 65, no 6, November.

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