The Benign State in Comparative Education

Blame it on reading James Scott’s argument for an “anarchist squint” in social sciences on the flight over to Oxford, blame it on an increasingly limited tolerance for the word “neoliberalism,” but a lightbulb of sorts went off during my first day at 2013 UKFIET conference on the Post-2015 development goals. My realization was that, as a field, we seem to only be able to think of power in social world that education is constructed in as (a) being necessarily institutionalised and (b) sitting on a monochromatic spectrum ranging from public to private, from state to business, from black to white. And rather than talk about the state as a “thing,” in a Latourian / Actor-Network Theory sense, we often speak instead with the euphemism of a “public sector” – which is not a “thing.”
It comes wrapped with an accompanying narrative: “inequality” is produced by the state adopting “neoliberal” policies that cede its power and responsibility to the private sector. Equality is restored by transferring power back to the “public sector,” to a modern bureaucratic nation state. Or to be even more specific, to a ruling party or coalition that has a monopoly of violence within geographic region. Steven Klees summed the narrative up succinctly in a recent NORRAG NewsBite piece:
 [Historical inequalities led] to about 50 years of the welfare state, from the 1930s to the 1970s, in which government was seen as playing a major and legitimate role in reigning in capitalism.  All that changed in the 1980s with the election of Thatcher in the U.K., Reagan in the U.S., and Kohl in Germany.  Since then, neoliberalism has dominated, within which government is maligned and seen as illegitimate, and business and the market reign supreme.  This has had enormous and harmful consequences for public policy, in general, and for education, in particular.
There is some truth to this narrative, but let’s deconstruct its assumptions. The backbone of the narrative is that the private sector (a1) cannot be managed in a way as to ensure educational goods and services simply pile up on one end of the socio-economic spectrum, and (b1) generally encourages socially unjust outcomes. The state, however, (a2) can manage resources to ensure that they don’t pile up quite so disproportionately, and (b2) generally moves towards producing socially just outcomes for its subjects.
There is ample evidence for premises A1 and B1. As Hugh McClean of Open Society Foundations is apt to point out, there is little evidence that the private sector is interested in socially just outcomes, nor do they produce them in the education (or health) sectors. The problems begin with premises A1 and A2, which assume that educational quality comes in discrete units that can be moved and managed. These assumptions, to me, seem essentially high modernest. If the state can declare a goal of an equitable “education for all,” then make legible “education” and “all,” then they can deliver this equitable education for all.
I’ll explore this more in a later post, but here, I want to concentrate on a more fundamental problem, which is premise B2. As managerialist thinking is apt to do, it radically constricts how we can define problems. With it, our political economy toolkit has us look for coercive power everywhere except for where it actually is: the state. The state is masked as the “public sector” and, as such, is acting in the interest of “the public.”
Second, premise B2 assumes that one is talking about states that look and behave roughly like Norway. It assumes that the state has effective and efficient beurocracies that actively try to construct socially just outcomes, which are managed by a professional bureaucrats that are directed to act in the interest of the marginalized, who are impersonally administering laws and policies enacted by a pluralistic governments that offer political voice to minority groups and opposition.
Unambiguously pro-state arguments are thus borne in the same primordial juices as those that are unambiguously pro-market. “Statist” rest their arguments with an implicit “perfect state” – an ideal democratic, bureucratic nation state. Yet is this not exactly how pro-marketeers base their arguments on the assumption of a perfect, competitive market?
The plot thickets, as we likewise see that rather than acknowledging the flaws with the states and markets that we actually have, we instead hear arguments for perseverance in the project of constructing these perfect states and markets. The market is not free enough, the state is too failed and undeveloped. Both are apt to either point to minuaturized examples of where the state or market works near perfectly, or point to a near utopian “if only…” future.
I would beg the question: are the rulers of states not usually as elitist and self-interested as private sector actors? Are they not, in turn, aiming first and foremost to expand and grow their influence? Are they not usually working in the interest of expanding and sustaining the welfare of the already-empowered who have gained a monopoly on the use of violence through the institutions of governance,

 expanding, reinforcing, and reproducing privilege and power for a narrow set of stakeholders through the expansion of bureaucratic state power?
Thus, the unambiguous pro-state argument assumes something that I don’t: that the Chinese Communist Party builds schools in Tibetan Sichuan out of concern for redistributive social justice, rather than serving to perpetuate and expand its own rule by displacing local cultures, languages, and livelihoods. To turn Tibetans into Chinese, subsistence networks into networks of taxable exchange, to turn someone who is otherwise “just” a person into a worker, student, farmer, manager, or Party member. It would acknowledge, for instance, that projects like Education for All have done more to wipe out local languages and cultural diversity than the Coca-Cola Company could ever dream of. The suits in Atlanta don’t care what language Tibetan children speak and read, but the suits in Beijing sure do.
Oddly, this monochromatic state-market power dichotomy leads people seeing “neoliberalism” everywhere. More than one lecture I went to described the expansion of bureaucratic state power, usually in the form of testing and other quantitative benchmarking, as being the result of “neoliberalism.” While the private sector is sometimes involved, and these are the same tools that they use, in practice what programs like No Child Left Behind have done is to displace the curricular autonomy of a school or teacher with the dictates and whims of the central state. It has added more bureaucracy, not less. It has given more power to ministries of education and multilateral organizations, not less. These tools construct strings that have teachers and students behave as marionettes of the state, which might (or might not) be in the interest of entities in the private sector.
While there are no doubt examples of states in developing countries mostly working as instruments of redistribution (though I struggle to think of examples), the state is often far more predatory, far less pluralistic, and struggles for control inside of its borders than is often assumed. When, as it usually does, the state works in the socio-economic interest of the top 20-30% of the population we are too apt to call it inefficiency or ineffectiveness – or, worse – the result of an internalized neocolonialism or neoliberalist ideology.
Rather than simply criticize, I’d like to propose an alternative model. This model would make visible  the most important power relationships in education and other social services. These are the dichotomies that I think are most relevant and deserving to be in any power analysis in comparative social sciences:
  • [x people] vs states
  • states vs [y enterprises or business alliances]
  • [y enterprises or business alliances] vs [x people].

Neither “the people,” “the state,” nor “the private sector” are ‘things.’ There is no “public sector” any more than the “People’s Republic” is capable of representing the will of Tibetan herders and Shanghainese bankers. The state is, though. As are specific companies, institutions, and what might otherwise be called tribes or networks. Crucially, none of these groupings are politically neutral and interested in wider equality for its own sake. Instead, they all wish to expand the power that they have – often at the expense of the others.

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