Speaking in Knoxville, Tennessee on January 9 US president Barack Obama unveiled an initiative to provide two years of community college tuition-free, nationwide, to anyone meeting attendance and grade requirements. The idea, inspired by a similar program in Tennessee, aims to make two years of college as universal as high school is now. Obama’s proposal is in keeping, in more ways than one, with traditions going back to the origins of the American corporate state 150 years ago.
Since the mid-19th century, a few hundred large industrial corporations and banks have dominated the American economy. And the American state, functionally, has been closely intertwined with the interests of those corporations. One of its functions is to subsidize the corporate bottom line and artificially prop up the rate of profit by socializing provision of a growing share of inputs — among them the cost of reproducing and training human labor power.
The first statewide public school systems were introduced in New England to meet mill owners’ need for a workforce that was docile, obedient and educated to minimal standards; a function supplemented by education in “100% Americanism” at the turn of the 20th century, and a home economics curriculum in the ’20s and ’30s aimed at processing students into good mass consumers.
As recounted by New Left historian David Noble in America by Design, federal government aid to land grant colleges coincided with the national railroad and industrial corporations’ growing need for trained mechanical and industrial engineers. This trajectory carries through the GI Bill and to Obama’s latest proposal.
These institutional developments were accompanied by the rise of a meritocratic legitimizing ideology which replaced earlier American notions of equality and autonomy. Rather than genuine equality based on widespread economic empowerment and self-employment, the new meritocratic ideology treated step hierarchies of wealth, skill and managerial authority as both normal and necessary, but relied on the ideal of universal education to justify the ideology as “democratic.” With the widespread availability of secondary, higher and technical education, the theory goes, the individual’s rise in the managerial-technical hierarchy is limited only by their own willingness to learn and work. This peculiar American religion combines the existence of deep structural inequalities in wealth and power with the moralistic assumption that everyone gets exactly what they deserve.
The official White House happy talk, predictably, takes the corporate state’s assumptions for granted: “In our growing global economy, Americans need to have more knowledge and more skills to compete — by 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree, and 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree.” That it’s the place of the “growing global economy” and the corporate HR departments in it to set the “required” qualifications for labor, and the place of the state’s education system to process people to those standards, goes without saying.
Never mind that globalization, concentration of economic power in the hands of a few giant, capital-intensive corporations, and a wage system that separates labor from both ownership and control of work, are none of them natural or inevitable processes. They all result from the deliberate policies of a state in league with capital.
The real irony is that the system of power Obama’s proposal is designed to serve is doomed to extinction. The revolution in cheap small-scale machine tools means an end to the material rationale for the wage system, and to corporate control of production. Coupled with the rise of open-source or pirated textbooks, free online lectures and syllabi and DIY learning networks, it also means an end to control over access to employment by the unholy alliance of big universities and human resources departments. In an economy where a few months’ wages can purchase a garage factory full of open-source tools and the economy is dominated by commons-based peer production and craft production in self-managed shops, credentialing will be largely stackable and ad hoc, negotiated informally to suit the needs of the groups of people working together.
The days of the educational Cult of Moloch and its human sacrifices are numbered.