Worlds of Education

There is no such thing as society

published 20 February 2017 updated 20 February 2017

By Jim Baker, Education International

In 1987, Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying: “—There is no such thing as society.”

That phrase made the political point that people should take care of themselves and their families and not look to government to do it. In other words, in that context society was the same as government.

That rejection of society sought to replace collective decisions with individual market choices. As we can see some decades later, that also began an erosion of democracy where government was challenged as a delivery system for democratic governance.

In that same period, in his 1981 inaugural address, US President Ronald Reagan said: “—Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

The magic of the market

This new doctrine, with its origins in those two countries, spread first to other Anglo-Saxon countries and to international organisations and to many developing countries through strings and conditions attached to assistance and loans. It not only moved the 'Right' to the right, but shifted the entire political spectrum.

It also dis-oriented the transition in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It failed to establish and strengthen governance, rule of law, regulatory frameworks, and democratic forces. Instead, it depended on the unfettered markets, as they exist in textbooks and not in real life, to transform economies and to usher in democracies. Instead of finishing the work of the post-War recovery in the rest of Europe that was successful and sustainable, it depended on the magic of the market and what George H.W. Bush once called voodoo economics.

This fervour was rapidly spread by international financial institutions and aid agencies to developing countries through conditionality and tied assistance.

De-regulation at national levels, often without examination of possible consequences or of the reasons that regulations were put in place in the first place, was a conscious decision of governments, individually and collectively, to abandon carefully honed tools to intervene in the economy. It enabled a de-regulated globalisation in which national regulations were not replaced by global regulations, but rather by reliance on industry self-regulation.

History is back, with a vengeance

Although we may have not realised it at the time, the 1980’s brought a profound break with history that changed the context for debate and decision-making. It walked away from practical approaches and common sense. It was thought by many that we had reached the end of history, but, in fact, history has come back from the grave and is having its revenge.

Massive and pervasive policy failures have consequences for democracy, for social progress, and for the economy. Among those consequences are:

  • The embrace of failed policies without full consent of the governed by a wide spectrum of leaders of nearly all political persuasions has created dangerous public cynicism and reaction. That is too often taking authoritarian forms. The rise of nationalist populism is not the failure of democracy, however. It is the consequence of the failure of democracy
  • Although there has been some global progress in reducing poverty, inequality has been growing rapidly. There is a profound sense of unfairness and political leaders are offering few solutions. Many people live in fear and precariousness. Even consensus on key environmental issues like climate change is eroding. Public services have come under increasing attack and too often been endangered by market prescriptions and solutions;
  • Private debt has been rising steadily since 1980. De-regulation and creative packaging of investments have created bubbles; the worst of which was the financial and subsequent economic crisis of 2008. Austerity was imposed to fund the massive bail-out of banks. That further damaged the economy, the social situation and trust in political leadership. The lesson was not learned, however, and banks have re-emerged with their power and prerogatives nearly intact and new regulations are not adequate to prevent further crises.

The public has paid a heavy price for this folly. Public services, including education, have come under great pressure because of that heritage from the 1980’s, including from the profit-seeking actors of globalisation.

Already in 1958, in The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith warned: “In a community where public services have failed to keep abreast of private consumption things are very different. Here, in an atmosphere of private opulence and public squalor, the private goods have full sway.”

The education sector sees the consequences of these policy mistakes of the economic and social experiment rooted in the 1980’s with social problems and intolerance in the classroom, in insufficient support for quality education, in the imposition of private sector values and practices, and in the commodification of teaching and learning.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.