Book Review:

March 16, 2015

The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame


Published By: Zero Books

On: December 7, 2013

Buy Here $20.0

Reviewed By: George Fogarasi

Automation and the relentless pushing down of wages create a shrinking market: profits in the long run tend to go down. Marx called this the tendency of The Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF). It’s why Henry Ford doubled workers’ wages so they could buy his cars, and why a century of falling profit later the World Bank concedes that unionization creates a better functioning economy.

Marx’s prescient examination of the TRPF is at the heart of David J. Blacker’s “The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame.” His unflinching analysis grimly insists that nothing can be done to stop the TRPF and the inevitable social and ecological eliminationism that comes in its wake.

Blacker explains how economic shocks caused by the TRPF—the Great Depression, the Seventies oil crises, Thatcher and Reagan’s austerity, the bailout of Wall Street—have lurched capitalism forward into its present form in which individuals are expendable and ready to be eliminated.[1]

The youth of Ferguson and the banlieuers know there are no high tech / high wage jobs they can be educated into. With luck, Blacker notes, they can “revert to their traditional status as a kind of non-waged and economically precarious peasantry and/or imperial military fodder.” And therein lies business opportunity, the “ ‘searching under the couch cushions for loose change’ phase of late capitalism” where schools, jails, medicine, the military and infrastructure are privatized to siphon ever scarcer profits upward. “To think,” muses Blacker, “it was once thought that the ‘long march through the institutions’ was being accomplished by the left.”

He has a keen eye for such absurdity: “Of late, the neoliberal form of capitalism, even amidst its self-referential hysteria, has in reality become an inversion of what the right wing dreams it is.” Faced with the TRPF, “arch-individualist titans have somehow banded together with a solidarity that would be the envy of the most fervent syndicalist in order to rig the financial game for themselves.”

Negative interest rates, quantitative easing and Syriza’s victory are at this moment responses to the TRPF. Blacker dismisses the concept of “casino capitalism” because one can lose in a casino. He suggests a better analogy in which the elite go to a casino, lose catastrophically, and are then given the house’s money in order to keep playing.

His vigorous macro examination of the TRPF is illuminating, but it lacks a granular analysis of the neoliberal attack on education that the book’s title promises. A “surfeit of workers” is conflated with a “surfeit of students… part of the surfeit of humanity logically slated for elimination.” Education is lumped together with other sectors, but the terrain offers so much to examine: Pearson publishing applying to have degree granting status; the increased reliance on adjunct faculty; the budget-driven canard of MOOCs and e-learning. Blacker quite possibly ignores such details because he insists there is nothing that can be done within schools to stop the inevitable changes that come in the wake of the TRPF.

He does, however, allow that there is political work to be done outside of education. His clever analogy is that even the best prison guards with the best reforms can only change what’s inside a prison. It’s what is outside of prisons (and schools) that ultimately frames and defines what goes on in those institutions, and that is where change must occur, according to Blacker, for it to be meaningful.

Perhaps, as an educator, I delude myself into believing education can foster a more just world. Blacker, though, is convincing in his argument that what we teach and learn can do nothing to influence the inevitable trajectories of the TRPF.  Hope, for Blacker, shrinks down into a wholly atomized, personal affair. He recedes into Stoic philosophy—drink well from the cup of life while you can—because our economic trajectory is set and we cannot come together to resist it.

Blacker notes that there is something liberating about accepting fate, yet despite himself, he underscores human agency by noting that people have an “adaptive capacity to learn” and can discover the “lies contained in the stories of which we have become collectively enamored.”

Do we control the TRPF, or does it control us?

The book is at its apocalyptic best when it looks at the big picture. After the searing analysis of economic and ecological collapse, the chapter on student loans in the United States feels like an appendix. Ditto the chapter about students and free speech. Even though Blacker’s academic chops are at their most powerful here—and it is amusing to learn about the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” Supreme Court case—it’s a parochial tangent for non-American readers on the heels of the ambitious first chapters.

It would be heartening to believe that Blacker’s thesis merely projects an Anglo-American template onto the world. In South America and Nepal, for example, Marx and Marxism inform significant reforms that might change the terrain of economic possibility. But this is still informed by capitalist macro-economic forces, by economic growth, capital and wage labour: to flip Stein’s glib take on Oakland, there’s a global economic there there, and built into its resilient heart is a poison pill, the pesky TRPF.

Oddly, after making a relentless and clear case for global collapse, Blacker pulls back to note that cyclical economic crises are central to the capitalist system and allow it to mutate into “successor systems that may be unrecognizable from the point of view of their progenitors.” The system dusts itself off and carries on, bruising many, enriching a few. When is the endgame; is there one? Despite the title of his book, the endgame is merely hinted at.

The poetry of Marx’s “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” is grounded by the blow that follows: “and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Blacker is stone sober in a world punch-drunk with derivatives, magically financialized credit and ever more people in the street wanting to tear it all down. Blacker doggedly follows the TRPF to trace our “real [now hyper-real] conditions of life” to demystify our economic relations with each other. In short, where Piketty points to why the system is skewed and unfair, Blacker notes that it can only implode.

Notes & References

  1. Blacker’s prose pulls no punches as he delineates the “‘shit rolls downhill’ nature of austerity that requires teachers and schoolchildren to pay for the solvency of sinecured bankers and their political enablers,” the too big to fail “state-corporate hybrids that exist as government-secured monopolies even while they spout neoliberal rhetoric about ‘freedom,’ ‘competition’ and the like.” His fiery prose is grounded in meticulous scholarship, giving Blacker discursive leeway to pull off what might otherwise be dismissed as apocalytic pamphleteering.