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«Envisioning an alternative to neo-liberalism: social justice and a politics of hope This book, which takes social justice as its analytic lens, makes ...»

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Liz Atkins, Paul Warmington and Vicky Duckworth - Book Symposium on James Avis

(2015) Social Justice, Transformation and Knowledge: policy, workplace learning and

skills. Abingdon/New York Routledge

Review 1

Liz Atkins

Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England

Envisioning an alternative to neo-liberalism: social justice and a politics of hope

This book, which takes social justice as its analytic lens, makes an important contribution to

analyses of the impact of economic and education policy in the neo-liberal context of the early 21st century. More than a simple critique of neo-liberalism, this book outlines the ways in which different ideological positions, whilst advocating different forms of localism, buy in to concepts of competitiveness, globalisation and the market, arguing that through this buy in, irrespective of their articulated ideological position, all political parties are responsible for the perpetuation of inequality, and all contribute to the (re)production of class and labour. In effect, there is little to choose between them, since all accept neo-liberal concepts as either taken-for-granteds or articles of faith, and the end result of both is the same. Here, Avis makes the important point – which has echoes of Niemöller’s post WW2 statement ‘first they came for the socialists’ – that agreement with, or support for, neo-liberalism ‘is not necessary to condone it – all that is required is that we are unable to envision a ‘realistic’ alternative’ (p.

11). Thus, throughout the book, Avis grapples with the central question of ‘what lies beyond neo-liberalism’?

Encouragingly, as he points out (p.12), some tentative critiques of neo-liberalism did emerge following the 2008 financial crisis, although these were marginalised to the point of invisibility by the discourses of greed which developed associated with the banking crisis and the actions of those popularly perceived to have triggered it. Thus, the critique became largely limited to a symptom of neoliberalism, rather than neo-liberalism itself. Perhaps this is indicative of the fact that, having been immersed in an increasingly marketised, commodified and neo-liberal system for well over thirty years, most people – let alone policy makers – cannot conceive of anything different. And this is the real problematic in the alternative system that Avis call on us to envision. The folk memory of alternative conceptualisations and ways of doing things has largely been lost. In addition, a majority of contemporary policy makers will have been educated during or after the 1980s, and are thus themselves products of a self-perpetuating, neo-liberal, marketised education system emphasising profit and credential exchange value rather than democratic or transformative education. For these individuals the envisioning of alternatives to neo liberalism is akin to describing colour in the country of the blind (Wells, 1904). This absence of memory, or policy learning, goes some of the way to explaining some of the continuities and similarities between ONL, New Labour, 218 | P a g e Liz Atkins, Paul Warmington and Vicky Duckworth the Coalition and the recently elected Conservative administration highlighted by Avis. And their respective silences in terms of discussing approaches which sit outside the prevailing neo-liberal mind set, even where, at least in ideological terms, neo-liberalism is an alien concept to them.

So what is the alternative? Avis argues for a new kind of politics, grounded in social democracy and predicated on social justice, as a response to the failure of neo-liberalism and to address the issues of the ‘. And yet, the policy makers themselves – irrespective of political ideology – all appropriate social justice as the rationale for their policies, particularly in respect of vocational education, commonly characterized as education for other people’s children. Avis’s analysis highlights the contradictions between the political rhetoric which claims greater equality within a more meritocratic society and the ongoing commodification and marketization of education, even amongst those of notionally similar ideology. In particular, he draws attention to tensions such as that between Fabianism (p.14) which locates educational and social reform in terms of economic efficiency, and ethical socialism which is primarily concerned with questions of social justice. It may be argued that, both in government and opposition, in a variety of incarnations, the labour party in the UK has failed to grapple with a series of fundamental questions about social justice and how it might be articulated in policy. What precisely do we mean by social justice? Does it encompass concepts of reciprocity? If so, how might that be defined? How do we define need without pathologising the receiver? Is the claim of socially just policy itself an oxymoron, when policy refers to the marginalised other? In this sense, do claims for social justice become part of the structures which perpetuate inequality?

These questions point to the key weakness in terms of arguments in favour of social justice. Despite an ancestry of thousands of years, in which the traditional Western view of justice as a ‘common good’ (e.g. see Aristotle Politics III, II. 1282b 15; Hume, 1740:318;

MacIntyre, 1981:154/168; John Paul II’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, undated: 421) emerging from the morality of the early Greek philosophers and ancient Judeo -Christian texts, has informed notions of social justice, it remains a fragmented and heavily debated concept. Whilst Avis acknowledges this, locating the term in contemporary academic understandings, as well as analysing its possible interpretations in the context of different ideological policy perspectives, it is significant that policy makers leave the term open to interpretation. Whilst this is convenient in terms of policy rhetoric, it does mean that no dialogic consensus has yet been achieved which could inform the politics Avis describe. This implies that for the time being at any rate, social justice remains a journey rather than a destination.

I turn now to Avis’s discussion of vocational education. This argument draws on significant related issues such as the pathologising of working class culture – for example, through notions of the ‘broken society’, and of the working class themselves through questions about their ‘educability’, the tension between expansive notions of VET and traditional associations of VET, work and profitability, and intersectionality. His key point here is that intersectionality, in particular in vocational education- which may be seen as the home of 219 | P a g e Book Symposium on Avis, J. (2015) Social Justice, Transformation and Knowledge: policy, workplace learning and skills marginalised youth -needs to be considered in relational terms as, for example, the way in which structures of race, gender, and disability intersect with class, is reproduced and reconstituted through dynamic social practices, constantly reshaping and reforming – so the inequalities that are (re)produced are ever shifting and changing, demanding different responses and understandings. Avis also highlights ongoing arguments about the way in which neo –liberal conceptions of VET (p136) are associated with dispositions for certain types of work, these being working class occupations with limited opportunities for progression: suitable, possibly, for other people’s children, and certainly contributing to the perpetuation of in/equality. In this argument, he contests narrow, instrumental interpretations of VET in favour of more expansive forms of education, which could, he suggests, contribute to the formation of a more socially just politics of hope in ‘the ongoing struggle to create a fairer society in which we can freely express our species being’. This conclusion presents the reader with a challenge: to engage with the envisioning of alternatives to neo-liberalism, to create and identify spaces for activism, and avoid being counted amongst those who, by their inaction, condone the divided, divisive neo-liberal politics which currently frame our lives in differential and unequal ways.

Finally, we are left with two (largely) unanswered questions. Firstly, once we have established what lies beyond neo-liberalism – and we cannot know that it is the politics of hope Avis describes -we need to explore which practical actions we can take in the context of a different kind of politics in order to facilitate the greater activism and political engagement which is fundamental to generating a more socially just society. Secondly, before we do this, we need to have a clear and consensual vision of what a socially just society will actually look like, which means society and policy makers – particularly those on the left -addressing some of the difficult questions around social justice that I alluded to earlier. It is imperative that we take Avis’s work as a ‘call to arms’ and grapple with these issues, since, as long as the process of accumulation for accumulation’s sake (Marx, 1990: 742) continues to underpin our capitalist society, reflected in neo-liberal education and training systems which lead to class based differential opportunities in the labour market, and perpetuation of all forms of inequality - then the more socially just society Avis anticipates can only ever remain an illusion.


Aristotle (1988) The Politics (Ed. Stephen Everson). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Hume, David (1740/2000) A Treatise of Human Nature (Eds. David Fate Norton and Mary J.

Norton). Oxford: Oxford University Press John Paul II (undated) Catechism of the Catholic Church. London: Geoffrey Chapman and Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana MacIntyre, A. (1981) After Virtue: A Moral Theory. London: Duckworth

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy. London and New York:

Penguin Classics.

Wells, H. G. (1904/2007) The Country of the Blind and Other Selected Stories (Ed. Patrick Parrinder). London: Penguin Classics 220 | P a g e Liz Atkins, Paul Warmington and Vicky Duckworth Review 2 Paul Warmington University of Birmingham, Birmingham, England Workplace Learning on the Terrain of Capitalism Reflecting on modernism’s apparent decline, social theorist Mark Fisher has contended that twenty-first century culture is afflicted by ‘anachronism and inertia… buried behind a superficial frenzy of “newness”, of perpetual movement’ (Fisher, 2014: 6). His analysis is not born out of the familiar failure of old folks to grasp new social arrangements; on the contrary, it is symptomatic of frustration among those who still carry the hope of radical social transformation with ‘the sheer persistence of recognisable forms’ in politics and culture (Fisher, 2014: 7). Elsewhere Fisher (2009) has termed this mire ‘capitalist realism’, referring to capitalism’s presentation of itself as the only realistically attainable mode of social organization, the only liveable terrain.

At the heart of James’ Avis Social Justice, Transformation and Knowledge: policy, workplace learning and skills is a very similar frustration with persistent capitalist forms. In his follow-up to 2009’s Education Policy and Social Justice: learning and skills, Avis examines workplace learning and skills policy (and related academic theory) over the past four decades. For Avis, workplace learning – particularly in the form of vocational education and training (VET) - is a site in which ostensibly progressive promises have concealed the penetration of education policy and theory by capitalist realism. The consequence has been a profound poverty of aspiration, wherein autonomy, creativity and expansiveness – the watch words of the putative knowledge society - are understood not as part of our species-being but as mere tools for effective performance. Even supposedly transformative practices are predicated upon reproducing capitalist relations of production, exchange and domination;

knowledge and social justice are conflated with competence and efficiency.

In the book Avis begins by unpicking one of the clichés with which discussion of workplace learning has often been glossed. He reminds us that far from being a neglected ‘Cinderella’ sector, workplace learning has in recent decades been the object of intense political scrutiny.

In the UK a supply-side logic has dominated: the logic being that if the education sector directs its energies to ‘upskilling’ learners then employers will avail themselves of this enhanced labour power. The compact between employers, educators, learners and technology will, we are told, promote a high skills economy and transformations in workplace practices.

This logic pervaded the rhetoric of ‘post-Fordism’, with its mantra of high skills-high trust work, and has more recently shaped the rhetoric of the ‘knowledge economy’, with its emphasis on immaterial labour and the creation of a ‘learning society’. What this rhetoric 221 | P a g e Book Symposium on Avis, J. (2015) Social Justice, Transformation and Knowledge: policy, workplace learning and skills obscures is that the compact is asymmetric; it is dominated by the creation of value, and sinewed by class, race and gender.

Although there has been a proliferation of new ‘technical solutions …to address the shortfalls of the public sector and state education’ (44), the prior ideology shaping workplace learning retains its basic character. In the UK this has been apparent in the shape of the 14-19 curriculum, post-16 provision, further education and in-work training. The ingredients, as Avis reminds us, are an untested faith in education as the key driver of economic fortitude and a win-win insistence that there is no contradiction between economic and social justice imperatives in education and social policy. Above all, as Gleeson (1996: 83) pointed out long ago, there is an ‘abandonment of pretense that education and training is anything more than the servant of industrial, business and economic interests.’ In work-based learning the hidden curriculum is not even hidden.

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