Flow of Ideas


Glenn Rikowski
School of Education, University of Birmingham, 8th March 1996


This is a theoretical framework paper which aims at a materialist understanding of the learning society. In following this path, what the paper actually ends up doing is to provide a materialist analysis of the emerging learning society. Furthermore, it provides a vista on the learning society which does not rely on the absolutist and endist discourses which have provided a backdrop to previous discussions of the nature of the learning society. Through providing a materialist account of the learning society the paper attempts to ground the concept of the ‘learning society’ within current economic, social and educational trends. It is argued that this is necessary if the learning society is to be seen as a potentiality within contemporary society, rather than an altogether alternative form of social formation which will require a massive political intervention if it is to become a social reality.

The work of Lebowitz (1992) shows that rethinking the learning society within the context of capitalism necessarily results in it becoming incorporated within the orbit of capital. In providing a critique of the theory of the learning society, as this paper does, as idealist form, the implication seems to be that the learning society can only ever become a phase of capitalism. However, the analysis here provides a one-sided, restricted view of what the learning society can become. This is because it only looks at the learning society from the perspective of capital; hence, unsurprisingly, the learning society ends up in this paper as a phase or stage of capitalist accumulation. A really radical materialist perspective would examine the learning society from the viewpoint of wage-labour and a comprehensive materialist perspective on the learning society would explore it in its capital-form and as fulfilling the social needs of wage-labour, the latter becoming part of the process of the dissolution of the category of wage-labour itself. The learning society viewed from the perspective of wage-labour would be, I believe, something quite beautiful to behold. It is a pity I have not provided any glimpses of this materialist form of the learning society in this paper. However, it is important that the learning society is viewed from the ‘standpoint’ of capital for then we can see that, as a mere phase of capitalist accumulation, the ‘learning society’ is not worth striving for. It is an abomination. Only from the perspective of wage-labour can the learning society avoid the dire fates of either ethereal idealism or a materialism infused with the imperatives of capital.

The paper begins with a brief exploration of some of the leading perspectives on the learning society within recently published sources. It then provides an analysis of idealist theorising in general and educational idealism in particular. The third step in the argument shows some of the specific idealist traits and tendencies within contemporary writing on the learning society. This is followed by an attempt to work towards a materialist account of the learning society which entails a special focus on human labour power - which is explored in the fifth section. The sixth section shows how ‘globalisation’ relates to labour power on the analysis offered in section five. The seventh section provides a more formal and deeper analysis of labour power based on the work of Marx. The final two sections draw out the main conclusion of the materialist analysis undertaken to date; that the learning society, on a materialist analysis, can only end up being subordinated to the demands of capital. But, of course, as noted, this pessimistic conclusion ignores how it can also be viewed as a need for wage-labour. This alternative materialist outlook will, of course, never be acknowledged by all those who insist on seeing the learning society within what Avis (1993a) has called the New Consensus, where the ‘learning society’ is reduced to a simplistic ‘skills’ outlook which moves, like this paper, within a one-sided perspective which only views things through the deceptively smooth lens of capital. The one-sided analysis presented here only hints at what a perspective on the learning society from the ‘standpoint of wage labour’ might look like. The work of Ranson and Stewart (1994) points toward some of the political strategies that can transform the social need for a learning society (from the perspective of wage-labour) into a social reality. But that is another story.

Perspectives on the Learning Society

As Young (1995) has noted, there are many definitions and perspectives on the learning society. It is an essentially ‘contested concept’ (1995, p.4) argues Young. He provides three models of the learning society. The differences between these models reflects different interests and visions of the future (incorporating different models of social and economic development) and ‘different strategies for getting there’ (Ibid.). Firstly, Young describes the ‘schooling model’ of the learning society. Here, the stress is on high participation in post-compulsory education and training which aims to ensure that any many people as possible reach some minimum education and training targets. The British National Education and Training Targets (NETTs) provide an empirical manifestation of this perspective on the learning society. Young fails to provide an account of how this view of the learning society relates to wealth creation, or even human capital formation and other economic and social processes. Historically, his ‘schooling model’ (which seems basically to be about increasing the quantity of ‘schooling’ in terms of duration) of the learning society seems to point to quantitative developments such as the raising of the school-leaving age in the early 1970s, increased staying-on rates in the 1980s and the emergence of mass further and higher education in the 1990s.

Young’s second model of the learning society - the ‘credentialist model’ - seems to be conflated with his first model as it is hard to envisage a ‘schooling model’ that does not imply increased credentialism. Young seems to abstract qualifications from schooling which makes little sense in terms of the later years of compulsory schooling (GCSE, GNVQ Part 1), and even less sense in relation to post-compulsory schooling (A-Level, GNVQ etc.). These forms of schooling are substantially about gaining academic credentials. However, this second model:

"... gives priority to ensuring that the vast majority of the population have qualifications or certified skills and knowledge and that the qualifications people achieve are related to their future employment" (p.5).

The credentialist model allows for qualifications being gained beyond academic institutions (through work-based learning, for example) and also relates to wealth creation and economic growth.

The third model, the ‘access’ model, relates closely to lifelong or lifetime learning. It points to a society where learning beyond compulsory education is commonplace and where learning takes place beyond formal academic institutions. Again, it seems to overlap with the ‘credentialist model’ on this last point. Young shows how the access model relates to both a neo-liberal obsession with freeing learning from the control of the ‘expert’ and professional educator and to a progressive concern with autonomy, learner-centredness, flexible and open learning and harnessing the potential of the new technology (p.7). Economically, Young views the model as being tied to a vision of de-industrialism or post-industrial society where education becomes another consumer choice. The model stresses breaking down barriers to learning, supporting learners (in a learner-led curriculum) rather than teaching and (through the use of computer technology) cutting learning costs. Young notes its similarities with Illich’s 1970s vision of the ‘deschooled society’, though, with the technological developments of the last twenty years, the model has greater technical feasibility now than it did then.

Young rejects all three models, on the basis of critiques of each which he presents in his paper, and argues instead for an ‘educative model’ of the learning society. This perspective involves the recognition that learning is involved in all social interaction (p.11). Using the work of Engestrom (1994), Young provides a description of three levels of learning (first-third order learning) and designates a ‘learning society’ as being a society where the third order of learning predominates in all social interactions. This third order level of learning is: ‘... expansive learning in which the learner questions and begins to transform the context or ‘community of practice’ where the learning begins’ (p.11).

Young’s ‘educative model’ points to social transformation without specifying how the abstract, individual learner will do this, or, in conjunction with other ‘expansive learners’, how collectivities of ‘new humans’ will ensure the material, institutional, political and social transformation necessary for maintenance of this mode of existence. Secondly, Young provides no theory of the emergence of these specimens of new humanity. Short of teleology, Young’s ‘educative’ model provides no account of how political, social and economic processes will yield up the ‘expansive learner’. However, his ‘educative model’ is closer to a vision of a learning society than the other three, stunted, ‘straw models’ he sets the former against. The first three models all stress the learning aspect at the expense of any real analysis of the society within which it is embedded. These educational imperialistic models merely extend education and training out into the community instead of specifying the processes through which the society can become a social entity where learning organically flows through all social interactions and exchanges.

Ranson et al (1995) located a triad of perspectives on the learning society within the literature. Firstly, the learning society can be viewed as being largely concerned with skill development for the labour market. This is the narrow, economistic version much favoured by, for example, the Confederation of British Industry (1989) with its ‘skills revolution’ and commentators who view the learning society mainly as a vehicle for regenerating the British economy. The ‘society’ element in this conception gets substituted for ‘economy’. The second emphasis is on useful knowledge for work (Cooley, 1989; Ainley, 1993,1994a). Here, the potential for new information technologies to create satisfying work and for workplaces to be infused with democratic processes (where workers have more control over all aspects of work, but especially over human/machine interaction) is highlighted. This conception, though more expansive than the first in so far as it acknowledges the interests of labour as those of capital, also tends toward a narrow economism.

The third perspective views the learning society as being a society which incorporates learning for citizenship (Husen, 1974; Ranson, 1992, 1994). This form of learning is ‘active’ in the sense that the processes of learning are embedded within active participation in the community and in wealth creation. It is learning for life through active participation in social life itself and throughout the lifetime of the learner. Thus, it goes beyond the economism of the first two perspectives and also breaks down the barrier between the ‘economy’ and extra-economic institutions, process and practices. Finally, it links social and economic innovation to active, agency-manifesting behaviours of citizens. Therefore, it views the learning society as not being a static social formation but as an ever-changing social aggregation of processes of unfolding or becoming (Sztompka, 1991). In a series of publications, Ranson (1990, 1992, 1993a, 1994) has provided criteria for evaluating the extent to which a society can be designated a ‘learning’ society, the presuppositions, principles, values and purposes comprising the key components of a learning society, models which set out strategies for reconstructing society towards becoming a learning society (1992, pp.72-74) and the personal and social conditions for learning within a learning society. On this last point, Hayes, Fonda and Hillman (1995) also acknowledge that viewing the learning society as a conglomeration of ‘learning organisations’ is insufficient and set out some institutional preconditions for the growth and maintenance of a learning society. Their view of a the ‘learning polity’ which seeks to provide a social foundation for the learning society to flower and develop has similarities with Ranson’s decentralised, bottom-up and democratic perspective. Like Ranson, however, they also acknowledge that national strategies for framing a supportive infrastructural environment in order for local community-centred initiatives to develop is an essential element.

Edwards (1995) also provides three perspectives on the learning society. Firstly, he argues, the learning society can be viewed as the educated society. On this view, active citizenship, liberal democracy and equal opportunities are stressed within a lifelong learning trajectory. It is education for social and economic change. This has similarities with Ranson’s third perspective outlined above and can be viewed as a liberal democratic model. Edwards’ second perspective on the learning society focuses on the learning market. It is an economistic model. The emphasis here is on educational and training institutions providing individualised learning services within an lifelong learning outlook where the whole process is premised upon enhancing the competitiveness of the British economy. The third perspective views the learning society as being an aggregate of learning networks (with local, national, European and global dimensions) where learners adopt a ‘learning approach to life’ (p.187); learning ‘with attitude’. The process is powered by access to new technology and it is consonant with a postmodern consumer model of the learning society where learners are ‘empowered’ through viewing learning as a pleasurable, individualised and student-centred activity. Again, all this takes place within a lifelong learning framework.

Many criticisms could be launched at all of these conceptions of the learning society. Indeed, the authors themselves provide a critique of the versions which they do not favour. Edwards (1995) points to contradictions and tensions within all currently available perspectives on the learning society. He particularly highlights the inequalities which are masked by appeals to a learning society based on ‘learning markets’, ‘the empowerment of lifelong learning’, ‘learning networks’ or ‘learning in the community’. Thus, argues Edwards:

"... we need to look closely at the front of the banner of the learning society before we walk behind it" (p.189).

Although Edwards goes further than most in providing sustained criticism of the notion of a learning society, he still nevertheless misses the biggest limitation of all. This is, that the learning society, in its various guises and formulations, is an idealist theory. Why this should be a problem, and indeed why idealist educational theories should be inherently problematic, will be the centrepiece of the next section. The alternative is to view the learning society within a materialist framework. This will not go down well with those who associate materialism with Marxism, which has been declared ‘dead’ many times since 1989. Furthermore, the theory of the learning society, within a materialist outlook, stresses the society element and does not start from an exploration of abstract notions of ‘learning’ and ‘the learner’, or from a consideration of educational institutions. This may crack a nut with educationalists who wish to stress the learning half of the learning society couplet. However, it does provide the theory of the learning society with a dynamic which starts off from where we are, really existing capitalist society, without positing it (as Hayes, Fonda and Hillman (1995) do) as ‘... a new form of society.’ (p.3, my emphasis). This is just the type of idealist spell-casting that proponents of a learning society do not need, and makes the task of constructing a materialist theory of the learning society all the more urgent.

The Idealist Circle

Idealism has a long philosophical pedigree, going back in the Western tradition to Plato and the pre-Socratics. It would be inappropriate and foolhardy to attempt to embark on a major exposition of idealism through the millennia. The task here is to locate the forms of idealism which impinge upon previous conceptions of the learning society. Idealist outlooks on the learning society can be broken down into general and specific forms. The general forms of idealism are the most complex and the specific forms are organically related to the former. Hence, it seems reasonable to focus the analysis of these general forms on how they permeate educational discourse and theory.

The discussion resolves itself into analysis of: general forms of idealism (which can be broken down into idealism as such and idealism in educational discourse); specific aspects of idealist theorising, exploring how these relate to conceptions of the learning society; and, finally, exploring how general forms of idealism condition conceptions of the learning society. This section concentrates on the first two moments only. The question of showing how the various perspectives on the learning society can be viewed as general forms of idealism is best left until later, after the positive case, the materialist analysis of the learning society, has been delineated. Given the contrast between idealism and materialism, what is generally idealist (and why this is a problem) about different conceptions of the learning society will become clearer.


Harris (1994) views idealism as a philosophical approach which incorporates essentialism (where the ontological enterprise is to get at the ‘essence’ of ‘things’ as they ‘really’ are, abstracted from relational considerations) and the drive to establish eternal truths and ‘... timeless social, moral and personal values and ideas.’ (p.8). Idealist thinking involves a divorce of the thinker from the objects of knowledge, experience and sensuous activity (McCarthy, 1994). Those who tread the idealist path situate themselves, qua knowers and thinkers, as being ontologically divorced from the objects of their knowledge (which involves a radical bifurcation between the ‘subjectivity’ of the knower and the ‘objectivity’ of the known).

Derek Sayer (1989) provides a radical re-interpretation of Marx’s base/superstructure metaphor which constitutes an explanation of the existence of idealist thinking in its modern form within capitalist society. According to Sayer, the base/superstructure is not a model of capitalist social reality at all. To view it as a model of social reality leads to a crude economic determinism which has been the curse of Marxist theory since Marx wrote the 1859 Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy where this devilish metaphor first surfaces. The ‘economic base’ (economy) determines the ‘ideological superstructure’ (family, law and so on). Education is typically placed in the ‘ideological superstructure’ and hence is viewed as being ‘determined’ by the ‘economic system’ as in the work of Bowles and Gintis (1976). Of course, the crude economic determinism of the standard rendition of the metaphor has led to a number of attempts to escape the fatalism and mechanistic view of social development it entails - from Engels’ fudging about ‘determination in the last instance’ to the Althusserian ‘relative autonomy’ (of the base from the infrastructure) alternative which still finds favour amongst some educational theorists (such as Apple, 1985; Fritzell, 1987). Sayer cuts through all of this by alerting us to what Marx actually said in the 1859 Preface and arguing that:

"The ‘superstructure’ ... is simply the ‘ideal’ form in which the totality of ‘material’ relations which make up the ‘base’ itself are manifested to consciousness, not a substantially separable order of reality at all" (Sayer, 1979, p.84).

As Marx held that ‘consciousness is determined by life’ argues Sayer, then the superstructural becomes the ideas about capitalist social reality that people draw from their everyday, common-sense experience. This applies to the ideas of political economists and idealist philosophers as much as anyone else. Idealist thinkers do not (or refuse to) accept this point. Thus, idealist theories of society, in their primordial phase, come to uncritically reflect capitalist social reality. Social theory merely ‘maps’ what is socially given through observation and empirical study - and there it rests. However, Sayer (and Marx) points to a second moment of idealist social theory. This is when the ideas, originally derived from the capitalist form of society as it presents itself to consciousness, come to take on ‘a life of their own’. They are reified, become ‘things’ within discourse, attain the status of ‘objects’. Thereafter, idealist theorists, when referring to these reified concepts, take the stance that they are establishing the ‘essence’ of things within ‘pure thought’, or the relations between social entities (such as philosophical discussion about the relationship between ‘education’ and ‘training’). This is the mystical, ghostly moment of idealist theory. As Sayer points out:

"Consciousness is precisely not a thing in itself, and the fundamental error of the idealists is to treat it as such, to attribute to ‘conceptions, thoughts, ideas, in fact all the products of consciousness ... an independence" (p.86, ital. Marx, 1846, p.30 - with Sayer’s emphasis).

Sayer, pace Marx, argues that the starting point for analysis is ‘the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness.’ (Marx, 1846, p.38 in Sayer, p.86 - Marx’s emphasis). Thus, Marx and Sayer advocate a social theory which does not separate consciousness from subjects. Sayer summarises the two moments, or phases, within idealist theorising in the following way:

"Idealism’s historical subjects are constituted by first abstracting, then reifying what is in fact merely a predicate - consciousness - of real subjects" (Ibid., my emphases).

The same double movement can also be found in idealist thinking about social institutions and social collectivities. Conceptions about, say, education, are uncritically derived from ‘education as known’ by those who live in a particular society. Then (the second moment), these conceptions may become reified, so that the thinker talks about ‘the education system’ and ‘training’ and then attempts to ‘conceptually articulate’ their relationship(s).

Sayer goes on (pp.86-112) to illustrate his re-thinking of the base/superstructure metaphor through a number of examples taken from Marx’s own work, other social theorists and history. However, before moving on to explore educational idealism it is worth briefly looking at moral or ethical idealism as some theories of the learning society incorporate this strain of idealism.

Idealism in the ‘moral’ or ethical sense - that one has ‘ideals’, ultimate values - also involves the separation of ‘the ideal’ from social reality, but in a slightly different form from the idealist-as-social-theorist account presented above. On McCarthy’s account of idealist ethics, the first moment is the same as with our previous account. The second moment involves the imposition of ‘ideals’ by the theorist, working within theoretical space, upon individuals and whole societies as objects within theory. In this way:

"... ideals are disembodied forms that are abstracted from existence and imposed upon individuals from the outside" (McCarthy, 1994, p.308 - my emphasis).

This is the case with some aspects, of some versions, of the learning society. Individuals are placed under a moral imperative to learn! The learning society as a normative theory also becomes a form of ethical idealism which transforms itself into a political idealism when questions of political agency - the politics of moving from ‘the now and the damned’ to the future and the serene - arise. This is especially apparent when aspects of actually existing society present themselves as barriers to the realisation of a ‘learning society’.

Educational Idealism

Kevin Harris (1994) has provided a comprehensive account of idealist thinking and theorising as it is encountered in educational research and theory. Harris’ work on idealism in educational theory is a useful starting point for an assessment of conceptions of the learning society as specifically idealist concoctions. The fundamental aspect of educational idealism, argues Harris, is that it:

"... denies, ignores, misconceptualizes, and renders unproblematic certain important factors about the real world of daily experience and practice" (p.10).

It abstracts from, and then leaves behind, material existence as lived and breathed by people in capitalist society. Harris locates five major aspects which relate to this general observation about educational idealism:

• It assumes (implicitly or explicitly) an atomistic stance to social relations where actors within the education system (especially teachers) appear as free, autonomous individual agents (p.10);
• It conflates concrete social institutions with abstract ideals - e.g. schooling with education - which mystifies the functions of the former (p.11);
• It concentrates on abstract notions such as ‘democracy’, ‘equality’ and ‘personal autonomy’ whilst suggesting either that the society and institutions under scrutiny are actually ‘democratic’ and ‘egalitarian’ and so on, or (less reprehensibly) that they have the potential to become so without fundamentally altering the social relations of society - typically through offering distributive justice within these social relations (pp.11-12);
• Educational idealism ‘...exhorts moral and intellectual prescriptions which have a nice ring to them and read well as a projection of what things might be like in the best of all possible worlds.’ Yet ‘These same prescriptions ... can emerge as empty rhetoric in particular social conditions and historical periods.’ (p.12);
• Idealist educational theory relies on a-historic accounts of human nature and social development in ‘... attempting to justify its observations and conclusions.’ (pp.12-13).

Harris provides an account of how educational idealism emanates from the ‘legacy of Plato’. This account shows how Plato’s idealism (through such constructs as the educational philosophy of Hirst and Peters in England) informed educational theory, discourse and research up to the 1960s. Harris then goes on to chart the various reactions and adaptations to this idealist educational theory which challenged the idea that ‘education was the essence of schooling’ (pp.21-34). He argues, convincingly, that liberal educational researchers in the States (James Coleman, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol as examples), structural-functionalist neo-Marxists (Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis, Louis Althusser), cultural Marxists (Paul Willis), radical curriculum theorists (Nell Keddie, Neil Postman), the writings of Paulo Freire, the neo-Gramscian (the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham) output on education and radical educational philosophers who incorporated the work of Rawls, Nozick and Dworkin (such as John White) - all reacted to the old idealism but nevertheless maintained significant similarities with it. Chiefly, they all agreed, with Platonic idealism, that:

"... a major goal of education in liberal democracies is the development of autonomy, although they might see the development and the nature of autonomy differently" (pp.33-34).

As the disparate educational theories listed above are viewed as reactions and adaptations to educational idealism rather than alternatives to it, and, given that they have not moved beyond the Platonist concern with autonomy, then Harris feels that he is on safe ground when he argues that idealism has ‘... provided the background and basic presuppositions for most past and contemporary educational theory and practice.’(p.8). Such a theory, argues Harris, can be comforting and attractive to teachers and educational theorists in times of relative social advancement, such as the post-War boom era, as capitalism appears to offer some genuine opportunities for greater autonomy, more democracy and equality (p.19). In the harsh economic climate of the mid-1970s onwards idealist educational theory appears to become increasingly out of synch with what society can offer. In view of the failure to develop a materialist alternative then nihilistic, cynical, retro and absurd social theoretical constructions (postmodernism) can emerge to fill the gap. As Cole and Hill (1995) put it, theoretical ‘games of despair’ and self-indulgent radical posturing within theoretical space become attractive alternatives in these hard times.

The ‘Learning Society’ as Idealist Form: Specifics

Some of the specific aspects of idealist educational discourse as they surface within conceptions of the learning society will now be explored. These are, firstly, the utopian element in much of the learning society theorising, which according to Ainley (1994b) ultimately becomes an ideology. Secondly, normative aspects of some conceptions of the learning society. Thirdly, how conceptions of the learning society, and the overarching notion of the learning society in particular, can be viewed as ungrounded abstractions. Fourthly, the learning society, as a grand concept, can be viewed as simultaneously unhistorical and ‘survivalist’. The learning society viewed as a form of ‘survivalism’ can be summarised as: society ‘X’ exists; therefore, collective/individual learning must have taken place in order for it to exist; hence, as long as it exists it must be a ‘learning society’. Finally, the concept of the learning society is endist and absolutist when set within a philosophy of being and a teleology involving a social statics as its end point. For a full critique of the learning society as a form of idealist theory it should be shown how these specific aspects of idealist theory arise out of the general forms. However, here, this intermediary stage will be left out. It would involve a massive detour into philosophy, and the main task, of providing a materialist account of the learning society would recede into a very distant horizon.

Utopia to Ideology

A number of writers (Young, 1995; Ainley, 1994b; Edwards, 1995) have pointed to a strong utopian strain running through conceptions of the learning society. As Olson (1982) has argued, drawing upon an analysis of Utopias from Plato to More, utopianism (the process of rendering fictional, idealised worlds into finished forms or ‘blueprints’ within text and other forms of discourse) is ‘... the search for the good pattern of life in an a-historical cosmos.’ (p.143). This last point is highly significant, as conceptions of the learning society seem to be suspended above and beyond time as they typically fail to temporally locate this transcendent form of society, though a few commentators (such as Hayes, Fonda and Hillman, 1995) posit the learning society as a ‘new form’ of society - which implies the superseding of capitalism. To posit the learning society as a ‘society of the future’ without showing the dynamic through which it could develop out of presently existing capitalist society makes it nothing short of an act of faith. Indeed, Olson notes that the process of unveiling a utopia is primarily a rational process as ‘... the best pattern of life is rational and is discovered rationally.’ (Ibid.) and thus it ‘... is the result of a human penetration of the plane of eternal truth.’(p.144). Of course, idealist proponents of the learning society could, and have, argued that it is not so much a Utopia but more an ‘ideal type’, and hence the significance of criteria (Ranson, 1992, 1994) for judging the extent to which a society is pro(re)gressing towards/away from the ideal. There is nothing new in this stance. This is the way that classical utopians have viewed the situation agues Olson (p.145), for:

"Having recognized or discovered truth, we work for its embodiment in human institutions. Success in this task is confirmed by harmony. This harmony is vertical correspondence between the transcendent and the world of temporality and change" (Ibid.).

As a Utopia, the learning society (in its various guises) falls into three forms. Firstly, in classical utopian fashion, the learning society becomes a new form of society altogether (Hayes, Fonda and Hillman, 1995). It transcends capitalism. A transformation from capitalism to the new society becomes essential. Secondly, many of the conceptions of the learning society pose a quasi-Nietzschean ‘eternal return of the same’ (capitalism) but with an enhanced emphasis on knowledge/skill/competence attainment and the drive to enhance human as opposed to other forms of capital. Here, there is no question of transcending capitalism at all. Movement towards a new form of capitalism might be posited - through the neutered concepts of globalisation (Edwards, 1995) for example - or the democratisation of capitalism (Ranson, 1994) might be on offer. But capitalism remains the orbit around which these theories seem to move, and, in this sense, they degenerate into an apologetics, holding out false hopes of a capitalism as Utopia. Of course, a number of writers in recent years (Meiksins Wood, 1995; Brosio, 1994; Carnoy and Levin, 1985) have pointed out the essential antagonisms between democracy and capital. Within this stance, some versions of the learning society (the ‘learning market’ model in Edwards, 1995; the ‘skill development for the labour market’ model of Ranson et al (1995), as examples) show how it becomes eternally encased within a capitalist framework. In this guise it partially becomes a retro-Utopia (which not necessarily the same as a dystopia), appealing to general features of a crude, unregulated, de-statised, unreconstructed, pure and hyper-competitive, socially atomised and individualised capitalism which harks back to a mythical ‘golden age’ of capital. This retro moment is then overlain with rhetoric about individualised learning, the application of computer technology, the need for lifetime learning and so on which gives these versions of the learning society some appeal beyond the boardroom and corporate culture and something to whet the appetites of radical educationalists. Thirdly (in Ranson (1992) for example), there is a kind of agnosticism where the learning society is largely theorised without raising the question of the form (as opposed to abstract stipulations about institutional arrangements, the correct relation between local and central democracy and so on) of society necessary for its realisation. Although, those taking this position make many criticisms of current education and training provision, democratic forms and business culture, the issue of the learning society as a celebration of capital or its transcendence is left alone. The learning society becomes a free-floating Utopia.

The second type of ‘learning society as Utopia’, its capitalist celebratory form, is the most interesting. Firstly, this is because it is the dominant form in terms its salience within policy debates (Edwards, 1995, p.187). Secondly, as it is a Utopia (or dystopia) which celebrates capital and poses the resolution of its contradictions and tensions it degenerates into an ideology (Young, 1995; Ainley, 1994b). Its utopian element, that capitalism in its learning society form abolishes class conflict and inequalities, has been highlighted by Young (1995). Young argues that the emphasis on skill ownership and education and training markets provokes a vision of society where formally equal, free and skill-seeking individuals spend a lifetime of learning in a social formation where social divisions are not based on ownership of property and wealth. Skill- and knowledge-seeking and competence-enhancement within individuals becomes the new form of social division (p.3). In this model, some purely self-interested and self-serving individuals will gain more or better - i.e. marketable - skills than others. But that, following the ideological flow, will be either good/bad luck, judgement or display of (market) responsibility (through doing the ‘right’ subjects, gaining the most marketable skills and so on). It is at this point that the ideological attraction of the concept of the ‘learning society’ becomes most clear for those in currently dominant positions within contemporary capitalism, for:

"As an ideology it provides a justification for inequalities by masking the extent to which modern societies, as well as depending on the population’s knowledge and skills, are also based on inequalities of power and wealth" (Young, 1995, p.3).

This is especially so for the ‘market’ models or versions of the learning society. As Ranson (1992, 1993b) has noted, although all are formally free and equal within the market, nevertheless, the acts of exchange within it mask differences in the degree of social power the exchanging participants posses (p.72). The market reproduces inequalities which consumers and producers bring to the marketplace (Ibid.). The utopian vision of lifelong learners subsuming their wills under the imperative to enhance their market and earning power through frenzied activity in learning markets also glosses over the question of whether the gains of this activity are equal for capital and labour. In effect, the utopian strand within the ‘market model’ of the learning society is based on a wishing away of some aspects of capitalism (class division, social inequalities and power differentials) whilst celebrating and highlighting others (the independence, self-investment and continual restless and manic skill-enhancement, knowledge-induction and competence development of ‘learners’). It is ‘capitalism without tears’.

Kumar (1995) has argued that Utopia is not mainly about ‘... providing detailed blueprints for social reconstruction.’(p.219). Rather, reflecting upon Utopias performs the function of making us think about social possibilities, possible types of world and social existence. Utopias are about ‘educating our desires’ in ways which make us think about social life as lived now. This interpretation of the notion of Utopia can pose serious questions about the nature of society without proposing some idealist blueprint as ultimate goal, argues Kumar. However, strong proponents of the ‘market’ view of the learning society would no doubt find this too weak a position, as the imperatives to compete on the international stage through enhancing the nation’s human capital stock takes a greater urgency than using learning society Utopias as springboards for the critique of capitalism.

Normative Theory without Political Agency

The theory of the learning society involves a number of normative aspects which place it within an ethical idealist framework. Firstly, its proponents view it as a better form of society towards which we, as rational humans, ought to work towards. Secondly, some of the specific elements of various forms of the learning society are taken as intrinsically good things which we should all work towards - for example, lifelong learning or a renewed liberal education. Thirdly, normative goals, such as enhancing the competitiveness of the economy, are frequently embedded within conceptions of the learning society.

These normative aspects are typically transformed into a form of idealism as they rarely connect with theorisations of actually existing capitalist society in terms of their realisation. They become normative goals suspended above society as known today. Political programmes, regarding how we get to a learning society from where we are now, are avoided. Thus, the question of political agency, which social and political forces will create the learning society, also becomes problematic.

An example given by Edwards (1995) brings out many of the normative questions left hanging by theorists of the learning society. Drawing upon the work of Ranson (1994), where there is an emphasis on the conditions making for creative wealth accumulation, active learning leading to ‘self-realisation’, community involvement (especially at the local level) and liberal democratic forms of citizenship, Edwards shows how these normative goals become cast adrift from social reality:

"... [For Ranson] ... the learning society is both a condition for and an outcome of participation in liberal democratic societies. What is left unspecified is the precise nature of the forms of participation and by whom. Lifelong education is to support that learning and participation. The emphasis is highly normative, apparently divorced from an analysis of the specifics of power in the social formation. Its emphasis is on the provision of education, very much situated within a view of the assumed inherent worth of liberal education" (p.188).

In calling for the specifics regarding the institutions, forms of participation on so on, which he, Edwards, believes Ranson has omitted, Edwards is, in effect, calling for a blueprint of the learning society. However, making this move takes us from one form of idealism to another. Edwards is calling for utopian specifications from Ranson. On the other hand, Ranson provides considerable space in his (1994) setting forth the social conditions, institutions and education and training reforms which must be put in place if there is to be movement towards the learning society. However, given the significance of the open, democratic and negotiable nature of the concrete institutions in Ranson’s vision of the learning society it would be inappropriate to set its form with detailed precision.

What Edwards’ example points to though is that notions of the learning society, theorised in abstraction form capitalist society, become primarily normative constructions. As forms of idealism the ‘ideals’ (such as liberal education) are essentially contestable.

Ungrounded Abstraction

The concept of the ‘learning society’ as opposed to say, ‘feudalism’ or ‘capitalism’, can be seen as an essentially indeterminate concept. It is an ungrounded abstraction. Rikowski (1994) has demonstrated how the concept of ‘modernisation’ (in relation to the sociology of development and educational theory) is an essentially ungrounded abstraction. It is impossible to ontologically ‘fix’ the concept in terms of any actual social processes, social forms or sets of institutional arrangements. As Rikowski explains:

"’Modernisation’ is an ungrounded abstraction as it refers to nothing over-and-above social processes and change that can be described in other ...[and better: GR...] ways" (p.84).

Thus, ‘modernisation’ is an ungrounded abstraction as it is arbitrary and redundant as other concepts (related to an appreciation of the development of capitalist social forms and processes) can explain socio-economic developments in contemporary society. Whereas, to mark and stamp out social and educational processes as instances of ‘modernisation, merely involves an opportunistic and impressionistic labelling process. It labels certain social developments as ‘modernising’ ones without exposing the social dynamic (within a theory of the social totality) of the movement of social forms and processes (temporally, spatially and transformationally).

The concept of the ‘learning society’ is also an ungrounded abstraction. All societies ‘learn’ in some minimalist way - both collectively, and as individuals learning within the society. The idealism here results from the fact that the basic concept of the ‘learning society’ can be detached from all (possible) societies. In itself it is not embedded within any particular form or type of previous, present or future society. It is temporally and spatially detached, ungrounded, cast adrift. Attempts to ‘fix’ this concept, as previously seen, lead to either a Utopia or an apologia (for capitalist social forms). Or, alternatively, it can be fixed as a set of ideals, goals and norms - but then its relations with existing social reality must in turn be fixed (in a non-teleological fashion) if it is to move beyond being a moral imperative (in an apparently postmodern age with diverse values) or pious hope. The idealist circle is hard to break.

Unhistorical and ‘Survivalist’

The previous section points to the inherently unhistorical nature of the concept of ‘learning society’, its temporal promiscuity. Readings of Nietzsche’s (and some of Marx’s) early works might lead the reader to conclude that the ‘learning society’ was alive and well thousands of years ago in ancient Greece (even though Plato thought that Greek education, as well as Greek justice, needed re-thinking). As the ‘learning society’ has not been theorised in relation to capitalism in any systematic way, then it becomes an unanchored, floating theory in relation to the now. This also makes its future relationship to capitalism problematic as the limits to the learning society within capitalism have not been set. A-historicism is a key feature of idealist theory. Materialist theories, on the other hand, situate social phenomena within specific forms of society, particular social formations; phenomena are provided with historical roots, whilst at the same time their forward infinity is denied (as the fundamental nature of the social formation may change).

Ranson (1993b, 1994) has indicated that the ‘marketisation’ of education and training is a serious threat to the development of the learning society as the market places ‘... collective welfare beyond the reach of public deliberation, choice and action.’ (1994, p.98). Thus, markets systematically undermine the participative, collective and democratic aspects of Ranson’s vision of the learning society. It could be argued, that, in the British context, the marketisation of education, and indeed other public services too (from outright privatisation to milder forms such as compulsory competitive tendering and ‘market discourse’), is increasing and hence, in some respects we are getting further away from any ‘learning society’. This seems to start to frame discussion of the learning society within a definable social formation: capitalism. However, this is misleading, as discussion about the ‘market’ itself tends not to be solidly based within a theorisation of capitalist totality. The market is an old institution. The Greeks had markets - in slaves, for example. Thus, talk about ‘the market’ (and this is common within educational discourse) becomes divorced and dislocated from an overall analysis of markets in capitalism. Such dis-located, unhistorical and a-temporal perspectives allow educational theorists and researchers to produce volumes of work on education markets yet next-to-nothing on the ‘products’ of schooling or education as production. The absurd outcome is that it appears, to all intents and purposes, that we have ‘education markets and missing products’ (Rikowski, 1995).

The opposite pole to a-historicism in discourse about the learning society is survivalism. Unless the concept of ‘learning society’ can be grounded in terms of the trajectory and development of existing society then there is nothing to stop the malicious theorist from applying ‘learning society’ to all previous societies on the basis that they survived as societies - so they must, collectively, have learnt something! Learning must have taken place! All societies ‘learn’! Without grounding the ‘learning society’ in the form of society we have now - capitalism - then it appears that it can be everywhere or nowhere in temporal terms.

Teleology, Endism and Absolutism

In the light of what has been said so far, one refuge for an idealist version of the learning society might be teleology. It could be held that the learning society is a fixed, end-state, phenomena towards which we are moving. When the learning society is finally reached, it attains an absolutist form; at a certain point in time the learning society will be whereas previously it was not. Accepting this position incorporates an act of faith. It is a desperate way of trying to break out of, or to transcend, the idealist circle.

Whilst no theorist of the learning society takes on such an extreme position as that outlined above, nevertheless, there has been weaker talk of a ‘need’ or ‘imperative’ (Howard, 1990) to create such a society, either in order to compete more effectively on the economic stage - as in the ‘market’ conceptions of the learning society - or as part of a process of regenerating a tired, centralised and bureaucratic democracy (Ranson, 1992, p.75). However, these weaker versions collapse into a normative form of the argument for a learning society, bringing ethical idealism in its wake. This is because either perceived ‘needs’ for, or imperatives to create, a learning society must be justified as societal aims. The idealist nature of this enterprise is only cut short when the justification comes to rest upon unassailable moral values and principles, which, if we live in ‘postmodern age’ with its associated ‘relativism’ and neo-Nietzschean ‘perspectivism’, will no doubt be difficult to establish. Idealism is hard on conceptions of the learning society.

To Be Broken?

The set of problems for the conceptions and models of the learning society encountered within the idealist circle as set out above seem debilitating. However, given the general reluctance to see the learning society in materialist, historical and form-determined ways then idealist versions are set fair for predominance. The self-enforcing nature of the idealist circle - through one type of idealist problem the theorist is often hurtled into another one - is its deadliest consequence. Idealist theorists of the learning society will be left to their own whirligig theorising. It would seem that there is no breaking of the circle, only its complete dissolution through adopting a materialist approach towards the learning society.

Towards a Materialist Account of the Learning Society

The learning society does not exist at the moment; on this point there is general agreement amongst social and educational theorists and commentators. Only a naive ‘survivalist’ outlook might lead us to think otherwise. Some, taken in by the National Council of Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ), might argue that Britain is moving towards the learning society through the implantation of the new qualifications framework. What is at issue in this last claim is that that the seeds of the learning society have already been sown, that there is a material basis for claiming that the learning society will develop. The point is not that this claim (which operates within a narrow ‘market model’ of the development of the learning society) is correct, but that it is an inadequate attempt to provide a materialist account of the emerging learning society. Idealist accounts either draw a Utopia and then may (or not) provide an account of the process of ‘getting there’, or they pose an a-temporal, a-historical and spatially arbitrary world of possibilities for the learning society.

What is clear in these accounts is that the learning society is not theoretically grounded in an analysis of capitalist society, and this is where materialism comes in. A materialist account of the learning society creates theoretical space for the learning society to emerge out of existing social and economic forms rather than relying on a merely external account. However, within a philosophy of internal relations (Ollman, 1993):

“... the future is an essential moment in the present. It is not only what the present becomes, but whatever happens in the future exists in the present, within all present forms, as potential” (p.140).

Thus, it must be shown how the learning society is inherent, immanent, within current social forms and relations. If this cannot be shown then the learning society cannot even become a potentiality, a possibility, let alone any kind of actuality. On the other hand, if the potential for a learning society can be located in actually existing capitalist society, then the danger, for the theory of the learning society, is that it then dissolves into this materialist account. This risk must be faced in order to transcend idealist phantasms, hopes and aspirations.

Materialism and Education

A rare materialist account of education has been provided by Harris (1994, Ch.3). Whilst I would not agree with all the aspects of his characterisation, it is an apposite starting point. Positioning a materialist account of education against idealist accounts Harris argues that:

“In materialist terms education has no essential form or timeless universal nature. Rather it is to be understood and determined by analyzing particular material contexts, and the interests and needs involved therein” (p.35).

This is followed by a regrettable sentence on ‘economic determinants’ which harks back to the old, structuralist interpretation of the base/superstructure model that was criticised earlier, but the continuity with the general outlook on materialism outlined above is there. This is, that the analysis of education must be grounded in a simultaneous exploration of ‘material contexts’ within existing capitalist society. Thus, a theory of the learning society must also be grounded within an analysis of contemporary capitalism if a materialist status for the theory is to be claimed.

Educational theory and practices (including the design and implementation of curricula), on Harris’ materialist account, are:

“... determined by existential material conditions relating to social practices, issues and problems, and are influenced strongly by the level of control and power that identifiable interest groups have over circumstances at any particular time” (p.35).

Whether Harris is using ‘determined by’ in the usual causal sense is crucial as Ollman (1993) has conclusively shown that Marx’s use of this term was not causal. Rather, it was used in the sense of defining limits, delineating social forms and the transformation of these forms, and as setting the ground (presuppositions) of these limits and transformations. Leaving this aside, Harris’ focus on ‘existential conditions’ or modes of existence (of individuals, groups, classes) which are organically conditioned by material contexts (not to be understood as purely economic) does relate to our previous discussion.

Starting Point: Human Labour Power

In the prior brief characterisation of materialism, the final point concerned the issue of the starting point for analysis. As was stated there, this is a practical problem and its solution is set by the issues under consideration. Another aspect of establishing a starting point for analysis of social phenomena is to locate the social form which is ‘the point of many determinations’ (Marx) and then to draw out these determinations and relations in all their richness - which is partly why Marx started with an analysis of the commodity ‘the economic cell form’ (Marx) of capitalist society. However, in Capital, Marx only started from the ‘general class’ of commodities (having previous divided up the world of commodities into ‘two great classes’ in Theories of Surplus Value) and left aside labour power, ‘that other great class of commodities’. It will be argued in the next section that a materialist account of the learning society must start from an analysis of labour power, for various reasons other than that Marx left it out of his analysis in Capital.

Many years ago (1980-81), I established that a materialist account of education and training in capitalism must start from an analysis of labour power. The case made out for this was complex, and a very simplified (and less convincing) account will be given in the next section. Fortunately, other considerations located within standard and accessible literatures also point to labour power as being the starting point for a materialist analysis of education and training. This helps to connect the argument with mainstream and standard concerns.

End of Part One

School of Education
University of Birmingham
8th March 1996

© Copyright, Glenn Rikowski, 1st May 2006

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