From Bob's archive: Neo-liberalism’s assault on civic culture

I have not had time for blogging recently, and am a bit embarrassed that my top of the page post is advertising an event in Brockley that happened over a week ago, so I am re-publishing here something from my archive. It is from July 2006, the time of the Tony Blair presidency, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg were barely a twinkle in their respective party’s eyes. However, it seems to me more relevant than ever, in light of Con-Dem Coalition’s radical shrinking of the social functions of the British state, with their deepening of Blair’s disastrous academy schools project, and with Michael Gove’s attempts at creating Free” Schools across Britain. Meanwhile, in America, conservatives like Pat Buchanan are pointing to Cameron’s policies as an inspiration for the Tea Party movement, while Tea Party Republicans are doubting the constitutional imperative to separate church and state.

I have some sympathy for some of the philosophies in the “B
ig Society” mix; I believe in a small state, self-help, mutual aid, decentralisation and active citizenship. BigSoc ideologues like David Willetts and Phillip Blonde talk eloquently of exactly the kind of thick civic culture that I refer to in this post. But I remain unconvinced that the Big Society in reality is anything more than an alibi for fiscal ultra-conservatism, or that Cameron’s attempts to imagine it into existence will do anything to mitigate the social devastation that is already being caused by his government’s slash and burn social policies. 

Ken Livingstone a couple of years ago made one of his typically pugnacious and offensive comments to the effect that global capitalism had killed far more people than terrorism. Of course, capitalists do not set out to kill people, so cannot be judged against the same moral calculus as terrorists, who do set out to kill people. But the substantive point is undoubtedly correct. Neo-liberalism – that is, the abdication (whether forced by unaccountable institutions like the IMF and World Bank, or chosen by tax-cutting politicians) by the state of its duty to provide basic care for its citizens – kills.

In this post, though, I want to focus on one very small aspect of the evil of neo-liberalism: the assault on civic culture through decimating the universal services provided by the state. I believe that the foundation of a civic culture is universal entitlement to certain key services, equitably delivered according to universalist values. Inequality of provision implies inequality of civic status, while equality of provision provides for a shared experience of the state that can be the basis of a shared citizenship, an equal stake in a community of citizens.

Neo-liberalism is the rolling back of the state in its care for the citizenry. We are now not citizens but consumers, faced with a ‘choice’ of providers in the marketplace. Sometimes, of course, the new provider can be a community enterprise, deeply rooted in a neighbourhood, empowering local citizens through its provision of services. The state is not necessarily the best provider of services.

More often than not, of course, providers enter the marketplace to make a profit, and the best service consumers can choose is likely to be the one few can afford – either because few have enough money, or because few have enough resources (‘social capital’ in the jargon of today) to navigate the obstacles to accessing it. For example, the Roman Catholic London Oratory School, where Blair’s offspring were sent, interviews prospective students and their parents to test their piety – and their middle class dispositions.

It is into this vacuum that faith-based initiatives, as Bush called them, have stepped. In India, the neo-liberal abdication of the state’s responsibility to provide decent education has meant some 30,000 madrassas teach Muslim children who live below the poverty line. But what do they teach them? A curriculum – Dars-e-Nizami – that has remained unchanged for three centuries. Even more poor children go to schools run by voluntary sector organisations which are part of the Hindutva machine – the ‘saffron fascist’ Hindu right. Here, according to various investigations, “the texts taught… are exclusivist, even violent, distort history, and are driven by prejudice and rancour against particular sections of the population.” (Setalvad).

Europe and America don’t face exactly that challenge – though the Blair government’s neo-liberal Academy programme gives control of curriculum to the philanthropists who buy the Academies, such as Peter Vardy, the Creationist second hand car salesman who runs several schools in the North East of England. Faith schools thrive in Britain’s cities because the so-called choice of a secular state school is an under-resourced disaster that parents will do anything to avoid their kids going to. If everyone had access to a decent neighbourhood school, hardly anyone in Britain would choose a faith school – just as the Indian poor would not send their children to madrassas or their Hindu nationalist equivalents.

Like Bush and Blair, and unlike most of my fellow ‘muscular liberals’, I have great respect for religious faith and the sacrifices people of faith will make to contribute to the communities. I am not against faith-based initiatives as such.

But my worry is that the universal values of public culture – values such as free inquiry and tolerance for different faiths – are under threat from the marketisation of public services. While the rich can choose quality, the children of the less than rich are segregated along lines of faith or community, and many placed in the hands of the some of the most reactionary, authoritarian, bigoted people imaginable, to the detriment of a culture of common citizenship.


Jim Denham said…
Check this out:

From: Iftikhar ahmad []
Subject: Free Our Schools

Free Our Schools
Almost all children now believe they go to school to pass exams. The idea that they may be there for an education is irrelevant. State schools have become exam factories, interested only in A to C Grades. They do not educate children. Exam results do not reflect a candidate’s innate ability. Employers have moaned for years that too many employees cannot read or write properly. According to a survey, school-leavers and even graduates lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. More and more companies are having to provide remedial training to new staff, who can’t write clear instructions, do simple maths, or solve problems. Both graduates and school-leavers were also criticised for their sloppy time-keeping, ignorance of basic customer service and lack of self-discipline.

Bilingual Muslims children have a right, as much as any other faith group, to be taught their culture, languages and faith alongside a mainstream curriculum. More faith schools will be opened under sweeping reforms of the education system in England. There is a dire need for the growth of state funded Muslim schools to meet the growing needs and demands of the Muslim parents and children. Now the time has come that parents and community should take over the running of their local schools. Parent-run schools will give the diversity, the choice and the competition that the wealthy have in the private sector. Parents can perform a better job than the Local Authority because parents have a genuine vested interest. The Local Authority simply cannot be trusted.

The British Government is planning to make it easier to schools to “opt out” from the Local Authorities. Muslim children in state schools feel isolated and confused about who they are. This can cause dissatisfaction and lead them into criminality, and the lack of a true understanding of Islam can ultimately make them more susceptible to the teachings of fundamentalists like Christians during the middle ages and Jews in recent times in Palestine. Fundamentalism is nothing to do with Islam and Muslim; you are either a Muslim or a non-Muslim.

There are hundreds of state primary and secondary schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion all such schools may be opted out to become Muslim Academies. This mean the Muslim children will get a decent education. Muslim schools turned out balanced citizens, more tolerant of others and less likely to succumb to criminality or extremism. Muslim schools give young people confidence in who they are and an understanding of Islam’s teaching of tolerance and respect which prepares them for a positive and fulfilling role in society. Muslim schools are attractive to Muslim parents because they have better discipline and teaching Islamic values. Children like discipline, structure and boundaries. Bilingual Muslim children need Bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods, who understand their needs and demands.

None of the British Muslims convicted following the riots in Bradford and Oldham in 2001 or any of those linked to the London bombings had been to Islamic schools. An American Think Tank studied the educational back ground of 300 Jihadists; none of them were educated in Pakistani Madrasas. They were all Western educated by non-Muslim teachers. Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models. A Cambridge University study found that single-sex classes could make a big difference for boys. They perform better in single-sex classes. The research is promising because male students in the study saw noticeable gains in the grades. The study confirms the Islamic notion that academic achievement is better in single-sex classes.
Iftikhar Ahmad
Bob said…
I get e-mails from that guy too. Who is he?! Scary stuf...

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