Toby Young and the fable of the bees
For some reason, successive governments have decided that the capitalist is the only expert worth listening to about how to run the public sector. The idea of capital as the thinking executive of the social body, the brain to our dumb limbs and digits, is deeply rooted in Conservative thinking going back to Burke. 

It takes a special conviction to cleave to that view today, when the bourgeoisie is so dull, so illiterate, and so narrow in vision. Nevertheless, when Thatcher wanted to start marketising the NHS, she asked the boss of Sainsburys to investigate how it could be done. When New Labour wanted to accelerate the marketising of higher education, they asked the former head of BP, someone with forty years of experience in the oil sector but none in education, to produce a report. The emerging higher education system is a product of that review. 

And now, the government has appointed a committee of businessmen and women, and Toby Young, called the Office for Students. It may seem odd to appoint an Office for Students that contains no students. However, it isn’t for students. It’s designed to oversee the introduction of “market forces” and “competition” within the higher education sector, a ‘regulator’ ensuring that consumers are not ripped off.

The Guardian’s education editor describes Young’s appointment, in an article published at one minute past midnight on New Year’s Day, presumably because the press release was embargoed until that time, in this fashion: “Young is best known in recent years for his successful efforts in opening a free school in west London.”

I sense some tired churnalism here. Young is best known in recent years for the calamitous failure of his free school enterprise, resulting in a string of resignations, then his own resignation, then his mea culpa, then the trust dropping ‘free school’ from its name to avoid the stink of past associations

Of course, this poor fool, having vaunted an “Eton of the state sector”, never stopped beating his own tiresome drum. It seems even ideological fellow travellers in the Department of Education lose the will to live at the mention of his name. Yet the Universities minister Jo Johnson, himself Eton bred, has appointed him alongside former executives from HSBC, Boots and DLA Piper.

Still, let’s go back to the idea that capital is the brains of society. It was actually Young’s father who wrote the dystopian fiction, The Rise of the Meritocracy, in which social hierarchy is governed by rankings of intelligence and merit. The ruling class, in this society, is even more complacent than our own, because it believes it is deserving; and even more callous toward society’s losers, because it feels that they are deserving. We could add that such a society would be even more brutally obnoxious about inequalities of race and sex.

Now, one of the ways in which neoliberalism in the education system is supposed to work is that it produces a new hierarchy. It is never put in that way. Politicians tend to talk about competition, which is supposed to be an invigorating, energising force, like a good rugger game. But markets produce hierarchies, wherein some firms grow very large and monopolise whole areas, others grow weaker, still others are driven out of business. The Russell Group, which aspires to be our ivy league, will have no problems attracting the wealthy international students, the middling institutions will tailor their educational product according to best marketing practice, and others will struggle as they must. As with free schools, this is going to reproduce class hierarchy.

The ‘Office for Students’, of course, deals with the consumer side. The idea is that, as a market regulator, it will advocate for students to get the best value for money. How ‘value for money’ is to be measured and ranked is an interesting question, but the conceptual underpinning will be that an education is a commodity whose yield is augmented human capital. Value for money is employability. That’s neoliberalism for you.

If you assume, as Danny Dorling does, that a major function of the education system is to reproduce inequality, that makes sense. In fact, most employers and employers’ federations do make that assumption. It’s called separating the wheat from the chaff, letting the cream rise to the top – or, letting our children grow tall, as Thatcher said, and some taller than others if they have it in them to do so. It’s called the ideology of ‘excellence’. For the employers, the logic is very simple. An education system that produces equality, that consistently levels up, raising standards for the majority, is one that does not allow employers to choose the best candidates. It doesn’t allow them to efficiently discriminate. The world of work, labour markets and capital is governed by inequality and, therefore, so must the education system be.

Under the rubric of these neoliberal reforms, what we are going to see is the system-wide extension of a set of criteria, values not entirely unlike those of the dystopia, through which people are classified and made unequal and made to live their relationship to that inequality. The criteria are those of capital. Capital exists only to perpetually augment itself. It gets bigger or it dies. In the thin social Darwinism of neoliberalism, the struggle for existence is not between sovereign individuals, but between enterprises, streams of capital. So that the student who comes out with more ‘human capital’ is potentially the fitter enterprise.

A neoliberalised education system would arguably produce ‘human capital’ as a real abstraction, in the same sense that the ‘commodity form’ is a real abstraction produced through the action of exchange rather than simply theorised. No one would have to really, in their hearts, believe in this concept (though many academics do) for it to be efficacious. It would be posited in everything they did. It would, in constituting a certain order of inequality, being tied to a framework of rewards, incentives and punishments, also come to mediate social relations at a molecular level, supplying their moral and epistemological premises by default.

Of course, the result of this would be further undermine the old Burkean, organicist metaphor of capitalists as the reasoning head of a dumb labouring body, which at least somewhat corresponds to an objective function of capital, viz. the monopolisation of knowledge in the production process. Rather, what would tend to happen, what is slowly happening already, is that knowledge would be posited as and identified with capital. 

In this sense, the real expertise would reside in the cognitive capital stocks, and the question would be how to mobilise and aggregate these most efficiently along neoliberal lines. In the traditional Hayekian idea of “market forces”, a spontaneous order is supposed to emerge from the enlightened self-interest of many producers, sellers and buyers. And yet, of course, Hayek and other neoliberals were perfectly well aware that this spontaneous order would not arise spontaneously. ‘The Market’, a metaphysical construct corresponding to no real-world entity, would have to be created and guarded by law, political action and culture. It would have to be extended into the public sector, as the taken-for-granted framework of decision-making and budget-allocation.

In the future, this ‘market’ hyperstition can move to a new level. A few years ago, a fascinating, lavishly illustrated book called The Buzz About Bees, by a prominent biologist, made the case that bees are, from the evolutionary perspective, mammalian organisms. Or, to be more precise, the hive is the mammalian organism. Far from the idea that the queen bee lords it over worker bees and drones, what emerges in the hive is a bottom-up collective intelligence. It was not a political book at all, but arguably it contained elements of anthropomorphism, and it resonated with and segued into contemporary neo-Mandevillean ideologies about hive-minds, swarm intelligence, and the wisdom of crowds.

New technologies certainly have the ability to replicate ‘The Market’ in the ways in which they constitute a swarm intelligence. They just have to script its premises into the user’s experience, much as higher education is scripting neoliberalism into the consumer-student’s experience. Perhaps in the future, expertise will be crowdsourced, with ‘experts’ input ranked by human capital, so that hierarchy and pseudo-democratic participation can coexist. Perhaps corporations, brimming with human capital, would become the biggest experts in these crowdsourced domains. 

I sense that, in such a world, the Toby Youngs would be beleaguered. Not that the ideal of the gadfly-cum-intellectual-colossus, which sustains the reputation and career of such pampered male middlebrow Tories, couldn’t be re-pivoted as its own source of capital. But there would be a much tighter market for the middle aged enfant terribles selling trite provocations like a toddler offering up his stool. The competition-state that Young and his cohorts are trying to create is one that would leave them panhandling with petty provocations on social media: Will Tweet ‘Sick Burns’ for Food.

One could almost enjoy that idea, if such enjoyment weren’t itself a kind of striving toward dystopia.