Ideology comes, as we all know, in many guises, some more subtle and insidious than others. Children in the United States learn very early to think that capitalism means good things, like freedom and democracy, long before they’re taught it in so many words. It’s just something they take in by breathing the air.
The real trick, though, is teaching kids how the economy works while disguising from them how it really works. How do people grow up knowing all about the mechanisms of “free enterprise” without ever really knowing the first thing about it? How do kids, many of whom are at the receiving end of the system’s most malignant effects, learn to think of it as a benign, or at least neutral, natural force?
We recently discovered one especially sophisticated approach. One of us has a young relative, a six-year-old first-grader in a mid-Western city which has seen better days as an industrial center. Recently, her parents were surprised to learn that their daughter had won a $25 prize in an art contest—a contest they didn’t know she had entered—and was invited to an awards ceremony. This was an Economic Art Contest sponsored annually by an organization called EconomicsAmerica. Kids were asked to produce drawings representing some economic concept, and the winning results were collected in a calendar.
The organization, said the Mission Statement included in the calendar, was “dedicated to improving our community’s understanding of economic principles and the free enterprise system. Working primarily through school systems, the Center strives to teach students in grades K-12 to apply economic principles in making reasoned choices as future workers, voters, and consumers.” The Economic Art Contest was specifically for students from Kindergarten through sixth grade.
Now we have every reason to assume that the teachers involved are intelligent people who haven’t the remotest intention of indoctrinating their young pupils and have nothing in mind other than instructing them about the world in which they live. But the results, to judge by the calendar, are kind of alarming.
It’s not that any single winning entry is, by itself, particularly objectionable. They’re rather nice, really. There’s the concept of money (the contribution of the young relative we’re talking about) represented in the most emblematic six-year-old fashion—involving a little girl, her daddy, and a coveted Beanie Baby (of giant proportions). There’s scarcity (e.g., three kids, but only two swings). And there are more complicated representations of supply and demand, circular flow, and the science of economics itself. But the total picture is a serious distortion.
Take the most obvious omissions—like the deprivations and poverty which belong as inherently to the system as do the “laws” of supply and demand. This dark side of “free enterprise” is something many kids in the participating schools know plenty about from direct experience. One of the schools that competed (and several of the winners) were from an almost entirely Black suburb with a very high poverty rate and an appalling set of social problems. So we’re not just seeing the work of more privileged children. Is it that kids are learning to detach themselves from what they know just to give the teacher what’s expected of them? Or maybe it’s something even more insidious: that children are learning to disconnect their lived experience from what they’re taught about the society in which they live. Victims of the system are being denied the ability, the right, to understand what it’s doing to them. Maybe they’re learning to think that the fault lies with them, their families, possibly their race or ethnic background, with anything but the “free enterprise system.”
But maybe we should lighten up. Maybe an art contest like this isn’t the place to expose all those ugly realities. So leaving all that aside, what are the kids learning about how the system works? What, for example, are the basic relationships that constitute the system? The first thing is that capitalism is a relationship of exchange, an apparently cosy arrangement, with smiling people exchanging desired goods and services in mutually, and equally, beneficial transactions, with the occasional, and temporary, disappointment occasioned by too many people wanting the same thing (like the swing) at the same time, an imbalance between supply and demand that can be quickly corrected. Crisis? Overcapacity? Forget it. But no doubt that’s too complicated for kids (even those who can draw pictures of “circular flow.”)
What about labor, then? Where do workers fit in, the educated workers EconomicsAmerica is trying to teach to make “reasoned choices?” Well, we see a smiling kid just finished raking leaves and taking money from a smiling homeowner (one of those mutually agreeable exchanges), but the most sophisticated rendering of labor’s position is in a picture about “factors of production”. Here, we see, first, “Entrepreneurship,” represented by a person “thinking of making a chair” because he needs something to sit on. Then we have “Labor,” “the people who put together the chair.” “Capital” is “hammers, nails, string, needles, wood.” And finally, “Land,” for wood, dye, and cotton.
This picture is intelligently done, and it certainly does a good job of presenting the basic relations of capital in the time-honored fashion of classical economics. But what do we learn about the most basic relation that constitutes capitalism, the relation between capital and labor? We could, of course, learn a lot if we thought about what it means to treat labor as a “factor of production,” a thing on a par with capital defined as capital goods like tools and basic supplies. But that’s certainly not the intention of a representation where the capitalist appears only in the guise of the creative “entrepreneur,” the thinker and maker, (or, sometimes, the “producer”: “consumers” and “producers” are often the basic categories), while “capital” is just a bunch of neutral things, and there’s no social relation, no class relation, between the human beings that constitute capital and labor.
We socialists certainly do have our work cut out for us.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (Monthly Review Press, 1974, 1998), and the initiation of what has come to be known as “the labor process debate.” In recognition of this, a major conference, “Work, Difference, and Social Change: Two Decades after Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital,” was held at the State University of New York at Binghamton on May 8-10, 1998 (also commemorating a conference that had taken place in Binghamton twenty years before). The conference, which was an enormously successful event, reflected the rapid growth of labor process research in a time of expanding labor activism. Because of Braverman’s association with MR, we were asked to organize the opening plenary session, entitled “Twenty-Five Years after Labor and Monopoly Capital.” Harry Magdoff led off with remarks about Braverman, followed by papers by John Bellamy Foster, Michael Yates, and Joan Greenbaum. In this issue, we are publishing, in commemoration of Braverman’s work, these three papers plus two other papers presented at the conference, by Bryan Palmer and James Rinehart. This month, MR Press will release a new edition of Labor and Monopoly Capital, which will include a scholarly introduction by John Bellamy Foster and two additional, little-known essays by Braverman—designed to make Braverman’s pathbreaking contribution more accessible and its historic importance more apparent. All of this reflects our conviction that Braverman’s message is more important today (in a time of worldwide economic restructuring aimed principally at the labor and production process) than ever before.
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