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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb

Pedagogical Society

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

The world today is dominated by capital. The logic of capital accumulation drives all manner of social institutions, including those that are not themselves profit-driven. Capitalists are in a constant race with one another to control wealth at a faster rate than their competitors through a process Nitzan and Bichler call "differential accumulation." Traditional economic theory bases itself on market competition: Firms seek to maximize profits by cutting costs and investing in production. Through competition, they keep each other in check, so that if any firm raises prices above demand, another competitor will outflank them by cutting prices. Differential accumulation theory does not deny that these two strategies are part of business practices, but emphasizes that the more significant strategy is monopolization. It is not a race to produce the most products and services and sell them at the highest profit margin so much as a race to control the market forces to obtain a higher return than one's competitors. It's not about maximizing profit so much as gaining differential advantage over others and thereby increasing one's power.

This is done through a process of capitalization, whereby an asset's present value is discounted in anticipation of future returns. This process first requires commodification, which in turn requires privatization, which requires quantification. What can be quantified can be owned, what can be owned can be bought and sold, and what can be bought and sold can be capitalized for a higher return. Yet discounting present value for future value is risky, since one does not know the future. This uncertainty can be compensated for by hedging one's bets or offloading the risk to someone else. Financialization has made both of these options easily available to capitalists. However, the easiest way to predict the future is to change it. This happens in the form of insider trading, which is technically illegal though rarely enforced, but can also be done by influencing policy. Enlisting the state's help in privatizing new resources, opening up new markets, strengthening intellectual property rights, and all manner of policies can be done even in contexts where there are heavy restrictions on lobbying. Because of its hegemony over the economy, even the most progressive politician must be careful not to upset capital in a way that could result in retaliation. In fact, keeping capital happy is usually not even thought of as such. Capitalists are expected to behave selfishly, and anything that asks them to shoulder an extra burden is scorned as "bad economics."

It is by imparting the logic of capital into our collective consciousness that capital is able to achieve true hegemony. Advertising is one such means. While corporations use advertising to vie with one another for competitive advantage, they also achieve the cumulative effect of cultivating consumerism as a lifestyle. Yet they must also cultivate workers. This is done through the school system. There is more or less a consensus in our modern society that school should be preparation for the "real world," by which is meant laboring for the capitalist megamachine. This includes submission to the state as well, hence the need for subjects such as civics and history. Yet the greater effect of schooling is to condition students to a regimented lifestyle, in which they are supervised, micromanaged, and measured against one another according to socially constructed standards. The university retains some of its original character as a place for self-betterment through knowledge, yet this too has been eroded under the logic of capital. Humanities departments are being cut all over, under the plea that such degrees are not useful in the job market. Even in STEM fields, it is only those that are useful to capital, such as engineering and computer science, that are well-funded, while others such as ecology or zoology suffer cutbacks. By conditioning people to the logic of capital, schools spread this logic into every institution in society.

This is not, in any meaningful sense, education. Whatever learning goes on in school is mostly due to the fact that it is where children spend most of their time anyway. True pedagogy does not funnel people into some institution to be molded into some prescribed form. It must rather engage with the pupil's natural curiosity and offer resources for further development. Children are not a blank slate to be passively fed information. They are full of wonder, seeking to know about the world around them. To educate them means simply to guide them in the direction where the answers they seek can be found.

Much of what can be learned can be learned by doing. When people enter the workforce, they learn to do their job mostly through on-the-job training. Even when one is at a university, internships are the way people are prepared to enter the workforce after graduating. Any craft or skill may involve some instruction, but is only truly learned by practicing. Other knowledge is of a more intellectual variety, and must be learned by study and research. These too are skills that develop over time. What the teacher must do is to lead by example, to offer their own knowledge as a resource, and show them how to find the answers they seek. It is a personal relationship built on trust and rapport. The university system has something like this in the form of an academic advisor, though their guidance is still applied to a bureaucratic system of course requirements and credentials that serve the purpose of gatekeeping knowledge from those who seek it.

Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum had something more of the organic quality I speak of. In the Dharmic traditions of the East, the guru plays something like this role, though here there is an element of worshipful obedience that an educator must actively discourage. The first medieval universities were guilds for learning. Academia was a praxis for doing intellectual work. It was not preparation for a career on a "job market" (such a thing did not exist at the time), but a program for perfection of the intellect. They were perfecting their discipline just as much as the craft guilds where apprentices were guided to become skilled artisans. In the same vein, these craft guilds were educational institutions. While they sought to sell their products on the market, this was in service of the glorification of their craft and the prestige of their members. By mastering the craft, guild members achieved a degree of self-mastery. Literacy was common among them, and many were quite well-read. The pursuit of excellence in their craft led to the pursuit of a well-rounded life.

Education is ultimately about development of the person. Aristotle posited that the goal of human life is eudaimonia. This is often translated as "happiness," but in our modern capitalist age, happiness can too easily be misunderstood as some utilitarian calculus of pleasure over pain. A closer translation would be something like "thriving." Humans are not a tabula rasa. We are born with certain needs, including not only food and shelter but family, friendship, and love. Much is made of "human nature" versus "social construction," but for social construction to take place at all, humans must first have a social nature. Our nature is such that we thrive in community, and support one another's development.

Development is essential to eudaimonia. We develop our ability to relate to one another. The skills that help us to live well with one another are called virtues. Morality here is understood not as a formulaic prescription for good behavior, but as the skills necessary for living life well. Such skills must be cultivated under the guidance of others. Virtue is a social and pedagogical affair.

Living well with one another means contributing our own unique gifts and becoming more fully ourselves. In developing our talents and abilities, we discover who we are and what we feel called to do. More than the market-driven career track offered to us by capitalism, we discover greater meaning in finding our vocation. Art, music, science, philosophy, or any number of creative pursuits can enrich our own lives while enriching the lives of those around us. In contrast to philosophies of individualism vs collectivism, the development of the person occurs with and in community.

The development of the person is a pedagogical affair, but it cannot be done within the confines of schooling as we know it. Pedagogy must spread outside the classroom into all areas of life. Instead of a single institution to which every everyone must conform, we need a network of institutions that can develop the diversity of human genius. Labor itself can develop from a form of exploitative subservience into a creative pursuit of personal excellence.

We live in a capitalist world driven by the instrumental rationality of accumulation. We can readily recognize that a profit-driven society poisons all facets of human life. But if not profit, what would be the driving force of a healthier society? I propose that it would be eudaimonia. A society aiming toward human flourishing would be one in which learning is not some instrumental preparation for some other goal, but is itself a lifelong pursuit. I call this the pedagogical society.

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