Educating for an Alternative Economy

Educating for an Alternative Economy

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The question of how one educates for the purpose of developing an alternative economy connects the issue of ‘how people learn’ and ‘what people learn’, to processes of ‘why people learn’, and towards what end this learning changes individuals, society and the social relations. These questions may seem hypothetical or technical, and indeed aspects of them are. But they are also political and practical questions that go to the heart of the needs of contemporary social and political movements, not only in the Middle East and North Africa today, but also beyond. They equally relate to dimensions that are individual and collective.

For purposes of clarity it is relevant to begin by defining our terminology.

By ‘alternative economy’ we mean in no uncertain terms, an economy that is not based on capitalist modes of production. The capitalist mode of production fundamentally relies upon the selling of labour by workers for a fixed wage to create products or services that can be sold on a market, and which result in the realization of surplus value – a kind of value which exceeds the combined value of the total inputs. This surplus value is collected by the owner of the factory or service providing entity (i.e – the owner of capital), and not by the workers (labour) who generated it. As such, it is inherently exploitative because it appropriates the wealth created by the sum act of the workers and concentrates it in the hands of the owner of capital (Capital over labour).

This is not of course the only failure of capitalist economic systems, but it does go to the heart of what makes capitalism unique, while shining a light on a fundamental issue which would constitute an alternative economy. Namely, the need to reverse the basic structural feature whereby capital is privileged in the appropriation of surplus value generated by workers.

It is equally worth noting that because the way capitalist markets work, Capital is incentivized to reduce the share of wealth distributed to workers in the form of wages, because it is this input – wages (the cost of labour) – which is seen as variable. The pressure to reduce costs and improve competition under capitalism translates into efforts to reduce worker wages, given that the input costs of other factors tends to be more fixed (machine costs, commodity costs, rent and utility costs etc.)

Capitalism has a wide range of other negative features that are equally relevant to bring into our picture, as they help develop another vision of what a genuine  ‘alternative economy’ might look like.

Capitalism for example, relies upon the existence and rearing of a healthy workforce, but fails to acknowledge or pay for this. As such, a great deal of this work takes place in home settings, but is unpaid and primarily endured by women.

Capitalism relies upon the exploitation of the natural resources of the world, and treats these as inexhaustible, but it is not held to account for the destructive consequences this has on the environment and societies.

Because capitalism is organized around the privatization – as opposed to socialization – of the wealth generated by society, production itself is not organized in any rational way to meet or solve human need.

Capitalism also leads to intense competition between different capitalist entities and states in search of cheaper labour, and markets for goods, which in turn has led to war and destruction on mass scales.

Capitalism is also prone to excess and crisis, demonstrated most recently in the 2007 financial crisis which would have collapsed the international economy were it not for the intervention of the state to ‘bail out’ some of the biggest failures.

Through these ‘bail outs’, states actually violated the principles of capitalism itself because they intervened directly in the market to protect certain entities that were considered ‘too big to fail’ by their standards. Alternatively, the failure of smaller enterprises under capitalism is routinely ignored, and justified as necessary in ensuring ‘efficiency’ itself. This highlights a distinctly political, favouristic nature to the actual practice of lived capitalism, whereby the utopian idealism of perfectly operating markets is never matched on the ground, and instead privileges some capitalist entities (those with power and access to power) over others (those without).

This article is not intended to provide a holistic description of comprehensive pitfalls of capitalism, which are many and have been well studied. The examples provided are intended to merely illustrate some of the main problems associated with capitalism in principle, as well as in practice. Alternatively, when we speak of working to develop an ‘alternative economy’, we mean specifically the building of an economic order that addresses these major pitfalls and hence one that is equitable, fair, non-exploitative of people and natural resources, and democratic in decision making and in distribution. Furthermore it should be organized for the purpose of social justice and the solving of human need rather than profit, while doing all within possible to bring a sense of justice and compensation to the victims of the past.

The Role of Ideology and Hegemony

How then might such an economic end-state arise and what are the educational components of this task?

To understand how we might work to educate around creating such an alternative economy it is worth considering how such an unjust arrangement arose to begin with and what the role of education has been under the existing capitalist order.

Principles of ‘education’ may seem self-evident and even technical, in so far as societies aim to guide, train and provide children, young adults and even adults with a set of skills which allow them to be functioning and productive individuals within a social order, and which includes participating in economic activity and the generation of wealth. But if the task of educating around the principles of an alternative economy simply involved promoting basic values of social justice, preservation of nature, and non-exploitation, we are likely to have achieved such a state many years ago, given that the majority of people would benefit from such an arrangement. Here we begin to understand that society, including its educational institutions, are not immune from powerful interests which help shape and frame existing debates, knowledge and skills, such that the existing exploitative order not only persists, but also consolidates and reproduces itself. How is it possible that a system that tends to benefit the very few, and that can be so destructive to society, individuals and nature, can continue to exist at the expense of the majority?

To answer this question it is necessary to acknowledge that such a system relies upon a form of hidden and invisible consent or sense of normalcy to this existing order. That is to say, that while there certainly are cases whereby this system enforces its rule through coercion and forms of brute force, the everyday manner through which this system operates, tends to rely upon far more subtle methods which hide the system’s unjust nature and founding principles. This hidden nature acts to normalize the system’s very unjustness, such that it comes to be viewed as something that is everyday, expected and undeserving of being protested or reorganized.

Two thinkers of note to this debate are worthy to mention here. First of course is Karl Marx, who made the important observation that, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” He continues:

The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.”[1]

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would lengthily explore this dimension, analyzing how the hiding and normalization of subjugation takes place. Gramsci would introduce the role of ideology and the notion of ‘hegemony’ as key factors in this process (see Gramsci, 2001).

For Gramsci, as for Marx, the notion of ideology is understood as a set of fundamental ideas, which provides coherence to the world. But rather than having this set of ideas explain the world as it truly is, ideology under capitalism inverts the nature and set of relations which allow the system of capitalism to persist, acting to hide and normalize its exploitative nature. Capitalism thus survives by propagating a set of ideas and values, which frames the social order as normal, even though it is anything but that.

Under capitalism, a ‘dominant ideology’ pervades a host of different social, political and legal institutions, normalizing the processes that undergird capitalist production. The key institutions where the inculcation of dominant ideology takes place are the educational system itself, the mass media, religious institutions, the courts/ legal system and the work place. Collectively these institutions serve to define what is both ‘normal’ and what is external to the normal, while equally rewarding and punishing individuals and groups which obey and disobey. Gramsci calls this form of governance, ‘hegemony’, because it relies upon forms of consent through ‘soft power’. The ultimate role of hegemony is to allow for the smooth operation of capitalism, performing the task of inverting reality. Inequality and hierarchy between states, peoples, communities, races, genders and classes become seen as natural, instead of being seen as constructed and perpetuating an unjust order.

Role of the Current Educational System

When we grasp the centrality of the dominant ideology in constructing hegemony for the perpetuation and reproduction of a social, political and economic order that facilitates capitalist exploitation by a ruling class, we begin to identify different facets of what it might take to create an alternative economy as formerly described, and what the educational facets of this might look like.

The current educational system – from kindergarten through to university – does many things. On one level, it does indeed teach those who participate in it, a set of skills that can be very useful for a wide range of human activities, including production and solving many human needs – from engineering to medicine. It would be difficult to argue that the skills and expertise that these institutions oversee and transmit to new waves of students, are not vital for improving a wide range of material and immaterial factors related to wellbeing. Indeed the skills of literacy itself, and knowledge of the ‘hard’ sciences (chemistry, physics, biology etc), clearly contains a wealth of information that unequivocally have improved the life experiences of individuals and societies.

At the same time, it would be difficult not to equally acknowledge that the institutions that transmit these skills suffer from two related, significant pitfalls. To begin with, education itself is ‘access-restricted’, because a range of social, economic, geographic and political factors may significantly limit their availability in today’s world.

Secondly, significant qualitative reservations should also be noted in so far as contemporary education is all too often steeped in socializing the youngest members of society in the values of the dominant ideology.

While the first of these pitfalls (access restrictions) is generally self-evident, the latter may be less so.

Here a quick overview of how the contemporary educational system arose is telling for how this system was borne within the needs of creating a reliable work force to reproduce the dominant political economic systems

It is well known of course that the contemporary educational systems of Western Europe and the United States emerged first and foremost out of religious institutions, which clearly saw education in perpetuating the dominance of the church. There were restrictions on who could attend these schools and the skills actually transferred. For example, in the US, only land-owning white men were taught how to read and write, while white women were separately taught to read. Non-whites – men and women – were prevented access to schooling altogether. As states became more powerful and as the power of the church declined, education began to be provided for public schooling based upon collecting taxes to pay for the education needs of an increasingly urbanizing, industrializing capitalist economy. However in the US for example, the presence of powerful, wealthy families on the local level occasionally even prevented the provision of public education, because they did not wish to pay taxes to pay for poor people to learn. Zoning restrictions and private schools often became a way for elites to separate their children from working class children, and to preserve the networks from which affluence was associated. A telling statistic about the value of public versus private schooling reveals that 51% of UK parliamentarians in the 2017 British parliament were educated in public school  – the highest number in recorded history.[2]

Besides the public / private split, the changing nature of curriculums also reflects how education has changed over the years, as larger political economic shifts take place. In 1925, the state of Tennessee took a high school teacher to court for teaching Darwin’s ‘Theory of evolution’ in the well-known ‘Scopes’ trial.[3] The teacher would eventually loose the trial, (although this ruling would eventually be overturned) illustrating how in this case, the existence of powerful local forces supportive of religious fundamentalist literalist biblical readings were able to defeat a fairly well established scientific theory.

These examples are intended to illustrate the manner in which educational systems are not transferring a set of platonic, fixed, technical skills, as though such a thing exists a priori. Rather, schools are highly political institutions that are part and parcel of a much larger system of social reproduction. As such, contemporary education is likely to reflect the dominant ideological tendencies existent within a political and social order, and the basic needs this social order has to reproduce itself.

In light of this, it is worth acknowledging that contemporary educational systems will always include a mix of transferring crucial skills and knowledge to students, while equally controlling access to these skills, and also enfolding this knowledge within a historical, political and social narrative that reflects the dominant ideology, that asserts ruling-class hegemony and power. In this regard, education must be seen as always being the product of selection, framing, and simplification of matters given that the material that is taught necessarily represents only a particular slice of the total body of knowledge that exists in general, or exists regarding a particular topic. It is the process of both accessing education, and selecting, framing and simplifying of matters, where politics, interests and powers lie: Who determines the selection process of both the students and the material taught? How are these determined? According to what criteria? How can these processes be changed and revised or made more accessible or reflective of alternative economic principles? And how was the process of selecting and framing itself determined? Answers to these questions tend to be based on historically evolved realities, as well as considerations of power, institutions and politics.


Building for an Alternative Economy

From this reading we begin to gain a better understanding of how capitalism in the West and in the MENA region as well, has promoted various worldviews through its educational system and other means of mass education. It is this system which has played a role in upholding and normalizing individualism, patriarchy, capitalism, reverence for religion and even sexual norms etc.

How then might we transition into promoting an educational system that attempts to build towards an alternative economy?

First it is important to note that there is no pre-existing formula for how this can take place. The current educational system, for example should be seen as an advance from what it was one hundred years ago for example, though it may fall short of what it could or should be for building an ‘alternative economy’ today and tomorrow. This illustrates that even ‘official education’ has always embodied an internal struggle between different competing forces in society. It further illustrates that capitalism in its current manifestation has proven itself flexible enough to incorporate reformist tendencies, which allow for the elimination or reduction of many previous biases of religion, sex, or race, which used to prevent things like teaching the theory of evolution, or to educate women or African Americans overall for example. Recognizing state-sponsored education as a site of political and social contestation is an important first task in so far as it allows us focus upon expanding upon the existing gains, rather than treating the entire educational institution as a flawed, and which needs to be done away with. The presence of women and African Americans in US schools today is a product of years of social and political struggles, and represents important achievements that cannot be taken lightly. In this regard, a radical reformist approach is necessary even if we recognize limitations to current educational systems.

If expansion and widening of educational objectives is central to its reform, and for the purpose of educating around an alternative economy, we might add two additional aspects of what such an expansion might mean: first, is an understanding of expansion in the institutional / access sense, that meaning, making education as widely accessible as possible. This means investing in existing educational systems, ensuring that they are well paid opportunities for teachers, with good infrastructure; ensuring that there is not an over-concentration of good schools in some areas and not others, and eliminating any financial obstacles which prevent education being universally accessible, or alternatively from making good education accessible only to select privileged few. This practically means that states need to build more schools, with good transportation and infrastructural basics, and to eliminate the existence of private school systems overall, and any financial blockages which might prevent a willing child or youth from accessing a quality education because of financial constraints.

Because public education is by definition funded by the state which is funded by taxation, it is not surprising that capitalists wish to reduce their share of taxes, and indirectly of state school systems. This, despite the fact that we have acknowledged that schools themselves play an important role in socializing and normalizing ruling class ideas. Despite this seeming contradiction, we can and should all agree that a basic set of skills that promote literacy, critical analytical thinking and informed argumentation, are valuable for all individuals and societies and tend to be in one form or another, part of the set of skills promoted by most education systems as well. Thus, in so far as existing school systems promote such an agenda, even in delimited fashion – it makes equal sense that the struggle for an alternative economy needs to push assertively for the dramatic expansion and investment in education so that there can be an expansion of this skill set and knowledge within society. The needs of an alternative economy – which we envision to be more participatory in wealth generation and decision making – will only benefit from a wider pool of educated, literate, critically thinking individuals.

As a subset to the theme of expanding and investing in existing institutions, it is important to expand and upgrade the qualitative nature of the educational experience itself. This means that schooling needs to be de-linked from the obligation of reproducing a compliant and disciplined, capable workforce that reproduces capitalism. In order for this to take place, a broader study and knowledge of the capitalist economic, political and social system needs to take place, such that students are made aware of the major pitfalls of this political economic and social system. This means that there needs to be an expansion of educational themes that subvert the normative ideological and hegemonic structures (including those of capitalism itself), which invisibly govern contemporary education and society more broadly. That meaning – the process of ‘framing’ and ‘selecting’ the knowledge we teach needs to be revisited and revised to understand and expose the full set of politics and power that underlies them. In their place, attempts should be made to provide a new set of framings (as everything cannot be taught afterall!), but to do so in a manner that is much more open and explicit about the politics and ideas of what guides the framing process itself. Namely we need to be explicit about what we are teaching and why – and that this includes the need to educate around the themes we described that constitute an alternative economy – non exploitation, sharing knowledge, decisions, wealth, sustainability etc.

A quite important subset of this theme of qualitatively upgrading the educational system is the idea of understanding how systems of oppression in the past were overturned. Studying the history of political, economic and social struggle is important because it gives students an understanding of the power of collective action, and how there may be particular tools of struggle that can be effective, in certain contexts, why and for what reason. Historical insight of this nature breaks the notion that history is pre-ordained, flat, and the product of great individuals – usually men of dominant casts, and with great power. In contrast it introduces the notion that history has always been shaped by various forces and struggles between certain interests and groups, and that this process is in constant flux, including in the present. The more students become experienced in the historical dynamics, and the dialectical, as opposed to teleological manner by which these factors change, the more we will empower students around a set of cognitive and analytical skills that allow them to understand their context and the context of others. In this regard, it is important to note that the role of education should be to avoid the exceptionalisation of any one particular people and their genesis and history, while seeing them as the product of far larger set of universalistic forces that take on a particular manifestation and character under certain historical conditions.

Realism and an Alternative Education

While all this may make sense, there is a huge difference between saying what the educational exigencies of creating a more just political and economic worldview are, and actually implementing these changes in practice.

How would an alternative educational model and content arise within the context of the contemporary system, and who are the social forces that would bring it into being and oversee its operation?

Here lies an important question in so far as we must be under no illusion that while we always wish to build upon the existing advances that previous social/ political struggles have established, we can be under no illusion that the existing structures will allow for such reform to challenge their existing system and the ‘soft power’ nature of how it operates. This reality forces us to consider how social and political actors can organize independently to push for such changes, both within the system itself and as external actors to it. In fact, if we are to take Marx’ insight to heart, because there is a class basis to the existing order and its mode of governance (morally, educationally, institutionally, legally etc), there would appear to be no substitute but to equally organize the victims of this policy (primarily the working class, together with all identities oppressed as a function of this system be this on a race, class, gender, national etc.) to take upon itself the task of organizing and mobilizing forces to counter this hegemony. This may be done within the system, and outside it, but its basis must be a form of independent mobilization that organizes, collectivizes and socializes the experience and education of previous struggles, in an effort to bring about change.

Education beyond School

This discussion begins to turn our attention away from the existing educational model as represented in state-sponsored schooling, and towards other opportunities where education around an alternative economy may take place. Schools after all, are not the only places were education takes place. In fact, ‘learning’ of some order or another is taking place all the time, while only specific types of learning take place in school. Moreover, such an approach to education itself promotes a false idea that education is something that you do to an individual as though s/he is an empty vessel, instead of it being a process of activating, cultivating and guiding the inherent learning capacities existent within all persons and ensuring that this process is done in the best environment, with rich, historical content, both cerebral and  hands-on, while also teaching students to learn how to learn better, and to think rigorously and analytically.

Here we return to our earlier point in so far as the schooling system represents only one facet of a much larger system of hegemony. Beyond schooling there are the institutions of the mass media, religious institutions, the courts/ legal system and the work place itself, which play major roles in teaching various other forms of lessons to society. Avoiding dealing centrally with these existing institutions effectively limits the struggle to help bring about an alternative economy to a singular – albeit important – domain whereby education takes place, while ignoring many other education opportunities that exist and are daily ‘educating’ in their own regard.

It makes sense in our reading thus, to both work within the existing institutions to push forward progressive ‘alternative education’-positive reforms, and to create independent outlets of our own, which can preserve, strengthen and deepen a repository of knowledge and interests around such an alternative economy. This means for instance, that in the sphere of media – we must push to get the message of an ‘alternative economy’ out into existing media platforms, while equally creating our own forms of media that explicitly and uncategorically define and engage in what an alternative economy means and entails.

This dual approach can be undertaken with other sites of education, but necessarily will also take on different forms given that not all sites of education have equal opportunities to be reformist or create parallel means of engagement.

Take for example the issue of the courts. Existing courts, under bourgeois democracy (to say nothing of autocracy) still reflect and produce hegemonic norms, just as schools do. But these norms are constantly being challenged – from the Left and the Right – and it would be naïve to ignore that the struggle over the ‘leaning’ of certain rulings, does not both affect economic and political orders, but also embodies educational potentials as well.

The pedagogical basis of legal rulings is important to emphasize in so far as the law and the history of law production, tends to reveal various forms of social, political and economic struggles. Ever since the days of Hammurabi, the codification of legal principles was about establishing certain ‘rules of the game’, and by extension, how the system would operate, and who ‘won’ and ‘lost’. But law has also changed over the years, sometimes through processes of reform, and other times through processes of revolution. The point here is to emphasize that every social order has existing political economic and social struggles in it which will necessarily have legal dimensions related to them, and where a pedagogical element lies in waiting. In this reading, challenging the legal institutions which govern bourgeois capitalism – be this through democratic means, or extra parliamentary ways, no doubt embodies efforts and sites where educational opportunities also exist.

Here it is instructive to point out that the recognition of many rights throughout history began through forms of protest that were organized in extra parliamentary means, namely direct protest. The latter has played a significant part of raising consciousness and building movements both in society, and within the existing institutions (of the state and otherwise), for bringing about change, including on the legal level. This is to emphasize that reformist changes more often than not, does not come from a sudden ‘Eureka moment’ on behalf of judges, but is the product of years of accumulated struggle of political actors on the streets promoting progressive issues.

While the history of legal institutions is generally quite dark in so far as almost every form of oppression – from military occupation and colonialism and apartheid, to the illegality of trade unions – all had legalistic precedents, the courts under democratic governance are not blind or numb to possible change. When we discuss the case of theatres across the Middle East and North Africa however, where democratic governance does not really exist, there can be little illusion that this margin of influence is possible. Still, in a globalized world, pressure may nonetheless be generated from without, and within, by emphasizing and organizing the contradictions of the system. In so far as there is a legal precedent, attempts to challenge the courts can prove instructive for precisely the pedagogical purposes noted, in so far as even rulings, which reproduce autocracy, can be used to expose and educate others, forming the basis of future potential organization.

This insight is important in so far as it sheds light on the fact that the process of bringing about political, social and economic change is not something that necessarily can be assessed in terms of the immediate, and direct impact these struggles have on existing orders. If we are serious about bringing about alternative political, economic and social systems, we must take into account the fact that struggle itself is educational as it reveals the balance of forces and the constellation of actors and where they stand within a context of struggle. This is an exceedingly important in so far as it is an experience that ‘reveals’ and has the potential to break ideology and hegemony, or at least the impression that it is representative of the reality. It also breaks the isolationist manner by which conventional thinking approaches the process of change-making in general. It also points to the significance of culture as a bastion of ideas, histories, and approaches toward viewing the world, which are much more difficult to control than individuals and organizations.

When we begin to combine these facets together we come to understand that there is no exact formula for educating around an alternative economy. But what there is, is the existing institutional and political order, which already represents the achievements (or not!) of various political, social and economic struggles. This ‘system’ is strengthened through the hegemonic practices of the states, which attempt to reproduce the dominant order and class. At the same time, there are many opportunities to contest this order and educate around it, whether by democratically challenging it or through independent extra-parliamentary ways. In both incidences, there is a pedagogical aspect to this activity in the near and far term.

What is particularly important however is maintaining a vision that preserves the independent organizing of a particular oppressed constituency, around the principles of their just cause. This means that movements need to be organized and mobilized producing their own narrative, identifying and framing their debates as they see it, and having this alternative vision and world view ‘clash’ with the existing system. This clash produces a set of experiences that form the basis of new knowledge, analysis and hopefully future mobilization around a clearer understanding of the nature and site of the problems at hand. If carefully undertaken, the process of organizing forces around the nature of the oppression, and what can be done about it through collective action, can arise. Along the way, it is possible to build unity, and a common sense of vision, purpose, and worth that provides a moral push forward as well. These aspects are equally important for the continuity of struggle, which inevitably cannot be expected to yield immediate results. In this regard, the internal and democratic processes of the self- organized activity becomes a crucial part of its success, as without it the potential for alienation and division multiplies.

These general principles strategic analyses have relevance for the struggle for an alternative economy, as they can be taken to the main theatre where class politics are enforced – the sites of production and wealth generation itself – namely, the work place.

Here there is no substitute to the formation of unions as the main weapon in the hands of workers to organize around their grievances and impose their interests upon the bosses. Any work place will entail a wide array of issues in need of reform, while each workplace will also exist within a particular social, local, regional and international order that is not of the choosing of the actors themselves. These factors inevitably weigh in on our ability to reap gains for the working class struggle. But they can also act as resources and networks of hope, if done correctly. The history of unionism, and of much progressive change throughout history has shown that many things are possible through collective action and organizing consciousness and movement. While Gramsci’s work on hegemony was crucial for understanding how education fits into a larger social and political order, he also suggested that the battle for a more fair and equitable world, entailed both wars ‘of position’ and wars ‘of movement.’ Namely, there is no substitute for producing fortresses of knowledge, skills, power and interest that are independently rooted to progressive values – including an alternative economy – through wars of position, and; that there equally needs to be practices of ‘movement’ which challenge in the field the practices of the state and hegemony itself through protest and direct action, strikes etc. Between the two, we may be able to gain the knowledge experience and confidence to bring into realization a more just and equitable world, whose very basis must be an alternative economy.


[1] Marx, Karl. The German Ideology edited by C.J. Arthur (New York: International Publishers, 1970), p.64

[2] Election 2017: More than half of MPs educated at comprehensive schools, finds study, The Independent, 10/6/2017,

Gramsci, A., Hoare, Quintin, Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, & MyiLibrary. (2001). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. London: Electric Book.

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