NAPLAN and Labor's 'social inclusion' agenda

To the surprise of many, in April the Australian Education Union took an apparently firm and principled stand against the use of school test data, namely the federal National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests, for ranking schools on the My School government website. The AEU called on its members not to administer the tests in May and stepped up a campaign to build teacher, parent and community opposition to the government’s approach of ranking schools.

A week before the NAPLAN tests, the AEU leadership acted more in the character we are used to seeing from ALP-dominated trade unions — it backed off from industrial action and accepted the government’s offer to sit on a working party. The Labor government did not announce any plans to review the content of the My School website nor indicate any desire to change any of the measures that make up the general direction of its misnamed “education revolution”.

By backing down on the NAPLAN boycott, the AEU leadership did more damage than would have occurred if it had said and done nothing in the first place. This is specifically so because one of the main tactics of the government is to use parent opinion against teachers. By having sought to and succeeded in winning much parent support for the NAPLAN tests and then backing down without having won a single real concession, the AEU let down its parent supporters and made it much easier for the government to blame teachers and school administrations for the shortcomings in the education system.

Parents with children in the “under-performing” schools need to blame someone for the shortcomings in their children’s education and if it’s not the government and its policies of funding private schooling at the expense of funding public schools, they will turn on teachers and individual schools. This is a perfect example of Labor’s “social inclusion” agenda at work.

Blaming individual workers

Like all other current capitalist governments feigning the application of Keynesian policies, the Labor government’s agenda is based on very little that’s new in economic policy and much more on shifting the responsibility for the social problems onto individual workers. This includes economic policy aimed at boosting business profits rather than increasing jobs, wages or welfare support, and “social policy” aimed at convincing workers that the responsibility for any improvements in working people’s lives rests with them individually.

Many of these Labor government policies are framed in its “social inclusion agenda”. It is claimed that the terms social exclusion and inclusion first appeared in France during the 1970s, from where they went on to influence the European Commission’s social policy agenda. In fact, the origins of the political concepts of social exclusion and inclusion can be found in US President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “War on Poverty” of the 1960s and the liberal theorists who inspired it. It was a discourse about the “under-class”, which was later picked up most energetically by British PM Tony Blair’s Labour government. The Blairite version is where Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard borrowed from most, especially in theoretical terms, though in practical policy they are borrowing just as much from the US experience, especially in education.

Blair vividly illustrated what he meant by “social exclusion” when he launched the Social Exclusion Unit in December 1997: “Social exclusion is about income but it is about more. It is about prospects and networks and life-chances. It’s a very modern problem, and one that is more harmful to the individual, more damaging to self-esteem, more corrosive for society as a whole, more likely to be passed down from generation to generation, than material poverty.”

As with Blair’s New Labour, Australian Labor’s “social inclusion” is based on targeting working-class behaviour and promoting individual solutions. Poverty and marginalisation are seen as the result of poor choices, bad education, personal flaws and lack of skills, incentive and ambition. For the Labor government, more generous handouts to the unemployed or to public education would end up in the pockets of “bludgers”, bad teachers and so forth. Instead, Labor plans to continue funding “elite education” and extend it into the public school system, where government super schools can attract the “best” kids, the ones making the “aspirational” choices.

For Labor, the key to what capitalist politicians call “social policy” is a conglomerate of early intervention, education and welfare, based on the social-liberal principles of “coupling rights with responsibilities” and “joined up government”. This means an emphasis on individual responsibility rather than social rights and that every government agency works as tightly together as possible targeting individual workers to “help” them adapt to economic change — get educated for the labour market, re-skilled whenever necessary and motivated to “aspire” to capitalist prosperity, even if they can never get there.

Productivity

The Labor government will not intervene in the labour market to create more secure jobs for workers who have been left behind by its promotion of the “aspirational”. It will not increase income support or spending on services to support working people outside of the labour market. It will not improve public education for everyone. Those without jobs will need to acquire new skills or become more “flexible” about the kinds of jobs and pay they are willing to accept, and those at bad schools will need to find the “good ones” and move.

In other words, the “social inclusion” agenda is fundamentally about “labour productivity”: about capitalism getting the most out of workers, some of whom capitalism needs to be skilled and others less so. Gillard, as the Minister for Education, Employment, Workplace Relations and Social Inclusion, made this explicit in 2007, speaking to the Australian Industry Group: “In today’s world, the areas covered by my portfolios — early childhood education and childcare, schooling, training, universities, social inclusion, employment participation and workplace cooperation — are all ultimately about the same thing: productivity. So while my portfolios can be a mouthful, I’ll be happy to be referred to simply as ‘the minister for productivity’.”

Many of the non-revolutionary left fall into the trap of seeing “social inclusion” as a possible framework for progressive reform. The background to this is the general decline of socialist politics in the working class, including among the trade unions, where most leaderships have long abandoned any ideas about fighting for a better society than capitalism.

This has been coupled with a continuing retreat in social change theory. Some left activists have accepted the idea that if we cannot win struggles over wages, welfare and rights, then it is best to concentrate on “community building” and trying to find solutions locally and without needing to challenge the priorities and power of government and big business. The Greens are in part responsible for making this strategy more pervasive.

In this way of thinking, the left has an interest in building so-called social, cultural and educational “capital”, referring to social networks, knowledge and skills that can supposedly increase society’s and the individual’s productive potential and life options. In this way, many leftists buy into the myths of “social inclusion” and play a part in selling the idea to workers that they can solve many of social problems through piecemeal reforms within capitalism.

Another aspect of this is the notion of “deliberative democracy”, in which “popular consultation” in capitalist policy processes becomes an important tactic for social change strategy. Working-class communities can supposedly influence policy by being part of consultation, like the government-convened 2020 Summit or having the Greens in the Senate.

Of course, the lives of most Australian workers are not likely to change in the slightest through building their social and educational “capital” nor through participating in government “consultation”. In fact, the Labor government aims all this propaganda at the union and community organisation bureaucracies and at influencing those workers who have enough purchasing power to think of themselves as having a “stake” in the capitalist pie and some power to “participate”.

However, the worker confidence in “social entrepreneurship” that partly existed through the long post-World War II economic boom of the 1950s and ‘60s is completely unrealistic in a subsequent period of depressed capitalist economic growth. The main impact of the government policies and propaganda is to divide the working class and undermine the impulse and confidence of workers to engage in independent and collective political action that targets the real causes of their marginalisation. This feeds into the increasingly right-wing agenda of the Coalition parties. The Rudd-Gillard social inclusion agenda will quickly morph into Tony Abbott’s individualistic right-wing conservatism.

The left in Australia needs to sharpen its critique of “social inclusion”, fight for increasing collective action against the capitalist policies of Labor and Coalition governments and argue for a different sort of government — one that destroys the corporations hold on economic life and puts working people in charge.