The left must ask the right questions

… as well as provide the right answers – Published on Left Foot Forward, by Simon Ravenscroft, Sept 12, 2013.

This government has repeatedly shown itself incapable of thinking beyond the level of the individual. In doing so it has sidelined questions about the kind of society that its policies are creating. This is its chief ideological victory. To the extent the left gets dragged into debating questions posed on the level of the individual, it has already lost the main argument. Instead it should be seeking to ask its own questions.  

I want to look at one example in depth to illustrate my more general point. Since I live and work in a university, I’ll pick the debate over the tripling of higher education tuition fees. This was a debate the left lost, and so it’s worth looking to it for some lessons.

At the time the government and media mantra in justification of this policy was: “People with degrees get higher-paying jobs, should they not be expected to pay for this privilege?”

Ideologically speaking this is a trick question, because whether you answer yes or no you’ve already been dragged into thinking about higher education in an individualist way – that is, as education as a private, individual good. Many protestors against the government agenda fell into this trap by turning to the language of ‘rights’: “Education should be free because it is my human right”.

This doesn’t go anything like far enough. The language of rights still requires us to think about education in private, individualised terms (“my right to my education, which benefits me”).

But higher education is not just a private good, it is also a public good. And this is the point that is continually glossed over in debates. For example, having a highly-educated populace is crucial for a healthy and thriving democracy; it enhances our common life, both culturally and otherwise; there are also economic benefits that are felt beyond the level of the individual by society as a whole.

Given this, is it not right that there is a public contribution to higher education, given that we all feel the benefit? Reducing the question to the level of the individual (and forcing students to think about it this way by loading them with debt), only inhibits a whole generation’s ability to think of themselves as part of something bigger than themselves – a society – to which they should be contributing.

A better question would be: “what kind of society do we want to have?” Do we really want to live in a society where only those who are already wealthy, or only those who are willing to take on huge debt, or only those who don’t understand the implications of debt are able to gain a university education? … //

… (full text).

(Simon Ravenscroft is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, working on the social theory of Ivan Illich).


Chancellor Candidate Gives Middle Finger, on Spiegel Online International Blog /German Election, by Daryl Lindsey, September 12, 2013;

From Black to Orange: SPIEGEL ONLINE’s Guide to German Political Parties, Part 1, February 28, 2013 (down the page: parts 2-9): Germany’s political landscape used to be simple. In recent years, however, the emergence of smaller parties have mixed things up. With Germans preparing to go to the polls this autumn, SPIEGEL ONLINE has assembled a brief guide to the political parties worth watching …;

Translate This: Google’s Quest to Eliminate the Language Barrier, on Spiegel Online International, by Thomas Schulz, September 13, 2013: Can the language barrier be breached? Google certainly thinks so: Under the leadership of a computer scientist from Germany, the company is making progress towards a universal translation tool. But competition is looming from Microsoft and Facebook …;

(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

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