And the Attacks on Public Education
Yesterday I was rereading Nancy MacLean’s compelling 2017 book about James Buchanan and the Viriginia School of Economics (also called Public Choice Economics), Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. I was particularly riveted by her background account of “massive resistance” to school desegration in my home state of Virginia in the 1950s. It was clarifying to be reminded of the many motives behind the effort to “save” education from the impact of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. White supremacy and states’ rights rhetoric were joined at the hip with what she describes as “property supremacy”—the rejection of forms of democratization that undermine private property rights.
Property supremacy became a key tenet of resistance to the civil rights movement nationally, as figures like Barry Goldwater argued (disingenuously) against legal racial discrimination by the state, but ultimately for the overriding right of property owners to decide how their property might be accessed. To resolve the new legal prohibitions against racial discrimination with property supremacy, politicians in Virginia (guided by figures like Buchanan, then at the University of Virginia) proposed, first, the elimination of public schools, and finally the privatization of schooling through a voucher system. The problem they ran into was democracy. They could not prevail against the widespread support for public education in the state. And so, MacLean shows us, they undertook long term planning to restrict democratic governance against the tide of social movements generating wider political participation in the 1960s.
We are now at another moment of stark contest over the terms of political participation, and the battle is again joined at the site of public education. The pressure to raise tuition, cut funding, and undermine inclusive curricula at public universities has been ongoing. The battle over K-12 has ramped up dramatically. As teachers’ unions and community groups fight for adequate and equitable funding, new attacks on governance structures and curricula rage. School board meetings in red states have become sites of disruption over covid protections, while parents are mobilized to oppose so-called Critical Race Theory. The new Florida “Don’t Say Gay” proposal joins the widespread attacks on trans kids.
Looking back at “massive resistance” in Virginia helps me remember that a so-called “culture war” is never just about “culture.” Underneath all the ramped up attacks over race, gender and sexuality is the agenda of contemporary versions of property supremacy. Public education itself is being denigrated, undermined, and disrupted, with students and teachers demoralized. There are real issues about public health measures and community/parental participation. But they are being exacerbated and exploited by a wide range of right wing organizations and media, usually cynically, in order to erode support for public education in general. Privatization of education, via charter schools and vouchers, has long been an important goal of the Koch-supported network of policy promoters and agitators, a group now expanded to include the Trump/Bannon faction’s agenda of “flooding the zone” with shit. Privatization serves the goals of white supremacists, the religious right, and the oligarchs whose goal is to undermine all forms of public space and democratic life in order to maintain control.
Culture wars are never just culture wars. They are part and parcel of the defense of capitalism against democracy. There is no way to separate the “real material interests” of everyday people from the way racial hierarchy is lived, or from the way gender and sexuality are regulated. The right wing knows this, they fight for their economic supremacy under some version of the Breitbart slogan, “politics is downstream from culture.” The right does not think “culture wars” are a distraction. They know that “woke” anti-racists and trans activists are their enemies as surely as union organizers and socialist politicians. If only more of the left understood these connections as well.
Here is your bonus—an awesome takedown of academic status hierarchies and the bullying they enable by my wonderful, gutsy colleague Paula Chakravartty.
Of Academic Hierarchies and Harassment