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Being A Non-Conformist In The Era Of Neo-Liberal Education – OpEd

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The personal transformation entailed by the adoption of a Communist outlook is a disruptive one. When you make a commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of the entire social order, you always live in conflict with the ideas of the ruling class that control the majority of the people. Such discordance with widely accepted notions results in social humiliation and the precarization of survival. When you boldly refuse to conform to the dehumanizing norms of capitalism and demand the creation of new criteria for the valuation of humanity, you are blocked from the symbolic system of recognition and consigned to the zone of deplorability. This largely negative reaction to the progressive agenda of Communism is an effect of the temporal contradictions that inevitably afflict any Marxist militant. At the same time as you strive for the ruthless abolition of capitalist relations, you can’t help but start the struggle from the muck of the here and now. The future has to be created within the womb of the present.

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As Vijay Prashad writes:  “The communists who emerge out of… [capitalist] worlds are often talented and bright – those who could make lucrative careers and could be the shining lights of their communities. Yet, they chose to go to the trenches of political battle. They refuse to leave their world, but in adopting the transformative social agenda of communism they remain within at a curious distance – unwilling to conform to conservative social trends…communists live a double reality – fighting against this world to make a better future, and living in this world within one’s social order. To inhabit the present and the future is a stern burden on a communist.”

As an Indian student who has embraced Communism, my experiential encounters with the educational universe of neoliberal capitalism have included the difficult task of maintaining a balance between careerist pressures and revolutionary principles. When I had not yet gained political consciousness, I used to enjoy being regularly crushed by the hyper-competitive education machine run by the Indian bourgeoisie. Saturated in the consumerist dystopia brought about by neo-imperialist globalization, I was intensely aspirational, always wanting to faithfully imitate the toppers whose images I saw on the billboards of coaching centers. What defined that period of my life was a sick preoccupation with the urge to do something extraordinary, something that would earn me accolades from the honchos of my local status quo. This strong desire to gain social recognition was closely tied to neoliberal ideology, which worships competition, delegitimizes cooperation, boosts ambition, and attaches personal worth to professional achievement. A society governed by this systemic logic of perfectionism promotes judgmental values and constant anxiety. In the words of Meagan Day, the youth is trapped in “the feeling of paranoia and anxiety engendered by the persistent — and not entirely unfounded — sensation that everyone is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can write you off forever. This hyper-perception of others’ impossible expectations causes social alienation, neurotic self-examination, feelings of shame and unworthiness, and “a sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation, characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure.””

The social norms of perfectionism practiced by today’s students are an ideological corollary of the material changes unleashed by neoliberalism. Through the destruction of the welfare state, late-stage capitalism has destroyed the socio-institutional bases of collective solidarity. This massive attack on working class gains has corporatized education, creating an environment where competition, and standardized testing have come to be the major determinants of educational outcomes; these educational outcomes, in turn, are fundamental to one’s future market price i.e. to the possibility of maintain a stable livelihood. Given these very real facts of educational and economic instability, it is no wonder that students consider perfectionism and selfishness the sole rational means to deal with issues of career. As Thomas Curran notes, “It is how they are coping – to feel safe, connected and of worth – in a culture that prizes individual accomplishment over everything else.” Whenever I challenged this structurally rooted curtailment of student imagination – through conversations with teachers and students – I was usually met with a fierce defense of the elite discourse. Perceived as a nuisance to the exam-centric pedagogical dynamics that dominate Indian classrooms, I was ignored and scorned. What took precedence was the question of economic survival and social esteem. No one was willing to come together and engage in critical dialogue about the system that compels us to compete against each other. On top of this discouraging response from others, I no longer found myself capable of engaging in the great rat-race of endless exams. Communism made me cognizant of the irrationality of such efforts to quantitatively assess students through restrictive marking schemes. I realized that exams were disconnected from our intellectual capacities and learning processes and only served to select few and eliminate others. However, this exposure to the truth of capitalist education made me unfit for being a “successful” student. 

To properly participate in a mad system, you have to be mad. But I was no longer mad. I was critically thinking about the sheer brutality of the totality of Indian education, its socio-cultural inequalities and political conservatism. No longer steeped in the stupor of commodities, I was amazed by the fact that humans created such an inhumane order!

Avijit Pathak articulates the monstrosity of the society in a lucid fashion: “What kind of society have we created! For us, religion is nothing but loud and demonstrative ritualism — a sort of identity marker; patriotism is a violent gesture towards the invented “enemies” of the nation; mainstream politics is devoid of the slightest trace of ethics, and gross inequality is normalized. As creative dissenters are sent to jail, everything is turned into its opposite: Vice into virtue, ugliness into beauty, or narcissism into humility. A society of this kind has to kill all emancipatory ideals and practices of education.” The incongruity between my social consciousness and the one necessitated by the functional imperatives of neoliberal education marred my social standing, making me look like a ridiculous idealist to other “serious” people. A Communist will invariably be subject to such shame. What matters is resisting those politico-cultural hindrances and resolutely moving forward toward the path of liberation through revolutionary praxis. 

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Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected] His articles have been published by different magazines and websites such as Monthly Review Online, Tehran Times, Modern Diplomacy, ZNet, Canada Files, Anti-war, Midwestern Marx, Anticonquista, Anti-Capitalist Resistance, Challenge, Big News Network, CGTN, Quint, Federación Anarquista, Akademi, South Asia Journal, International Magz, Green Social Thought, New Age, Frontier Post, Green Left, Palestinian Media Center in Europe, Rebelion, Newsclick, Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, Weekly Worker, Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, News and Letters Weekly, Economic and Political Weekly, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Counterfire, Journal of People, Peasants and Workers, The Greanville Post, Plateforme altermondialiste, Dandelion Salad, Scribe, Arena, Eurasia Review, Coventry University Press, Culture Matters, Press TV, Global Research, Independent Australia, Dissident Voice, Axis of Logic, Marxism-Leninism Today, Scoop, United National Antiwar Coalition, Gauri Lankesh News, Kashmir Times, Good Morning Kashmir, Countercurrents, Counterview, Syria 360, Revolutionary Strategic Studies, Socialist Project, Hampton Institute, Orinoco Tribune, Intrepid Report, Ecuador Today, People’s Review, Eleventh Column, Pressenza, Karvaan India, Clarion India, OpEd News, Janata Weekly, The Iraq File, Iraq Sun, Portside and the Institute of Latin American Studies.

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