I was obviously delighted to get the chance to see Phil Collins’ Marxism Today again, this time in Dublin in the altogether different environs of the Kerlin. A willfully endearing film, which stayed in my mind since seeing it in Berlin, I suppose the resonance of the piece shifted considerably given recent happenings in Ireland. The film lightly touches on a harsh topic; the integral obsolescence pertaining to Capitalism, which not only extends to objects, things, but to people also. The film comprises a series of interviews with people rendered useless, flailing wildly without function in wake of the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
Two economists, one political economy teacher and a renowned teenage gymnast – all women, and all given function and validation through and by the GDR. Recounting their experiences in the wake of its demise, their experiences differ from successful adaptation to a kind of self-protective amnesia. One woman casually describes her transformation from political-economy teacher to founder of a dating agency as though it was the most natural career progression imaginable. Another woman, a successful Marxist- Leninist researcher under Communism, makes an even more startling move: researching the so-called Chicago Boys and proponents of free-market Capitalism only makes her transition to life under such structures all the easier. Even more than this, this PhD work, done resolutely under critical auspices, actually enables her success under Capitalism. What interested me most about this woman was her description of her education in the GDR. Not only did she not have to pay fees, but furthermore she had no material concerns whatsoever: students in this particular school were paid to be there, and rewarded for excellence.
This interests me in a wider discussion of obsolescence: here in Ireland it seems education is growing obsolete. In the GDR, these students were supported financially in their education. True, this education was rendered widely useless. Here in Ireland, students are paying through the nose to put them through an education that, at least in current, local, terms, has been reduced to some kind of mindless expectation. This is without an increase in fees that is being broached in cautious terms by our government. It obviously will happen, and everyone will be up in arms. Duly marching down to the Dail in our thousands in an attempt to safeguard this most fundamental of human rights…
Hesitantly I include myself in this ‘we’: why, I wonder, should we protest about the possible threat to education, when the most disabling blow has already been discharged? That is, that the education that we already pay and put ourselves deeper in debt for (if we can get credit, that is) has become useless. Why the hell should we pay anything for it, really? To pay MORE for it should be taken as a personal insult to every single student in this country. I am not, of course, suggesting that education is wholly without function: what I am suggesting is that, at least in a financial sense, it might now not ensure the countering of whatever debt is ensued in pursuit of it. (As someone who has just finished a masters and is now masochistically contemplating a PhD, clearly this debt bows to some higher, more transcendent goal….)
What the film highlighted for me is obsolescence, how people must sometimes fall to such a demand, and how possibly education must sometimes follow the same path. What I am not saying is that student protests are in vain; what I AM suggesting is that they re-enforce a conception of education as some kind of virgin path to success, redemption, all that. What these protests disguise is the fact that recent Capitalist maneuvers on behalf of banks etc., have rendered your education, should you be able to afford it, somewhat obsolete. At least in Collins’ film, Communist teaching seemed in a sense prepared for obsolescence. Protesting about an increase in fees just hides the real problem, which is that education itself faces obsolescence, and seems wholly unprepared for it.
I looked a little bit at Baudrillard a few years back. I’m not a massive fan but there’s a parallel here with what he terms ‘third-order simulation’. Taking the example of Watergate, he says that the media furore, which ensued in its wake, existed as a proponent of this most vile form of simulation. What happened was that after Nixon was replaced by Ford, there was the illusion of resolution, of a rectifying of the problems that permitted the scandal. However, the nature of third-order simulation says that it exists in order to disguise the absence of such a reality, in this case the ‘reality’ of change, or resolution. What this form of simulation serves to do is mask the fact that nothing had changed when Ford became President, that the workings of Capitalism, which enabled, even necessitated Watergate, remained as solid as ever. It would happen again; third-order simulation simply disguises the actual conditions which actualise events such as Watergate i.e. Capitalism. So, looking at student protests here in Dublin, let’s say they are successful, really successful; fees remain free, registration fees and eligibility for grants also. It looks like a victory; in reality, the education you have fought for still doesn’t guarantee your ability to move out of your parents house or get a job, and Fianna Fail are still in power. This third-order simulation supplants a notion of success, when really nothing has changed: the conditions that have undermined your education remain i.e. Capitalism. By distracting students in their attempts to solidify their right to an education, third-order simulation veils the fact that their education can and will be rendered obsolete by conditions that remain unchanged, and unchanging.