The socialist way to talk about school funding ‘inequality’

I can’t stop talking about Ester Cyna’s award-winning essay on school finance in North Carolina over the long 20th century. The history is rigorous and the focus on rural districts unique, but Cyna makes a move that few others in the motley arena of school finance research make.

She rejects the characterization of school finance resource distribution as inequality. Instead, she calls the situation kleptocratic. Rather than a technical system that just so happens to be allocating resources non-optimally, Cyna says that this distribution–which favors whites across class lines, but also follows a class struggle dynamic–is an intentional theft of one group’s resources by another.

What’s so important about this move is that it puts the whole problem of ‘school funding inequality’ in a different light. Rather than a framework that sees school funding as a mechanical, functionalist, and technocratic problem, Cyna’s intervention is to see school funding through the lens of dominance, social-political terrain, and struggle.

As far as I can tell, it’s a paradigm shift in thinking about school funding. The leading lights of progressive school funding research are only now discovering the racialized aspect of it and accounts of school funding from a critical, marxist, or socialist perspective are only slowly coming out.

Cyna takes an historical approach, detailing hard-to-understand practices that result in white ruling class (and sometimes working class) groups pilfering school district grant funding, corresponding property value enhancement, and school board political power from which Black middle and working class communities could have benefitted. She goes from 1908 to 2008.

Though her argument is focused on providing sufficient historical evidence from North Carolina to prove the point, her project clears a space to talk about the distribution of resources in education from a socialist perspective. With all my writing about the problem of inequality, I didn’t realize that even the word ‘inequality’ isn’t right for socialists to use in this case.

So I’ve been thinking about what Cyna’s paradigm shift means for us today, both in discourse about education and contemporary finance practices. Here are some initial thoughts just on the theory side of things.

Distribution

First of all, Cyna’s move here shows us that the problem at hand isn’t school funding inequality. The term ‘inequality’ is an ideological framing of the problem. Again, calling the situtation inequality is to use a mechanistic and functionalist framework: there’s a system that just so happens to be badly distributing resources. All we have to do is trust technocrats to fix that system and it’ll be okay.

Cyna’s kleptocracy view challenges that ideological presumption. (It’s a a counter-interpellation.) What we’re talking about here is actually school funding distribution. How do the material conditions of education get made and sent around? Where do these resources come from and how do they get to schools? That’s a distribution problem.

The technocratic approach to this school funding distribution problem is to say it’s a problem of inequality. But a socialist knows this isn’t the way to go. We need a class struggle approach. So how would a class struggle approach characterize school funding distribution? What would a socialist say about this situation?

Superexploitation

I’ve been making my way through the literature on racial capitalism. The term is trending right now and I’ve had a mini-project to see about the differences between it as a framework and the structuralist tradition of Althusser and Stuart Hall. I’m also interested in what school funding looks like through that lens. Cyna’s thinking is essential here, though she uses the word ‘kleptocracy’. What’s helpful about that word is that it invites different theorizations without making a theoretical claim yet.

The question is how to theorize Cyna’s kleptocracy claim about school funding distribution using a racial capitalism lens.

So far, Charisse Burden-Stelly’s thinking about modern racial capitalism has resonated with me because she grounds her approach to racial capitalism in the work of black women communist organizers in the United States. A concept in this literature that she focuses on (like in this podcast), and which Robinson also mentions, is superexploitation.

Remember that exploitation is capitalism’s noble scam and the beating heart of Marx’s critique of it. Working people do the stuff that makes value possible. Without our labor, capitalists can’t buy and sell, so the capitalists pay us money to do it. Getting paid is better–in some cases–than being a serf or a slave, but Marx says hold on. Almost by definition, what we get paid has to be less than what our work is worth. Otherwise, why would a capitalist pay us to do it? There has to be something in it for them. They have to make some profit. So they take some of what we make. You know when people say “they don’t pay me enough for this?” That’s always true, by definition, in capitalism.

That’s exploitation: I do stuff that’s worth a certain amount, but I don’t take home all of what I create. Capitalists take it.

Exploitation happens at work. But what Marx meant by work, as a number of traditions have pointed out, is limited. It doesn’t include work that happens outside of contracted wage (like carework). And it doesn’t capture the racialized dynamic of either kind of work. Social reproduction theorists focus on the carework part and racial capitalism theorists focus on the second part.

Superexploitation is a term that black communists used to talk about the racial dynamic of exploitation in the United States. Burden-Stelly says it’s better to use this term than oppression or exploitation, since it captures how racialized exploitation goes beyond exploitation but is still a kind of exploitation. She describes it as resulting from the “conjuncture of white supremacy, racialization, and the ‘badge of slavery’, which exacerbates the conditions of exploitation to which the white working classes are subjected.”

She follows Harry Haywood, who wrote that superexploitation “constitutes a combination of direct exploitation, outright robbery, physical violence, legal coercion, and perpetual indebtedness…stifling ‘the free economic and cultural development’ of the Black masses ‘through racist persecution as a basic condition for maintaining’ virtual enslavement.”

Expropriation

But superexploitation might not work for school funding distribution. School funding isn’t created or distributed in the workplace. Nor is there a form of reproductive work that Black people are doing explicitly to generate value, which capitalists can superexploit. It’s true that whites accumulated wealth by taking from Blacks when it came to school funding. But did they exploit it? If we’re being careful, not really.

Instead, Nancy Fraser (who usually has solid takes) proposes that we use the term expropriation to talk about racialized accumulation beyond the traditional workplace. Pardon the long quote but I promise it’s worth it:

Distinct from Marxian exploitation, but equally integral to capitalist development, expropriation is accumulation by other means. Dispensing with the contractual relation through which capital purchases “labor power” in exchange for wages, expropriation works by confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into capital’s circuits of self-expansion. The confiscation may be blatant and violent, as in New World slavery—or it may be veiled by a cloak of commerce, as in the predatory loans and debt foreclosures of the present era. The expropriated subjects may be rural or indigenous communities in the capitalist periphery—or they may be members of subject or subordinated groups in the capitalist core. They may end up as exploited proletarians, if they’re lucky—or, if not, as paupers, slum dwellers, sharecroppers, “natives,” or slaves, subjects of ongoing expropriation outside the wage nexus. The confiscated assets may be labor, land, animals, tools, mineral or energy deposits—but also human beings, their sexual and reproductive capacities, their children and bodily organs. The conscription of these assets into capital’s circuits may be direct, involving immediate conversion into value—as, again, in slavery; or it may be mediated and indirect, as in the unwaged labor of family members in semi-proletarianized households. What is essential, however, is that the commandeered capacities get incorporated into the value-expanding process that defines capital. Simple theft is not enough. Unlike the sort of pillaging that long predated the rise of capitalism, expropriation in the sense I intend here is confiscation-cum-conscription-into-accumulation.

I think kleptocratic school funding practices like those Cyna describes fit this description. So, at least for now, I’d propose we use this concept of expropriation.

The one issue is that just using the term expropriation misses out on the chief benefit of racial capitalism as a framework: the rhetorical pride of place given to the term ‘racial’. Is Fraser’s account open to the criticism that–despite its adequate concept–the phraseology, its potential as a slogan for organizing, is not right for the moment? While this may be true of superexploitation as well, at least the prefix ‘super’ has a solid history in organizing (per Burden-Stelly) and makes space for enhanced forms of an otherwise deracialized marxist concept of exploitation.

I’d propose socialists use ‘superexpropriation’ to talk about school funding distribution in the United States. The concept builds on Cyna’s kleptocracy idea and theorizes school funding in a class struggle framework.

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