Some Comments on Muindi’s Critique of the WBC Plan

I am totally impressed by this critical analysis of the “Plan to Expand the Production of Surplus Value and Satisfy the Demand for Exploitable Bodies” (see previous post). Planning documents are produced as Gospel and usually they are taken as such. Muindi has made a great effort to tear the Plan apart and show us what’s really intended. Bravo!

An objective which we could achieve collectively over the next six months to a year, as the development of the Plan becomes clearer, is a redux of this critical analysis in the plainest language possible, for the comprehension of the 99%. What we could aim for is a 2-sided tract linked to a web site with full information. It’s too early to do it now, ’cause the whole thing is not yet off the ground and there is no way to seperate fact from fiction. But if we can debunk it during its earliest phases of implementation, then we would be doing the city’s inhabitants a real favor.

It seems crucial to me – and not stressed enough here – that the Plan grows out of desperation with the Federal government, and in fact envisages a whole new kind of metropolitan corporate state. This is clear from the Brookings Institute papers on the Metropolitan Strategy, which are discussed on this website under the category “Plans.” It is undoubtedly true that these planners recognize the new centrality of the metropolitan scale in the transnational economic competition, as Saskia Sassen describes it. But what is really forcing the Chicago elites into action is their perception that Federal infrastructural, educational and urbanistic programs, pioneered by FDR and brought to their height under the Kennedy/Johnson administrations, are now definitively stalled. They see Washington as dysfunctional (and who could disagree?). Politically, we need to understand that this is a Democratic plan, it is made to be sold to a specific constituency. Could it be a Democratic response to what is being done in Houston and other Sun-belt cities? What kinds of metropolitan planning recipes are being offered by, say, the Heritage Foundation? Probably such comparisons would cast light on the specific differences of Chicago.

Another thing I like about this analysis is that it declares the former phase of “mega-gentrification” to be over. Effectively, the Metropolis 2020 Plan oversaw the transformation of the Loop and the construction of UIC with its world-class medical center, during the very period when the Merc rose to its position of global centrality in the derivatives markets. Pauline Lipman does a great job in describing the radical transformation of Downtown and North Coast neighborhoods during that period. Mega-gentrification defined the neoliberal era of the 80s and 90s, with a kind of apotheosis/crash in the 2000s. Mind you, it’s not exactly dead: the finance economy continues to dominate and a major concern of the Plan is how to revalorize “neighborhood assets,” aka real eatate. However, about a third of the corporations that appear on the board of World Business Chicago (like Boeing, Motorola Solutions, Excelon, Illinois Tool, Walgreen, Paragon Pharmaceuticals, United Continental) are actually industries that draw on the historic centrality of Chicago in geographic, demographic, organizational and distributional terms. For them, Chicago is still an inland port city, the transportation hub that links the Coasts to the Heartland. This gave it a huge political importance in the past, reflected in the Chicago school of sociology, in the Daley machine, and even in the current presidential administration. What Rahm wants to know is how – and on what economic basis – to remake this political machine and propel it again to the heights of national power? In that sense the issue is not just about the functionalities of capitalism, but also and simultaneously about how those functions are made into political rhetoric. I guess we have to deal with both those things. In other words, we have to deal with the state-capital nexus at the metropolitan level. It’s about where the money will come from, what it will be used for, and how its use will be made acceptable to the population.

An aspect of this critique that I would rethink is this one: “States discipline and qualify labor with welfare programs or by the use of force.” Yes, but not only. They also do it with incentives and even more, with institutional training. Incentives come in the form of tax breaks and bureaucratic streamlining, which can reach way down to the molecular level. You can see it in the way home ownership has been promoted, but also in an industry like trucking, where individuals are channeled/forced into the so-called “ownership” of their own rigs: not exactly discipline, but a pretty far cry from freedom and prosperity either. What I’ve called training – and others would call “ideology” or “governmentality” – is even more important than incentives. The prison system and the military schools are out there to exert discipline, for sure, but the charter schools and the revamped university system are there to inculcate an entrepreneurial spirit along with hi tech know-how. What Muindi calls “flexible metropolitan governance” could never work on the basis of discpline alone. The worst thing about it is that people are made to believe in it, to the point where they willingly carry it out. And then when we try to open up a debate, they yell: “Get a job!”

Against that note, I like the way this analysis ends by asking if the bid to redesign public education will run afoul of parents, teachers and students. Yeah, it might. And it just might run afoul of everyone with eyes to see, and with the expressive capacity to make their perceptions public.

all the best, Brian


Why Isn’t Closing 40 Philadelphia Public Schools National News?

One of the recent CEO’s of Philadelphia Public Schools was a guy from Chicago named Paul Vallas. Vallas’s previous job was head of Chicago’s Public Schools where his “innovations” included military charter schools and wholesale school closings to get around local laws that school parent councils veto power over the appointment of principals. Vallas was succeeded by Arne Duncan, now Secretary of Education, and arrived in Philly in 2002. As CEO of Philly schools he closed and privatized chunks of 40 schools, leaving town for post-Katrina New Orleans where he closed more than 100 public schools and fired every last teacher, custodian and staff person to create a business-friendly citywide charter school experiment. After his post-Katrina destruction of New Orleans public education, Vallas went to post-earthquake Haiti to commit heaven only knows what atrocity on the corpse of public education there.

Neoliberalism and Public Education

Although we’re focused on the current dismantling of Chicago Public Schools, I thought it’d be helpful to share an essay that places this struggle in a broader context–and hopefully it’s brief enough to read without detracting from preparation on Pauline Lipman’s book.

In A Nation of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, Megan Erickson narrates the genesis of neoliberal education reform at the federal level, beginning in the early 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s first term as president. His “educational agenda consisted of two main objectives: ‘bring God back into the classroom’ and abolish the Department of Education.” Not surprisingly, these views made Terrel Bell’s appointment as Secretary of Education a precarious one. With job security hanging in the balance (and zero aid from Reagan), Bell assembled the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE). And through this boondoggle came Bell’s magnum opus, A Nation at Risk: the Imperative for Educational Reform“–arguably the most influential document on education policy since Congress passed Title I in 1965.” More from Erickson:

But where Title I took an equalizing approach to reform, prioritizing the distribution of funds to districts comprised primarily of students from low-income families, A Nation at Risk called for higher expectations for all students, regardless of socio-economic status: “We must demand the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged, whether destined for college, the farm, or industry.”

Erickson goes on to show how the NCEE’s data-sorting methods left little room for outside critique or correction, and details the fallout from using market-based rhetoric to evaluate schools:

Under the influence of these reformers, the American education system has become less about curriculum and critical thinking, and more like Oprah: a program of self-mastery framed as a moral imperative. In public schools across the country, particularly urban ones, social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by the kind of glorified vocational training called for in A Nation at Risk.


With donor cash comes a set of beliefs, awkwardly transplanted from the business world to the classroom: the management guru’s vision of empowerment as a personal struggle, the CEO’s conviction that individual success is limited only by a lack of ambition, life as a series of goals waiting to be met. The type of advice once reserved for dieters, rookie sales associates, and the unemployed is now repeated to public school children with new age fervor: Think positive. Set goals and achieve them. Reach for the stars. Race to the top. It’s never too early to network. Just smile. Like the promise of A Nation at Risk, these admonitions are at once wildly idealistic and bitterly cruel: “You forfeit your chance for life at its fullest when you withhold your best effort in learning … When you work to your full capacity, you can hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you will have your future thrust upon you by others.” Convert every challenge into an opportunity, or else.

We see this logic echoed in the World Business Chicago plan. When the writers say that “we are not able to make the most of our human capital assets because of shortcomings in our education system,” they’re conjuring up the same bogeyman of failure that first appeared in A Nation at Risk. Through the internalization of scholastic achievement comes the erasure of systemic and socioeconomic disadvantages, and such language provides the justification for public schools to be supplanted by charters. I think there’s plenty of educational potential around questioning this notion of failure: its ideological roots, and opportunities for us to redirect its use.