Skip to content

Capitalism and the changing classroom

Education “reforms” through the neo-liberal lens

Chapter two of Lois Weiner’s forthcoming book, as yet untitled, on capitalism, education, teachers’ work and teachers unions.

Tempest is proud to present the second chapter of Lois Weiner’s forthcoming book. The bulk of analysis and writing on this topic, especially on the Left, focuses either exclusively on important questions of pedagogy or the dynamics and functioning of  teachers unions.  In the course of her work, Weiner ignores neither, but additionally situates the classroom itself as a work-place, an aspect often ignored. In this chapter, Weiner explains why critically examining changes in education and teachers’ work is a powerful lens to detect what’s happened and planned in capitalism. The first chapter is published in New Politics as “Education Reforms and Capitalism’s Changes to Work; Lessons for the Left.” Chapter Three will be published in Workers’ Liberty.

Educational reforms in the past three decades have reflected and reinforced tectonic shifts in capitalism and refashioning of work that started well before this process or period was widely named as “neoliberalism.”1Developing a narrative and analysis that explain the “new normal” is extraordinarily difficult because of the scope and breathtaking pace of cultural, social, political, and economic change since the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the pandemic that followed. In fact, the most significant changes happening in the educational work environment actually began after the 2008 financial collapse.2

As we think and organize about what comes next, I think it’s useful to recognize a huge contradiction that frames our challenge. Despite fatigue and demoralization after Donald Trump’s election and during the pandemic, we have witnessed extraordinary challenges to social injustice. Inequalities embedded in power relations and our economy are more apparent to more people—and more clearly articulated—than they have been before in my lifetime.

The author, Dr. Lois Weiner.

While vast numbers of people have experienced personal trauma and loss, tens of thousands of people, many young, have taken to the streets for the first time, demanding racial and gender justice, democracy, and protection of human rights, including freedom to immigrate. These social movements have educated millions of people about the systemic nature of social oppression, stripped away illusions about capitalism’s ethos of competition and individual advancement, and suggested the potential of collective struggle, including the power workers can have at the workplace.

The bad news is that gains from these struggles, as well as rights won in the past century, are endangered, perhaps as never before. A significant swath of the wealthy, powerful elite that control this country have clearly revealed that political norms of democracy, especially elections, are dispensable to them.3While most working people have been struggling to survive, the ruling class has enriched itself—at our expense.4


A complete explanation of how changes in education reflect the ways capitalism has altered work globally with information technology goes well beyond the scope of this essay, but I will offer a brief summary of the dynamics characterizing the reciprocity between education reform and changes to work during the past thirty years. In the 1990s unions were pressured to adopt changes to work, in particular “lean production” intended to make U.S. industry competitive. This shift was endorsed by U.S. unions and both political parties. Education reforms reflected this shift in pressures to teach the “new basic skills,” which were linked to international assessments of students’ work.5 As U.S. unions in the private sector accepted downsizing and concessions as the only way to keep jobs from being off-shored, the rationale for public education became increasingly coupled to the economy, with curricular changes that were purportedly designed to make individual workers as well as the economy more competitive. Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) accepted this rationale for curriculum change and pushed reforms in how locals negotiated, to replace “industrial unionism” with “trust agreements,” which many researchers and social justice activists in education argued was more progressive.6

International standards, ostensibly reflecting altered demands of work, assessed with standardized tests, were central to these reforms. Expropriating the Left’s historic role and rhetoric of fighting for equality, both Democrats and Republicans adopted policies in the name of equal educational achievement to break the “monopoly” of public education, that is, democratic control over schools. Standardized tests were defended as not only the best but the only valid, reliable measures of student, teacher, and school performance. Curricular standards, set far away from schools, based on what international finance organizations determined was needed for economic prosperity, were accompanied by market reforms, introducing new ways to make education a profit center and fragment public control and oversight. Fundamental aspects of this project persist: Education is being further privatized, regulation dissolved, through expansion of charter schools and funding policies that are vouchers in all but name. Activists’ tenacious resistance to commercialization and privatization in these forms has continued. However more recent forms of privatization and control are mostly under the radar of activists, unions, and researchers.

The newest wave of attacks on public education, from well-funded social conservatives who aim to discredit and destroy the gains of the movements for social justice that emerged so powerfully after Trump’s election, may seem separate from changes to education and work from information technology, but they share a common goal, determining schooling’s purposes in capitalist society. Hence we must ground our critique of our opponents’ “solutions” and our own analysis by naming an uncomfortable truth: social inequalities heightened and publicized during the pandemic were festering problems in which unions and the education establishment have been complicit. There was never a “golden age” of democracy in this country, nor of public education, nor of labor relations to which we can return. The Left’s challenge is developing a conceptual framework for understanding and fighting capitalism’s degradations of life that not only acknowledges social oppression but that centers it, along with an inclusive definition of the working class.

Though changes to manufacturing, warehouses, and the global supply chain have been fairly well-studied, less attention has been paid to parallel changes in cultural and knowledge work, as well as labor in human services, “women’s work” of social reproduction—including teaching. We know that, even before the pandemic, workers in these occupations experienced heightened intensification of labor, diminution of autonomy and creativity, standardization of work processes, and pressure to “perform according to the ever more stringent standards laid down from above (defined in terms of protocols, performance targets, and quality standards.”7 Indeed, the skills and attitudes employers demanded from cultural and knowledge workers before the pandemic read like a classified ad for teachers: being “digitally literate,” “self-motivated,” being “good team players,” and having a “commitment to lifelong learning”.8Transnational corporations also wanted workers familiar with or able to master specific software packages and communicate with distant customers in a global market—as teachers have done in the shift to remote learning in the pandemic.

In retrospect, critical researchers of teaching’s de-professionalization who identified the problem as the new managerialism,” including the few who related the process to teaching as gendered work, correctly saw the origins in capitalism – neoliberalism – missed connections between the new modes of control and the role of information technology.9One reason is the vast disproportionality in resources for critical scholarship about work, a problem national and state unions can and should help address. Our opponents have billions to spend on research (and publicizing it as the conventional knowledge), whereas most U.S. scholars examining material relevant to ideas in this book must carve out time from workloads as faculty (if they are fortunate to have full-time positions and are not contingent labor). In contrast the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) combines critical research and members’ insights about changes to their work to develop awareness and policies to contest their provincial government’s collaboration with educational policies of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) establishing curricular standards that contradict student needs. Alberta Teachers’ Association has analyzed “compassion fatigue” among teachers arising from caring for students amidst conditions under COVID that undercut professional ideals, producing empirical evidence about a similar phenomenon in the U.S., exhaustion and “burn out” of U.S. workers in human services.10

“Platformization” of services, seen in the ubiquity of “apps,” accelerated in the pandemic and reflects a trend in a vast swath of workplaces, including schools. Algorithms control work, assuming management functions previously handled by employers, making low-paid, contingent labor even more precarious and exploitative. Platforms break work down into modules, making workers’ performance and time more easily controlled, degrading the skills needed to perform the job because the units are designed on the assumption no specific knowledge or skills are required to do the work. For venture capitalists and tech startups, the work of delivering a pizza isn’t substantially different from any other kind of service, including teaching, which they see as delivering a lecture or a module with content that is pre-determined.11

Historically, when schools face a teacher “shortage,” entry requirements are diminished or eliminated, as occurred during the pandemic when school districts were unable to hire enough substitute teachers.12 What will happen to credential requirements for substitutes—and then teachers—with teachers’ use of platforms operating with pre-constructed lessons broken into modules? Platformization can do to teaching what DoorDash has done to food delivery, especially if we have grading bots perform assessments with predetermined criteria.

The newest source of profit in education is “assessment” (that is, collecting data to sell) on “social and emotional learning” (SEL).13The World Bank and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) frame better data collection in health and education as solutions for improving living conditions for the most vulnerable children and communities.14 Reviving the narrative of a crisis of inequality in the first wave of “free market” reforms, Silicon Valley and Wall Street have developed modes of data collection even more invasive than the software introduced initially for standardized testing. Capitalism has deepened surveillance and data mining, moving from assessments of academic performance to evaluations of psychological, physical, emotional, and social health, and linking these assessments to databases that store information on student and family health. The irony of local teachers unions having advocated and fought so courageously for remote learning to save lives is that remote learning accelerated adoption of ed-tech platforms that give corporations vast new profits and more effective control of teachers’ and students’ behaviors, routinizing learning, and hence deskilling teachers’ work, opening the door to frightening new ways to subvert our professional ideals—and democracy.

Almost unimaginably massive funding for new organizations that identify as supporters of social and racial justice and advocate “solutions” advanced by ed-tech moguls has been an integral aspect of the push for adoption of more invasive and profitable technology. Activists who lead these groups often see alignment between their ideals, which their funders claim to support, and the “solutions” foundations and think tanks advance. Yet, when we look more deeply at the sources of funding, we see a contradictory picture. While many of these ed justice groups correctly argue against old forms of discipline as racist, opposing “school to prison pipeline,” their funders push (and profit from) new forms of control, linked to “national security” with private vendors who make big money from student data. For teachers and unions, what does it mean to demand and even strike to hire “counselors, not cops” if we don’t recognize that counselors are told to complete assessments of students that are linked to health records that are bought, sold, and stored, for life? Ridding schools of police doesn’t address use of surveillance cameras that link images of students to their IDs—and larger databases being compiled. New school security guidelines issued by the federal government under a President Biden appointee reveal “school safety” is tied to anti-terrorism strategies, pointing to even more control of student bodies and data. As this and other examples demonstrate, Democrats are deeply involved in extending surveillance of edtech and privatization with it.15


To understand the full extent of changes to work and education, I think we need to take another look at the global assault on teaching, teachers, and their unions and how this applies to teachers unions and social justice.16 In retrospect the term neoliberalism, which I and many critical researchers adopted as we grappled with changes in capitalism—including creation of global markets, alterations in work, and “free market” ideology—missed the conceptual and practical importance of recognizing what was new while conveying capitalism is a social system. Correcting this oversight opens up new ways to see and navigate tensions that emerge between defending workers’ economic rights and support for struggles of social movements for equality and justice outside the workplace. Here I draw on Michael Rustin’s 2012 analysis, “Crisis of a Social System.”17 Rustin granted that identifying neoliberalism as an ideology that is “indeed the organizing principle of the great transformation of our times… captures much of what needs to be understood” about the historical moment. Yet Rustin argues for a reversion to “the antiquated term capitalism, as the name not merely of an ideology but of an ensemble of interrelated elements (modes of production, distribution, social control, socialisation, communication, military power, etc).”

Student march, Germany 2019. Photo by Marco Verch.

What’s uniquely valuable about naming and analyzing capitalism as a social system18 is its simultaneous focus and integration of all spheres of human experience, or to use an even more antiquated term, the whole kit and kaboodle of life. This conception of capitalism explains—as we have been reminded, again, by social movements for justice and equality, especially Black Lives Matter—that racism, patriarchy, anti-immigrant sentiment, hetero-normativity, and ableism have been “baked into” capitalism’s development. Moreover, movements to make society more equal, just, and humane continually illuminate harm done by capitalism, bringing to our attention prejudices, inequalities, and physical dangers that many or most of us haven’t previously identified. A fundamental contradiction of capitalism is that as it changes, wreaking new harm, it also awakens new perceptions of and resistance to its damage, often first in the realm of social relations.

At the same time, the drive for more profit and control of work, capitalism’s political and economic engine, depends on control of work and workers, which gives the workplace and workers a strategic importance—not to be mistaken for a moral or political superiority—in challenging the status quo. Workers must act collectively to make improvements in their conditions and pay, and while it’s better if they understand organizing at the workplace challenges the system, regardless of whether they do, the fact of their organizing creates a new kind of space in the system, introducing the idea of democracy.

But social hierarchies reflecting oppression outside work infect and permeate the workplace and workers’ social relations on the job. Conceptualizing capitalism as a social system demands that we see how life outside the workplace configures individual and collective identities, just as work shapes consciousness, too. Social oppression undercuts solidarity and collective action on the job, which is why unions and workers have a very practical stake in making our society more just and equal.

When unions contend that workers’ economic well-being is their first or primary responsibility (as in business unionism), they actually adopt capitalism’s ideology: workers’ purpose consists of making profits possible. In ignoring workers’ lived experiences outside of work, unions not only undercut the power of workers’ collective organization, they undercut the mutual learning and support so critical to building opposition to capitalism’s toxic control over life.

Even if unions try to wall off the workplace from the society, they find they must have a relationship with the state because rights to organize on the job are framed by the state’s role in protecting capitalism and profit. It “just doesn’t work to separate the unions from other social movements … because the state works similarly to penetrate, influence, divert, or suppress all such movements. Look at the ‘liberal’ state’s involvement in the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the COINTELPRO penetration of the anti-war movement” as Kim Moody noted in an exchange about the relationship between unions, democracy, and socialism.

Part of what makes labor organizing so essential, rewarding, and frustrating is unions’ contradictory role under liberal capitalism: They protect workers’ rights within a political system that constrains their power and authority. Inevitably, unions as organizations that must function within capitalism experience conservatizing pressures to insulate themselves and their resources, to limit the aims and methods of struggle, so that the apparatus survives economic and political attacks. The inherent counterweight is workers’ self-organization, ideally through a conscious “rank and file strategy” that demands unions become “living democratic participatory organizations and cultures.”19 Another counterweight is movements for social justice outside the workplace, which push unions to become involved in struggles beyond the economic realm, challenging capitalism directly on the terrain of social relations.

If we understand the fight for economic justice and the dignity of labor as themselves being social justice struggles, which I think we must, the challenge in labor organizing is to connect economic demands to aspirations of social movements outside the workplace, and in the case of teachers unions, outside the school walls.


The silo-ization in the academy and social movements, as well as between them, profoundly diminishes our capacity to apply theory to real-life struggles. Silo-ization disrupts the dialectic between theory and practice so often advocated and so seldom achieved. Teachers’ labor activism provides an opportunity to test the hypothesis that unions play a contradictory role in capitalism, as I saw in my informal discussions with activists in the “red state” walkouts. Shortly before the walkouts exploded into public view in 2018, an activist familiar with my work called to pick my brain about navigating the increasing tensions between the state affiliates of NEA and AFT, which represented only a tiny fraction of education workers, and the exploding number of teachers and school workers organizing for more funding for education and salaries. I suggested if the union were doing what it should, he and others wouldn’t have to do what they were: The union should have been a vehicle for struggle. Instead it was passive and even at times a barrier because officers and staff defined union power as the existence of the apparatus and their personal access to politicians. The union was satisfied with the status quo. Therefore the question for activists wasn’t whether the officials would betray the movement by cutting deals with politicians but how and when the betrayals would occur. While staff and officers’ ideals and intentions are important, the union apparatus is only as representative of workers’ needs and wishes as we make it because the union as an organization is embedded in capitalist political relations.

Another implication of my analysis is that, to the extent we push unions to adopt strategies that address capitalism as a social system, even if the unions do not make this motive or rationale explicit, we “fight smart” by addressing the entire kit and kaboodle which the ruling class shapes because of its power. Because teachers’ work is located at the intersection of so many of the realms of any social system, including culture, social reproduction, and knowledge work, connections outside the workplace are fairly easy to recognize.

Chicago Teachers Union Rally, October 14, 2019. Photo by Charles Edward Miller.

Although it has been adopted as a template by many unions, I think a key contribution of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) program “The Schools Chicago Students Deserve” has been overlooked and is made visible when we use the lens of capitalism as a social system. How the program drew attention to racism, the apartheid of Chicago’s school system, has been widely recognized, and for good reason. This alone was a stunning challenge to the way unions’ cast their responsibilities. The program embedded demands for teachers’ working conditions and improvements in pay and benefits in analysis that centered racism in education and society. The program and strike demands implicitly challenged the nexus between economic inequality and racism – social oppression, baked into capitalism.

A key and mostly unremarked contribution of the CTU demands about teachers’ work was how they addressed capitalism’s pressures to subject working-class students to a curriculum that prepared them for a life of drudgery: no art, no music, not even physical education. Insisting that “specials” be restored, hiring social workers and counselors, challenged capitalism’s drive for profit, its driving logic and force, that life contains no space or time for play or attention to emotional and psychological needs. Finally, the union waged a strike for this program against a mayor with close contacts to the White House, during a presidential election. It thus openly challenged power relations in the society and pressures to have unions support the status quo. Without articulating this explicitly, perhaps without realizing it, the CTU developed a program that took on capitalism as a social system.

What was new and exciting about CTU’s program can be applied to other unions and workplaces. It is, admittedly, easier in occupations and sectors that are located in overlapping realms of capitalism to identify connections to social relations and social oppression outside the job. However, when we examine conditions at work to illuminate workers’ lives holistically and combine that with a critical analysis of capitalism as a global social system, connections emerge.

Often when we see colleagues are passive or disinterested in union struggles, we blame them. In doing so we’ve missed the chance to learn about our mistakes.20 The hard work beyond seeing the connections between our lives at the workplace and what occurs outside is formulating demands and organizing struggles that allow those connections to become additive, assets, rather than competing expectations, distractions or problems. Capitalism educates us to compete against one another, acting on expectations and fears of scarcity. The antidote to that mindset is collective struggle for common goals, formulated with an eye to what people bring that is special, and how capitalism as a social system thwarts our achieving what we all need and deserve.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at
And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:


Lois Weiner View All

Lois Weiner, a life-long teacher union activist and member of the New Politicseditorial board, is a retired career teacher and professor of urban education who writes widely in scholarly and popular publications about politics, education, and teacher unions.