Countermapping Alternatives to the Neoliberal Nonfuture

Helping children learn how to map is a radical act when they map spaces that have been left out of history; through that process they learn that people have always acted collaboratively and in ways that are beneficial to their communities.

Transcribed from the 31 March 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

We can go back and look at all the moments of disjuncture and historical amnesia and the things that have been written out of society and society’s history—those moments of resistance, of rebellion, of alternative ideas, of alternative spaces, of actors who have made the world different or thought of the world differently—in order to get away from this linear, neoliberal narrative of progress.

Chuck Mertz: Globalization has changed the way we learn, the way we work, the way we live—every aspect of our lives. And we’re constantly told: There Is No Alternative. But our next guest says that the whole system can be challenged through radical geography. Here to tell us what that is and what it may mean for our future, Katharyne Mitchell is author of Making Workers: Radical Geographies of Education. Katharyne is dean of the division of social sciences at University of California – Santa Cruz.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Katharyne.

Katharyne Mitchell: Thanks, Chuck, happy to be here.

CM: You write, “The contemporary period for young people almost everywhere is one of increasing precarity, where insecurities in the economy and labor market have been transferred onto workers and ultimately onto children. Education prepares future workers for their entry into society—now a global society. The risks that young people are required to assume are thus global in scope, reflecting the flexibility and volatility of financial and labor markets without borders.”

How much has globalization changed the ways in which we learn to labor?

KM: The book is about education and its connections to society, and the role of education in producing people who get certain kinds of jobs, and how they feel about those jobs, how they value themselves in life, and why. The question I posed to myself was: How has this changed over the last three or four decades? A key book in the 1970s was by Paul Willis, called Learning to Labor: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs. It was an ethnography in England. What’s different now? What’s happened since then that’s changed things? And I also wanted to bring in a geographical perspective.

The geographical perspective you’re asking about with regard to neoliberal globalization is one that raises questions around uneven development. That’s the important starting point for education and work in the contemporary period. We need to think about uneven development as a geographical concept, because it pushes back against the idea (one that is put forward by liberal market economists and pundits like Thomas Friedman) that there’s a level playing field, that we can just let market forces loose and all will be well.

Uneven development as a geographical concept helps us to think through the way the logic of capital accumulation within our capitalist socioeconomic system is produced spatially—and those spaces remain through time. Schools are situated within these spaces, so the uneven geographical development that has been created through neoliberal globalization over the last forty years is a concept that helps us to position those schools in those uneven and inequitable spaces.

CM: You write, “An influential actor in these processes today is philanthropy. The importance of philanthropic foundations is not just in their funding and programming priorities, but also in the ways in which they recruit young people and their parents into a new sense of value and security in vulnerable times. Much of the value resides in this opportunity to choose schools and learning styles, and opportunity that dovetails with market-based logics of individual choice.”

What impact have market-based logics of individual choice had on a sense of community—and by extension, geography? That you and all your neighbors attend the same schools, getting the same education, and to some extent working towards the same goal of bettering yourself so you can better your community—what kind of impact has this had on individual decisionmaking?

KM: Choice is a really important concept here, because it fits so much into this wider logic of neoliberal rationality of governance: the idea that if only we had more individual freedom and individual choice, we’ll have a better life, better schools, our children will get better educated. But it’s a faux-choice, really. It’s phony, in the sense that if you go to the supermarket and there are lots of shelves of food, that looks great, you have the choice of all those different kinds of products—but if you have no money in your wallet, that doesn’t help you.

In the context of uneven development, it’s not a level playing field. People who live in these neighborhoods that have been disinvested in for decades are being given the illusion or belief that choice is going to save them, that this is the magic bullet, that if only they could choose a charter school over a neighborhood school that would make the difference. But people are still hungry, they still have a toothache, parents can’t find employment, there are three liquor stores on the corner instead of a grocery store.

If we think about this larger context instead of individual choice, then we realize that the answer is to provide stronger horizontal systems: to fund public schools and integrate people in these neighborhoods into society with possibilities of employment. That’s a community sense of support and development rather than an individual sense of entrepreneurial success and responsibilization (“you’re responsible for your own choices”). “Choice” is part of a larger process of people being formed as subjects in the neoliberal period, which involves the devolution of responsibility onto the individual, who is allowed to have a choice—often a faux-choice—but is often expected, even demanded to take that choice.

And if you make the “wrong” choice and choose the wrong school for your child, if you’re not developing your human capital successfully and entrepreneurially, then it’s your fault. Instead of looking at the larger logic of uneven development within a capitalist socioeconomic system which produces winners and losers, people feel like it’s their fault their child is not doing well; they haven’t chosen correctly.

CM: You write, “Strategic ideas of cosmopolitan competence and lifelong learning now transcend those of social cohesion and national harmony. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle want to continue on this path of individual free choice when it comes to education, with privatization of education and funds shifting from public education to charter schools.”

To what degree will we see continued and increased disharmony and a continuing loss of social cohesion, caused by neoliberalism and globalization’s disconnect from our community and from geography? Is that why we’re seeing so much disharmony and such lack of social cohesion today, because of the impact of globalization and neoliberalism?

KM: Yeah, and it’s important to tie those together rather than have them separate: neoliberal globalization. Because there’s nothing wrong with globalization. That’s just the international links between regions. That’s normal. Most radical academics’ critique is of the idea that this has to be market-led. Also, it’s not just the policies and ideologies but the subjectivities of neoliberalism that influence the disharmonies caused by globalization.

What I mean by that ties back to this question of choice. Subjectivity describes the values people hold and what gives society meaning for them. Neoliberal subjectivity is based on the liberal rationality of governance, which holds that freedom is more important than anything else—the freedom to choose, the freedom to “associate” (in terms of liberal ideas like freedom of religion)—but it’s also always connected to the freedom of the market, the freedom of capital to move across borders, the freedom of goods to move without having tariffs. This connection of ideologies—policies of deregulation and privatization, alongside subjectivities of entrepreneurial success at the individual level based on ideas of freedom and choice—is the neoliberal globalization that is negatively impacting our communities.

Schools are situated within this broader logic of neoliberal globalization, and schools are just the latest institutions to be affected and experience these kinds of dislocations. We can see it, though, because of uneven development: it affects different places differently, and different groups of people differently. Many of the effects on schools that we can see from these broader processes are specifically negative for people of color—in communities that have been disinvested in for decades.

Young people know that the demands on them are increasing all the time, that they are being created as little entrepreneurial subjects, but they don’t know the language for it; they don’t know that there’s something alternative to this.

It’s very specific. There are pockets and then there are cities and then there are whole regions that have been inequitably produced through the logic of capital, which is positioned in space through uneven development. We can see that specific communities are hit particularly hard. We have to have a geographical and historical view onto these processes to really be able to say exactly what’s happening. This doesn’t mean you can’t make broader arguments, of course you can, but how they play out is different depending on the specific context.

CM: Prior to neoliberal globalization, did we have more of a sense of our geography, its past, its present, and what impact it could have on our future? How much could reconnecting to geography, in the way that Trump supporters see it, “make America great again”?

KM: I’m a great believer in both history and geography. If we know about the spaces of resistance in the past, then we can get away from this linear narrative of progress, the “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) effect—this linear narrative that’s heading us towards some free-market celebration of life. This is the ultimate! There is no other way of thinking about human beings in society than this ultimate capitalist system in a flat-plain world. To get away from that, we can go back and look at all the moments of disjuncture and historical amnesia and the things that have been written out of society and society’s history—those moments of resistance, of rebellion, of alternative ideas, of alternative spaces, of actors who have made the world different, thought of the world differently. We can re-find them, and rework them, and re-purpose them, and this gives us a standpoint to take on Trump and others like him.

Again, it’s either the flat plain or it’s just the present. There is no past and there is no real future. We’re stuck in this moment of angst, and Trump draws on that angst and disillusionment and fear. What he’s drawing on is people’s having no historical memory, and no memory of spaces of freedom that have been created. In the civil rights movement, people took back space at the counters. In the women’s movement, women and men marched on the street for enfranchisement. They took the streets, they took the counters, they created benevolent societies for immigrants. People have created all kinds of spaces of freedom and resistance that are different from the idea of freedom that we get from this ideology of choice, the neoliberal rationality of governance. It’s a community sense of the the production of space. It’s not an individual sense of responsibility for creating our own futures.

There is a wider context in both history and geography that really opens up the horizons of the future from knowing the past.

CM: You are talking about using geography and history in the classroom as a way to challenge neoliberal globalization—and I am certain that any Fox News watcher would probably say that’s politicizing the classroom.

But you argue, “Schools are spaces in which neoliberal practices are brought to bear on the lives of children.” So to what extent is education already politicized in a pro-neoliberal-globalization fashion?

KM: Everything’s political. The idea that there’s anything neutral is false. That said, people will challenge any project that they think is giving students anything counter to the hegemonic idea of how society should work. We just have to take that on board, and work with it. Teachers have always done this, for millennia: they do what they think is the best way to educate in the classroom, and they duck and weave when they get federal mandates, from Betsy DeVos or whoever else, coming down from above.

Along with a colleague at the University of Washington, Sarah Elwood, I’ve given teachers some tools for how they can produce students who have a better sense of history and geography, and thus can imagine alternatives to a future of dispossession and inequality. Some of the tools are so simple. It’s using a web platform and simple research tools where young people can literally map—we call it countermapping—the spaces that have been left out of the historical record.

They have to dig them up and find them. We have them look in an underprivileged group in society—an immigrant group, or women, or African-Americans—that has historically been left out of the record, and find some of the stories of how those groups (and individuals within them) have taken space, have produced space, have worked against the hegemonic ways that space is produced in society for an elite.

We map those and talk about them, collaboratively. It’s very easy to do. We created our own web platform, but you can do it with other simple web platforms that are freely available. We’ve helped them do the research on, say, the Chinese in Seattle—what was the history of the creation of certain kinds of benevolent societies? What about Filipinos? Or the Japanese in Seattle? Where can we find the spaces where they resisted being interned in camps around the country during World War Two (for the Japanese) or where they were quarantined (for the Filipinos) but then produced different kinds of spaces where the community could come together and work for their own needs?

We map them in order to make these spaces visible, and have little pop-up side areas on the map where you can read what they’ve done and students can talk about it on the map and discuss what it means, and share stories, and discover the similarities across groups who have been underprivileged or denied certain things in society (“Your group was redlined and didn’t have access to certain spaces in the city? So was ours!”), and also see the differences.

We did that in a classroom with ten- to fourteen-year-olds, and it was unbelievably radical for them. We’re just helping children learn how to map, but it’s a radical act because they are mapping these spaces that have been left out of history, and through that process they are learning that people have always acted collaboratively and in ways that are beneficial to their communities. We just don’t often see that in the historical record.

Even the jobs of the last ten years are shifting. It’s so rapid now, the changes in technology and the ever-expanding capitalist presence around the globe make it so that precarity is absolutely globally shared at this point.

CM: Every person, every individual, whether they realize it or not, contributes to neoliberal globalization, but a step toward challenging neoliberal globalization may be admitting and realizing how we do contribute to that system on an individual basis as well as on a collective basis. To what degree can the teaching that you’re doing lead students to understand their own current and ongoing impact on the world? That whether they know it or not, their actions are contributing to what is happening today, that they do have agency, and that they can change and challenge institutions?

KM: That’s a really interesting question. We’re all in the system. There’s no ability to really stand outside completely. As Althusser would say, we’re interpolated as neoliberal subjects, whether we want to be or not.

One of the great things that education can do is to help students (and ourselves) reflect on that recruitment into the system, the ways that we are becoming subjects. Again, we can’t completely stand outside of it, but you can have a moment of ability to see what’s happening. I’m a great believer in having young people read about being subjects of education. When I was twelve, I was handed a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and it changed my life. It made me see myself as a subject in the education system—at age twelve.

You can get those concepts quite young. Young people know that the demands on them are increasing all the time, that they are being created as little entrepreneurial subjects, but they don’t know the language for it; they don’t know that there’s something alternative to this. They are constantly put in competition with each other. Look at the numbers of applications to colleges now. There were 140,000 applications to UCLA this year, and 60,000 at UC Santa Cruz, where I am now. It creates these impossible conditions of competition for young people, and it goes all the way back to kindergarten. It goes all the way back to the womb; people are playing Mozart to their fetuses. There is not one person who doesn’t think that there’s something a little wrong with this, that we’ve created this system where people have to be neoliberal subjects; they have to be entrepreneurial, individually motivated, constantly producing their own self-capital, their own human capital, making choices and not ever failing—because god forbid you fail, then you’re out of the whole system (or at least that’s what people think).

We’re producing risk-averse organizational kids who are completely individually entrepreneurial. I’m overstating it, obviously—there are pockets of resistance and other things going on. But this is the general trend, and if we can shine a spotlight on that for students (and for us at the same time), we are really helping people think about alternative ways of raising kids, about the education system, about working in our neighborhoods for more solidarity and community rather than beggaring your neighbor by choosing a charter school which leaves the neighborhood school with fewer resources and fewer parents who know how to work the system.

It gives us the opportunity to come together, if we understand how we’re being produced as little entrepreneurial subjects in the neoliberal era.

CM: You write, “New technologies have rendered the spaces of the globe easier to cross, both physically and electronically, leading to the phenomenon known as time-space compression. This is a geographical term meant to capture the ways that the temporal and spatial dimensions of the globe seem to be shrinking because of the ever-increasing speeds at which bodies and information are able to travel across space. Technologies have facilitated the acceleration of these processes in every conceivable way, from increasing the volume of goods, information, and bodies that can and have traversed space to the speed at which these movements occur.”

To what degree did technologies lead to the inevitability of globalization? Is globalization all technology’s fault? Or is it more a political choice?

KM: I’m not opposed to globalization; I’m opposed to a certain form of market-led globalization. But absolutely, technology makes it possible, and new spatial divisions of labor happen as a result. We can see the shift in spatial divisions of labor through the last several decades: we saw the decline of manufacturing in the developed or core countries, and the growth of assembly-line manufacturing in developing countries in the seventies and eighties as a runaway shock-type phenomenon, and that’s enabled by technologies that allow cities and small countries to become global cities, command-and-control centers of finance and research and development and management. That was a process of one era of a new international division of labor that was enabled by technology. We went from the steamship to the jet plane, and new kinds of containerization of goods at the docks, and all of the sudden we can have different kinds of labor be placed and utilized in different areas of the world.

The most recent spatial division of labor is of course the digital one. This is particularly relevant to what’s going on in higher education now. We’re seeing this pact, this informal understanding of how we lost manufacturing to other areas of the globe but that we would have the white collar jobs—the clerks (insurance and real estate, financial stuff) would stay in the developed countries. But we see more and more that with digital divisions of labor, a lot of those white collar opportunities are now being taken up around the globe as well. Places with education systems like India (and, more and more, China and Russia) are now taking over those white collar jobs as well. Because, again, it’s cheaper.

For example, if you’re going to contest your parking ticket, I can probably guarantee you’ll be talking with someone from Bangalore or Mumbai and not with someone down the street. The same with your airline reservations. Even your bank. You think you’ll be talking with someone, a white collar person in a back office in the suburbs—that was true in the eighties and nineties; it is no longer true now.

Technology has absolutely enabled these spatial divisions of labor, that then shift constantly depending on further changes in technology. But technology is not leading neoliberal globalization; it’s facilitating it. Capitalism is really the constant exploration of capital around the globe for the greatest opportunities to accumulate more capital through lower labor costs, lower land costs, and less government intervention of various kinds (protection of the environment or what have you). That’s the process that’s constantly scouring the globe for the best situation for accumulation—technology facilitates that.

CM: If even post-industrial jobs are being outsourced, what are the jobs? What is the work left for students to learn?

KM: That’s a good question. The future of work is a question that many academics are turning to in sociology, in politics, and in related fields. Especially with AI and driverless cars—Uber is the new thing, right? What’s going to happen when Uber is only self-driving cars? Even the jobs of the last ten years are shifting. It’s so rapid now, the changes in technology and the ever-expanding capitalist presence around the globe make it so that precarity is absolutely globally shared at this point.

For mayors to simultaneously disinvest from community colleges and from state university systems, and at the same time promote the knowledge economy, is a great travesty and irony.

That said, what are the next jobs? I believe the next jobs are social. We keep being told from higher-ups that it has to be STEM;, that what we need is to create people good in math and technology and engineering and science—well, of course, but not as individual people who are going to sit behind a desk. What we need to have is people who can do a whole bunch of different things; they can think critically, they can marshal data, they can make persuasive arguments, they can write well, but they also know basic statistics, they also have a basic ability to speak the business language so they’re not left out of that game. And, most importantly of all, they know how to be team players, how to work collaboratively; they know how to find the problem and marshal their resources to solve the problem.

It’s like community organizing. I’ve interviewed so many people—I’m interested in how my own students in social sciences at the university are going to get jobs, and I’ve talked to all these people from everywhere, from Facebook and Google to those working in public health in San Francisco and LA. What are the jobs available? What do we want our students to be able to do? The last thing is “be really, really good at engineering.” No, we want them to have all these skills, but mainly we want them to be able to work with other people and to see the problems and help us solve them.

That is exactly not what is being created by this entrepreneurial-kid mentality (“Don’t ever fail. We’re going to hand you the problem and you get an A on it, and then you’re going to go to the highest-ranked schools all the way through Harvard”). That is actually the worst thing we can do for our kids. They really have to know how to see the issue–not have it handed down to them, and then be scared of failing.

What are the jobs? All these firms now are operating in this world of accountability, in metrics, because in neoliberalism you have to be able to show best practices, evidence-based responses and the like, and if you’re in any field, even in philanthropy, you need to show that the dollars are being effectively used. How do you measure that? How do you measure those things? You need to have ways of thinking about how social value is measured. How is anything that you’ve done measured? That’s what a lot of institutions are looking for: people who can evaluate, who can find the problem, implement a solution, and evaluate whether it was successfully done. I’m not giving the exact types of positions, but more what type of person is going to get the jobs that are constantly changing—that’s the type of person (and the type of education system) we should be heading for: a collaborative, team-oriented, and problem-solving person.

CM: You write about the impact that neoliberal globalization has had on urban areas. I just wanted to touch on that, because the city of Chicago is one of the cities that is campaigning to get this Amazon HQ2 thing, and I couldn’t help but think about that when I was reading your book.

You write, “In the US case, the rapidly escalating cost of tuition at community colleges and universities is now paralleled by a push by mayors and other urban politicians and planners to attract knowledge-based workers to help advance cities’ fortunes in the context of federal disinvestment, white flight, and industrial and financial decline.”

So under neoliberal capitalism, to what extent is there a growing deficit between the workers cities seek to attract and the workers that cities create?

KM: That is one of the great ironies that I wanted to bring out in the book. There’s this simultaneous disinvestment in education at all levels, from kindergarten through higher ed, by mayors and governors and at the federal level, while there is also this desperate attempt by mayors and urban politicians to attract “knowledge workers” who they have been led to believe are going to jumpstart their failing economies.

Cities are all now in competition with each other, as David Harvey has pointed out. They used to be managers of money that came from the feds or from taxes, but now they’re also entrepreneurs! They have to compete with other cities to attract commerce to their ports, to attract capital to their cities, to attract corporations for their workers. They’ve been fed this line that all you need to do is attract what Richard Florida called the “creative classes,” the engineers, the software people, the professors, the artists, people who are “tolerant.” Give them bike paths and chic shops and lots of cafes to drink, and they’ll be happy, and your whole city will do better.

Again, this is maybe true of the top ten or twenty percent, and they lead very nice lives, and they drive around in Google buses to their corporate headquarters, but for everyone else, it’s actually a suck. The resources do not “trickle down,” as the language goes. In fact, they’re getting pulled more and more into these very targeted, vertical types of corporations and systems.

For mayors to simultaneously disinvest in community colleges, or from the UC system where I work, and at the same time promote the knowledge economy, is a great travesty and irony. Because then they’re not producing the kinds of people with the kinds of skills I was just mentioning, who have the potential to take what the future of work is. Instead they’re really banking on this one very slim group of elites, and it doesn’t work for the city as a whole. Jamie Peck has shown that with all kinds of empirical evidence. There is not a trickle-down effect from bringing in these knowledge workers. Often you find the opposite. All the areas around these cities are gentrifying, and people are dispossessed of any opportunity for development and for the future.

Just look at any of the cities where they’ve attracted the high-tech industry. I don’t know what the rent is for a two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco now, but I can tell you that a teacher can’t afford to live there. Certainly neither can somebody who’s going to come and clean the corporate headquarters at Google. Mayors are desperate, and they’ve been fed this line that this is what they need to do, but this is not the path to success for the majority of people.

CM: You write, “The transmission of collective memory between generations is currently under threat because of new hyper-technologies. These are the types of technologies, such as social media, that constantly distract individuals and make it difficult—if not impossible—to pay deep and sustained attention to others.”

How much does social media lead us to not pay attention to others? And can it lead to students not engaging in deeper thought?

KM: This is something that all your listeners could answer, especially those who have children. The risk of social media is that people become centered on themselves, and their own technology, their phones. They’re looking down instead of engaging with others. They seem less interested in the parental generation, the grandparents. And there is a tremendous risk that this will create a disruption in the movement of collective memory through the generations.

The importance of knowing about the past and mapping the past and understanding the ways that people produce space for themselves and their communities; the ability to think alternatively about a future that’s not run by an elite—the negative possibility of new technologies is that this transmission of collective memory from our grandparents to our parents to our children can be lost. They are just so tied up with this hyper-speed of everything and looking at their own hands instead of looking at each other and listening.

But I don’t think it has to be that way. I’m not a technological determinist, either positively or negatively. This is where we can intervene. We have to manage these technologies; we have to realize that this capacity for deep attention, particularly between generations, is absolutely vital for our society. As parents, as educators, just as people: get off the phone and talk with people and listen to their stories, and share those stories over media. Go into the past and always live in the present. If you’re going to use social media—and everybody does—make sure that it’s not purely that hyper-moment, that it’s of the present, that it can be something where you listen and expand on the stories and the narrative and the memories and the spaces of past times, to work together to imagine a different future.

CM: Katharyne, a real pleasure having you on the show. Thanks so much.

KM: Thank you, Chuck, I really enjoyed it.

Scroll to Top