Category Archives: Education

Propaganda killing workers rights

There is a saying in Sweden that whatever evolves in USA will eventually reach us, may it take 10, 20 or 30 years. We might think of many American habits as utterly superficial and even childish, but some day they’re all over us.

I’ve been reminded of that recently as a relative is about to graduate from our high school (gymnasium in Swedish). This has always been a solemn day for a young person, ending with a memorable party: dressed-up graduates, a formal dinner and dance. But everyone got to the dinner individually. That’s now transformed into full American prom-style. Today’s students must come in pairs, the girls (usually) picking a partner, styling him in matching colors and accessories; all the US “naiveties” we used to laugh about.

A more serious thought of this kind hits me when I ponder over Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and another one of his blows against working people in his state. I’ve heard that Wisconsin used to be socially well-organized and as much Social democrat as is possible in USA. I like to think that the influx of Nordic immigrants into Wisconsin has something to do with that. But times are a ‘changing.

The scary question now is how long it will take for “Right to Work” to reach Sweden, if ever. The concept itself is disgusting, taken as it is directly from George Orwell’s dictionary. It’s a token of a crushing propaganda victory that reactionary – though elected – leaders are able to humiliate working people not just in action but also in words.

Reactionary victories are nowadays not just multitudinous but perform on two fronts. First the policymakers can enforce far-reaching neoliberal rules, serving primarily the business community, without much popular resistance at all. And then when people occasionally are called to express their opinion at elections they are indoctrinated to vote against their own interests. This trend for the last 30-40 years is the same in Europe as in USA, though not yet as extreme here.

Readers Comments in New York Times on articles about “Right to Work” overwhelmingly points to the circumstance that people seem to vote contrary to their own interests. Orwell had it right here too, as had Herman & Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent. Our western propaganda model is extremely successful and far superior to any state commanded, regardless of the level of oppression in the latter. Or as Chomsky has said: a dictator doesn’t need to bother with sophisticated propaganda since he has a club in his hand ensuring the “success” of his politics anyway.

Recent scholarly work has shown that Soviet state propaganda was a failure. Large segments of the people got their information from western propaganda radio and Samizdat literature (which explains the clueless view many had on western prosperity and happiness). Today western media are trying the same old grip on the contemporary Russian propaganda, pointing to the fact that most television broadcasting is state owned or controlled. The misconception is even greater this time since we have unlimited “Samizdat” available on the Internet, on which Russians are among the most frequent visitors in the world. On top of that we find the most extensive translation operations in Russia, where many western newspapers are found translated on the Internet.

The attack on labor called “Right to Work” is depressing even to write about. Together with Mr. Walkers earlier blow against unions by banning collective bargaining for public employees we have witnessed clear violations of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 23, point 4, which reads: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” In the spirit of that article trade unions should be free to negotiate with their counterparts with no other restrictions than such negotiations entail. State interference in that process is clearly a violation of the workers human rights.

Here we just may hope for an exception to the rule that every US peculiarity reaches Sweden sooner or later. May it this time prove to be never… ever!

What if we tried to emulate instead of demonize Cuba?

The right-wing narrative on Cuba is so peculiarly imbecile and propagandistic that it takes properly educated intellectuals to swallow it. I mentioned a short editorial in yesterdays Dagens Nyheter, our most important paper, in which the Castro regime was described as “grotesque and disgusting”. The author claims that the Castro brothers have used the US embargo as an excuse for “tormenting their people”.

This torment must of course have been very sophisticated since it has placed Cuba at the very top, among Latin American countries, on United Nations Human Development Index list, second only to Chile. It has also given Cuba more medical doctors than any other nation in the world (6 of 1000 inhabitants), making it possible for the poor country to send 19 000 doctors and 10 000 nurses to help people in need around the globe. The Cubans, living on pennies, enjoy the same longevity as people in USA, and have a lower infant mortality. Adding also things like successful land reforms and an advanced educational system, most poor people in Latin America have a lot to envy the Cubans.

So, what torment is the author referring to? It seems first of all to be about freedom of expression, or the lack of it. “Dissidents, journalists and human rights activists are subject to harassment, random house arrests and other restrictions”, DN claims. The heart-felt concern for these indeed brave people is of course warming, especially since the traditional assassinations, which was the standard procedure for eliminating dissidents in the rest of Latin America through all the years, had left DN remarkably unconcerned. The endemic neo-Nazi and other extreme regimes on the continent were treated by DN as just some kind of quite natural disruption, nothing to lose temper about.

A childish narrative implies that the communists’ persecution and oppression of dissidents is part of their nature, and something they engage in for the pleasure of exhibiting their power, eliminating competitors, or something equally deplorable. But Stalin has been dead for 60 years, implications of which many right-wingers have difficulties accepting. Cuban leaders are in all likelihood aware of the bad PR that actions against dissidents generate in the world, and most certainly know that they would be much better off with a more lenient treatment.

To deliberately perform seemingly counterproductive actions implies some kind of necessity and coercion. I dealt in the previous Postcard with CIA’s horrible and numerous terrorist activities hitting Cuba during many decades. It’s likewise well known, and obviously trivial, that CIA has used its unlimited resources to conduct advanced espionage and unscrupulous provocations towards Cuba, using all kinds of obnoxious methods and crooked agents. No regime whatsoever could have watched these kinds of subversive activities by an enemy state without reacting. The repression in Cuba is in many ways defensive.

The Cuban situation is more revealing for us, the self-proclaimed saints of western “capitalism”, than for the island’s leadership. Living conditions when it comes to health care, education and other things we call quality of life, is arguably much better in Cuba than in many places elsewhere in the developing world. The very policies that have created these welfare conditions are the ones that right-wing westerners consider “grotesque and disgusting” and fight with utmost frenzy. We never seem to ask ourselves the simple question: Why is it that our abundantly wealthy societies have such difficulties in taking care of those who are most in need, at least in par with the poor country Cuba? We neither seem to reflect upon the quite obvious answer.

Decay in Swedish school performance duplicated by health care

It’s been more than a month since my last postcard from Sweden. The reason for the pause is just that other activities have intervened and not that political developments here suddenly have turned in a radically different and positive direction. Not at all!

The parties forming our present government who are eagerly engaged in burying the old Swedish model probably sense that voters will through them out in the upcoming elections (in September). Thus they try to sneak in as much of their ideological stuff as possible, hoping that some of it may be irreversible.

I have reported on the plummeting Swedish ranking in the PISA studies, which indicates that our school system, once one of the best in the world, is more or less decaying. This deplorable process happens to coincide with radical privatizations of schools, followed by dismantling of resources like libraries, school nurses, special teachers for the children most in need and other cutbacks favorable for profits.

As one would expect we can now watch the “economic scientists” rush to save the tatters of credibility for capitalism in schools left by our right wing government’s experiments. Thus our most prestigious newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) the other day had an op-ed by three economists representing something called the Center for Market Reform of Education (there is no modesty or lack of resources when economic power strives to commercialize life in all its aspects).

The defense line that the three “scientists” draw is to reject simple correlations as proof of causality. (This is of course not a day too early, since simple correlation is the very oxygen that popular economics breathes.) The fact that privatization and plummeting outcome coincides is of course not a proof that the one causes the other. But there are other indications of causation between the two observations.

It has been established that private schools give high, false grades (unlike public schools), a temptation apparently hard to resist in a competitive business. If these grades then are being used to demonstrate good performance by private schools its naturally doubly fraudulent. I mentioned the dismantling of privatized schools, a confirmed and widespread phenomenon which hardly can lead to any quality improvements. Furthermore shallow testimony indicates that some private schools are popular among student by being pleasant and laid back, another attractive lure.

The Swedish decay is also visible in other sectors, one of which is health care. The CEO of the Swedish pharmaceutical companies’ trade association wrote the other day about the decline in health care indicators, despite the fact that a large majority of the population regards this area as one of the most important in politics. A measurement called Euro Health Consumer Index, rating the health performance in EU countries from the patients’ perspective, has recently been released. It shows that Sweden has fallen from 6th to 11th place in just the last year.

Another undeniable drop in our performance is revealed by the OECD statistics on life expectancy. From enjoying the forth longest life-span 20 years ago we have now fallen to eighth place. We have been used to see our country in the very top of all socio-economic rankings since ages. Now we are a former welfare super power in sharp decline. This is certainly not what ordinary people want, but it’s obviously an inescapable ultimate consequence of the adaptation to a “globalized”, neoliberal world, constructed by the economic powerful with the purpose to enrich the already rich at the expense of people in real need.

This is something really worth fighting against!

Noam Chomsky has lived for 85 years to become our greatest inspiration

Today is Noam Chomsky’s 85th birthday. The most important intellectual leader on earth has reached a mature age and is still an active forerunner in the struggle for an equitable, humane and reasonable world in which he wants the well-being of humankind to be in the center of our efforts. I sent him my warmest congratulations, adding a few notes on the current situation in Sweden, an excerpt of which follows:

On this day one year ago I wrote you a few words about the deconstruction of the concept “Sweden” as it usually has been known by many people. I’m afraid that the decline has continued since then, even manifesting itself in further disastrous developments.

But today we of course remember Nelson Mandela. For us his memory is tied to an era when “Sweden” was a different society. This was then my country to which Mandela made his first foreign visit, just one month after his release from Robben Island. That country had given more financial support to ANC than all the large European countries together. It was furthermore a policy supported by a substantial majority of Swedes and agitated by numerous solidarity movements. But a key decision maker was naturally Olof Palme.

Only one political party here opposed the support of ANC, thus in fact backing apartheid, namely the Right Party, at that time a rather insignificant party on the remote flank of the bourgeoisie. Today that party – now (naturally) calling itself “The Moderates” – dominates the government and provides our Prime Minister. One renowned left wing commentator recommends their ministers to stay away from the Mandela funeral because “their party’s breath stinks from dead viper” when it comes to ANC and Mandela.

To pick another shock that hit us the other day: the 2012 PISA report. Swedish scores in math, science and reading are falling like stones, in a speed not matched by any other OECD country. It’s now widely held that the reason can be directly derived from the neoliberal excesses, starting with free choice of schools in the 1990s, accelerated by anarchistic privatizations and erupting in robber capitalism with dismantling of resources in private schools resulting in huge profits transferred to tax havens.

The dire consequence of this experiment is that schools in Sweden have become extremely segregated, this in turn being the basic explanation behind the disastrous performance. We who grew up in the old Sweden (I’m 72) can hardly believe our eyes. Our country once had the most homogeneous schools in the world, a property now considered by many experts to be the foundation for good performance. It’s not just that the least talented kids are hit by the segregation; the performance by the top students is also declining!

All the neoliberal reforms are enforced on pure ideological grounds, based on the religious belief that market principles are infallible. Thus regulatory bodies usually haven’t been set up, let alone effective regulations carried through. Politicians seem to have shown the most naïve confidence in their religion, but perhaps they just don’t care (“if we privatize as much as we can manage we’ll leave the problems to the next government, since we know that people won’t put up with us for much longer anyway”).

If I were to say a few words on another neoliberal experiment and some democratic paradoxes I could choose an exotic welfare measure for the rich called RUT. In short it means that the government (tax payers) picks up half the bill when people buy domestic services of different kinds (including homework assistance for their kids, and hiring of butlers).

As one would expect it’s only ten percent of households that are entitled to this welfare check, since the rest cannot afford the services in the first place. In a democratic society it would seem self evident that the 90 percent of voters abolish an absurdity like this. But no way! The Social Democrats don’t dare to touch the “reform” which was pitched as a means of “gender equality” and a way to reduce black work. (The last argument is just too wonderful: rich criminals should be bribed to stay legal!)

Although Sweden isn’t business run to the extent the US is, “democracy” seems to work in the same way. The RUT absurdity is not in any way the only example where a large majority has no say. One way it’s made to work is through media. It’s said that we are obedient here, don’t want to stand out, feel safe with social conformity etcetera. But if that’s an explanation, the same seems to be the case in all (so called) democracies.

In polls 10 percent say that they are fully content with the present form of profit-making in schools and welfare businesses. The rest want some kind of restrictions, from banning dividends to prohibiting profits altogether. The only party whose program deals in at least some way with the wishes of 90 percent of voters is the Left Party, which nevertheless is supported by only about 7 percent in polls. It would have been a paradox if you hadn’t taught us that democracy in our sense is just a marketing procedure.

Well, crisis and opportunity are synonyms, as the old Chinese teach us. And there are more and more signs of a change in politics here. The impediments should just inspire to do more work (I try to contribute verbally in a blog). And in this work, dear Noam, you are the most inspiring person on earth. You demonstrate that rationality is the fundamental way to progress. And as you often point out there is constant progress going on, with one or other setback here and there, of course. So if my report seems depressing, I myself am filled with optimism regarding the development in the longer run. And this optimism is something I gain from listening to your talks regularly.

Nelson Mandela was a hero and a model for humanity. In my world you are even more so!

Private schools is not a matter of choice, just profit

A commentator on Twitter reacted on yesterday’s postcard with a sarcasm: “A socialist just cant [sic] bear the idea that people suddenly can chose”. What’s correct there is that freedom of choice is the only justification for private schools that anyone in this country can present with a touch of decency (the old crap about higher efficiency, quality and all that has become so thoroughly crushed by reality that the apologists prefer to keep silent on such issues).

But is the possibility to choose really something that came with the privatizations? I can amuse myself by looking back at my own schooling some 60 years ago. We started first grade at the age of seven, and to get to our school we just had to cross the street. OK, we were not allowed to choose a different school, but that was a pointless limitation since there were no cars or other possibilities for transportation anyway. But more importantly it had been futile to choose something else since all elementary schools were identical; in fact countrywide (that was by the way one important reason why Swedish education ranked among the highest in the world in those days, the same today proved by Finland).

Already after fourth grade, at the age of 10, we could leave for a voluntary secondary school of which there were almost a dozen in my town. Now we could choose freely and were not limited to our own town for that matter. These schools were also quite similar, all of them (with rare exceptions) publicly owned and managed. Most of them included senior high schools (gymnasium) meaning that you could spend 7-8 years there. Curriculum were identical for each of a limited number of courses, and teachers with the same seniority had equal salaries. It probably would have been a nightmare for today’s neoliberals, but it gave us after all a world leading educational system.

As we can see today, the private option has resulted in deteriorating educational quality. That is not to say that schools 60 years ago couldn’t have been much better in pedagogy and leadership. Teachers then still saw it as an important part of their mission to chastise the young children and to mold them into the civilized creatures that society demanded in those days. On that front we have seen enormous progress since then.

Swedes can choose between 800 different stock funds to administer a small part of their pension contributions. This is a choice that no human being can do in an informed way, the whole thing instead becoming a caricature of neoliberal idiocy. Very few, except for bank managers, would vote for a system like that. Still it’s impossible to change. If we think that through we will also understand why our privatized schools and welfare institutions continually can produce scandals in an endless row, the one more severe than the other, without anything done to reform the system. It just tells us where the power lies.

Privatized scandals

The fact that I have been quiet and silent on this blog for a while doesn’t mean that Swedish neoliberal scandals are over. By no means! We have just had a demonstration of shamelessness in some private schools of a sort that even made some politicians react. As we have told here earlier, our school system has been “neoliberalized” in a way that stuns our Nordic neighbors and probably many more. Every fortune-hunter in town has been allowed to start a new school after not much more than a formal application. And many have done so.

Once the schools have been established, the authorities have handed over generous amounts of taxpayer’s money which make the businesses most profitable from day one. The school voucher is dimensioned so as to cover facilities that benefit the students and education itself, such as nursing, libraries and special teachers. Many private education businesses have bluntly ignored these requirements in order to maximize profits. When the schools have been operative for some time many fortune-hunters have found the ultimate way to become even richer, namely by selling their businesses to private equity corporations and thereby lowering the ethical standard even more.

A bunch of notorious investigative reporters on public service television disclosed the latest scandal, the one disclosure that really did the trick. They visited some private schools with a hidden camera, presenting themselves as parents trying to find a place for a son and a daughter. When one of the reporters presented his son as a boy with minor behavioral problems, the school was said to be filled, but when another reporter then tried to find a place in the same school for his well behaved daughter, there where no problems at all for her to enter. Some principals were caught on tape saying frankly that they didn’t want any problematic students. (One of them made such outrageous statements on tape that he resigned the day the program was aired, and sold his school.)

To select the best students is naturally a flagrant violation of the agreements, and in breach of fundamental principles for our egalitarian school system. This bad news adds to a range of others. One of recent disclosures is that some schools have paid high interest rates on loans given by their owners, and paid with tax payer’s money intended for education, all with the intention to increase profits.

It took these last scandals, revealed by our prestigious public service TV, for the Social Democrats to finally react on the highest level. To cope with the problem of wrongful selections of students, they now propose that schools shall be bereaved right to choose students altogether. Instead this process is proposed to be managed by an independent and official body. How this really ends up is a separate question, though.

Prior to these happenings we had some turbulence concerning one of the boarding schools we have in this country. They are in part publicly financed, motivated by the fact that they educate some children of parents working abroad. But the one in question – Lundsberg – is more of a remnant from an ancient feudal era, with its noblemen and their obsolete habits. Lundsberg has a long history of excesses connected to the social order in which the older students are parenting the younger ones (the “bowels”), often with harsh methods. Numerous scandals have been revealed through the years. In this actual incident, a couple of the “bowels” were burnt with smoothing irons, so much that they had to visit a health clinic. Thus it all came out, and the National School Inspection acted promptly, closing the whole school overnight.

The Lundsberg management appealed to a court which set aside the decision on the grounds that the Inspection had no jurisdiction regarding what happened after school hours. We have yet to see the end of the story, but the spotlight is on Lundsberg and the other boarding schools we have.

In fact, the spotlight is on the entire school question and the privatizations which are correlated with a sharp decline in study achievements as measured by PISA and other respected test methods. The correlation is probably not coincidental. In the TV program mentioned above some students in private schools being interviewed expressed their satisfaction, based on “the convenient and flabby style” they enjoyed in their school.

Did the politicians who are responsible for this collapse of a formally excellent school system really not foresee what their decisions would lead to; consequences that a bright student in elementary school would have expected? We are not allowed to assume such stupidity. The probable answer is: they don’t give a damn, as long as they can drive through their ideology.