The vast majority of Americans are workers, and most students come from households where the bread is won by one or two wage-earners. Many spend their winter and summer “breaks” working in the service industry for little more than minimum wage to stay afloat financially, and often a student may work part time during the semester as well. These students have been raised to believe in the promise of the so-called “American Dream,” of a “land of freedom” where supposedly simply by hard and honest work, a college education, and home-cooked American morality, any humble soul can succeed. However, this myth of capitalist American culture, designed to lure the masses into submission, has been thoroughly exposed as a trick in today’s conditions of economic crisis.
America’s younger generation, increasingly alarmed as capitalism’s crisis offers a dimmer and dimmer future for them, search frantically for what was promised. Many are moving sharply to the left in ideas, but have yet to actualize them in serious mass struggles as in the Middle East or Quebec. Given the absence of a lead from the labor leaders, this comes as no surprise. Instead, all the “opportunities” of capitalist society are combed through in search of solutions on an individual level. A university diploma is looked to as a golden ticket out of the economic crisis, and indeed, it is one of the few options left to young people that has not already been widely discredited. On one hand, many students understand logically the hopelessness of their position in capitalism; on the other, for lack of an alternative, which can only be a mass struggle that has yet to arrive, they sign up for an indentured lifetime of student debt anyways.
But of course, capitalism isn’t offering underemployment, low wages, and slashed social services because the masses aren’t educated enough. Capitalism’s economic conditions are based in the crisis it has been in for over five years now, showing no sign of serious recovery. This crisis is due to overgrown contradictions of an obsolete system. A social revolution, not individual lifestyle changes, is what’s needed to overcome it.
College students, transplanted from the conditions of the working class to state-of-the-art campus facilities with regular visits from distinguished speakers and towering brutalist architecture, are churned out of the cocoon of academia into an economic climate of service industry jobs. The top-down, mechanical culture of domination in the classroom becomes the norm of a worker’s existence in capitalist industry. As we explained in Perspectives for the US Revolution (2014) :
“In an effort to increase their employability, many young people have entered higher education, despite extortionate costs and draconian cuts to grants and other forms of financial assistance. 37 million Americans now carry student debt; a total of over $1 trillion. In 2010, total student debt surpassed total credit card debt; in 2011, it surpassed total auto loans. It now stands at an average of nearly $25,000 per debtor. According to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, student debt increases by $3,000 every second of every minute of every hour of every day. Many young people are forced to drop out of school for one reason or another (often because they can no longer afford it), and yet they still must pay back this debt. In the past, credit card debt had the highest default rate, but now it is student debt. This is not only a burden on the youth but could precipitate another financial meltdown.
“For those who do graduate, there is no guarantee of a place in the work force, even for those with advanced degrees. The total number of lawyers in the US has tripled over the last 30 years, as young people seek the highest possible education to improve their position. In what is being called a crisis ‘elite overproduction’, there is now a ‘surplus’ of 25,000 new law school graduates each year, some with literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.”
The cherry on top is the extortion of the textbook industry. At the start of every semester, millions of American college students head to the campus textbook store and scrape the bottom of their bank accounts to afford the textbooks required for their classes. Prices have skyrocketed an astronomical 812% over the past three decades, easily beating out inflation, the rising costs of tuition and fees, and house prices. College Board estimates the annual cost of books and materials at $1,200, and it’s no wonder that it has become routine for teachers to accompany their syllabus with an apology for the price of the textbooks, explaining that they have no say over the prices or often even what textbooks are required. They are correct—it is the profit-driven capitalist system that mandates this academic tradition of organized robbery, and until capitalism is overthrown, students will continue to be at the mercy of the textbook cartels.
The textbook companies are not only cartels in their likeness to organized crime, but also in the economic sense of the word. Capitalism has evolved, as Marx predicted, from free market competition to centralized monopoly capital. The textbook industry is no exception: five companies dominate over 85% of the market. As Lenin explained one hundred years ago in his masterpiece Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognized free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable.”
Additionally, college students are a “captive market” for capital. Their day-to-day activities, place of living, employment, transportation, and even diet are all often under the control of the college. Consequently, the college can dramatically overprice things such as basic as meal plans with impunity. But this relation in the first place owes itself to the economics of capitalism, which is a system of the commodity production, i.e. the production of things to be sold on the market. The relationship between the student and the educational institution is reduced to a relationship between a buyer and seller, and education to a mere commodity. Instead of a person’s college years being a time for students to blossom as humans and enjoy fully the joys of education, they are diminished to a commodity transaction, with the student often worse for the exchange, saddled with debt in an unforgiving economy. While capitalist society may make a lot of noise about the virtue of education, its very nature is at odds with education; “all that is holy is profaned.” Instead of textbooks serving the needs of the student, students serve the needs of textbook capital.
From this position of control over the market, the textbook cartels can go to outrageous lengths to inflate their profits, driving the prices up and speeding up new edition publications to collect another wave of profits from the pockets of students. As a result, many students are unable to purchase all of their textbooks and are left sabotaged in the classroom. When the bourgeois media does cover this, it invariably declares that the problem will be solved by the market, as the cartels will be unable to compete with digital, open-source learning resources. These journalists leave out the very reason students walk to the textbook store in the first place—their college mandates the course materials! Just as the capitalist state is inseparable from the interests of finance capital, secondary education capital and textbook capital are bound together in the interest of extracting as much profit from students as possible. To address the high prices of textbooks, we must confront the capitalists’ control over education; only with a national plan and democratic planning by the unions, teachers, students, and the broader working class can education truly serve to educate a new generation of workers.
On the basis of a system of democratically planned production and distribution, production will serve humanity instead of humanity serving production. The vast potential of our productivity will be unleashed and everyone’s needs met. Every sphere of life will be transformed, including education. Quality education for all from the cradle to the grave, with living grants, paid internships, and the abolition of expenses like tuition and textbook prices will be not only be materially possible, but socially natural.
The material basis is there. It would cost only $62.6 billion to make public college tuition-free. The federal government alone spends $69 billion on financial aid programs for college students. Added to this are the enormous assets of the private education sector, which should be nationalized and integrated into a rational plan with the rest of the educational infrastructure to provide the best education possible. Socialism is not only a political, social, and moral necessity, it is an economic one.
History has demonstrated again and again that it is the youth who often spark the social explosions we know as revolutions. Capitalism wants students to remain passive cogs in a machine of commodity production that leaves them voiceless and powerless. But this status quo will turn into its opposite in the American socialist revolution, when young people will be at the forefront of the greatest event yet in human history. However, the program of the revolution cannot be improvised on the spot. The International Marxist Tendency is building that alternative in the US and around the world, starting by grounding our foundations in the youth and the trade unions. So when you leave the textbook stores this semester, outraged at the economic gouging you have just been forced to accept, we invite you to channel that energy into furthering the struggle for socialism. Join the IMT  and help us build a Marxist presence on your campus!