Dreaming of a Guilded Age

The Middle

Aristotle argues in his Politics that it is the middle class, the artisans, the teachers, the lawyers, the military officers, the traders and the farmers who form the backbone of a lawful and constitutional society. Without developing a healthy middle class, society falls either to a mindless mob of the poor, or is predated upon by the extremely wealthy. But today, the dominant species in the middle class has metamorphosed from the shopkeepers, professionals and artisans of the classic Western bourgeoisie into the bloated and parasitic professional managerial class, and their bureaucratisation of society has choked society with vast institutions which hang like the shadows of great strangler figs over the green shoots of social aspiration.

It is transparent to a great deal of the world on all sides of the culture wars of Western modernity that standards are indeed slipping, and in no place is this more apparent than in higher education and vocational training. Many on the right have made a great deal of noise about the state of universities and education in general. The left likewise complain of a strange combination of the commercialisation of degrees and the lack of opportunities for graduates. The universities have turned into great ideological rubber stamps, delivering little of value in the humanities, and slowly degrading standards in the professions while burdening younger generations with mountains of debt. But the problem goes beyond that (and no, I’m not even going to talk about the civilisation-melting ideological problem).

Part of the framework of the Great Reset is based around fixing jobs for the 21st century, when people will be required adapt to new skills. At the moment, the first world is plugging skills gaps by draining vital skills from the third world. The WEF have their own plan B, but the entire problem with their system, which spot-trains isolated skills, and encourages life-long learning in tiny lesson packets, is that it offers no tangible framework for ascertaining what skills are required for the market from either end of the supply/demand equation, or where they fit in to organic career trajectories. What we have, are long-distance studies from large-scale studies, which suffer from the problem that all hyperrationalised institutional epistemic frameworks suffer from, that of telling the map from the territory.

The piecemeal chunking of skills into tiny little components makes superficial box-ticking easy for employees, and makes selling useless courses profitable to those who would prey on the insecure. The proposal to make skill qualifications into tradeable commodities on a blockchain ledger seems to me about the most foolish thing anybody could do. Imagine r/wallstreetbets playing with the value of your newly minted diploma for shits and giggles.

The causes of this problem are relatively simple to grasp. The late 20th century saw an explosion in the amount of university attendants, driven by a variety of institutional and market pressures. There has been a desire to create a skilled workforce that could maintain a comparative local advantage while continuing to pursue globalisation, as well as a desire to keep the junior inductees to the managerial classes up to date with new ideologies and managerial strategies. Taking the perspective of the Fabian New Labour and their Trotskyite backgrounds, this could be seen as “conscientising the people”. Educating them out of old fashioned nonsense.

Assuming a belief in biological egalitarianism (i.e., that all people are equally gifted, and just need the right pedagogic stimulation), and blind faith in infinite progress (full automation of all kinetic activity), it seems the obvious solution would be to funnel everyone into university. Clearly, this is not the way. Automation can do a lot of things, but when you look at businesses which appear to be fully automated, they still need human beings for supervision, maintenance, routine physical tasks, communication, management, planning, and so on.

Of course, the other end of this is the overproduction of useless degrees, which do more harm than good. Training people for a structured environment which in no way resembles the real world is a cruel and expensive trick to play on anyone. And another problem that persists globally is an acute shortage of artisanal skills. This impacts almost every country. And these jobs cannot be automated – painting, plumbing, electrical wiring, construction, ICT, carpentry and shopfitting, and a whole host of other tasks.

We are steadfastly dependent on the established systems of education provided by the state and its cronyistic public-private partnerships, and have learned to think only in terms of what concessions or favours we can extract from them by means of democratic appeal to central politics, which transparently does not care, or if it does, is utterly powerless. Much like the medieval ages, we are gradually becoming serfs in grand vertically assembled hierarchies, only without the personal element – a sort of fluid corporate feudalism.

This is only getting worse as chronic inflation drives down the rate of profit and capital formation, leading to asymmetrical accumulation and rent-seeking behaviour. Diplomas are likewise inflating. And as people pursue the increasingly demanded diplomas, access to work becomes increasingly distant, and while the over-60s see barely a blip in employment, joblessness among everyone else waxes and wanes with the wild swings in the global economy.

The Ends

There is a solution to all of this, and it is the same solution employed by medieval Europe which created its immense and creative economic boom that liberated it from the dark ages. Guilds. These archaic institutions emerged in the small cities of Western Europe, and evolved into the great universities we now today, into the great guildhalls of the City of London (none of which bear much resemblance to what they once were anymore), and provided the wealth that created the high middle ages, the grandeur of the finest architecure that civilisation has ever seen.

And here’s the funny thing, it still exists, vestigially, in modern Europe. And no, I’m not talking about window-fitting, plumbing and electricians apprenticeships (though those do matter), I’m talking about actual, industrially qualified engineers, taking their training through apprenticeships outside the university system. Yes, really.

The benefit of using such a system to replace the existing one is that it requires no engagement from the state. What it requires is networking among professionals, and the creation of experience-based diplomas which can be certified by the independent bodies which currently certify engineering, medicine and other advanced diplomas. Private equivalents can be formed for artisanal entities. Even law can function in this manner – it need only acquire the assent of the bar associations. Of course, such persuasion will not be easy – established patterns of thinking and institutional loyalties can be sticky, but as I see it, it is the only hope.

It kills several birds in one shot. Firstly, guild-driven diplomas are deflationary – every guild would rather restrict entry to newcomers to reduce the level of interference in daily business and guard the value of their qualifications. Second, it responds to market demand – the number of members accepted to the apprenticeship system of any given profession will much more closely match the demand for those skills in the market than a degree program ever will, especially if the training is free and unpaid.

Yeah, and I mean that – if you cost nothing to your employer except for time and your risk liability, and benefit them in no way other than your capacity to serve as useful labour and prospective colleague, the qualification will both cost you less than a college degree, and your employer less than an ordinary internship. Additionally, the professionals produced by this system, having been trained on the job, will have far more practical nous than the average university graduate.

The additional benefit is the cultural, economic and civilisational effect in aggregate. Once the guilds start taking over from traditional universities, they will be forced to cut costs and standards to entry until their lost prestige forces closure, or else scale down. The end result will be a return to universities as scholar’s guilds, close-knit apprenticeships for research, where only a handful of students are apprenticed to a given professor, who will be capable of training them ever-closer in the methods of research, rhetoric and reason.

The bloated and eroded prestige and hegemony of vocational university education will be replaced by a myriad of economic niches, capable of adapting to changing circumstances based on collective wisdom and peer consensus among the practitioners themselves, at least partially sheltered from the influence of poisonous global control of public-private partnerships. The change in prestige will naturally lead to a radical shift in culture too.

The vast majority of feminist norms, anti-natalism, consumer-hedonism and perpetuation of adolescence comes from the age-segregating effect of university, where young people are separated from older mentors, and surrounded exclusively by their wanton peers in an environment that encourages casual sex and recreational spending over saving and family planning. However, the predictable and stable environment created by market-friendly apprenticeships, and the structured environment of practical work creates precisely the environment to cultivate responsibility, long-term planning, and the prospects for marriage.

These are of course the very things which most benefit young children in this world – stable, two-parent families. The localised nature of guild networks naturally leads to a degree of community cohesion, as well as smaller-sized natural associations, due to the replacement of mass job application strategies arising from overproduction of market-independent selection of university diplomas. The atomised social scattering created by large universities and mass corporate employment will be radically diminished, and mid-sized enterprises will take over anything that does not naturally demand great scale.

To support this system, a meritocratic schooling system would have to be adopted. Of course, the state, impervious to democratic (or rational) pressures, will continue to provide bloated and worthless education descending to the depths of grade inflation and accommodation of mediocrity and misbehaviour, as has been their trend for decades now. The solution, again, is in the private sector. Homeschooling is often healthier for children, and shelters children from pernicious social engineering projects undertaken by state actors. Many families combine homeschooling with regular schooling as well. In an ideal world, it would not be unusual for young parents to take a course in home education from a culturally-aligned local institute.

While not all families are capable of this, private schools need not be prohibitively expensive either. In many places around the world, low-cost private schooling is a sound option for families attempting to get their children over the breadline in the future. I can immediately think of BRAC in Bangladesh, who demonstrated an incredible empirical fact, that free schooling doesn’t work, but cheap schooling does. If education costs something parents can afford, but is still a significant amount to them, they tend to pressure their children to attend. The freedom to exclude students from the private system increases this pressure to behave in a structural way. African parents (Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana) appear to prefer low-cost private education over the state system too.

The great benefit of this approach to political activism is that one could hypothetically run a private version of a grammar school on this model, by running a credit check on parents and charging them according to their capacity. This concentrates students of ability in appropriate institutions, and sorts society according to ability and predilection. Of course, this system can never be perfect,  and some bright students will fail to cross the line for reason of nerves or other extenuating circumstances, but bright students are required in artisanal professions too, not just academic ones.

The guild/apprenticeship system can feed itself, of course. Teachers can train on the job, and diminish academic content, which is of course secondary to the primary skill, which is inculcating skills and information in young people. Nursing shortages which plague modern industrialised countries could be done away with by reducing the academic components and exposing new nurses to practical work sooner. Of course, highly regulated professions like medicine will be less amenable to the source of private-sector networking which can facilitate guild creation, but the aspiration remains.

Ideally, this system will increase the degree to which qualifications match the unwritten rules and norms which facilitate best practice and flexibility within a given industry. This of course ameliorates a great deal of the problems that James Scott identifies with central planning and institutional modernism in Seeing like a State. It hands the world back to those who know best how to run it – not the client classes of welfare dependency, not the managerial elites, not the transnational supply chain monopolies, not the banks, not the politicians, but all the bright and diligent men and women who do the bulk of the necessary work in society, from software development to skyscraper design.

The ultimate question is, how to get the ball rolling?

The Beginning

Most people will question the practicality. Yet in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, a network of highly productive small and medium sized enterprises and traditional guild exist alongside modern institutions, referred to as the mittelstand. What they lack is the confidence to present themselves as the sole model form of social organisation. Even finance has a mechanism for independent qualification (CFAs), if only they would exploit it – apprenticeships could be organised better between financial institutions. The question is not whether it is possible, but why it is not intensified. As I see it, it is a question of confidence, and perceived options. The university is still seen as the primary pathway to economic maturity.

As I see it, one would need to establish collective organisation among small and medium sized enterprises, who would be able to consolidate sector-wide programmes. In South Africa, we face uniquely acute forms of the problems seen in the West – monetary inflation, grade inflation, institutional decay, misgovernance – and this situation could provide just the impetus necessary to initiate such sectoral solidarity. Hypothetically, if one could, use some sort of guild system to allocate apprenticeships with an adequate accompanying theoretical component, one could meet the requirements of the South African Qualifications Authority and have one’s diploma recognised, for any serious qualification.

As in much of the industrial world, large corporations and unions collude to dissolve midmarket competition from small companies less capable of meeting intricate and high-cost labour regulations. By forming midmarket collective bargaining consortia among small and medium business owners, the petit bourgeoisie can have a not-so-petty revenge. This will not only serve to protect the most community-bound of our economic actors, it also builds networks to facilitate the sharing of knowledge around systemic challenges and best practices. From such organisations can grow the guilds of old, great vital veins of industry, streaming through the body politic, rooting the practices of all contributors to the sea bed amid the turbulence of misgovernance and economic terrorism, growing great sinews of solidarity and specialised knowledge outside of the traditional corridors of modern power.

Fortunately, there is just such an organisation today. With the threat to survival posed by the lockdown regime and the coming expropriation without compensation, Richard Papenfus has organised NEASA in order to  offer a serious option for collective solidarity in a market dominated by major corporations and labour unions. The potential for such an organisation is that by reorganising in the private sector they could achieve changes far outside the purview of the state, and build pressure for political change in the interest of the class that contributes the most. The problem, as every layer of this story demonstrates, is one of social perception - how we choose to organise ourselves, what institutions we recognise. This is a function of consciousness, not material or legal issue (though of course those barriers are very real).

The possibilities in South Africa, where civil society is fraying, where social life is rotten and violent, where the state has become an engine of terror, are great and yet fragile. Through middle class solidarity we can cut loos the chains which suffocate the growth of the poor and parasitise their energies, condemn them to violence and poverty. We can make ourselves independent of the state, and dependent on one another as a real community, based not on abstract ideas from the mind of an 18th century philosophe, but from the minds and mouths and muscles of living men and women and the natural bonds they hold with one another as a real commonwealth.

One can only hope that with time and vision, the existing attempts at collective bargaining could achieve something more ambitious than mere survival. They could achieve a revolution.