Alan Johnson's proposal to extend the school-leaving age to 18 is being widely criticized. What's not been so much noticed is that this idea rests upon a particular assumption about human nature, and an inversion of Marxism.
The assumption is that all people have "potential", an an innate capacity to be more than the unskilled drones they'll be if they leave school at 16. Everyone, therefore, can benefit from education or training.
This assumption isn't one of Alan Johnson's idiosyncrasies. It underpins much New Labour thinking and policy - for example in expanding higher education, and in setting up Sure Start.
Brown is especially keen on the idea:
Our history is the story not just of great creative genius in action, but of men and women of talent or even genius who might have been so much more: poets, philosophers, scientists doctors inventors but were forever denied the freedom to develop their potential.
Perhaps in a pre-industrial or an industrial society we could afford to disregard that loss; but in a post industrial society where what gives you competitive advantage and wealth is your creative ability, prosperity will depend upon our ability, through investment in education, to tap the potential and bring out the best not just in the few but the many.
This vision of human nature can be found in Marx. Perhaps his main objection to capitalism was that it stunted human nature:
Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole. (Capital vol I ch 25 sec 4)
And this is where New Labour inverts Marx. To Marx, it was the capitalist system itself that was responsible for preventing people realizing their full potential. New Labour, however, seems to think people themselves are responsible for this failing - hence the plan to force them into training or schooling.
This inversion of Marx is, I think, false. Whether it is or isn't, it has two unpleasant effects.
First, it's illiberal. Rather than aspire to liberate people from capitalism's worst features, New Labour ladens them with extra burdens.
Second, it's inegalitarian. The natural effect of holding people responsible for developing their potential is to respect more those who have developed it. The upshot is a cringing deference towards "distinguished" people, a faith in experts and managers, and a distinction between "VIPs and ordinary people", to use Fatty Falconer's expression.
In short, what New Labour's conception of potential forgets is this:
Just because someone doesn't have any formal qualifications does not mean they are a bad person or are a deadweight on society, they can still an active and important role in society.
So says the Reactionary Snob - who on this point is more egalitarian than New Labour.
Which goes to show that when the Left abandons Marxism, it becomes just mushy anti-egalitarian drivel.