Contemporary societies, as we know, rest on calculation. From the establishment of statistics, which was essential to the construction of the modern state, to double-entry bookkeeping as the key accounting technique for ‘rationalizing’ capitalism and colonial trade, the capacity to express quality (or qualities, to be more precise) through numbers is at the core of the modern world.
From a sociological perspective, this capacity involves a set of connected operations. One is valuation, the social process through which entities (things, beings) come to (be) count(ed); the other is commensuration, or the establishment of equivalence: what counts as or for what, and under what circumstances. Marion Fourcade specifies three steps in this process: nominalization, the establishment of ‘essence’ (properties); cardinalization, the establishment of quantity (magnitude); and ordinalization, the establishment of relative position (e.g. position on a scale defined by distance from other values). While, as Mauss has demonstrated, none of these processes are unique to contemporary capitalism – barter, for instance, involves both cardinalization and commensuration – they are both amplified by and central to the operation of global economies.
Given how central the establishment of equivalence is to contemporary capitalism, it is not a little surprising that we seem so palpably bad at it. How else to explain the fact that, on the day when 980 people died from Coronavirus, the majority of UK media focused on the fact that Boris Johnson was recovering in hospital, reporting in excruciating detail the films he would be watching. While some joked about excessive concern for the health of the (secular) leader as reminiscent of the doctrine of ‘The King’s Two Bodies’, others seized the metaphor and ran along with it – unironically.
Briefly (and somewhat reductively – please go somewhere else if you want to quibble, political theory bros), ‘King’s Two Bodies’ is a concept in political theology by which the state is composed of two ‘corporeal’ entities – the ‘body politic’ (the population) and the ‘body natural’ (the ruler)*. This principle allows the succession of political power even after the death of the ruler, reflected in the pronouncement ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King’. From this perspective, the claim that 980 < 1 may seem justified. Yet, there is something troubling about this, even beyond basic principles of decency. Is there a large enough number that would disturb this balance? Is it irrelevant whose lives are those?
Formally, most liberal democratic societies forbid the operation of a principle of equivalence that values some human beings as lesser than others. This is most clearly expressed in universal suffrage, where one person (or, more specifically, one political subject) equals one vote; on the global level, it is reflected in the principle of human rights, which assert that all humans have a certain set of fundamental and unalienable rights simply as a consequence of being human. All members of the set ‘human’ have equal value, just by being members of that set: in Badiou’s terms, they ‘count for one‘.
Yet, liberal democratic societies also regularly violate these principles. Sometimes, unproblematically so: for instance, we limit the political and some other rights of children and young people until they become of ‘legal age’, which is usually the age at which they can vote; until that point, they count as ‘less than one’. Sometimes, however, the consequences of differential valuation of human beings are much darker. Take, for instance, the migrants who are regularly left to drown in the Mediterranean or treated as less-than-human in detention centres; or the NHS doctors and nurses – especially BAME doctors and nurses – whose exposure to Coronavirus gets less coverage than that of politicians, celebrities, or royalty. In the political ontology of contemporary Britain, some lives are clearly worth less than others.
The most troubling implication of the principle by which the body of the ruler is worth more than a thousand (ten thousand? forty thousand?) of ‘his’ subjects, then, is not its ‘throwback’ to mediaeval political theology: it is its meaning for politics here and now. The King’s Two Bodies, after all, is a doctrine of equivalence: the totality of the body politic (state) is worth as much as the body of the ruler. The underlying operation is 1 = 1. This is horribly disproportionate, but it is an equivalence nonetheless: both the ruler and the population, in this sense, ‘count for one’. From this perspective, the death of a sizeable portion of that population cannot be irrelevant: if the body politic is somewhat diminished, the doctrine of King’s Two Bodies suggests that the power of the ‘ruler’ is somewhat diminished too. By implication, the current political ontology of the British state currently rests not on the principle of equivalence, but on a zero-sum game: losses in population do not diminish the power of the ruler, but rather enlarge it. And that is a dangerous, dangerous form of political ontology.
*Hobbes’ Leviathan is often seen as the perfect depiction of this principle; it is possible to quibble with this reading, but the cover image for this post – here’s the credit to its creator on Twitter – is certainly the best possible reflection on the shift in contemporary forms of political power in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the last #USSstrike, on non-picketing days, I practiced working to contract. Working to contract is part of the broader strategy known as ASOS – action short of a strike – and it means fulfilling your contractual obligations, but not more than that. Together with many other UCU members, I will be moving to ASOS from Thursday. But how does one actually practice ASOS in the neoliberal academia?
I am currently paid to work 2.5 days a week. Normally, I am in the office on Thursdays and Fridays, and sometimes half a Monday or Tuesday. The rest of the time, I write and plan my own research, supervise (that’s Cambridgish for ‘teaching’), or attend seminars and reading groups. Last year, I was mostly writing my dissertation; this year, I am mostly panickedly filling out research grant and job applications, for fear of being without a position when my contract ends in August.
Yet I am also, obviously, not ‘working’ only when I do these things. Books that I read are, more often than not, related to what I am writing, teaching, or just thinking about. Often, I will read ‘theory’ books at all times of day (a former partner once raised the issue of the excess of Marx on the bedside table), but the same can apply to science fiction (or any fiction, for that matter). Films I watch will make it into courses. Even time spent on Twitter occasionally yields important insights, including links to articles, events, or just generic mood of a certain category of people.
I am hardly exceptional in this sense. Most academics work much more than the contracted hours. Estimates vary from 45 to as much as 100 hours/week; regardless of what is a ‘realistic’ assessment, the majority of academics report not being able to finish their expected workload within a 37.5-40hr working week. Working on weekends is ‘industry standard’; there is even a dangerous overwork ethic. Yet increasingly, academics have begun to unite around the unsustainability of the system in which we are increasingly feeling overwhelmed, underpaid, and with mental and other health issues on the rise. This is why rising workloads are one of the key elements of the current wave of UCU strikes. It also led to coining of a parallel hashtag: #ExhaustionRebellion. It seems like the culture is slowly beginning to shift.
From Thursday onwards, I will be on ASOS. I look forward to it: being precarious makes not working sometimes almost as exhausting as working. Yet, the problem with the ethic of overwork is not only that is is unsustainable, or that is directly harmful to the health and well-being of individuals, institutions, and the environment. It is also that it is remarkably resilient: and it is resilient precisely because it relies on some of the things academics value the most.
Marx’s theory of value* tells us that the origins of exploitation in industrial capitalism lie in the fact workers do not have ownership over means of production; thus, they are forced to sell their labour. Those who own means of production, on the other hand, are driven by the need to keep capital flowing, for which they need profit. Thus, they are naturally inclined to pay their workers as little as possible, as long as that is sufficient to actually keep them working. For most universities, a steady supply of newly minted graduate students, coupled with seemingly unpalatable working conditions in most other branches of employment, means they are well positioned to drive wages further down (in the UK, 17.5% in real terms since 2009).
This, however, is where the usefulness of classical Marxist theory stops. It is immediately obvious that many of the conditions the late 19th-century industrial capitalism no longer apply. To begin with, most academics own the most important means of production: their minds. Of course, many academics use and require relatively expensive equipment, or work in teams where skills are relatively distributed. Yet, even in the most collective of research teams and the most collaborative of labs, the one ingredient that is absolutely necessary is precisely human thoughts. In social sciences and humanities, this is even more the case: while a lot of the work we do is in libraries, or in seminars, or through conversations, ultimately – what we know and do rests within us**.
Neither, for that matter, can academics simply written off as unwitting victims of ‘false consciousness’. Even if the majority could have conceivably been unaware of the direction or speed of the transformation of the sector in the 1990s or in the early 2000s, after the last year’s industrial action this is certainly no longer the case. Nor is this true only of those who are certainly disproportionately affected by its dual face of exploitation and precarity: even academics on secure contracts and in senior positions are increasingly viewing changes to the sector as harmful not only to their younger colleagues, but to themselves. If nothing else, what USS strikes achieved was to help the critique of neoliberalism, marketization and precarity migrate from the pages of left-leaning political periodicals and critical theory seminars into mainstream media discourse. Knowing that current conditions of knowledge production are exploitative, however, does not necessarily translate intoknowing what to do about them.
This is why contemporary academic knowledge production is better characterized as extractive or rentier capitalism. Employers, in most cases, do not own – certainly not exclusively – the means of production of knowledge. What they do instead is provide the setting or platform through which knowledge can be valorized, certified, and exchanged; and charge a hefty rent in the process (this is one part of what tuition fees are about). This ‘platform’ can include anything from degrees to learning spaces; from labs and equipment to email servers and libraries. It can also be adjusted, improved, fitted to suit the interests of users (or consumers – in this case, students); this is what endless investment in buildings is about.
The cunning of extractive capitalism lies in the fact that it does not, in fact, require workers to do very much. You are a resource: in industrial capitalism, your body is a resource; in cognitive capitalism, your mind is a resource too. In extractive capitalism, it gets even better: there is almost nothing you do, a single aspect of your thoughts, feelings, or actions, that the university cannot turn into profit. Reading Marxist theory on the side? It will make it into your courses. Interested in politics? Your awareness of social inequalities will be reflected in your teaching philosophy. Involved in community action? It will be listed in your online profile under ‘public engagement and impact’. It gets better still: even your critique of extractive, neoliberal conditions of knowledge production can be used to generate value for your employer – just make sure it is published in the appropriate journals, and before the REF deadline.
This is the secret to the remarkable resilience of extractive capitalism. It feeds on exactly what academics love most: on the desire to know more, to explore, to learn. This is, possibly, one of the most basic human needs past the point of food, shelter, and warmth. The fact that the system is designed to make access to all of the latter dependent on being exploited for the former speaks, I think, volumes (it also makes The Matrix look like less of a metaphor and more of an early blueprint, with technology just waiting to catch up). This makes ‘working to contract’ quite tricky: even if you pack up and leave your office at 16.38 on the dot, Monday to Friday, your employer will still be monetizing your labour. You are probably, even if unwittingly, helping them do so.
What, then, are we to do? It would be obviously easy to end with a vague call a las barricadas, conveniently positioned so as to boost one’s political cred. Not infrequently, my own work’s been read in this way: as if it ‘reminds academics of the necessity of activism’ or (worse) ‘invites to concrete action’ (bleurgh). Nothing could be farther from the truth: I absolutely disagree with the idea that critical analysis somehow magically transmigrates into political action. (In fact, why we are prone to mistaking one for the other is one of the key topics of my work, but this is an ASOS post, so I will notbe writing about it). In other words, what you will do – tomorrow, on (or off?) the picket line, in a bit over a week, in the polling booth, in the next few months, when you are asked to join that and that committee or to a review a junior colleague’s tenure/promotion folder – is your problem and yours alone. What this post is about, however, is what to do when you’re on ASOS.
Therefore, I want to propose a collective reclaiming of the life of the mind. Too much of our collective capacity – for thinking, for listening, for learning, for teaching – is currently absorbed by institutions that turn it, willy-nilly, into capital. We need to re-learn to draw boundaries. We need thinking, learning, and caring to become independent of process that turns them into profit. There are many ways to do it – and many have been tried before: workers and cooperative universities; social science centres; summer schools; and, last but not least, our own teach-outs and picket line pedagogy. But even when these are not happening, we need to seriously rethink how we use the one resource that universities cannot replace: our own thoughts.
So from Thursday next week, I am going to be reclaiming my own. I will do the things I usually do – read; research; write; teach and supervise students; plan and attend meetings; analyse data; attend seminars; and so on – until 4.40. After that, however, my mind is mine – and mine alone.
*Rest assured that the students I teach get treated to a much more sophisticated version of the labour theory of value (Soc1), together with variations and critiques of Marxism (Soc2), as well as ontological assumptions of heterodox vs. ‘neoclassical’ economics (Econ8). If you are an academic bro, please resist the urge to try to ‘explain’ any of these as you will both waste my time and not like the result. Meanwhile, I strongly encourage you to read the *academic* work I have published on these questions over the past decade, which you can find under Publications.
**This is one of the reasons why some of the most interesting debates about knowledge production today concern ownership, copyright, or legal access. I do not have time to enter into these debates in this post; for a relatively recent take, see here.
Until recently, Professor Marenbon writes, university strikes in Cambridge were a hardly noticeable affair. Life, he says, went on as usual. The ongoing industrial action that UCU members are engaging in at UK’s universities has changed all that. Dons, rarely concerned with the affairs of the lesser mortals, seem to be up in arms. They are picketing, almost every day, in the wind and the snow; marching; shouting slogans. For Heaven’s sake, some are even dancing. Cambridge, as pointed out on Twitter, has not seen such upheaval ever since we considered awarding Derrida an honorary degree.
This is possibly the best thing that has happened to UK higher education, at least since the end of the 1990s. Not that there’s much competition: this period, after all, brought us the introduction, then removal of tuition fee caps; abolishment of maintenance grants; REF and TEF; and as crowning (though short-lived) glory, appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students. Yet, for most of this period, academics’ opposition to these reforms conformed to ‘civilised’ ways of protest: writing a book, giving a lecture, publishing a blog post or an article in Times Higher Education, or, at best, complaining on Twitter. While most would agree that British universities have been under threat for decades, concerted effort to counter these reforms – with a few notable exceptions – remained the provenance of the people Professor Marenbon calls ‘amiable but over-ideological eccentrics’.
This is how we have truly let down our students. Resistance was left to student protests and occupations. Longer-lasting, transgenerational solidarity was all but absent: at the end of the day, professors retreated to their ivory towers, precarious academics engaged in activism on the side of ever-increasing competition and pressure to land a permanent job. Students picked up the tab: not only when it came to tuition fees, used to finance expensive accommodation blocks designed to attract more (tuition-paying) students, but also when it came to the quality of teaching and learning, increasingly delivered by an underpaid, overworked, and precarious labour force.
This is why the charge that teach-outs of dubious quality are replacing lectures comes across as particularly disingenuous. We are told that ‘although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to “teach-outs” on vital topics such as “How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East” and “Neoliberal Capitalism versus Collective Imaginaries”’. Although this is but one snippet of Cambridge UCU’s programme of teach-outs, the choice is illustrative.
The link between history and UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East strikes me as obvious. Students in philosophy, politics or economics could do worse than a seminar on the development of neoliberal ideology (the event was initially scheduled as part of the Cambridge seminar in political thought). As for mathematics – anybody who, over the past weeks, has had to engage with the details of actuarial calculation and projections tied to the USS pension scheme has had more than a crash refresher course: I dare say they learned more than they ever hoped they would.
Teach-outs, in this sense, are not a replacement for education “as usual”. They are a way to begin bridging the infamous divide between “town and gown”, both by being held in more open spaces, and by, for instance, discussing how the university’s lucrative development projects are impacting on the regional economy. They are not meant to make up for the shortcomings of higher education: if anything, they render them more visible.
What the strikes have made clear is that academics’ ‘life as usual’ is vice-chancellors’ business as usual. In other words, it is precisely the attitude of studied depoliticisation that allowed the marketization of higher education to continue. Markets, after all, are presumably ‘apolitical’. Other scholars have expanded considerable effort in showing how this assumption had been used to further policies whose results we are now seeing, among other places, in the reform of the pensions system. Rather than repeat their arguments, I would like to end with the words of another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who understood well the ambiguous relationship between the academia and politics:
‘Very unwelcome truths have emerged from the universities, and very unwelcome judgments have been handed down from the bench time and again; and these institutions, like other refuges of truth, have remained exposed to all the dangers arising from social and political power. Yet the chances for truth to prevail in public are, of course, greatly improved by the mere existence of such places and by the organization of independent, supposedly disinterested scholars associated with them.
This authentically political significance of the Academe is today easily overlooked because of the prominence of its professional schools and the evolution of its natural science divisions, where, unexpectedly, pure research has yielded so many decisive results that have proved vital to the country at large. No one can possibly gainsay the social and technical usefulness of the universities, but this importance is not political. The historical sciences and the humanities, which are supposed to find out, stand guard over, and interpret factual truth and human documents, are politically of greater relevance.’
In this sense, teach-outs, and industrial action in general, are a way to for us to recognise our responsibility to protect the university from the undue incursion of political power, while acknowledging that such responsibility is in itself political. At this moment in history, I can think of no service to scholarship greater than that.
The critique of neoliberalism in academia is almost as old as its object. Paradoxically, it is the only element of the ‘old’ academia that seems to be thriving amid steadily worsening conditions: as I’ve argued in this book review, hardly a week goes by without a new book, volume, or collection of articles denouncing the neoliberal onslaught or ‘war’ on universities and, not less frequently, announcing their (untimely) death.
What makes the proliferation of critique of the transformation of universities particularly striking is the relative absence – at least until recently – of sustained modes of resistance to the changes it describes. While the UCU strike in reaction to the changes to the universities’ pension scheme offers some hope, by and large, forms of resistance have much more often taken the form of a book or blog post than strike, demo, or occupation. Relatedly, given the level of agreement among academics about the general direction of these changes, engagement with developing long-term, sustainable alternatives to exploitative modes of knowledge production has been surprisingly scattered.
It was this relationship between the abundance of critique and paucity of political action that initially got me interested in arguments and forms of intellectual positioning in what is increasingly referred to as the ‘[culture] war on universities’. Of course, the question of the relationship between critique and resistance – or knowledge and political action – concerns much more than the future of English higher education, and reaches into the constitutive categories of Western political and social thought (I’ve addressed some of this in this talk). In this post, however, my intention is to focus on its implications for how we can conceive critique in and of neoliberal academia.
Varieties of neoliberalism, varieties of critique?
While critique of neoliberalism in the academia tends to converge around the causes as well as consequences of this transformation, this doesn’t mean that there is no theoretical variation. Marxist critique, for instance, tends to emphasise the changes in working conditions of academic staff, increased exploitation, and growing commodification of knowledge. It usually identifies precarity as the problem that prevents academics from exercising the form of political agency – labour organizing – that is seen as the primary source of potential resistance to these changes.
Poststructuralist critique, most of it drawing on Foucault, tends to focus on changing status of knowledge, which is increasingly portrayed as a private rather than a public good. The reframing of knowledge in terms of economic growth is further tied to measurement – reduction to a single, unitary, comparable standard – and competition, which is meant to ensure maximum productivity. This also gives rise to mechanisms of constant assessment, such as the TEF and the REF, captured in the phrase ‘audit culture‘. Academics, in this view, become undifferentiated objects of assessment, which is used to not only instill fear but also keep them in constant competition against each other in hope of eventual conferral of ‘tenure’ or permanent employment, through which they can be constituted as full subjects with political agency.
Last, but not least, the type of critique that can broadly be referred to as ‘new materialist’ shifts the source of political power directly to instruments for measurement and sorting, such as algorithms, metrics, and Big Data. In the neoliberal university, the argument goes, there is no need for anyone to even ‘push the button’; metrics run on their own, with the social world already so imbricated by them that it becomes difficult, if not entirely impossible, to resist. The source of political agency, in this sense, becomes the ‘humanity’ of academics, what Arendt called ‘mere’ and Agamben ‘bare’ life. A significant portion of new materialist critique, in this vein, focuses on emotions and affect in the neoliberal university, as if to underscore the contrast between lived and felt experiences of academics on the one hand, and the inhumanity of algorithms or their ‘human executioners’ on the other.
Despite possibly divergent theoretical genealogies, these forms of critique seem to move in the same direction. Namely, the object or target of critique becomes increasingly elusive, murky, and de-differentiated: but, strangely enough, so does the subject. As power grows opaque (or, in Foucault’s terms, ‘capillary’), the source of resistance shifts from a relatively defined position or identity (workers or members of the academic profession) into a relatively amorphous concept of humanity, or precarious humanity, as a whole.
Of course, there is nothing particularly original in the observation that neoliberalism has eroded traditional grounds for solidarity, such as union membership. Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos and Judith Butler’sNotes towards a performative theory of assembly, for instance, address the possibilities for political agency – including cross-sectional approaches such as that of the Occupy movement – in view of this broader transformation of the ‘public’. Here, however, I would like to engage with the implications of this shift in the specific context of academic resistance.
Nerdish subject? The absent centre of [academic] political ontology
The academic political subject, which is why the pun on Žižek, is profoundly haunted by its Cartesian legacy: the distinction between thinking and being, and, by extension, between subject and object. This is hardly surprising: critique is predicated on thinking about the world, which proceeds through ‘apprehending’ the world as distinct from the self; but the self is also predicated on thinking about that world. Though they may have disagreed on many other things, Boltanski and Bourdieu – both feature prominently in my work – converge on the importance of this element for understanding the academic predicament: Bourdieu calls it the scholastic fallacy, and Boltanski complex exteriority.
Nowhere is the Cartesian legacy of critique more evident than in its approach to neoliberalism. From Foucault onwards, academic critique has approached neoliberalism as an intellectual project: the product of a ‘thought collective’ or a small group of intellectuals, initially concentrated in the Mont Pelerin society, from which they went on to ‘conquer’ not only economics departments but also, more importantly, centres of political power. Critique, in other words, projects back onto neoliberalism its own way of coming to terms with the world: knowledge. From here, the Weberian assumption that ideas precede political action is transposed to forms of resistance: the more we know about how neoliberalism operates, the better we will be able to resist it. This is why, as neoliberalism proliferates, the books, journal articles, etc. that somehow seek to ‘denounce’ it multiply as well.
Speech acts: the lost hyphen
The fundamental notion of critique, in this sense, is (J.L Austin‘s and Searle’s) notion of speech acts: the assumption that words can have effects. What gets lost in dropping the hyphen in speech(-)acts is a very important bit in the theory of performativity: that is, the conditions under which speech does constitute effective action. This is why Butler in Performative agency draws attention to Austin’s emphasis on perlocution: speech-acts that are effective only under certain circumstances. In other words, it’s not enough to exclaim: “Universities are not for sale!Education is not a commodity!Students are not consumers!” for this to become the case. For this begs the question: “Who is going to bring this about? What are the conditions under which this can be realized?” In other words: who has the power to act in ways that can make this claim true?
What critique bounces against, thus, is thinking its own agency within these conditions, rather than trying to paint them as if they are somehow on the ‘outside’ of critique itself. Butler recognizes this:
“If this sort of world, what we might be compelled to call ‘the bad life’, fails to reflect back my value as a living being, then I must become critical of those categories and structures that produce that form of effacement and inequality. In other words, I cannot affirm my own life without critically evaluating those structures that differentially value life itself [my emphasis]. This practice of critique is one in which my own life is bound up with the objects that I think about” (2015: 199).
In simpler terms: my position as a political subject is predicated on the practice of critique, which entails reflecting on the conditions that make my life difficult (or unbearable). Yet, those conditions are in part what constitutes my capacity to engage in critique in the first place, as the practice of thinking (critically) is, especially in the case of academic critique, inextricably bound up in practices, institutions, and – not least importantly – economies of academic knowledge production. In formal terms, critique is a form of a Russell’s paradox: a set that at the same time both is and is not a member of itself.
Living with (Russell) paradoxes
This is why academic critique of neoliberalism has no problem with thinking about governing rationalities, exploitation of workers in Chinese factories, or VC’s salaries: practices that it perceives as outside of itself, or in which it can conceive of itself as an object. But it faces serious problems when it comes to thinking itself as a subject, and even more, acting in this context, as this – at least according to its own standards – means reflecting on all the practices that make it ‘complicit’ in exactly what it aims to expunge, or criticize.
This means coming to terms with the fact that neoliberalism is the Research Excellence Framework, but neoliberalism is also when you discuss ideas for a super-cool collaborative project. Neoliberalism is the requirement to submit all your research outputs to the faculty website, but neoliberalism is also the pride you feel when your most recent article is Tweeted about. Neoliberalism is the incessant corporate emails about ‘wellbeing’, but it is also the craft beer you have with your friends in the pub. This is why, in the seemingly interminable debates about the ‘validity’ of neoliberalism as an analytical term, both sides are right: yes, on the one hand, the term is vague and can seemingly be applied to any manifestation of power, but, on the other, it does cover everything, which means it cannot be avoided either.
This is exactly the sort of ambiguity – the fact that things can be two different things at the same time – that critique in neoliberalism needs to come to terms with. This could possibly help us move beyond the futile iconoclastic gesture of revealing the ‘true nature’ of things, expecting that action will naturally follow from this (Martijn Konings’ Capital and Time has a really good take on the limits of ‘ontological’ critique of neoliberalism). In this sense, if there is something critique can learn from neoliberalism, it is the art of speculation. If economic discourses are performative, then, by definition, critique can be performative too. This means that futures can be created – but the assumption that ‘voice’ is sufficient to create the conditions under which this can be the case needs to be dispensed with.
This Thursday, I was at the Institute of Education in London, at the launch of David Willetts’ new book, A University Education. The book is another contribution to what I argued constitutes a veritable ‘boom’ in writing on the fate and future of higher education; my research is concerned, among other things, with the theoretical and political question of the relationship between this genre of critique and the social conditions of its production. However, this is not the only reason why I found it interesting: rather, it is because it sets out what may become Conservatives’ future policy for higher education. In broader terms, it’s an attempt to carve a political middle ground between Labour’s (supposedly ‘radical’) proposal for the abolition of fees, and the clear PR/political disaster that unmitigated marketisation of higher education has turned out to be. Differently put: it’s the higher education manifesto for what should presumably be the ‘middle’ of UK’s political spectrum.
Critics of the transformation of UK higher education would probably be inclined to dismiss the book with a simple “Ah, Willetts: fees”. On the other hand, it has received a series of predominantly laudatory reviews – some of them, arguably, from people who knowor have worked in the same sector as the author. Among the things the reviewers commend is the book’s impressive historical scope, as well as the additional value of ‘peppering’ with anecdotes from Willetts’ time as Minister for Universities and Science. There is substance to both: the anecdotes are sometimes straightforwardly funny, and the historical bits well researched, duly referencing notable predecessors from Kingsley Amis, through C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis, to Halsey’s “Decline of Donnish Dominion” (though, as James Wilsdon remarked at the event, less so the more recent critics, such as Andrew McGettigan). Yet, what clearly stood out to me, on first reading, is that both historical and personal parts of the narrative are there to support the main argument: that market competition is, and was, the way to ‘solve’ problems of higher education (and, to some degree, the society in general); and that the government is uniquely capable of instituting such a market.
The development of higher education in Britain, in this sense, is told as the story of slow movement against the monopoly (or duopoly) of Oxford and Cambridge, and their selective, elitist model. Willetts recounts the struggle to establish what he (in a not particularly oblique invocation) refers to as ‘challenger’ institutions, from colleges that will become part of the University of London in the 19th century, all the way until Robbins and his own time in government. Fees, loans, and income-contingent repayment are, in this sense, presented as a way to solve the problem of expansion: in other words, their purpose was to make university education both more accessible (as admittance is no longer dependent on inherited privilege) and fairer (as the cost is defrayed not through all taxpayers but only through those who benefit directly from university education, and whose earnings reflect it).
Competition, competition, competition
Those familiar with the political economy of higher education will probably not have problems locating these ideas as part of a neoliberal playbook: competition is necessary to prevent the forming of monopolies, but the government needs to ensure competition actually happens, and this is why it needs to regulate a sector – but from a distance. I unfortunately have no time to get into this argument ; other authors, over the course of the last two decades, have engaged with various assumptions that underpin it. What I would like to turn to instead is the role that the presumably monopolistic ‘nature’ of universities plays in the argument.
Now, engaging with the critique of Oxford and Cambridge is tricky as it risks being interpreted (often, rightly) as a thinly veiled apology of their elitism. As a sociologist of higher education with first-hand experience of both, I’ve always been very – and vocally – far from uncritical endorsement of either. Yet, as Priyamvada Gopal noted not long ago, Oxbridge-bashing in itself constitutes an empty ritual that cannot replace serious engagement with social inequalities. In this sense, one of the reasons why English universities are hierarchical, elitist, and prone to reproducing accumulated privilege is because they are a reflection of their society: unequal, elitist, and fascinated with accumulated privilege (witness the obsession with the Royal Family). Of course, no one is blind to the role which institutions of higher education, and in particular elite universities, play in this. But thinking that ‘solving’ the problem of elite universities is going to solve society’s ills is, at best, an overestimation of their power, and at worst a category error.
Framing competition as a way to solve problems of inequality is, unfortunately, one of the cases where the treatment may be worse than the disease. British universities have shown a stubborn tendency to reproduce existing hierarchies no matter what attempts were made to challenge them – the abolition of differences between universities and polytechnics in 1992; the introduction of rankings and league tables; competitive research funding. The market, in this sense, acts not as “the great leveler” but rather as yet another way of instituting hierarchical relationships, except that mechanisms of reproduction are channeled away from professional (or professorial, in this case)control and towards the government, or, better still, towards supposedly independent and impartial regulatory bodies.
Of course, in comparison with Toby Young’s ‘progressive’ eugenics and rape jokes, Willetts’ take on higher education really sounds rather sensible. His critique of early specialisation is well placed; he addresses head-on the problem of equitable distribution; and, as reviews never tire of mentioning, he really knows universities. In other words: he sounds like one of us. Much like Andrew Adonis, on (presumably) other side of the political spectrum, who took issue with vice chancellors’ pay – one of the rare issues on which the opinion of academics is virtually undivided. But what makes these ideas “centrist” is not so much their actual content – like in the case of stopping Brexit, there is hardly anything wrong with ideas themselves – as the fact that they seek to frame everything else as ‘radical’ or unacceptable.
What ‘everything else’ stands for in the case of higher education, however, is rather interesting. On the right-hand side, we have the elitism and high selectivity associated with Oxford and Cambridge. OK, one might say, good riddance! On the left, however – we have abolishing tuition fees. Not quite the same, one may be inclined to note.
There ain’t gonna be any middle anymore
Unfortunately, the only thing that makes the idea of abolishing tuition so ‘radical’ in England is its highly stratified social structure. It makes sense to remember that, among OECD countries, the UK is one with the lowest public and highest privateexpenditure on higher education as percentage of GDP. This means that the cost of higher education is disproportionately underwritten by individuals and their families. In lay terms, this means that public money that could be supporting higher education is spent elsewhere. But it also means something much more problematic, at least judging from the interpretation of this graph recently published by Branko Milanovic.
Let’s assume that the ‘private’ cost of higher education in the UK is currently mostly underwritten by the middle classes (this makes sense both in terms of who goes to university, and who pays for it). If the trends Milanovic analyses continue, not only is the income of middle classes likely to stagnate, it is – especially in the UK, given the economic effects of Brexit – likely to decline. This has serious consequences for the private financing of higher education. In one scenario, this means more loans, more student debt, and the creation of a growing army of indebted precarious workers. In another, to borrow from Pearl Jam, there ain’t gonna be any middle anymore: the middle-class families who could afford to pay for their children’s higher education will become a minority.
This is why there is no ‘centrist’ higher education policy. Any approach to higher education that does not first address longer-term social inequalities is unlikely to work; in periods of economic contraction, such as the one Britain is facing, it is even prone to backfire. Education policies, fundamentally, can do two things: one is to change how things are; the other is to make sure they stay the same. Arguing for a ‘sensible’ solution usually ends up doing the latter.
Imagine you were a government. I am not saying imagine you were THE government, or any particular government; interpretations are beyond the scope of this story. For the sake of illustration, let’s say you are the government of Cimmeria, the fictional country in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler...
I’m not saying you – the reader – should necessarily identify with this government. But I was trained as an anthropologist; this means I think it’s important to understand why people – and institutions – act in particular contexts the way that they do. So, for the sake of the story, let’s pretend we are the government of Cimmeria.
Imagine you, the Cimmerian government, are intent on doing something really, really stupid, with possibly detrimental consequences. Imagine you were aware that there is no chance you can get away with this and still hold on to power. Somehow, however, you’re still hanging on, and it’s in your interest to go on doing that for as long as possible, until you come up with something better.
There is one problem. Incidentally, sometime in your long past, you developed places where people can learn, talk, and – among many other things – reflect critically on what you are doing. Let’s, for the sake of the story, call these places universities. Of course, universities are not the only places where people can criticise what you are doing. But they are plentiful, and people in them are many, and vocal. So it’s in your interest to make sure these places don’t stir trouble.
At this point, we require a little historical digression.
How did we get so many universities in the first place?
Initially, it wasn’t you who developed universities at all, they mostly started on their own. But you tolerated them, then grew to like them, and even started a programme of patronage. At times, you struggled with the church – churches, in fact – over influence on universities. Then you got yourself a Church, so you didn’t have to fight any longer.
Universities educated the people you could trust to rule with you: not all of them specializing in the art of government, of course, but skilled in polite conversation and, above all, understanding of the division of power in Cimmeria. You trusted these people so much that, even when you had to set up an institution to mediate your power – the Parliament – you gave them special representation.* Even when this institution had to set up a further body to mediate its relationship with the universities – the University Grants Committee, later to become the funding councils – these discussions were frequently described as an ‘in-house conversation’.
Some time later, you extended this favour to more people. You thought that, since education made them more fit to rule with you, the more educated they were, the more they should see the value of your actions. The form you extended was a cheaper, more practical version of it: obviously, not everyone was fit to rule. Eventually, however, even these institutions started conforming to the original model, a curious phenomenon known as ‘academic drift’. You thought this was strange, but since they seemed intent on emulating each other, you did away with the binary model and brought in the Market. That’ll sort them out, you thought.
You occasionally asked them to work for you. You were always surprised, even hurt, when you found out they didn’t want to. You thought they were ridiculous, spoiled, ungrateful. Yet you carried on. They didn’t really matter.
Over the years, their numbers grew. Every once in a while, they would throw some sort of a fuss. They were very political. You didn’t really care; at the end of the day, all their students went on to become decent, tax-paying subjects, leaving days of rioting safely behind.
Until, one day, there were no more jobs. There was no more safety. Remember, you had cocked up, badly. Now you’ve got all of these educated people, disappointed, and angry, exactly at the time you need it least. You’ve got 99 problems but, by golly, you want academia not to be one.
So, if on a winter’s night a government should think about how to keep universities at bay while driving the country further into disarray…
Obviously, your first task is to make sure they are silent. God forbid all of those educated people would start holding you to account, especially at the same time! Historically, there are a few techniques at your disposal, but they don’t seem to fit very well. Rounding academics up and shipping them off into gulags seems a bit excessive. Throwing them in prison is bound not to prove popular – after all, you’re not Turkey. In fact, you’re so intent on communicating that you are not Turkey that you campaigned for leaving the Cimmeropean Union on the (fabricated) pretext that Turkey is about to join it.
Luckily, there is a strategy more effective than silencing. The exact opposite: making sure they talk. Not about Brexi–elephant in the room, of course; not about how you are systematically depriving the poor and the vulnerable of any source of support. Certainly not, by any chance, how you have absolutely no strategy, idea, or, for that matter, procedural skill, for the most important political transition in the last half-century Cimmeria is about to undergo. No, you have something much better at your disposal: make them talk about themselves.
One of the sure-fire ways to get them to focus on what happens within universities (rather than the outside) is to point to the enemy within their own ranks. Their own management seems like the ideal object for this. Not that anyone likes their bosses anyway, but the problem here is particularly exacerbated by the fact that their bosses are overpaid, and some of academics underpaid. Not all, of course; many academics get very decent sums. Yet questions of money or material security are traditionally snubbed in the academia. For a set of convoluted historical and cultural reasons that we unfortunately do not have time to go into here, academics like to pretend they work for love, rather than money, so much that when neophytes are recruited, they often indeed work for meagre sums, and can go on doing that for years. Resilience is seen as a sign of value; there is more than a nod to Weber’s analysis of the doctrine of predestination here. This, of course, does not apply only to universities, but to capitalism as a whole: but then again, universities have always been integrated into capitalism. They, however, like to imagine they are not. Because of this, the easiest way to keep them busy is to make them believe that they can get rid of capitalism by purging its representatives (ideally, some that embody the most hateful elements – e.g. Big Pharma) from the university. It is exactly by convincing them that capitalism can be expunged by getting rid of a person, a position, or even a salary figure, that you ensure it remains alive and well (you like capitalism, also for a set of historical reasons we cannot go into at this point).
The other way to keep them occupied is to poke at the principles of university autonomy and academic freedom. You know these principles well; you defined them and enshrined them in law, not necessarily because you trusted universities (you did, but not for too long), but because you knew that they will forever be a reminder to scholars that their very independence from the state is predicated on the dependence on the state. Now, obviously, you do not want to poke at these principles too much: as we mentioned above, such gestures tend not to be very popular. However, they are so effective that even a superficially threatening act is guaranteed to get academics up in arms. A clumsily written, badly (or: ideally) timed letter, for instance. An injunction to ‘protect free speech’ can go a very long way. Even better, on top of all that, you’ve got Prevent, which doubles as an actual tool for securitization and surveillance, making sure academics are focused on what’s going on inside, rather than looking outside.
They often criticize you. They say you do not understand how universities work. Truth is, you don’t. You don’t have to; you never cared about the process, only about the outcome.
What you do understand, however, is politics – the subtle art of making people do what you want them to, or, in the absence of that, making sure they do not do something that could really unsettle you. Like organize. Or strike. Oops.
* The constituency of Combined English Universities existed until 1950.
Hardly anyone needs convincing that the university today is in deep crisis. Critics warn that the idea of the University (at least in the form in which it emerged from Western modernity) is endangered, under attack, under fire; that governments or corporations are waging a war against them. Some even pronounce public university already dead, or at least lying in ruins. The narrative about the causes of the crisis is well known: shift in public policy towards deregulation and the introduction of market principles – usually known as neoliberalism – meant the decline of public investment, especially for social sciences and humanities, introduction of performance-based funding dependent on quantifiable output, and, of course, tuition fees. This, in turn, led to the rising precarity and insecurity among faculty and students, reflected, among other things, in a mental health crisis. Paradoxically, the only surviving element of the public university that seems to be doing relatively well in all this is critique. But what if the crisis of the university is, in fact, a crisis of imagination?
Don’t worry, this is not one of those posts that try to convince you that capitalism can be wished away by the power of positive thinking. Nor is it going to claim that neoliberalism offers unprecedented opportunities, if only we would be ‘creative’ enough to seize them. The crisis is real, it is felt viscerally by almost everyone in higher education, and – importantly – it is neither exceptional nor unique to universities. Exactly because it cannot be wished away, and exactly because it is deeply intertwined with the structures of the current crisis of capitalism, opposition to the current transformation of universities would need to involve serious thinking about long-term alternatives to current modes of knowledge production. Unfortunately, this is precisely the bit that tends to be missing from a lot of contemporary critique.
Present-day critique of neoliberalism in higher education often takes the form of nostalgic evocation of the glory days when universities were few, and funds for them plentiful. Other problems with this mythical Golden Age aside, what this sort of critique conveniently omits to mention is that institutions that usually provide the background imagery for these fantastic constructs were both highly selective and highly exclusionary, and that they were built on the back of centuries of colonial exploitation. If it seemed like they imparted a life of relatively carefree privilege on those who studied and worked in them, that is exactly because this is what they were designed to do: cater to the “life of the mind” via excluding all forms of interference, particularly if they took the form of domestic (or any other material) labour, women, or minorities. This tendency is reproduced in Ivory Tower nostalgia as a defensive strategy: the dominant response to what critics tend to claim is the biggest challenge to universities since their founding (which, as they like to remind us, was a long, long time ago) is to stick their head in the sand and collectively dream back to the time when, as Pink Floyd might put it, grass was greener and lights were brighter.
Ivory Tower nostalgia, however, is just one aspect of this crisis of imagination. A much broader symptom is that contemporary critique seems unable to imagine a world without the university. Since ideas of online disembedded learning were successfully monopolized by technolibertarian utopians, the best most academics seem to be able to come up with is to re-erect the walls of the institution, but make them slightly more porous. It’s as if the U of University and the U of Utopia were somehow magically merged. To extend the oft-cited and oft-misattributed saying, if it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is nonetheless easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities.
Why does the institution like a university have such a purchase on (utopian and dystopian) imagination? Thinking about universities is, in most cases, already imbued by the university, so one element pertains to the difficulty of perceiving conditions of reproduction of one’s own position (this mode of access from the outside, as object-oriented ontologists would put it, or complex externality, as Boltanski does, is something I’m particularly interested in). However, it isn’t the case just with academic critique; fictional accounts of universities or other educational institutions are proliferating, and, in most cases (as I hope to show once I finally get around to writing the book on magical realism and universities), they reproduce the assumption of the value of the institution as such, as well as a lot of associated ideas, as this tweet conveys succinctly:
This is, unfortunately, often the case even with projects whose explicit aim is to subvert existing inequalities in the context of knowledge production, including open, free, and workers’ universities (Social Science Centre in Lincoln maintains a useful mapof these initiatives globally). While these are fantastic initiatives, most either have to ‘piggyback’ on university labour – that is, on the free or voluntary labour of people employed or otherwise paid by universities – or, at least, rely on existing universities for credentialisation. Again, this isn’t to devalue those who invest time, effort, and emotions into such forms of education; rather, it is to flag that thinking about serious, long-term alternatives is necessary, and quickly, at that. This is a theme I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I hope to make one of central topics in my work in the future.
So what are we to do?
There’s an obvious bit of irony in suggesting a panel for a conference in order to discuss how the system is broken, but, in the absence of other forms, I am thinking of putting together a proposal for a workshop for Sociological Review’s 2018 “Undisciplining: Conversations from the edges” conference. The good news is that the format is supposed to go outside of the ‘orthodox’ confines of panels and presentations, which means we could do something potentially exciting. The tentative title Thinking about (sustainable?) alternatives to academic knowledge production.
I’m particularly interested in questions such as:
Qualifications and credentials: can we imagine a society where universities do not hold a monopoly on credentials? What would this look like?
Knowledge work: can we conceive of knowledge production (teaching and research) not only ‘outside of’, but without the university? What would this look like?
Financing: what other modes of funding for knowledge production are conceivable? Is there a form of public funding that does not involve universities (e.g., through an academic workers’ cooperative – Mondragon University in Spain is one example – or guild)? What would be the implications of this, and how it would be regulated?
Built environment/space: can we think of knowledge not confined to specific buildings or an institution? What would this look like – how would it be organised? What would be the consequences for learning, teaching and research?
The format would need to be interactive – possibly a blend of on/off-line conversations – and can address the above, or any of the other questions related to thinking about alternatives to current modes of knowledge production.
If you’d like to participate/contribute/discuss ideas, get in touch by the end of October (the conference deadline is 27 November).
[UPDATE: Our panel got accepted! See you at Undisciplining conference, 18-21 June, Newcastle, UK. Watch this space for more news].
A woman needs a fridge of her own if she is to write theory. In fact, I’d wager a woman needs a fridge of her own if she is to write pretty much anything, but since what I am writing at the moment is (mostly) theory, let’s assume that it can serve as a metaphor for intellectual labour more broadly.
In her famous injunction to undergraduates at Girton College in Cambridge (the first residential college for women that offered education to degree level) Virginia Woolf stated that a woman needed two things in order to write: a room of her own, and a small independent income (Woolf settled on 500 pounds a year; as this website helpfully informed me, this would be £29,593 in today’s terms). In addition to the room and the income, a woman who wants to write, I want to argue, also needs a fridge. Not a shelf or two in a fridge in a kitchen in a shared house or at the end of the staircase; a proper fridge of her own. Let me explain.
The immateriality of intellect
Woolf’s broader point in A Room of One’s Ownis that intellectual freedom and creativity require the absence of material constraints. In and of itself, this argument is not particularly exceptional: attempts to define the nature of intellectual labour have almost unfailingly centred on its rootedness in leisure – skholē – as the opportunity for peaceful contemplation, away from the vagaries of everyday existence. For ancient Greeks, contemplation was opposed to the political (as in the everyday life of the polis): what we today think of as the ‘private’ was not even a candidate, being the domain of women and slaves, neither of which were considered proper citizens. For Marx, it was the opposite of material labour, with its sweat, noise, and capitalist exploitation. But underpinning it all was the private sphere – that amorphous construct that, as feminist scholars pointed out, includes the domestic and affective labour of care, cleaning, cooking, and, yes, the very act of biological reproduction. The capacity to distance oneself from these kinds of concerns thus became the sine qua non of scholarly reflection, particularly in the case of theōria, held to be contemplation in its pure(st) form. After all, to paraphrase Kant, it is difficult to ponder the sublime from too close.
This thread runs from Plato and Aristotle through Marx to Arendt, who made it the gist of her analysis of the distinction between vita activa and vita contemplativa; and onwards to Bourdieu, who zeroed in on the ‘scholastic reason’ (raison scolastique) as the source of Homo Academicus’ disposition to project the categories of scholarship – skholē – onto everyday life. I am particularly interested in the social framing of this distinction, given that I think it underpins a lot of contemporary discussions on the role of universities. But regardless of whether we treat it as virtue, a methodological caveat, or an interesting research problem, detachment from the material persists as the distinctive marker of the academic enterprise.
What about today?
So I think we can benefit from thinking about what would be the best way to achieve this absolution from the material for women who are trying to write today. One solution, obviously, would be to outsource the cooking and cleaning to a centralised service – like, for instance, College halls and cafeterias. This way, one would have all the time to write: away with the vile fridge! (It was anyway rather unseemly, poised as it was in the middle of one’s room). Yet, outsourcing domestic labour means we are potentially depriving other people of the opportunity to develop their own modes of contemplation. If we take into account that the majority of global domestic labour is performed by women, perfecting our scholarship would most likely be off the back of another Shakespeare’s (or, for consistency’s sake, let’s say Marx’s) sister. So, let’s keep the fridge, at least for the time being.
But wait, you will say, what about eating out – in restaurants and such? It’s fine you want to do away with outsourced domestic labour, but surely you wouldn’t scrap the entire catering industry! After all, it’s a booming sector of the economy (and we all know economic growth is good), and it employs so many people (often precariously and in not very nice conditions, but we are prone to ignore that during happy hour). Also, to be honest, it’s so nice to have food prepared by other people. After all, isn’t that what Simone de Beauvoir did, sitting, drinking and smoking (and presumably also eating) in cafés all day? This doesn’t necessarily mean we would need to do away with the fridge, but a shelf in a shared one would suffice – just enough to keep a bit of milk, some butter and eggs, fruit, perhaps even a bottle of rosé? Here, however, we face the economic reality of the present. Let’s do a short calculation.
£500 a year gets you very far…or not
The £29,593 Woolf proposes as sufficient independent income comes from an inheritance. Those of us who are less fortunate and are entering the field of theory today can hope to obtain one of many scholarships. Mine is currently at £13,900 a year (no tax); ESRC-funded students get a bit more, £14,000. This means we fall well short of today’s equivalent of 500 pound/year sum Woolf suggested to students at Girton. Starting from £14,000, assuming that roughly £2000 pounds annually are spent on things such as clothes, books, cosmetics, and ‘incidentals’ – for instance, travel to see one’s family or medical costs (non-EU students are subject to something called the Immigration Health Surcharge, paid upfront at the point of application for a student visa, which varies between £150 and £200 per year, but doesn’t cover dental treatment, prescriptions, or eye tests – so much for “NHS tourism”) – this leaves us with roughly £1000 per month. Out of this, accommodation costs anything between 400 and 700 pounds, depending on bills, council tax etc. – for a “room of one’s own”, that is, a room in a shared house or college accommodation – that, you’re guessing it, almost inevitably comes with a shared fridge.
So the money that’s left is supposed to cover eating in cafés, perhaps even an occasional glass of wine (it’s important to socialise with other writers or just watch the world go by). Assuming we have 450/month after paying rent and bills, this leaves us with a bit less than 15 pounds per day. This suffices for about one meal and a half daily in most cheap high street eateries, if you do not eat a lot, do not drink, nor have tea or coffee. Ever. Even at colleges, where food is subsidised, this would be barely enough. Remember: this means you never go out for a drink with friends or to a cinema, you never buy presents, never pay for services: in short, it makes for a relatively boring and constrained life. This could turn writing, unless you’re Emily Dickinson, somewhat difficult. Luckily, you have Internet, that is, if it’s included in your bills. And you pray your computer does not break down.
Well, you can always work, you say. If the money you’re given is not enough to provide the sort of lifestyle you want, go earn more! But there’s a catch. If you are in full-time education, you are only allowed to work part-time. If you are a foreign national, there are additional constraints. This means the amount of money you can get is usually quite limited. And there are tradeoffs. You know all those part-time jobs that pay a lot, offer stability and future career progression, and everyone is flocking towards? I don’t either. If you ever wondered where the seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labour at universities – sessional lecturers, administrative assistants, event managers, servers etc. came from, look around you: more likely than not, it’s hungry graduate students.
The poverty of student life
Increasingly, this is not in the Steve Jobs “stay hungry” sense. As I’ve argued recently, “staying hungry” has quite a different tone when instead of a temporary excursion into relative deprivation (seen as part of ‘character building’ education is supposed to be about) it reflects the threat of, virtually, struggling to make ends meet way after graduation. Given the state of the economy and graduate debt, that is a threat faced by growing proportions of young people (and, no surprise, women are much more likely to end up in precarious employment). Of course, you could always argue that many people have it much worse: you are (relatively) young, well educated, and with likely more cultural and social capital than the average person. Sure you can get by. But remember – this isn’t about making it from one day to another. What you’re trying to do is write. Contemplate. Comprehend the beauty (and, sometimes, ugliness) of the world in its entirety. Not wonder whether you’ll be able to afford the electricity bill.
This is why a woman needs to have her own fridge. If you want access to healthy, cheap food, you need to be able to buy it in greater quantities, so you don’t have to go to the supermarket every other day, and store it at home, so you can prepare it quickly and conveniently, as well as plan ahead. For the record, by healthy I do not mean quinoa waffles, duck eggs and shitake mushrooms (not that there’s anything wrong with any of these, though I’ve never tried duck eggs). I mean the sort of food that keeps you full whilst not racking up your medical expenses further down the line. For this you need a fridge. Not half a vegetable drawer among opened cans of lager that some bro you happen to share a house with forgot to throw away months ago, but an actual fridge. Of your own. It doesn’t matter if it comes with a full kitchen – you can always share a stove, wait for your turn for the microwave, and cooking (and eating) together can be a very pleasurable way of spending time. But keep your fridge.
But, you will protest, what about women who live with partners? Surely we want to share fridges with our loved ones! Well, good for you, go ahead. But you may want to make sure that it’s not always you remembering to buy the milk, it’s not always you supplying fresh fruit and vegetables, it’s not always you throwing away the food whose use-by date had long expired. That it doesn’t mean you pay the half of household bills, but still do more than half the work. For, whether we like it or not, research shows that in heterosexual partnerships women still perform a greater portion of domestic labour, not to mention the mental load of designing, organising, and dividing tasks. And yes, this impacts your ability to write. It’s damn difficult to follow the line of thought if you need to stop five times in order to take the laundry out, empty the bins, close the windows because it just started raining, pick up the mail that came through the door, and add tea to the shopping list – not even mentioning what happens if you have children on top of all this.
So no, a fridge cannot – and will not – solve the problem of gender inequality in the academia, let alone gender inequality on a more general level (after all, academics are very, very privileged). What it can do, though, is rebalance the score in the sense of reminding us that cooking, cleaning, and cutting up food are elements of life as much as citing, cross-referencing, and critique. It can begin to destroy, once and for all, the gendered (and classed) assumption that contemplation happens above and beyond the material, and that all reminders of its bodily manifestations – for instance, that we still need to eat whilst thinking – should be if not abolished entirely, then at least expelled beyond the margins of awareness: to communal kitchens, restaurants, kebab vans, anywhere where they do not disturb the sacred space of the intellect. So keep your income, get a room, and put a fridge in it. Then start writing.
One of my favourite texts back from the time when I was writing my Master’s thesis is the Situationist International’s On The Poverty of Student Life (De la misère au milieu étudiant). Written in 1966 and distributed in 10.000 copies at the official ceremony marking the start of the new academic year at the University of Strasbourg, it provoked an outcry and a swift reaction by the university authorities, who closed down UNEF, the student union that printed it. Today, it is recognized as one of the texts that both diagnosed and helped polarize conditions that eventually led to the famous 1968 student rebellions in France. This is how it begins:
“We might very well say, and no one would disagree with us, that the student is the most universally despised creature in France, apart from the priest and the policeman. The licensed and impotent opponents of capitalism repress the obvious–that what is wrong with the students is also what is wrong with them. They convert their unconscious contempt into a blind enthusiasm. The radical intelligentsia prostrates itself before the so-called ‘rise of the student’ and the declining bureaucracies of the Left bid noisily for his moral and material support.
There are reasons for this sudden enthusiasm, but they are all provided by the present form of capitalism, in its overdeveloped state. We shall use this pamphlet for denunciation. We shall expose these reasons one by one, on the principle that the end of alienation is only reached by the straight and narrow path of alienation itself.
Up to now, studies of student life have ignored the essential issue. The surveys and analyses have all been psychological or sociological or economic: in other words, academic exercises, content with the false categories of one specialization or another. None of them can achieve what is most needed–a view of modern society as a whole.”
This diagnosis is pretty much relevant today: most discussions of tuition fees avoid tackling the bigger question, which is the purpose of education and its role in society, beyond the invocation of the standard slogans related to either economic development or social justice and fairness. However, neither clarity of its analysis nor its resonance with contemporary issues are the main reason why I believe the Situationist pamphlet is worth reading. Instead, I would like to draw attention to draw attention to one of its underlying assumptions, reflected in the broader cultural imaginary of the ‘misery’ of student existence, life and social position, and then contrast it with current trends in the provision of student ‘experience’. Last, I want to bring this conversation to the question of tuition fees, which recently re-gained prominence in England, but has been at the back of higher education policy discussions – both in the UK and globally – for at least the last 30 years, and then use it to reflect on the changing role of higher education more generally.
The misery of student life?
There existed a time when being a student was really an exercise in misery. Stories of dank rooms, odd jobs, scraping by on half a baguette and half a pack of cigarettes used to be the staple of ‘the student experience’. Nor were such stories limited to France; I often hear colleagues in the UK complain about not being able to stand cider as they drank way too much of the cheap stuff as undergrads. All of this, as the adage went, was in preparation for a better life to come: stories of nights spent drinking cheap cider only make sense if they are told from a position in which one can afford if not exactly Dom Perignon, then at least decent craft beer.
In fact, these stories are most often told in senior common rooms, at alumni gala dinners, or cheerful reunions of former uni classmates, appropriately decked out in suits. In them, poverty is framed as a rite of passage, serving to justify one’s privileged social and professional position: instituting a myth of meritocracy (look how much I suffered in order to get to where I am now!) as well as the myth of disinterestedness in the material, creature-comforts side of life (I cared about perfecting my intellect so much I was prepared to lead a life of [relative] material deprivation!).
These stories do more than establish the privilege and shared social identity of those who tell them, however. They also support the figure of ‘the student’ as healthy, able-bodied, and – most of all – with little to focus on besides learning. After all, in order to endure between three and eight years on packets of noodle soup, cheap booze, and no sleep, you need to be young, relatively fit, and without caring duties: staying up all night drinking Strongbow and discussing Schopenhauer is kind-of-less-likely if you’ve got to take kids to school or go to work in the morning. This automatically excludes most mature and part-time students; not even to mention that negotiating campus sociality is still more difficult if (for cultural, religious, health or other reasons) you do not drink or do drugs. But, most importantly, it reinforces the idea that scarcity is a choice; the ‘student experience’, in this myth, is a form of poverty tourism or bootcamp from which you emerge strengthened and ready to assume your (obviously advantageous) position in life. This, clearly, excludes everyone without a guaranteed position in the social and economic elite. Poverty is not a rite de passage for those who stay poor throughout their life, and there is no glory in recalling the days of drinking cheap cider if, ten years down the line, you doubt you’ll be able to afford much better. Increasingly, however, that is all of us.
Situationists recognized the connection between the ‘poverty of student life’ and generalised poverty back in 1966:
“At least in consciousness, the student can exist apart from the official truths of ‘economic life’ .But for very simple reasons: looked at economically, student life is a hard one. In our ‘society of abundance’, he is still a pauper. 80% of students come from income groups well above the working class, yet 90% have less money than the meanest laborer. Student poverty is an anachronism, a throw-back from an earlier age of capitalism; it does not share in the new poverties of the spectacular societies; it has yet to attain the new poverty of the new proletariat.”
This brings us to the misery of student experience here and now. For the romanticisation of the poverty of student life makes sense only if that poverty is chosen, and temporary. Just like the graduate premium, it is predicated on the idea that you are ‘suffering’ now, in order to benefit later. And, of course, in the era of precarity, unemployment, and what David Graeber famously dubbed ‘bullshit jobs’, it no longer holds.
The gilded cage of student experience
Of course, university degree, in principle, still means your chances on the job market are better than those of someone who hasn’t got a degree. But this data skews the bigger picture, which is that the proportion of bullshit jobs is increasing: it’s not that a university degree guarantees fantastic employment opportunities, it’s that not having one means falling out of the competition for anything but the bottom of the job ladder. Most importantly, talk of graduate premium often omits to take into account the degree to which higher education is still a proxy for something else entirely: class. The effect of a university degree on employment and quality of life is thus a compound of education, social background, cultural capital, and race, gender, age etc., rather than an automatic effect of enduring three to eight years of exam taking, excessive drinking, and excruciating anxiety.
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most visible reflections of the changing socio-economic structure of student existence is the growth of high-end or luxury student housing, and the associated focus on ‘student experience’. Of course, in most cases universities and property developers do this in order to cater to foreign, ‘overseas’ fee-paying students, who are often quite openly framed as the institution’s main source of income (it is particularly interesting to observe otherwise staunch critics of ‘marketization’ and defenders of the ‘public’ status of the university unashamedly treat such students or their parents as cash cows, or at the very least, consumers). But, to a not much lesser degree, it is also a reflection of (if still implicit) recognition that studying no longer guarantees a good and well-paid job. In other words, if you’re not necessarily going to have a better life after university, you may as well live in decent conditions while you’re in it.
The replacement of dank bedsits and instant noodles with ensuite rooms and gluten-free granola, then, is not ‘selling out’ the ideals of education in order to pander to the ‘Snowflake’ generation, as some conservative authors have argued. It is a reflection of a broader socio-economic shift related to the quality of life and life chances, as well as the breaking of the assumption of a direct (if not necessarily causal) link between education, employment, and status. In this sense, Labour’s plan to abolish tuition fees is a good start, but it does not solve the greater question of poverty and precarity, both of which will increasingly impact even those who have previously been relatively shielded from the effects of the crumbling economy – graduates.
Even with no tuition, graduates will either need loans to cover living costs, or – unless they rely on their parents (and here we are stuck in the vicious cycle of class reproduction) – engage in bullshit work (at least until there is an actual effort to integrate part-time study with decent jobs, something that the Open University used to do well). In the same vein, Graduate Tax only makes sense if the highly educated on the wholeactually earn much more than the rest of the population (see an interesting discussion here) – which, if current trends continue, is hardly going to be the case. In the meantime, the graduate premium reflects less the actual ‘earning power’ a degree brings and more the further slide into poverty for those without degrees, coupled with the increasing wealth of those in top-tier jobs, hardly representative of graduates as a whole (in fact, they usually come from a small number of institutions, and, again, from relatively privileged social backgrounds).
Addressing tuition fees in isolation, then, does little to counter the compound effects of deindustrialization, financialization, and growing public debt. This is not to say that it isn’t a solution – it’s certainly preferable to accruing a lifetime of debt – but it speaks to the need to integrate education policy into broader questions of economic and social justice, rather than treat it as temporary solution for rapid social, technological and demographic change. Meanwhile, we could do something really radical, like, I dunno, tax the rich? Just a thought.
To a degree, this revival happens on the back of the challenges posed to the status of theory by the rise of data science, leading Lizardo and Hay to engage in defense of the value and contributions of theory to sociology and international relations, respectively. In broader terms, however, it addresses the question of the status of social sciences – and, by extension, academic knowledge – more generally; and, as such, it brings us back to the justification of expertise, a question of particular relevance in the current political context.
The meaning of theory
Surely enough, theory has many meanings (Abend, 2008), and consequently many forms in which it is practiced. However, one of the characteristics that seem to be shared across the board is that it is part of (under)graduate training, after which it gets bracketed off in the form of “the theory chapter” of dissertations/theses. In this sense, theory is framed as foundational in terms of socialization into a particular discipline, but, at the same time, rarely revisited – at least not explicitly – after the initial demonstration of aptitude. In other words, rather than doing, theory becomes something that is ‘done with’. The exception, of course, are those who decide to make theory the centre of their intellectual pursuits; however, “doing theory” in this sense all too often becomes limited to the exegesis of existing texts (what Krause refers to as ‘theory a’ and Abend as ‘theory 4’) that leads to the competition among theorists for the best interpretation of “what theorist x really wanted to say”, or, alternatively, the application of existing concepts to new observations or ‘problems’ (‘theory b and c’, in Krause’s terms). Either way, the field of social theory resembles less the groves of Plato’s Academy, and more a zoo in which different species (‘Marxists’, ‘critical realists’, ‘Bourdieusians’, ‘rational-choice theorists’) delve in their respective enclosures or fight with members of the same species for dominance of a circumscribed domain.
This summer school started from the ambition to change that: to go beyond rivalries or allegiances to specific schools of thought, and think about what doing theory really means. I often told people that wanting to do social theory was a major reason why I decided to do a second PhD; but what was this about? I did not say ‘learn more’ about social theory (my previous education provided a good foundation), ‘teach’ social theory (though supervising students at Cambridge is really good practice for this), read, or even write social theory (though, obviously, this was going to be a major component). While all of these are essential elements of becoming a theorist, the practice of social theory certainly isn’t reducible to them. Here are some of the other aspects I think we need to bear in mind when we discuss the return, importance, or practice of theory.
Theory is performance
This may appear self-evident once the focus shifts to ‘doing’, but we rarely talk about what practicing theory is meant to convey – that is, about theorising as a performative act. Some elements of this are not difficult to establish: doing theory usually means identification with a specific group, or form of professional or disciplinary association. Most professional societies have committees, groups, and specific conference sessions devoted to theory – but that does not mean theory is exclusively practiced within them. In addition to belonging, theory also signifies status. In many disciplines, theoretical work has for years been held in high esteem; the flipside, of course, is that ‘theoretical’ is often taken to mean too abstract or divorced from everyday life, something that became a more pressing problem with the decline of funding for social sciences and the concomitant expectation to make them socially relevant. While the status of theory is a longer (and separate) topic, one that has been discussed at length in the history of sociology and other social sciences, it bears repeating that asserting one’s work as theoretical is always a form of positioning: it serves to define the standing of both the speaker, and (sometimes implicitly) others contributors. This brings to mind that…
Theory is power
Not everyone gets to be treated as a theorist: it is also a question of recognition, and thus, a question of political (and other) forms of power. ‘Theoretical’ discussions are usually held between men (mostly, though not exclusively, white men); interventions from women, people of colour, and persons outside centres of epistemic power are often interpreted as empirical illustrations, or, at best, contributions to ‘feminist’ or ‘race’ theory*. Raewyn Connell wrote about this in Southern Theory, and initiatives such as Why is my curriculum white? and Decolonizing curriculum in theory and practice have brought it to the forefront of university struggles, but it speaks to the larger point made by Spivak: that the majority of mainstream theory treats the ‘subaltern’ as only empirical or ethnographic illustration of the theories developed in the metropolis.
The problem here is not only (or primarily) that of representation, in the sense in which theory thus generated fails to accurately depict the full scope of social reality, or experiences and ideas of different people who participate in it. The problem is in a fundamentally extractive approach to people and their problems: they exist primarily, if not exclusively, in order to be explained. This leads me to the next point, which is that…
Theory is predictive
A good illustration for this is offered by pundits and political commentators’ surprise at events in the last year: the outcome of the Brexit referendum (Leave!), US elections (Donald Trump!), and last but not least, the UK General Election (surge in votes for Corbyn!). Despite differences in how these events are interpreted, they in most cases convey that, as one pundit recently confessed, nobody has a clue about what is going on. Does this mean the rule of experts really is over, and, with it, the need for general theories that explain human action? Two things are worth taking into account.
To begin with, social-scientific theories enter the public sphere in a form that’s not only simplified, but also distilled into ‘soundbites’ or clickbait adapted to the presumed needs and preferences of the audience, usually omitting all the methodological or technical caveats they normally come with. For instance, the results of opinion polls or surveys are taken to presented clear predictions, rather than reflections of general statistical tendencies; reliability is rarely discussed. Nor are social scientists always innocent victims of this media spin: some actively work on increase their visibility or impact, and thus – perhaps unwittingly – contribute to the sensationalisation of social-scientific discourse. Second, and this can’t be put delicately, some of these theories are just not very good. ‘Nudgery’ and ‘wonkery’ often rest on not particularly sophisticated models of human behaviour; which is not saying that they do not work – they can – but rather that theoretical assumptions underlying these models are rarely accessible to scrutiny.
Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why this is the case: it is easier to believe that selling vegetables in attractive packaging can solve the problem of obesity than to invest in long-term policy planning and research on decision-making that has consequences for public health. It is also easier to believe that removing caps to tuition fees will result in universities charging fees distributed normally from lowest to highest, than to bother reading theories of organizational behaviour in different economic and political environments and try to understand how this maps onto the social structure and demographics of a rapidly changing society. In other words: theories are used to inform or predict human behaviour, but often in ways that reinforce existing divisions of power. So, just in case you didn’t see this coming…
Theory is political
All social theories are about constraints, including those that are self-imposed. From Marx to Freud and from Durkheim to Weber (and many non-white, non-male theorists who never made it into ‘the canon’), theories are about what humans can and cannot do; they are about how relatively durable relations (structures) limit and enable how they act (agency). Politics is, fundamentally, about the same thing: things we can and things we cannot change. We may denounce Bismarck’s definition of politics as the art of the possible as insufficiently progressive, but – at the risk of sounding obvious – understanding how (and why) things stay the same is fundamental to understanding how to go about changing them. The history of social theory, among other things, can be read as a story about shifting the boundaries of what was considered fixed and immutable, on the one hand, and constructed – and thus subject to change – on the other.
In this sense, all social theory is fundamentally political. This isn’t to license bickering over different historical materialisms, or to stimulate fantasies – so dear to intellectuals – of ‘speaking truth to power’. Nor should theories be understood as weapons in the ‘war of time’, despite Débord’s poetic formulation: this is but the flipside of intellectuals’ dream of domination, in which their thoughts (i.e. themselves) inspire masses to revolt, usually culminating in their own ascendance to a position of power (thus conveniently cutting out the middleman in ‘speaking truth to power’, as they become the prime bearers of both).
Theory is political in a much simpler sense, in which it is about society and elements that constitute it. As such, it has to be about understanding what is it that those we think of as society think, want, and do, even – and possibly, especially – when we do not agree with them. Rather than aiming to ‘explain away’ people, or fit their behaviour into pre-defined social models, social theory needs to learn to listen to – to borrow a term from politics – its constituents. This isn’t to argue for a (not particularly innovative) return to grounded theory, or ethnography (despite the fact both are relevant and useful). At the risk of sounding pathetic, perhaps the next step in the development of social theory is to really make it a form of social practice – that is, make it be with the people, rather than about the people. I am not sure what this would entail, or what it would look like; but I am pretty certain it would be a welcome element of building a progressive politics. In this sense, doing social theory could become less of the practice of endlessly revising a blueprint for a social theory zoo, and more of a project of getting out from behind its bars.
*The tendency to interpret women’s interventions as if they are inevitably about ‘feminist theory’ (or, more frequently, as if they always refer to empirical examples) is a trend I have been increasingly noticing since moving into sociology, and definitely want to spend more time studying. This is obviously not to say there aren’t women in the field of social theory, but rather that gender (and race, ethnicity, and age) influence the level of generality at which one’s claims are read, thus reflecting the broader tendency to see universality and Truth as coextensive with the figure of the male and white academic.
It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.
Boundaries of Rational Discussion
Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.
Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.
This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—
should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?
—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”
After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.
The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.
In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.
For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.
Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.
In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.
The victory of the Leave campaign and Britain’s likely exit from the European Union present a similar challenge. Of course, in this case, everyone knew it might happen, but there are surprisingly few ideas of what the consequences will be – not on the short-term political level, where the scenarios seem pretty clear; but in terms of longer-term societal impact – either on the macro- or micro-sociological level.
Methodological debates temporarily aside, I want to argue that one of the things that prevent us from making (informed) predictions is that we’re afraid of what the future might hold. The progressive ethos that permeates the discipline can make it difficult to think of scenarios predicated on a different worldview. A similar bias kept social scientists from realizing that countries seen as examples of real socialism – like the Soviet Union, and particularly former Yugoslavia – could ever fall apart, especially in a violent manner. The starry-eyed assumption that exit from the European Union could be a portent of a new era of progressive politics in the UK is a case in point. As much as I would like to see it happen, we need to seriously consider other possibilities – or, perhaps, that what the future has in stock is beyond our darkest dreams. In the past years, there has been a resurgence of thinking about utopias as critical alternatives to neoliberalism. Together with this, we need to actively start thinking about dystopias – not as a way of succumbing to despair, but as a way of using sociological imagination to understand both societal causes of the trends we’re observing – nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and so on – and our own fear of them.
Clearly, a strong argument against making long-term predictions is the reputational risk – to ourselves and the discipline – this involves. If the failure of Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse is still occasionally brought up as a critique of Marxism, offering longer-term forecasts in the context where social sciences are increasingly held accountable to the public (i.e. policymakers) rightfully seems tricky. But this is where the sociological community has a role to play. Instead of bemoaning the glory of bygone days, we can create spaces from which to consider possible scenarios – even if some of them are bleak. In the final instance, to borrow from Henshel – the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.
Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @jana_bacevic.