09 February 2011

Servicing the status quo

The purpose of mediocratic ideology is the same as that of Marxist ideology: to make life impossible for genuine intellectuals, i.e. those who might generate real cultural progress. To mask the issue, an ersatz system of high culture has been built up, designed to perpetuate and reinforce the ideology, and to ensure no assistance is given to those whom the system carefully excludes.

• What hurdles does one have to jump nowadays in order to become a qualified philosopher? Judging by the output of some of its practitioners, the training provided is high on ideological correctness but low on how to construct coherent arguments. Martin Cohen, editor of The Philosopher, writes about the university cuts in relation to laissez-faire doctrine, but it is hard to extract any meaningful insights or arguments from his article, beyond noting that he disapproves of the cuts.
Cohen seems to think, among other things, that students are incapable of making “rational decisions” about the costs and benefits of studying, that university education is a “public work” which markets are incapable of providing, and that the middles classes have (unfairly) “swamped college education”. Some of his paragraphs could have come from the Guardian’s online comments section.
Even as we cut education to the bone, there will still be cash found to keep the financial markets afloat. There will still be £1 billion for research into pumping carbon dioxide into holes under the North Sea. There's always money for launching wars or propping up overstretched financial institutions, because of course they are not exactly choices (let alone market ones), but responses to crises.
Cohen invokes J.S. Mill, the original libertarian, as support for opposition to the cuts. Could one stretch Mill’s education exception to the liberty principle to cover massive state subsidies for university teaching, allowing half the population to study subjects ranging from engineering to waste management or tournament golf? Possibly if one is motivated enough, given that Mill’s comments in this area were a little vague. Cohen's assertion that the cuts are a reversal “of the principles of classical liberalism and laissez-faire economics” is, however, simply bizarre.

• Philosopher Peter Hallward, who was briefly mentioned in the previous post, is a better speechwriter than Cohen but shows little more evidence of analytical as opposed to ideological skills. Professor Hallward, who joined the student demonstration of 9 December, tells us that
Students and staff have mobilised in unprecedented numbers and unprecedented ways to oppose these disastrous education cuts.
Unprecedented ways indeed. According to Hallward's account of the demo, “most of what violence there was … began well after the vast kettling operation was set up”. This may be true, and I daresay police behaviour was heavy-handed to the point of brutality on that day, but we have to remember that the first demo, on 10 November, involved the vandalising of property including smashing the windows of Tory Party HQ, and someone throwing a fire extinguisher onto police from a height.
Does Professor Hallward have any comments about the violence of the earlier demo? Apparently not. I wonder whether, if Labour were still in power, and had implemented similar measures (which I suspect they would have had to), similar damage would have been done to their HQ. Perhaps philosophers and other academics would have been more understanding in that case, which no doubt would have had a restraining effect on their students.
Does Hallward discuss the fact that the strains on academic state subsidy are largely the result of its over-expansion during the last twenty years? No. Instead, we get colourful invective of the leftist variety, as in the following extract.
For decades, the corporate interests that promoted and then implemented their neoliberal “reforms” sought to present them as a form of modernising improvement, one carried by the inexorable progress of history towards the untrammelled pursuit of profit “for the benefit of all”. For decades, this grotesque distortion of reality has helped to mask a relentless assault on the remnants of our not-yet-for-profit services and resources, and to persuade many of those sheltering in the more privileged parts of the world to tolerate such “development” as a necessary price to be paid for their comfort and security. Not any more. The days of “there is no alternative” are rapidly becoming a distant memory, and all over Europe the bankers’ masks have begun hiding behind police visors.
Hallward cites Foucault in support of his interpretation of the cuts: the successful exercise of power is “proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms”. Why is it that those who attempt to wield the insights of postmodernist philosophy rarely seem to realise that those insights could illuminate, a fortiori, their own relationship to societal mechanisms? In an age of political transparency and academic gobbledygook, the best illustration of Foucault’s principle is surely the high-culture establishment. The exercise of academic power — being able to say who will and who will not be allowed to work as a publicly remunerated intellectual — is indeed proportional to academia’s ability to hide its own intellectual mechanisms, an ability that has not been so great since the era of scholasticism.

• Times ‘Higher’ Education at the moment seems to be full of anti-cuts breast-beating, and jeremiads about the risks to culture and the young, presumably by people who are fearful about their jobs. Aeron Davis is a lecturer in “political communication” whose research (the Guardian informs us) has uncovered that politicians tend to have little experience outside politics. According to Dr Davis, the reason there has not been a public backlash against the idea of cutting excess academic jobs and student places is not because taxpayers outside academia have little sympathy with the people who face being pruned, but because
those who are viewed as authorities by politicians and journalists [i.e. vice-chancellors] kept quiet, and so the government forged ahead.
Despite the public’s apparent lack of interest, Davis claims there is “palpable unease and anger” about the proposed cuts — and about the fact that “the government” (surely this should be “some Tories”?) is “trying to drastically reduce immigration” — among
teachers, artists, nurses, doctors, musicians, lawyers, council workers, the police, and many more …
Davis maintains that all these teachers, artists, nurses etc. are concerned “that treasured institutions and services will be wiped out”. Perhaps it is genuinely bad for philosophy if (say) Middlesex philosophy department closes, but I very much doubt it has been “treasured” by a significant number of non-academics.

Terry Eagleton complains about the new bias in favour of financing STEM subjects, and the reduced level of support for the humanities. But would the average voter be as sympathetic to funding archaeology or linguistics as to gene therapy or alternative fuel technology? Eagleton does not address this issue, blaming the bias on government short-sightedness, and invoking Thatcher as the villain in the time-honoured leftist tradition — despite the fact that the poor woman ceased to have any meaningful influence over British life more than twenty years ago.
In theory there is something in the argument that the humanities can have important benefits for society, and that losing them impoverishes our culture. In effect, however, we have lost them already. Biased humanities, ruling out any world view other than the institutionally preferred one, are worse than no humanities at all.
What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future.
Apart from the historical placing, Professor Eagleton is quite right. The humanities now service the ideological status quo: interventionism, (pseudo)egalitarianism, physicalism, reductionism. The culture of genuine openness and debate is gone, ditched in favour of producing the ‘right’ answers — those which are thought to be socially improving.

next post: 15th February

The author of this blog is an unsalaried academic. Like his colleagues, he is excluded from the academic system because of the way that system is currently run. (The phrase “sausage factory” was recently used by a government minister, expressing part of the problem.) As a result, he is unable to write in detail about intellectual issues to which he could be contributing, and has to limit himself to brief blog comments.

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