04 June 2012

weekend notes #10

Once upon a time there was a world which was culturally productive but rather inegalitarian. Then the inhabitants invented ‘social justice’ as a device for legitimising their mutual hostility, and soon things were in a pretty pickle.

- universities
- financial house of cards
- BBC tv
- Beecroft, Hodgkin, Milburn, Facebook
- on allegedly being right-wing

• I note there has been another piece of textual output purporting to concern itself with the topic what are universities for? This question (and similar ones like whither the humanities?) provides endless fascination for contemporary intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, given that there is something anachronistic in the old ideas of university, humanities, etc. Remarkably, the antiquated versions of the concepts still linger, in spite of the intensive programme of reform that has taken place.

Universities were once places where only an elite would go — the cleverest, the most suited [1] to academic study. Those who got to attend were not necessarily envied for it, since not everyone wanted to engage in that kind of activity. Now, regardless of how intrinsically enviable a particular activity is, the notion of elite has become deeply suspect. It is felt, as a kind of reflex reaction, that there is something morally wrong with a group that is in any way exclusive; that it needs to be invaded, broken up and brought into line with egalitarian ideology.

One of the most important elites — the individuals at Westminster running the country — has been partially neutralised, by making it subject to endless criticism, scrutiny [2] and ridicule, though it must be said that it would probably be getting degraded even without the assistance of the media. Another important elite — the group of individuals running large corporations — looks set to go the same way. Those inside academia, by contrast, still retain an element of being answerable to no one.

In the case of universities, the anti-elitism strategy has been to insist that the degree experience become a near-universal benefit. At the same time, the belief has to be maintained that the whole thing is still in some way a major achievement, a reason for enhanced self-esteem. (This, of course, generates the familiar prizes-for-all inconsistency.)

The nagging doubt remains: as long as it is not literally for everyone, and as long as there are some institutions which are more exclusive than others, there is something about universities which is at odds with the prevailing ethos of perfect, Facebookish horizontality.

It is this ambiguity which seems to keep the what-are-universities-for programme busy, and makes boggling about the question so appealing. Nothing is said which contravenes the basic pseudo-egalitarian ideology, but a certain frisson is generated by juxtaposing mutually inconsistent requirements, such as in the following extracts.
The current government certainly seems hell-bent on trying to make universities function more like cost-cutting skills retailers to whom employers can outsource their job-training [and] it is this element of ideological fantasy that is so worrying ...
[Universities are] perhaps the single most important institutional medium for conserving, understanding, extending and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage of mankind.
... [We are] merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create, and which is not ours to destroy.
(Stefan Collini, ‘The threat to our universities’, Guardian)
But clearly ‘we’ do seem to believe that it (the complex intellectual inheritance) is ours, and that we are free to alter it out of all recognition; and the writer approvingly cites the ideology which has allowed ‘us’ to do it.
[Universities are] expected to serve several important social functions, from vocational training to technology transfer, just as they are asked to further several admirable social goals, from inculcating civic values to promoting social justice.
... 18 of the 24 largest universities in Britain (in terms of student numbers) in 2010 did not exist as universities before 1992. Such educational enfranchisement has, in principle, been a great democratic good, one we should continue to support … (ibid.)
To pretend — as is habitually done by academics criticising current developments — that one can expand higher education into a mass product, serving ‘social justice’, without having to sacrifice insulation from public or governmental demands for economic justification, or other criteria of ‘usefulness’, is simply dishonest.

There is, of course, one type of education which by now fits very well with mediocratic ideology: school. Although there are differences in quality, everyone goes, and everyone learns largely the same kind of material. This makes schools an attractive model to emulate in the process of reform. Universities should, according to this, be places which everyone attends at a certain age, ideally with a component of compulsion, or at least pressure; that are run on principles determined by the state; and where the material presented is limited to such a level of prosaicness that it cannot possibly lead to the enhancement of differences in ability, but rather functions as an instrument of conformity.

More simply, universities are beginning to take over the job of schools themselves: teaching basic literary and mathematical skills. This, however imperfect from an efficiency perspective, certainly helps to dispose of the inequality problem.

1. Also, let’s not forget, those willing and able (without the aid of artificial loans) to pay for the experience — and why not, it helped finance the others.
2. If you need reminding about the appalling treatment MPs are now liable to receive from the legal and parliamentary systems — and in a curiously arbitrary way, considering who gets punished and who escapes — take a look at this. Whatever the shortcomings of former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, for example, she surely did not deserve to be humiliated in the way she was.

16 December 2008: for the first time in history, the US Federal Reserve lowers the interest rate to zero. (More precisely: it lowers the target for the overnight federal funds rate to a range of 0–0.25%.) The event reflects (a) the dramatic contraction of banking and business as a result of the subprime bubble bursting, (b) the Fed’s willingness to push accommodative policies to the absolute limit in order to avoid a serious recession.
23 May 2012: for the first time in history, Germany issues two-year bonds with zero coupon. Buyers of the bonds are promised to get their money back after two years but will receive no interest, yet demand for the bonds outstrips supply as savers seek a safe haven from turbulent capital markets. The event reflects (a) fear about the fallout from possible impending fragmentation of the eurozone and collapse of the associated currency, (b) the increasingly precarious position of various major European banks, (c) the fact that Germany is one of the few countries left whose unlikelihood of default is rated as “excellent” by the credit rating agencies.
The federal state is not planning to issue bonds with negative coupons
said a spokesman for the Finanzagentur, the body responsible for German state borrowing. In other words, Germany is not going to sell bonds where the holders (i.e. lenders) would have to pay for the privilege of loaning money to the government. Not yet.

• The more Moody’s et al. downgrade Western governments’ credit ratings in response to worsening debt-vs-productivity scenarios, the more we hear them denounced as “utterly discredited”.
The credit rating agencies did not, it is true, behave in exemplary fashion during the rosy years of the dodgy-loan bubble.
But surely they do not keep becoming more discredited, just because they keep noting additional notches in the gentle downward path of governmental financial trustworthiness?

• We have had “libertarian paternalism”; now the latest chalk-and-cheese-are-compatible buzzphrase is “growth-friendly austerity”. Cool!
Now, if we could only work out how to have expenditure-friendly austerity, we could finally call an end to recessions — this time for real!

• Oh, the temptation to break the rules [3] of fiscal and monetary discipline, so essential for the efficient working of a country’s money and credit system, but so tediously old-fashioned and bourgeois.
I wonder how many unbroken rules will remain among the former major powers by the time the current crisis is finally over.
Not many, by the look of things.

• What does economics professor Tyler Cowen believe the moral of the eurozone crisis to be?
The final lesson of this debacle is that smart nations with noble motives can make very big mistakes. And that should concern us all.
This sort of thinking absolutely guarantees there will be no lessons from the debacle at all.
When countries follow programmes of transformation that turn out to be fatally flawed, the response is not to hand-wring about “noble motives”, but to appreciate the fallacies in the ideology underlying those programmes.

3. For example: Do not make major changes to a central bank’s remit, merely to address a temporary crisis.

• Tried watching a new BBC nature programme, The Great British Countryside, but quickly had to stop.
The presenters, Julia Bradbury and Hugh Dennis, seemed to have been chosen to illustrate the new approved adult roles. Gender A: pompous, patronising, in-your-face. Gender B: defensive, apologetic, depressed about having to play a subordinate role.
The results of feminism can seem a little bizarre at times. Perfect equality is (as any fool knows) impossible, but a certain entertainment value can, I suppose, be generated by swapping costumes.

• Sampling the BBC’s recent TV drama offerings, I find that much of it has a quality that can only be likened to pornography. The ostensible action is so obviously forced to serve the primary purpose of wish-fulfilment fantasy — in this case, satisfying some ideological prejudice or other — that the narrative becomes ludicrous to the point of surreal.
Viewers are familiar with the ilk of drama that includes The Tudors, where historical themes are cheerfully plundered to produce the 21st century equivalent of a Carry On romp (updated with more violence, more fake nods to fact). At least there, the travesties are obvious and could be seen as a form of postmodern irony. In more recent docudramas, the rewriting of history to suit the ideology is less obvious and hence more grating.
In We’ll Take Manhattan, for example, sixties icons David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton’s role as class heroes, brightening up a stuffy post-war world, had the intensity button pushed ridiculously high, presumably so that even the obtusest viewer would get the ideological point.
So, of course, the pre-Bailey/Shrimpton establishment is hideously snobbish, cruel and class-bound, while the cocky couple have fun telling the wicked incumbents where to get off.
I suspect DB and JS were, in reality, much like every other talented person from the wrong side of town: desperate to get on, and willing to do whatever it took; while the establishment, given the incipient ideology of the time, were only too happy to demonstrate their egalitarian credentials — in theory at least, if less so in practice.
Behind a fa├žade of tolerance and openness, the incumbents were no doubt as keen as anyone to protect their own position, just as the power elite in today’s BBC (say) is in practice careful about keeping out the wrong sort (people who might disagree with their preferred world view), while maintaining an image of inclusiveness.
But a layered analysis about the respective roles of incumbents and newcomers, here in modelling/photography, was evidently considered too complicated, even for a BBC4 audience.

• The new documentary series Meet the Romans, presented by classics don Mary Beard, seems refreshing if a trifle prosaic. Professor Beard may be no oil painting, as some reviewers have unkindly suggested, but I suppose one needs a bit of a character for presenter if one is going to be focusing on the eating, drinking and defecating habits of the ancients.
Beard reminds me of botanist David Bellamy — another presenter whose appearance and mannerisms could be distracting, but who nevertheless proved strangely compelling.

• Easier on the eye, though perhaps shorter on substance, has been Orbit: Earth's Extraordinary Journey. As is now a reliable feature of BBC productions, it was impressive in terms of visuals.
Personally, I feel Kate Humble works better as a presenter of more serious subject matter such as meteorology, than of wildlife. I think I would have enjoyed having her as my geography teacher.

• Spotted in a radio guide, about a legal drama series:
“This week, the team deal with the case of a right-wing academic who is up on an assault charge.”
I was thinking, it would have seemed odd if it had said “the case of a left-wing academic”, but why?
Then I twigged. Of course: that qualifier would have been superfluous.

• Came across this assessment of venture capitalist Adrian Beecroft’s report on employment law, snickering at the idea that someone from industry might be asked to advise on government policy:
Forget civil servants. Forget academic expertise. Forget irksome consultation and careful study of what happens in other countries. No, today’s Downing Street wonk knows just how to sort out any problem of public policy: just add CEO. (Guardian)
Actually, with regard to the first part of this extract, this may be exactly what one should do.
- Civil servants, judging by various debacles over the years, seem to have been more infected with mediocratic ideology even than elected politicians. (This would seem to make sense, given that mediocratic ideology is largely a characteristic of the chattering classes, rather than of the electorate in general.)
- “Academic expertise”, in areas related to public policy, tends to mean little more than “expertise in expounding and interpreting the dominant ideology”.
- “Consultation” is often just a euphemism for putting a sheen of democratisation on a decision that has already been made by the people who matter. A good idea in principle perhaps, in an ideal world, but in practice usually a waste of everybody’s time, and dishonest to boot.
- What happens in other countries is of little help if the other countries are also sliding down the path of mediocracy, and referring to one another (selectively) for spurious support.
Whether the remedies proposed by chief executives are themselves free of mediocratic bias these days is another matter. Certainly when the exalted figureheads of large corporations, particularly from the financial and professional sectors, are called on to chair enquiries, the results usually seem remarkably reinforcing of the status quo.
On the other hand someone who, like Philip Green, has actually had to deal with the day-to-day realities of generating economic output, and in the not-too-distant past, seems more likely to have useful insights into how to run things efficiently than most people in Westminster today.
Whether such individuals go in for tax avoidance strikes me as irrelevant to the question of whether they have helpful ideas for getting out of holes. There is no published research supporting a link between talent and readiness to pay tax, even if one were to have any confidence in the conclusions of state-financed ‘research’.
As for the Beecroft Report’s suggestions, it is certainly easy to believe that the difficulties and risks currently involved in dismissing useless staff are a blockage in the pipeline, especially in a Britain in which one third of 9-10 year old boys are classified as “special needs”. How can employers hire those nice hard-working Asian and East European immigrants if they cannot fire the lazy natives?

• Among post-war British artists, I have a certain fondness for Howard Hodgkin, designer of the swimming poster for the London Olympics. His Rain (formerly viewable at Tate Britain, but currently — like many of Hodgkin’s works — not on display) is particularly appealing, managing simultaneously to convey coolness, melancholia and optimism.
(Note to Nicholas Serota: isn’t it time to give Hodgkin a bit more prominence? Not that I’m a believer in art by democracy, but I think one might well find that more people enjoy looking at his works than at, say, the Chapmans’. Online is never going to be the same as live, even for two-dimensional art.)

• That Facebook wants to ‘help’ you donate your organs to the medical mafia does not surprise me much. With their matching levels of respect for privacy and the individual, the two parties seem to have been made for each other. Catch you later, douchebag. (Or whatever the friendly greeting between young Americans is these days.)

• Hearing that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was once again trotting out his well-worn noises about the evil bourgeoisie hogging everything, I checked to see what had triggered this. It appeared there had been an “independent review” of social mobility. That could be interesting, I thought, if it is really independent. Perhaps for once a small degree of critical analysis would be devoted to the concept of mobility and the philosophy behind it, along with the usual homilies. My heart sank slightly as I thought of it being chaired by some state-financed academic, who would be sure to have a leftist bias. But perhaps not, I admonished myself; there are still, after all, a tiny but non-zero number of academics who are not married to leftist ideology. Also, even the most left-leaning academic might feel it incumbent on him to mention a few of the limitations of that kind of analysis, inevitably involving normative [4] assumptions that are ultimately a matter of subjective preference. Excitedly, I looked to see who had chaired the review. It turned out to be someone called Alan Milburn. The name rang a bell, but I had to check Wikipedia. Imagine my disappointment and, indeed, disgust, to discover that the “independent” reviewer was a former Labour minister. Really!

• If anyone is genuinely interested in having an independent review of social mobility — which is unlikely given that those interested in the concept almost invariably have fixed ideas about it — they should engage us (Oxford Forum) to conduct it.

4. Although the link here takes you to Yahoo (the answer is B), the question comes from Texas A&M (number 5).

• The other day we were accused of (complimented on? it wasn’t clear) being a “right-wing think tank”.
But if we are right-wing, how come we are never referenced by mainstream media folk of a rightist persuasion? Including those who claim to be committed to the defence of traditional values and/or civil liberties (and not merely, we are to suppose, their own careers), and who bewail the dominance of leftist ideology and culture. How terrible, these flag-wavers cry, that there is nothing to rival the pro-intervention, anti-British, anti-conservative bias of the cultural establishment; but they would not dream of sullying their columns by mentioning a suppressed research organisation, especially not one which might generate potential competition for them. Despite their moans about bias, these people evidently have no sympathy with those who have been excluded from the system, preferring — like everyone else — to play safe and stick with their establishment friends. (In their case, in the minuscule portion of the cultural arena reserved for the Right, a sort of heritage centre cum retirement home for the old guard.)

No, it seems reasonable to assume that none of the mainstream clubs recognise us as one of their own. We are non-denominational and non-conformist, in a world where intellectuals have largely become like football supporters: atheists, evangelists, Muslimists, interventionists, authoritarianists, warming fanatics, warming deniers, paranormal believers, paranormal despisers, and so on.
In any case, we are not a think tank. We are an incipient university, with the standards that academia used to have.

• I do not think of this blog as right-wing, though others may. If I had to file it under anything, it would be under {critique, genuine}. This in contrast with {critique, phoney}, meaning the kind of critique you currently get from the cultural establishment (e.g. Britart is “challenging”, literary theory is “deeply questioning”, contemporary sociology “analyses prejudices”), in which the original sense of the word critique has become inverted.

If the Right were dominant, I would probably be writing material which would get labelled as left-wing. However, to pretend the cultural landscape is not at present utterly dominated by leftist sentiment (pro-state, pseudo-egalitarian, anti-capitalist) is just silly. The fact that such sentiment tends no longer to be referred to as leftist is merely a sign of how hegemonic it has become.

• I suppose it is only to be expected that one should be labelled as right-wing. A consequence of it being tacitly accepted that anyone inside the system is automatically left-wing is that anyone outside it, and critical of it, must be right-wing. What other explanation could there be? Surely it cannot be the case that the entire system — or at least the parts of it that are dominant and therefore the parts that matter — is intellectually flawed and biased, and that the outsider is the one who is being objective?

Regrettably, there seems to be a hard-wired cognitive bias which makes the latter hypothesis almost impossible for most people to entertain. Whole semi-intellectual professions (e.g. banking) may turn out to have been knowingly operating on obviously dodgy assumptions. An entire supranational government structure may emerge as the crazed architect of a currency system clearly scheduled to lead to eventual economic disaster, generating misery for millions. Nevertheless the average person will continue, instinctively, to presume that a class that is large enough and which carries the insignia of social status cannot be wrong, and that a small group of critics — isolated, and despised by the establishment — cannot be right.

I am an unsalaried academic. Like my colleagues at Oxford Forum, I am excluded from the present academic system because that system primarily rewards vacuous reproduction of stale paradigms and ideologically palatable theories.

I am therefore unable to write in detail about intellectual issues to which I could be contributing, and have to limit myself to brief blog comments on topics of interest to the general reader, while I struggle to support myself and my fellow outcasts.

If you have visited this blog more than once, could I suggest you make use of the Oxford Forum donation button located in the sidebar. Three percent of gross income seems like a reasonable minimum, and something over £1000 looks like you mean it.

Donations help to support the work of my colleague Dr Celia Green, one of the few female geniuses there have ever been, and at present scandalously ignored by the intellectual establishment.