For those blissfully absent from the twitter-sphere, I have a new book out in May (and since you're such twitter refuseniks, you're probably still neurologically capable of reading such things). It's called The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing. It'll be available in most book-shops, and online via non-tax-dodging-bastard websites such as Housmans Online.
I will be speaking about the book at a few events over the course and May and June, including one or two in the US. I'll stick the dates for these things, along with other articles about the book in the list on the top right of this blog. So watch that space!
If death used to be a 'great career move' for rockstars - if only that were still the case - it is hard to escape the sense that being axed is now a 'great career move' for the mega-celebrities, who occupy the intermediary space between the secretive private jets of the billionaires and the spectacles of broadcast media and major sports. In the UK, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Pietersen are two examples of this. Jeremy Clarkson is clearly another.
These individuals represent a particular class of celebrity: hugely rich, 'talented' in the sense of willing to 'be themselves' in front of very large numbers of people (the opposite of how a great actor is talented), famous for going slightly too far, and constantly, maybe deliberately flirting with the possibility of being booted out. Their very identity as public icons resides in the fact that they pose a challenge to the primacy of institutions over individuals, goading institutions to assert themselves, in the sneaking suspicion that they lack the authority any longer. Behind them lurk a risible bunch of courtiers - Louise Mensch, Piers Morgan, Keith Allen-types - who are principally known as disciples of 'talent', and go around demanding that their chosen uberman be granted even more adoration. Alastair Campbell's new book sounds like an addition to this "always side with the big guy" vacuous philosophy.
In my book (now in paperback!), I suggest that our present political condition is one of 'institutionalised anti-institutionalism', manifest (for example) in the normality of elite fraud. Along with errant investment bankers, Clarkson et al are the ideological symbols of this, asking us to imagine a society in which the authority of the self were greater than that of any institution. Institutions - the BBC, the FSA, the ECB - have little choice to act in response, if only to prove that they still exist at all. However, they rarely come out of such confrontations with any greater authority, indeed the opposite is usually the case, given how much dirt is spilled in the process. Never mud-wrestle a pig, etc.
But I also wonder whether things like the Clarkson saga tap into our society's lurking fetish of exit. According to Hirschman's famous tripartite analysis, there are three types of mutually-understood power that exist within socio-economic relations. 'Exit', where a party asserts power, through the right to cancel a social relation, as manifest in the norms of the market (it is understood and accepted that I can constantly seek a better deal elsewhere). 'Voice', where a party asserts power through dialogue and participation, as manifest in industrial relations or corporate governance. And 'loyalty', which determines the extent to which individuals choose 'exit' or 'voice' (e.g. a 'loyal' customer could opt to 'voice' a complaint, rather than 'exit' in search of a better deal).
As markets become more powerful, so the ethos of 'exit' becomes more dominant. Figures who are perceived to have the latent capacity to leave - the super-rich, star footballers, productive and mobile industries, 'talent' - end up being granted greater 'voice', for fear that they may otherwise push off. They certainly end up being granted greater remuneration. So powerful has this ethic become (especially with regard to the ghostly notion of 'capital flight'), that few of these figures ever have to pull the trigger, and even if they pretend to (think of Wayne Rooney's 'move' to Manchester City, which resulted in his income going up by a few more million a year) it's usually possible to pull back from the brink. One of the great fears of the mega-celebrity is, presumably, that they will leave, and end up worse off. But for those who are given the boot, this is rarely the case.
This tedious game theoretical choreography is now a spectacle in its own right. Think of Theo Walcott's pathetic triannual 'negotiations' over his Arsenal contract. Think of how the risible disciples try to keep the drama alive, as in Piers Morgan's #bringbackKP campaign. For some reason, the news media plays along with it, powerless to understand or challenge the fact that this is simply a case of the Big Brother House, expanded to a multi-platform scale, beyond the limits of any individual show. The phrase "you're fired", uttered from the mouth of Alan Sugar, successfully converted enforced exit into something intriguing, spectacular, fun. Who's next? Who deserves to go? If even Clarkson can be axed, then presumably it could be any of us! How exciting...
Central to the drama of these individuals being axed, as opposed to leaving, is that it pushes authorities to the limits of their own market nihilism. The behaviour of Clarkson or, for that matter, investment banks, poses the question to institutions: what else is there, other than money? How else to regulate, if not in pursuit of filthy lucre? The axed celebrity typically makes more money elsewhere, and becomes more famous in the process. Hence, the whole event is really a cruder, televised playing out of Michael Sandel's philosophical debates regarding the moral limits to markets. Can the BBC really afford to lose Clarkson? What's the trade-off between punching someone and tens of millions of pounds? Maybe the Treasury Green Book can help.
For the most part, exit resides as a type of metaphysics, like the constant possibility of death. The existential facticity of our own deaths, which we either face up to or not, becomes the economic possibility of eventually cutting one's ties, or having them cut. And where religious rituals involve the playing out of death, via forms of sacrifice, so the spectacle of Clarkson, KP et al becomes a communal way of facing up to the inevitability of being dumped or doing the dumping. There is a catharsis going on. How else to explain the fascination with a borish middle-aged man being sacked for gross misconduct? Wasn't he the guy who used to drone on about how many miles-to-the-gallon you can get out of a Ford Focus?
What all of this ignores, including Hirschman's analysis, are the forms of exit which are silent, unseen and unjustified. I'm a privileged academic, but have a visceral memory of being marched off a site I once worked on as an agency worker, during an undergraduate holiday, by security staff who decided I'd stolen something (the managers all had their hands in the till, so picked off agency workers when it became too obvious). It was an exit of sorts, but it was a violent one: unjustified, unacceptable, based on lies, with no opportunity to contest the charge. One thing I remember about the experience was the silence as the security guard and I walked from the manager's office to the gate - it wasn't 'exit' in Hirschman's normative sense, but expulsion. I've no doubt that this sense of unpredictable threat is a common feature of working life for millions.
In our new condition of contingent neoliberalism, in which norms of fair competition can no longer be upheld, this is the sort of violent settlement that is being increasingly relied on. Punishment is becoming a normalised form of management and governance, and the question of 'justified' or 'unjustified' is cast aside. While the audience continues to obsess over whether the latest celebrity Christ figure should or shouldn't be axed, with the risible disciples chirping away in the background, for those elsewhere, 'exit' is turning into 'expulsion'.
I have a new piece in openDemocracy, exploring cultural and economic transitions, via the shift from a society of cigarettes to one of smartphones. Here's a chunk:
...on a deeper psychological and cultural level, the difference between these two framing devices could scarcely be more profound. This touches on the malaise of anxiety that has become the dominant psychiatric disorder of our age. While smoking affirms the limits of time and space around us, smart phones do precisely the opposite. While one allows you to spend a finite chunk of time in a given space, as a break from the flux of work or travel, the other connects you to a more complex and fluid world beyond your immediate situation.
As framing devices go, the smart phone suffers from the inherent problem that it is leaky. It is constantly connecting us to other times, other places, absent people, absent places, some in the future and some in the past. The selfie may seem narcissistic, but it is captured with the possibility of being seen by others who are not present (at least, not yet). If it is an expression of anything, it is one of paranoia: paranoia that human memory is no longer adequate for experiences, that one may be seen by others, that one may not be seen by others.
This is a restless condition. Where the cigarette allows us to (in the immortal words of Oasis's horrifically bombastic 1997 album) be here now, a smart phone allows us to do precisely the opposite. In this psychological sense, it is the very antithesis of a cigarette. The transition from the one object in our pocket to the other speaks of a more general shift in the character of capitalism.
In case I haven't already tweeted about it enough, I've been in the process of setting up a new Political Economy Research Centre (PERC) at Goldsmiths over the last few months, together with some great colleagues. PERC sits alongside our new heterodox PPE degree, which is currently in its first year.
You can read about our research ambitions and interests on the website. Hopefully there will be projects and publications to follow. In the meantime, here are two events that are open to all (registration via Eventbrite links is required), both at Goldsmiths:
I have a piece in The New Inquiry, entitled 'The Data Sublime', exploring the strange everyday appeal of technologies of surveillance and control. My tentative hypothesis is that there is something psychoanalytic going on here, involving the desire to be dominated by incomprehensible data analytics, which liberal assumptions about 'trade-offs' (between freedom and security, or autonomy and convenience etc) completely overlook. Here's a chunk:
The notorious Facebook experiment on “emotional contagion” was understandably controversial. But would it be implausible to suggest that people were also enchanted by it? Was there not also a mystical seduction at work, precisely because it suggested some higher power, invisible to the naked eye? We assume, rationally, that the presence of such a power is dangerous. But it is no contradiction to suggest that it might also be comforting or mesmerizing. To feel part of some grand technocratic plan, even one that is never made public, has the allure of immersing the self in a collective, in a manner that had seemed to have been left on the political scrapheap of the 20th century.
Contrary to the liberal assumptions of rational-choice theory, the place of digital media in our society seems less about enhancing freedom than helping us — in the words of the Frankfurt School psychoanalyst Erich Fromm — escape freedom. Fromm worried that individuals would flee liberalism for authoritarianism. The warm feeling I received from being driven through the dark as a child would have looked to Fromm like a primary ingredient of possible fascism, should a leader manage to rekindle that same emotion in me. Today, however, it is less charismatic autocrats that threaten to evoke this feeling than a web of largely incomprehensible technological infrastructure.
Common to both the charismatic leader and smart technology is their ability to evoke what Immanuel Kant described as the “sublime,” which, he argued, arises as a result of human cognition being utterly overwhelmed by an aesthetic experience. First we cower in terror, but then we quickly realize that everything is still okay. The discovery that the individual can survive, in spite of being overpowered, brings intense pleasure.
Every sector, every profession, which can plausibly lay a claim to the 'public interest', is currently resisting austerity in one simple fashion: claiming that by hitting the sector or profession concerned, the real losers will be the public. Ironically the one industry that is now the greatest recipient of public financial beneficence, namely financial services, seems to have lost all sense of the public ever having an interest in the first place. I guess that's how they achieved such an extraordinary level of political arbitrage in the first place. So more fool the rest of us.
The police are arguing that police cuts will leave the public unsafe. Local government is arguing that bins will go uncollected. The NHS is teetering in certain areas. Nobody likes to look like they're just performing self-defence. Academics can join in this game up to a point. But at the present juncture, why not also consider the gradual but unceasing psychological injuries that are performed by techniques of audit, when combined with shrinking budgets.
The suicide of Stefan Grimm, who had been given a grant-raising target by his university, followed by the story of Warwick academics put under similar pressure (told that their positions were now indefinitely "at risk" so long as they failed to meet financial income targets, via fiercely competitive grant contests - the technique of delayed adjudication well understood by Kafka), gives a sense of how governance functions in the current climate. In my own field, Copenhagen Business School, traditionally viewed as an oasis of non-instrumentalised, social democratic, critical theorising about economy, recently announced that 80 academic jobs will go, without even any formal criteria for achieving this. And of course I write this only a few hours before the announcement of the next Research Excellence Framework results...
But rather than seek the pity of non-academics for the strains that we now live with, perhaps a more publicly-oriented way of interpreting this is as an example of how neoliberalism and austerity work more generally. It seems to me that this rising level of unhappiness in this sector is, if not the goal of neoliberal governance, then certainly one of its most important tools. Put simply, if you want less people doing publicly-funded research, you have a choice: kick them off the payroll just like that (as CBS will have to do) or make the career increasingly painful until people leave of their own accord. For those viewing the world via a behaviorist lens, the latter strategy is the more attractive one.
It is well understood that neoliberalism and financialisation have their political origins in the turmoil of the 1970s, which is often understood as a surfeit of democracy or (as economists might put it) 'social demands'. Work by Greta Krippner, Martha Poon and others has shown how the rise of finance in the 1980s occurred quite surprisingly, as a result of politicians trying to distance themselves from awkward political choices about the allocation of credit and capital. Equally, one way of understanding the appeal of the Chicago School of economics in the post-Bretton Woods era is that it offered to de-politicise economic policy making, and turn it into a purely technical issue. When normative and social demands are in the ascendency, and trust in formal democratic process is in decline, something has to give: those demands can no longer be channelled effectively into the democratic system. They must either be channelled elsewhere (the market, lobbying, riotting, the private sphere) or they must be neutralised. Either way, politicians can no longer broker them, and nor do they wish to.
In my book, I describe neoliberalism as the 'disenchantment of politics by economics'. What's important to realise is that this doesn't necessarily mean replacing the state or democracy by the market. What it means is that processes traditionally left in the realm of politics must now be reconfigured in calculative, economically rational terms. Yes, you can carry on expressing demands publicly; but you must now do so in ways that makes the costs and benefits of your demand explicit. You are no less welcome to stage an opera, provide social care for the elderly or research ancient manuscripts, and these may indeed be matters for the state to support. Just as long as you can explain that in the language of economics. Utilitarianism, based upon audit, becomes the lingua franca of democracy. Those who do not wish to speak this language do not acquire full citizenship, in this post-1970s model of politics. On the premise that only economic discourse makes sense, the obligatory reframing of social demands in economic jargon aims to ensure that the bullshitters reveal themselves automatically. The problem is, that 'bullshit' by this standard includes basic human sympathy and commitment.
Just as clothing designers came to realise during the 1980s that people want the label of expensive clothes on the outside, the injunction of neoliberal politics is to keep the price tag on at all times. As I argued here, the real underlying phobia of neoliberal audit is that someone might be getting 'something for nothing' - and yet that is simply another way of describing a gift.
The accompaniment to this 'price tag' mentality is a behaviorist psychological paradigm, which assumes (quite wrongly much of the time) that this explicitness of cost and benefit is adequate to control how people are likely to behave. In truth, people pursue 'benefits' for all sorts of reasons, which are nothing to do with 'outcomes', especially in areas such as the arts or care services. And 'costs' are not always offputting, in activities that are supposed to be slow, like the law. But a form of psychological government emerges nevertheless.
Neoliberal audit is not a tool for shrinking the state in itself. On the contrary, it both requires a strong and interventionist state (imagine a genuinely liberal or libertarian state pulling off something like the REF, at a cost of £60m), and expansions in public spending are no doubt periods when audit is able to expand further. It was partly because Gordon Brown was willing to open up the public coffers from 2001 onwards that New Labour was also able to extend the demand for cost-benefit analysis and measurement. After all, people will become far more co-operative with audit culture when they think they're about to benefit. Money has a habit of silencing political doubts. So, arguably, the current politics of austerity is paradoxically dependent on the prior wave of largesse, because it is enacted via techniques of measurement and management that were only ever accepted as the quid pro quo for increased public spending.
Austerity therefore arises as neoliberalism's very own model of the Polanyian 'double movement'. First, splurge the public sector with money, but do so in a way that extends the iron cage of audit further into professional and administrative life. Second, pull back at great speed, using that same cage in order to do so in a way that can be justified. It's precisely this 'double movement' that a social democratic institution like CBS currently lacks: without an audit framework in place, senior managers have no rhetorical or technical basis on which to say who is the drowned, and who is the saved.
In the British context, life is somewhat easier for the Treasury, but the importance of 'governing via unhappiness' moves to the fore for the recipients of public money. No decision-maker really wants to get their hands dirty deciding who is worthy of public money and who is not (or not if they can avoid it). The function of competition, from a neoliberal perspective, is to save centralised politicians or experts the trouble of becoming imbroiled in normative or democratic disputes. It also allows the politics of austerity to be somewhat concealed. Every theatre or every university department in the country is welcome to continue as they always have done - but the odds of them succeeding in this venture are being progressively, deliberately cut, from each year to the next. Competitions for funding, in which everyone has a 1/20 chance of success, produce a society in which people are perfectly at liberty to remain with their cherished profession or vocation for as long as they like. It just depends on how long they can cope with the psychological torture and the feeling of earned failure. If, as a thought experiment, George Osborne had arbitrarily decided to close down Stefan Grimm's department for financial reasons, Grimm would probably still be alive. The audit + austerity model is, in some respects, crueller than what will take place at CBS, because it takes longer to achieve the same ends.
How does it achieve those ends? This is where the psychology becomes more brutal and realistic. The suffering that it causes people, through stress, guilt, self-blame, isolation from colleagues, is a way of reducing their desire to stick with it. This isn't a simplistic negative 'incentive' (like a 'cost'). This is just the plain fact that everyone has a limit regarding what they can tolerate (naturally, that limit also varies from one person or sector to another, another plain fact that is brutally seized by proto-Darwinist evangelists of 'talent'). George Osborne must know this, although it's not taught in economics. It is naive to suggest that Osborne 'has it in' for the humanities or legal aid lawyers or regional arts in any specific sense. He is simply heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest. Competition, Hayek tells us, is a discovery procedure.
From discipline to control
Audit hasn't always been a tool for the production of guilt and unhappiness. It can be a mechanism for public accountability (as it was when accountancy was still a profession), or, best of all, deeply funny, when it creates perverse incentives and laughable nonsense. One thinks of audit, traditionally, as something with a certain rhythm, which comes round every so often - as the REF does. It therefore has had the imprint of bureaucracy in the past, organisation man, discipline, routinisation, and so on.
However, when audit becomes married to rapidly shrinking budgets, and the continued use of planned competition to allocate those budgets, it shifts from a technique of discipline to one of control. The subject of audit shifts from seeking to meet a periodic target, to living with a constant sense of dread as to how things are currently going right now. The rise of 'real-time' indicators and dashboards (see this, for example, shared with me by Andrew McGettigan) becomes a more honest representation of how audit works, once firmly embedded in the logic of finance, rather than the less insidious utilitarian logic of cost-benefit analysis. The best summation of this situation is that provided by Gilles Deleuze in his famous 1992 fragment 'Postscript on Societies of Control' [pdf]:
In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factories), while in the control society one is never finished with anything... Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.
Happy REF2014, everyone, and solidarity with all those being forced to play competitive games they hate.
I strongly recommend the economic sociology blog, Estudios de la Economia, run by Jose Ossandon and Tomas Undurraga. One of the nice things about the interviews they publish is how they break the questions down, and upload each answer separately, meaning you don't have to dive into one vast hour-long MP3.
They've just published an interview I did with them a few weeks ago, discussing my book. It's the most theoretical and sociological discussion I've yet had about the book, and was provoked by some very sharp questions.
The LSE Impact Blog have been hosting a debate on the future of the social sciences, in anticipation of this event tomorrow evening, with Nicholas Christakis, whose article on the need to 'shake up' the social sciences made a bit of a stir last year. A more recent article by Amanda Goodall and Andrew Oswald lept enthusiastically aboard Christakis's bandwagon, from a British context.
The tenor of this debate irks me. It employs the rhetoric of 'modernity' and 'anti-conservatism' in a similar way to Tony Blair, namely, to back all critics into corners where they do not all justifiably belong. So I wrote this piece in response. The heart of my argument is this bit:
Goodall, Oswald and Christakis demonstrate scant curiosity about what the social sciences are, or where they came from. The unspoken implication is that they are simply a junior off-shoot of a naturalist project which began around the time of Francis Bacon. Is it not significant that they emerged in late 19th century Europe, in the context of the collapse of Victorian liberalism? Would it not be useful for one of their neuro-economists to know that the aspiration to ground decision-making in the physical body has been a repeated obsession of behaviorists over the past century, which has run into a pattern of familiar failures and crises during that time? Viewed this way, it might be possible to ask about the status of the social sciences in 2014, as something other than mere understudies to the natural sciences. A new form of ‘interdisciplinarity’, possibly a new vision of experimentation, may be the welcome result.
The difficulty is that this would involve placing demands on the natural sciences, as well as on the social sciences. And this seems to be the one thing that Goodall, Oswald and Christakis cannot countenance. The shared terrain rests on various acts of forgetting on the part of the social sciences (a forgetting of history, a forgetting of the reflexive nature of human beings), but no acts of learning on the part of the natural sciences. It involves no searching questions regarding the natural sciences – such as their status within the American military-industrial complex – but merely encouragement to the social sciences that they should become equally co-operative. Is this really what we mean by interdisciplinarity?
Head along to the LSE tomorrow evening to carry on the debate.