I'm speaking at this Conference on 9th February, 'Privacy, Equality and Security', being organised by UCL's Institute of Philosophy. I have a new set of ideas I want to try out, which relate privacy to a theory of what Michael Walzer would have to say about chavs. Find out more on the 9th!
I guess Davos occupies a reasonably significant position in what Thrift calls 'the cultural circuit of capital', indeed there's a quite entertaining chapter on it in The Cultural Economy Reader. But I can't help thinking that the event would be of far greater interest from an anthropological perspective than for any wisdom that was actually imparted about the state of the world economy. John Naughton points me to this preposterous piece of self-delusion, in which some journalist attempts to convince his readers that he heard something really really interesting at some techno-love-in, but can't tell us what it is. Whatever it is, I rather doubt that it actually revealed anything about the world. Surely the point of business get togethers is that, as long as everyone agrees that the world is changing faster and faster, that China is, like, really important, that new media is handing power to the people, and - most importantly - that this is the centre of 'the debate', then whether anyone actually has any valid information at all is really neither here nor there. As Wittgenstein pointed out, if I have something in a box and so do you, it
doesn't matter what it is or if it even exists, as long as we both
refer to it using the same word. Who amongst the assembled gurus and leaders would choose to release actual knowledge in the forum of a gift economy, rather than the marketplace?
On a vaguely related note, Fifty Lessons is another interesting development in the cultural circuit of capital, whereby someone has tried to commodify what was otherwise left in the form of a semi-public chat exchange. It's an extraordinary type of business service. To pay to listen to a business leader's words of wisdom isn't so different from phoning a chat line. I mean, how badly would things have to be going in your firm before you turned to an mpg of Bill Gates telling you that it's all about 'leadership' and 'investing in people', and paid for the pleasure?!
The conference I'm jointly organising on 6th March at Goldsmiths, Markets, Economics, Culture and Performativity, now has finalised agenda, which you can download here [doc]. There are lots of interesting papers, plus keynotes from Nigel Thrift, Fabian Muniesa and Phillippe Steiner.
My paper will focus on some preliminary analysis of interviews I've been doing with economic advisors, experts and gurus, across Whitehall and beyond, trying to explore how they use concepts such as 'market failure', 'market power', and the role this expertise plays within government. Email me if you'd like to attend.
As interesting as the new British Social Attitudes Survey is on the topic of privacy, surveillance and the like, it needn't take Immanuel Kant to point out one glaringly obvious feature of any debate that comes down to questions of rights versus democracy (though strangely Conor Gearty fails to point it out), namely that rights become more important as they become less popular, and not less. In a society or epoch in which surveillance lacks popular support, there is less work for rights to do, because there is less threat to minorities. However, in a society in which the overwhelming majority favour intruding into the lives of the minority, it becomes all the more important that there are laws preventing this from happening.
So the new BSA findings potentially strengthen the case for privacy, so long as one has some a priori commitment to minority rights in the first place. For anyone who lacks that commitment, no amount of quantitative data - not even 100% support from the populus - is ever going to be enough to convince them of the case for civil liberties, because principles are not reducible to political expediency. The fear is, I suppose, that this accounts for nearly everyone in public life (witness how the Information Commissioner is portrayed in policy circles as a crank), which might explain Gearty's resort to a more strategic approach.
It appears that Channel 4's troubles are not over, with twotabloids leading this morning with news of another piece of racist bile from a 'reality tv star' (or to be more accurate, a 'reality' tv 'star'). Enough neatly packaged outrage has already been vented on this - how comforting for all those baby-boomers in parliament and the media to be able to let off righteous steam in such low-risk circumstances - but I think there are two immediately obvious reasons why the men in the open-necked Paul Smith shirts might want to reflect that they had it coming:
- Channel 4 love to slap themselves on the back for pushing the boundaries of broadcasting, in some shallow pastiche of the avant garde. They brag about how well they've upheld their constitutional obligation to be fresh, 'cutting edge' and daring, without any apparent sense of where this is intended to take us. It's like a child behaving worse and worse, simply to get a rise out of their beleaguered parents. Finally, the child becomes such a pain in the arse that the parent wallops them, or in this case, various government figures. If your only goal in life is to unsettle people slightly, then you'll end up with a cross between Beadle's About and Richard Littlejohn, which is more or less the level that Celebrity Big Brother is operating on. You wanted radical? Well there's nothing much more radical than racism in the current media landscape.
- When Time magazine famously made 'YOU' the person of the year last month, which 'you' were they actually talking about? Apparently "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the
new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at
their own game, TIME's Person of the Year for 2006 is you." Stop it, you're making me blush. But this raises a similar problem to discourses of localism and decentralisation, namely that they are centrally conceived and controlled (I wrote about this here). The 'you' in question is Time magazine's definition of 'you' (and frankly, the description doesn't match anyone I've ever heard of, and I'm meant to know a bit about this stuff), rather than the millions of people who exist way beyond the cosy confines of Time's second person plural, who have no interest in the reins of the global media, and even less in framing the new digital democracy. I would like to think that Jade Goody is not typical of these millions of other 'yous', but I would hazard a guess that she is far more typical than Time's fictitious netizen. Perhaps Time could be a bit more specific next time.
A quick plug for Compass's new report out today, A New Political Economy (pdf here), for which I was a member of the working group responsible for developing and advising on it. The Guardian has covered it, and Larry Elliot has written about it. It's a bold and optimistic document, not least in resuscitating political economy as a political question at all.
Earlier today I, er, appeared (was heard? spoke?) on Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed programme on Radio 4, to discuss the role of the internet in contemporary politics alongside Andrew Chadwick. You can listen to the programme here - our bit kicks in around the 15 minute mark.
I have just experienced the joys of Downing Street 2.0 interactive e-democracy coolness. Yippee! Here's my first ever email to the Prime Minister:
I've just read the UN estimate that 34,000 Iraqi civilians died in 2006. I remember seeing an interview with the ferryman who was responsible for leaving the doors open on the Herald of Free Enterprise, on the day it sank. He reported that he had spent many months afterwards on the brink of suicide. Is the Prime Minister not in at least as severe a state of despair? He appears to be putting a brave face on things, to say the fucking least.
I was always a bit suspicious of these gimmicks, but now I see that they serve an excellent function for those wishing to hurl abuse into a cyber-black hole as a form of anger management. Cool!
The ippr journal, Public Policy Research, has its latest edition out looking at power with pieces by David Miliband, Andrew Gamble and others, and I've contributed a piece on the governmentality of New Labour. Introducing Foucault to a policy audience is a slightly perverse thing to do, and liable to create hostility and misunderstanding, but I've tried to draw on the Foucaultian understanding of power to demonstrate aspects of New Labour policy that I think are liable to fail even on their own terms.
In summary, my argument is as follows (email me if you'd like the full piece). Foucault demonstrates that governmental strategies of power have to pull in two directions at once. As the liberal state has shrunk over the past 200 years, opening up a new space of 'civil society' and 'economy', so a variety of governmental strategies have to extend into that space in order to regulate and produce it, such as welfare services, professional expertise, accounting standards and so on (this is the core claim of all governmentality research). Hence, although sovereign powers of violence become more restrained, governmental powers of calculation and control become more widespread. Foucault himself says nothing about whether this is good or bad, but simply maps it historically.
What I've argued in this piece is that New Labour's community-oriented, double devolution agenda starts to reverse this process. Because the creation of community is not a scientific project, there are very few governmental, calculative processes available to govern it through; there are no expert networks (give or take the odd social capital analyst) who will be able to produce community to the extent that Labour hopes, and so this policy becomes heavily dependent on traditional sovereign powers of surveillance and violence, that is, the police.
I conclude with what I thought was quite a neat analogy:
At present it is difficult to conceive of power being decentralised, especially in cities, without the constant presence of the state’s disciplinary and coercive functions. Marxists always believed that the passage from capitalism to communism would have a transitory totalitarian phase – ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – before power was devolved to workers councils, and the state would ‘wither away’. The Soviet Union proved unable to move out of this transitory phase. Will double devolution suffer an analogous obstacle, with communities never quite able to wean themselves off the supporting hand of sovereign powers? One solution to this is to include a more radical devolution of police and judicial powers to the community, a communitarian measure that might prove too illiberal for this government.
One welcome, if occasionally suspicious, aspect of postgraduate administration that I wasn't prepared for before I began my PhD is quite how many support structures there are in place for doctoral students. Not a week goes by without the offer of a discussion group focused on how to finish your thesis, top tips on how to manage footnotes, consultations on the quality of teaching, group therapy sessions on how not to lose the will to live, and so on. There is also the fluffier variety: the informal working groups and reading groups that the university actively encourages students to create and engage in.
And here's another example. LonDoc "is a magazine written by and for postgraduate researchers (PGRs) based
in and around London. It is published once per academic term (three
times per year) and contains articles written by PGRs of all ages and
backgrounds from a variety of disciplines in the sciences, arts and
humanities." How very cool and bottom-up!
Except not so cool or bottom-up when you notice the body behind it, the UK GRAD Programme, a government-funded body who operate with the grotesquely McKinseyite slogan 'dedicated to realising postgraduate talent'. These are also the people who send me junk mail checking to see if I'm OK and haven't gone insane.
What's behind all this - and to Goldsmiths' credit, staff there are open about it, lovable Foucaultians that they are - is the managerialist recognition that, 'if Britain is to achieve global competitivenezzzzz', it can't carry on throwing money at researchers who are liable to stare at their navels, listen to Joy Division and struggle to produce a PhD in less than 12 years. Value for money requires postgraduates to be active, sociable and happy, rather as Premiership football clubs try and force their young stars to get married and have kids as a means of keeping them out of Stringfellows and off the booze. So it is that it is virtually impossible to achieve isolation over the course of a PhD nowadays, which is certainly not something that I'm complaining about. But rather as Nikolas Rose argues, it is possible to identify the strategies through which we are governed, including those such as this one which co-opt our free will, without having to conclude whether these are good or bad.