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.
If you'll excuse the Krapp's Last Blogpost splintered chronicity, I wrote a blogpost just before Christmas, which I then opted not to publish, on grounds that it was even too pretentiously curmudgeonly for me. 'How the hell can that be?', you ask. I guess I felt it was just a little too sneering at the simple pleasures of life, or maybe a little too moralistic. But then I read Kate Crawford's excellent essay, The Anxieties of Big Data, and wondered if I'd actually had an inadvertent whiff of the zeitgeist after all. As she articulates it there:
the rapid rise of the term normcore is an indication of how the cultural idea of disappearing has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become almost impossible because of big data and widespread surveillance. Blending in gives you a particular kind of power when standing out means being put on the no-fly list for 10 years or a predictive-policing heat list in Chicago, or earns you a chilling anonymous SMS for attending a street protest in Ukraine.
So anyway, written on 23rd December 2013, with slightly 2013 cultural reference points to boot, below is the blogpost...
I've not read Jonathan Franzen's unusual-sounding annotated translation of Karl Kraus, other than the Guardian excerpt. Most of the reviews were flatly negative, although a couple - especially in the London Review of Books and The Point - have painted a more complicated picture, of a man (Franzen and/or Kraus) so deeply involved with himself, that misanthropy becomes a badge of honour, and anthropos returns the complement. Unattractive, certainly, but in a whole-hearted way.
Franzen deserves some respect for striving to live according to Krausian, Frankfurt School principles, rather than simply enjoying his fame. I remember at the time being thrilled to discover the character Chip in The Corrections, who was earnestly ruining his youth through imbibing too much Adorno, and reminded me of me. Franzen later reported that the character was based on himself. I worked out how to emit the Adorno I'd ingested soon afterwards, and was relieved to discover that it wasn't too late to still enjoy life. Franzen appears to be staying the course.
The problem with Franzen, and the Frankfurt School legacy for that matter, is the blanket rage against modernity in general. Antipathy to modernity today surely cannot be the same as antipathy to modernity in 1940 or 1910. And if it appears that way, then that raises as many psychoanalytic questions about the rager as it does political or sociological questions about the object of rage. Franzen throws everything into a basket called 'modernity', then screams at it. Couldn't there be something more targeted than this?
Recently I've been thinking about one particular problem that confronts pessimistic critical theory today, namely the tyranny of quality. Romantics and modernists have historically been more concerned by the threat of quantification and measurement, as effected by bureaucracy, markets, positivist science, accounting, deductive scientific methods. But algorithms, Big Data and their penetration into everyday life mean that, arguably, it is quality that is now the more disenchanting force. Consider a critique that went as follows:
Against quality, against aesthetics, against taste. Against things and people which are differentiated from everything else, in ways that are subtle though still painfully obvious. Against 'high quality produce', which no longer admits to being a luxury, and against things which are simply 'good' in an unquantifiable-yet-tweetable fashion. Against 'good coffee', and knowing where to find it. Against 'good writing', and the assumed right of The New Yorker to set the benchmark for what that consists of, with its jaunty conversational tone, as perfected by Malcolm 'these-aren't-arguments-they're-just-stories, these-aren't-stories-they're-just-sentences' Gladwell. And no more 'good wine', thankyou very much. I'll take some stupidly expensive wine, which announces its own price with capitalist vulgarity, or I'll have a bottle of Jacobs Creek. I'll do the usual second-least-expensive wine on the list, but refuse to be dragged into the murky world of £17-bottles. Sell me the most average meal you've got, please, where the price and the product are transparently related, and uncluttered by intangible value. By all means make things 'by hand', if that's easiest and most efficient for you, but do I really need to know about this? And frankly, whether the chicken that laid my eggs is locked in a crate or has been given roaming rights over the entire county of Dorset probably isn't the most important issue facing any of us right now. Against having a 'favourite place'; you're an adult, you can put up with shit. Lets celebrate 'the price of everything and the value of nothing', if that means flying in the face of the faux-Edwardian bushy-beard brigade. Against the elevation of Manhattan psycho-geography to the algorithmic principle for touring any city in the world, with no difficulty at all. Visit McDonalds and enjoy the sameness. Be average. Be monetary. Look the same. Against quality.
It goes on like that, in similarly angry Franzen-esque tones. Now, sociologists will say 'Ah, so you've read Bourdieu's Distinction', and clearly the critique of bourgeois taste has a rich Bourdieusian tradition. But something has changed since Bourdieu wrote that in 1979, in the capacity of quality to be administered and delivered in a scientific fashion. Market research first began to break 'the public' down into segments (crudely at first) in the early 1960s, and ever more exactly over the 1980s and 90s. The rise of digital loyalty cards gave a hint of how much more exactly people would soon be profiled in terms of their tastes, before algorithmic analysis of internet-generated Big Data developed over the 2000s.
Bourdieu was still looking at a social world organised via statistics and horizontal stratification (class). Such a world can only be chopped up in relatively simple ways, such as the marketing niches of A, B, C, D and E. In contrast, I heard that Tesco Clubcard generates 18,000 consumer segments. This is not the same as treating everyone as individuals, but to all intents and purposes it is. Not only does it feel like being treated as an individual (which of course is its holy grail), but the quantifications and measuring devices at work are entirely secret. Keeping algorithms secret is central to their cultural-economic power, which is the capacity to employ quantification in the service of qualification. Numbers have disappeared from view.
The critique of quality - it sounds better if we call it Qualitätkritk - is not simply the critique of quantity in disguise, as so much anti-gentrification, anti-consumerism, and general anti-post-fordism. It really is the critique of quality. It really is the demand that we cease investing political hopes in romanticism and modernism (and, it goes without saying, post-modernism) and get back to questions about sameness and averageness. Only by constructing new common measures, common currencies, common humanity, can the authority of financial money to commensurate all differences be challenged.
Alain Desrosieres work on the history of statistics is very instructive here. Desrosieres' central claim is that every measure, every form of aggregation (or disaggregation), has a politics to it. He shows how the statistical concern with the 'average man' in the late 19th century could be traced genealogically to a revolutionary and Rousseauian concern with the 'General Will' of a republican society. New techniques of cluster analysis emerged following World War Two, which were integral to the emergence of 1960s consumerism and cultural differentiation. And techniques that work with the logic of individual autonomy, such as social network analysis (on which social analytics are based), underpin the current political economy of the social world.
If we were to reinvent socialism, in any traditional sense, this would be achieved partly through the construction and legitimation of measuring devices, which treat all human beings as the same. The challenge is partly an accounting one. The fact that many people view this as gross conformity may be one reason why such reinvention remains unlikely. However, it is no good hoping for socialism, in any traditional sense, without also working on an argument in defence of averageness, in defence of mediocrity and in defence of fairly old-fashioned forms of aggreagtion. A critique of neoliberalism, with its obsession with 'excellence', must also be a critique of quality to some extent.
Unlike Franzen, I'm not sure I have the heart to go through with Qualitätkritk consistently. I like good coffee (actually, I prefer better-than-average coffee to good coffee, but that is also my taste). I enjoy wandering a city with algorithmically-determined serendipity. I also 'know this little place', almost as if by accident. But this, I think, is the nature of our current cultural-political predicament. We claim to dislike inequality, without noticing that when equality appears in the form of Nescafe instant coffee or an 'acceptable' comprehensive school, we turn up our noses at it. We claim to have had enough of the 'spivs and gamblers' in the financial world, without noticing that for the 75% of people who live predictable mainstream economic lives, neither filthy rich nor perillously poor, it is quality that entraps them and not quantity.
Will Hutton poses the not unreasonable question, why is it necessary for a CEO to earn 190 times the average wage? Of course it's not necessary, by any conceivable economic or psychological rationality. The logic of incentives doesn't cut it here, and has been heavily undermined by work in hedonic psychology and behavioural economics showing that relative changes in income are what matters, rather than absolute levels. And unless one subscribes to a 'war for talent' ideology, it's difficult to see how this is an efficient labour market, even if orthodox economics struggles to identify the precise ways in which it isn't.
So we have to view it as political, that is, CEOs are able to exploit organisational opportunities for rent extraction. That is scarcely very surprising. But I would go further, and suggest that it also has certain metaphysical-political elements to it, in which particular anthropological claims (namely that a minority of individuals have a freakish, inexplicable talent, making them incomparable to the general mass) and economic practices (salaries of 190 times those of the general mass) are constantly propping each other up.
Both of these have to be viewed as equally foundational. If rampant salary inflation were explained purely in economic terms, there is the grave risk (from the beneficiaries perspective) that it could be falsified using economic evidence, namely that these rewards don't translate into performance, as it is well-understood that they don't. It needs, therefore, a substrate which suggests that these people are not ordinary, culturally or anthropologically, and can therefore not be measured using the yardsticks familiar to the rest of us. They are exempt from ordinary modes of evaluation and criticism, indeed their leadership status makes them the authors of new modes of evaluation and criticism. Moreover, seemingly unjustifiable levels of income are then profferred as examples of how unusual these people are. The more they are paid, the harder it is to subject them to any public measure of evaluation, because the less they appear to be normal members of society, and the more they seem like an eruption of genius or glorious violence. They don't claim to have 'earned' their money, any more than Roger Federer claims to have 'earned' his back-hand; their money is one manifest symptom of how different they are from the rest of us, and must be tended accordingly.
In my forthcoming book, I suggest that Schumpeter is the key figure here. Through his emphasis on entrepreneurship, Schumpeter implicitly offers an anthropology of difference, that is, his economic theory rests on the assumption that there are certain individuals who do not or will not operate according to the same rules as everyone else. They are exceptional and amoral, transcending the norms and standards which the rest of us allow to constrain us. They produce the institutions of capitalism, while the rest of us inhabit those institutions. It stands to reason that only a very small minority can be classified in this exotic way.
While it would be a little unfair to represent Schumpeter as a defender of the '1%', he was undoubtedly a theorist of capitalism's dependence on unruly 'talent'. I try to show that there is a latent Schmittian political philosophy underlying the Schumpeterian worldview, in which a tiny minority take decisions, and the vast majority obey rules. The leader is sovereign, because he decides; the rest are not sovereign, because they obey. End of story. Schumpeter transposes this anti-normative political philosophy into the economic realm (Corey Robin makes a parallel case for other Austrian economists transposing a Nietzschean anthropology into the economic realm. One important difference, as the very impressive New Way of the World points out, is that for figures such as Mises, everyone can be an entrepreneur of some sort, not only those in leadership positions).
This isn't to suggest that we should let CEOs get away with this. Even on Schumpeterian grounds themselves, there is plenty of good reason to accuse them of behaving fraudulently: there is nothing very disruptive or heroic about financial restructuring, stock buy-backs and imbibing managerial fads out of airport books. More importantly, critique needs to work as hard as possible to extend public measures of worth to include this minority of self-identified 'exceptions', and drag them back into the public sphere. My point is simply that we should recognise what is for them a virtuous circle, in which extreme levels of material inequality can be used to indicate their unusual existential quality (for better or worse), and that unusual existential quality is the legitimating basis for further increases in wealth and income. Hutton is entirely right to pose the question, but until the Schumpeterian-Schmittian idea of exceptional individuals is also challenged (not only in business, but in culture, sport, politics and so on) the individuals concerned will be difficult to pin down critically.
An article I posted up here a while ago, 'The Tyranny of Intermediaries', has now been picked up like a vagrant, given a scrub, and generously published by Juncture, the ippr's journal. You can read it online here.
WashThe Free Dictionary: The Wash has a dredged ship channel that leads to King's Lynn. →
I've been reading quite a bit about the 'socialist calculation debate' over the last year. It's interesting how much it continues to shape present political dilemmas. The argument that Mises and Hayek put forward was devastatingly simple, and like all the most irresistable arguments, basically circular. This was that (I simplify further) even if a society did have a set of common needs, which the state or planning boards could efficiently satisfy, we would have no way of knowing what these would be, at least not in a complex, modern, industrial society. So the Rousseauian and Durkheimian idea of 'society', as a collective with a common interest, is left philosophically in tact, but technically unfeasible.
You can see shades of this argument in response to Ed Miliband's proposal to cap the retail price of energy. In a way, it's astonishing quite how much an outcry the policy provoked - but this is indicative of how deeply the Misean/Hayekian worldview has permeated elite policy thinking. Ultimately, Miliband was claiming an authority for the state that the vast majority of business leaders (and probably the public) no longer credit it with. As Philip Mirowski has repeatedly stressed in relation to neoliberalism, its core justification is epistemological in nature, hence the challenge to Miliband would be - 'who are you (or your regulators) to know what the correct price of energy is?'
This also relates to some of the most interesting analyses of financialisation and its limits. Greta Krippner's Capitalizing on Crisis is a superb analysis of why financial markets were given a free reign from the late 1970s onwards. Her answer, simply put, is that US politicians and regulators were tired of becoming embroiled in normative questions of credit allocation, on the back of the culture wars. The beauty of the market, from a political point of view, is not that it is necessarily efficient or optimising, but that it relieves public figures and institutions from having to take moral positions on things. It is a way of absenting oneself from a thorny normative issue. This is effectively what Mises argued right back in 1920, drawing on Weber. Krippner goes on to show how policy-makers never dreamed that the supply of credit would expand to the extent that it did (largely because nobody foresaw the US becoming such a massive net importer of credit), hence there was nothing deliberate about how financialisation worked out.
Another fascinating sociological analysis which suggests this is Martha Poon's study of the rise of consumer credit-rating, which was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition of the explosion in consumer debt from the 1980s onwards. It was due to liberal legislation passed by Congress in the 1970s, aimed at reducing racism by lenders, that automated, statistical techniques for credit-rating were introduced. The 'social' nature of banking was thereby replaced by an 'instrumental' alternative, which was ultimately more conducive to an explosion in credit and securitisation.
One thing which occurs to me, which I've not seen discussed (though I'm probably missing something here) is the very unusual solution to the socialist calculation problem offered by Keynes, which is still available to policy-makers. This is, effectively, that politicians don't need to pursue goals that people actually want, they don't need to know what people want or value. It is perfectly OK for states to do things purely for the sake of it, regardless of whether there is a need for them. Hence the famous Keynes quote about paying people to dig holes and then fill them in again, as a plausible way of getting an economy moving. Equally, there are some policies (such as HS2) for which policy-makers do not seem so anxious about their popularity. For those who understand macroeconomics (or claim to), this makes good sense. But the public cannot grasp it, and the Misean challenge returns.
In terms of post-neoliberal political economy, it seems to me that there are two alternative modes of valuation emerging, which challenge the authority of markets to settle normative and epistemological disputes (because it is, after all, their ability to settle such disputes which grants them their untouchable political status even amidst crisis, and not their alleged efficiency).
Firstly, there is the rise of 'wellbeing' as a new unit of calculation, which draws on medical, neurological, cognitive and behavioural analyses. By returning to Bentham, this directly contradicts one core feature of the neoliberal argument, that only prices are capable of calculating utility. I discuss this a bit here. Although there is some emancipatory and transformative potential buried deep inside this agenda, its popularity with global elites (it was a major feature of the 2014 Davos World Economic Forum) makes me doubt that it can retain the ability to challenge economic power. The concern with this concept of value is that it will be increasingly medicalised, and administered via new networks of quasi-medical, quasi-managerial expertise.
Secondly, more promisingly, there is the notion of 'life' as it is appearing in more critical policy discourses. This is as in 'living wage', 'cost of living' and 'livable cities'. Here it is the conditions of 'life' that are being demanded for all - energy, food, shelter, childcare and so on. Miliband is in fertile territory here, but is still largely stuck at the level of rhetorical attacks on predators. Interestingly, Oskar Lange (the leading opponent of Hayek and Mises in the debate) suggested that planning boards would collect information on 'life conditions', which would then be channelled into investment decisions and production. To my knowledge, and with the greatest respect to the New Economics Foundation who are typically excellent on this sort of thing, the Left of today has not yet set about building the valuation frameworks which would accompany the political rhetoric of 'life' and 'living'.
If I were Owen Jones, that would be where I would go next. Until measures, comparators and standards of valuation are available, which are not reducible to prices, then financial markets will continue to let rip, for the political reason that (aside from the Tories being effectively owned by the big banks) politicians lack the legitimacy to challenge their allocations. And where market mechanisms themselves manifestly seem to fail, elites have medicalised versions of the 'wellbeing' agenda ready at hand, to provide alternative forms of government. The challenge right now is to value life, but in ways that are neither price-based nor purely biological.
I have a book coming out in May, entitled The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. It's in the Theory Culture and Society series at Sage, which is exciting, as they've published some excellent books over the years. By way of a trailer, TCS have now published an interview I did with my colleague, Nick Gane, while I was up in York for Nick's excellent neoliberalism conference in July, and also made his and my neoliberalism articles free to download for the next month.
As part of my bumper Christmas giveaway, I've uploaded another unpublished article. I submitted this to Historical Materialism, shortly before the London Olympics, but it was rejected on the basis that, ahem, it didn't contain any historical materialism. Which seems fair enough, now I look back on it. If it wasn't so focused on the (then imminent) Olympics, I'd submit it elsewhere, but it's now too late.
The paper is called The Promises of Sport. It's an effort to locate and criticise sport within neoliberalism, in terms of the distinctive political logics that sport occasions and facilitates. As I explore, competition and competitiveness are critical political values under neoliberalism, which markets are only rarely able to exhibit, as corporate power increases. Hence sport comes to perform a key legitimating function, which markets as such (as opposed to market-like behaviour) are no longer able to.
Here is the abstract:
The neoliberal era saw rapid increase in the political and economic status of sport. Most empirical analysis of this phenomenon has sought to contain sport within prior theories of media, leisure or urban regeneration. But perhaps the relationship between neoliberalism and sport is more fundamental than this, and there are specific affinities between the two. The article identifies two ways in which sport and neoliberal politics have been mutually reinforcing. Firstly, sport acts as an icon for neoliberalism, highlighting the behaviours and moral visions that markets might once have exhibited, but no longer do. Secondly, sport acts as a potlatch for neoliberalism, providing a release for political sovereignty and executive decision, in an otherwise economised world. Now that neoliberalism has entered a state of existential ambivalence and with London’s Olympics approaching, we might also ask – what has become of sport and its fading promises?
There is a new edition of the ippr's journal, Juncture, out, featuring various very interesting-looking pieces. I have an article in there, 'Recovering the Future: the reinvention of 'social law''. The proper link to the article is here, but I've uploaded a pre-print of the article here.
At a fairly high level of generality, what I'm trying to argue in this piece is that political progress has stalled, thanks largely to the forces that are now known as 'financialisation', whose effect is to tie individuals and societies to past obligations, while certain elites reside in a somewhat separate temporality. And developing the germ of an idea contained in this blog post, I muse as to whether something like a 'social law' movement might provide a basis for renewed hope, in a society that has lost the confidence to reinvent itself.
If 'financialisation' means extending the constrictive elements of productive capitalism into the 'social' realm (via logics of human capital, investment and leverage, especially with regard to housing and education) a counter project would mean extending the liberating elements of productive capitalism into the 'social' realm. This is partly what social entrepreneurship is about, it seems to me - but that remains limited by certain regulatory and legal tramlines that have already been laid down. The challenge is to perform society differently, lay out new routes and possibilities. And it is law that traditionally has the greatest influence over collective routines and rituals.
Earlier this year, I wrote an essay, initially for The New Statesman, but which was then never published. Given that it's unlikely to find a home anywhere else, I thought I'd stick it up online as is. I've called it The Tyranny of Intermediaries. (If anyone would like to re-publish it somewhere else, please let me know). It looks at the problem of intermediary power within capitalism, that is the accountants, lawyers, financiers and consultants who are critical to making capitalism possible at all, but also act in their own private interests.
Here's a chunk:
Capitalism relies on its ‘interpreters’ and its ‘judges’. Between, say, a manager overseeing a company and a pension-holder receiving dividends from that company there is a long chain of intermediaries, each of whom subtly translates information as it is passed along. And decision-making by investors, consumers or employers is constantly dependent on the expert judgement of accountants, regulators and lawyers. Just as in a parliament or a court of law, acts of translating and judging carry huge public responsibility. If they become determined by the private interests of the interpretor or judge, then everybody else is in serious trouble. This is what has happened.
The credit-rating agencies have been roundly criticized, for being so seduced by the rhetoric – and money - of the investment banks, that they gave glowing endorsements to financial products that they scarcely understood. And public outrage with (legal) corporate tax avoidance has belatedly turned to the big accountants, who translate ‘profit’ into less taxable categories. But the power of these intermediaries is undimmed, because they are the facilitators of contemporary capitalism, and not ordinary participants.
One might argue that finance itself falls into this category, or should do, and that the tendency of politicians to view financial services as one of Britain’s leading ‘industries’ is dangerously misguided. Kill the car industry, and Britain shifts mournfully towards a post-industrial capitalism of retail, coffee and tourism. But kill financial and business services, with their codes, measurements and audits, and contemporary capitalism simply cannot proceed. Those who we depend on to carry out economic evaluations are placed beyond evaluation, or else the system collapses into infinite regress or relativism.