Roemer, Scanlon, and others remembering G. A. Cohen

Via Crooked Timber, here are some interesting comments and personal reflections on the legacy of G.A. Cohen from a memorial service held in 2010 – Roemer’s remarks are a neat little summary of the approach, and hang-ups, of ‘analytical Marxism’; Scanlon’s end with a really succinct, and quite telling comparison of two perspectives from which to think about justice and injustice, as a way of trying to account for Cohen’s seemingly odd, for a Marxist, insistence on thinking that questions of justice were not primarily about institutions (following Rawls), but about interactions between individuals (following, and critiquing, Nozick).

Book on Media and Democracy in Southern Africa

Here is an open access link to an edited collection of essays on Southern African media issues – it’s not a new book, it was published in 2001, but is now out of print, so one of the editors, Keyan Tomaselli, has made it available on the website of the Centre for Communication, Media and Society at the University of KwaZula-Natal.

Even though it’s now a decade old, and politics and media have both moved on somewhat, it’s still a valuable resource, not least as a model of a certain sort of scholarly experiment. It’s notable as a product of a genuine intellectual dialogue of scholars from across the Southern African region, not just SA, and indeed, of South-South dialogue, involving as it did scholars from Jamaica too – this is the sort of dialogue pioneered by the cultural studies centre in Durban going back to the 1980s at least.

It is the product of a workshop held in 2000 in Durban, at what I now remember as having been an interesting turning point in regional history: the Hansie Cronje affair had just broken, leaving South African public culture reeling it seemed, and the violent repression of opposition in Zimbabwe also kicked-off at just about this time – a number of those attending the workshop flew in from, or were deeply engaged with politics in Zimbabwe.

My piece in the collection is about broadcasting and telecoms policy in South Africa and the broader region, and issues of democracy and scale more abstractly. Those were the days.

New book by David Harvey: Rebel Cities

Between trying to take a day off and teaching overload (at the same time), I have been speed-reading David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, bought on a day out in Bath. I know, this is the sort of book you are meant to buy at Booksmarks or somewhere like that, but Bath is the closest place to where I live with decent book shops (Oxford doesn’t count, because it doesn’t actually have great bookshops, apart from Blackwell’s, and the OUP bookshop, both of which are more like academic libraries where you can buy the books, if you see what I mean).

The book is a collection of mainly recent pieces on urban politics, including a long essay on The Right to the City from New Left Review; the long, written-out-in-neat story of the ongoing urbanization of capital that underwrites the financial meltdown of 2007/8 which Harvey’s viral RSA animation lecture covered; and a set of pieces at the end reflecting on recent events such as the Occupy movement, London riots in 2011, and more interestingly, urban politics in Latin America.

It has some familiar limits, shall we say – an aversion to rights-talk when thought of as anything more than a convenient strategic fiction, and a simplistic contrast between ‘individual rights’ (not to be trusted), and ‘collective’ rights (more of these, please). And a tendency to defer the most pressing problems of political analysis to the field of concrete struggle (the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t feature in the index of this new book, which I thought was telling, until I noticed that the index only lists proper names of people and places and movements, which is a shame).

The two most interesting pieces in this new book are in the middle. A neglected essay, from more than a decade ago, analyses cultural commodities from the perspective of the Marxist conceptualization of monopoly rent. I think there is a lot of mileage to be had from this sort of approach, or at least I used to, when I thought more about these things (I think Nicholas Garnham had a similar line once), though it inevitably runs aground on the limits of an account of commodities that still invests heavily in the manly notion of value being derived from living labour in the production process (come in, Carolyn Steedman).

The other piece, perhaps the most interesting in fact, is on the concept of the urban commons. It’s a critical engagement with a notion that has become quite central to certain strands of contemporary left theory and politics, as both a ‘slogan’ and ‘ideal’ we might say. Philosophically, the commons has emerged as a kind of ontological security blanket for the revival of discussions of communism, a sort of immanent presence that just needs to be recognised and embraced – it is a weirdly post-political idea. Harvey suggests that the commons is always likely to be a construct of struggle and conflict, an effect of one form or another of exclusion or enclosure – he proposes the notion of ‘commoning’ as a practice to be analysed and encouraged. He also points out the degree to which the anarcho-inflection of this concept in contemporary thought systematically evades problems related to variations of ‘scale’ (a criticism which could be read, if one wished, as a surrogate for a much broader evasion of the problem of democracy in this style of leftist political romanticism). Harvey is rather sheepish in his suggestion that a little bit of hierarchy might be OK, although this is really just another way of saying that democracy is an art of governing, amongst other things.

Harvey makes use of the ‘conventional’ thinking of Elinor Ostrom in his discussion of the contradictions surrounding issues of commons, which is also refreshing, and another departure from the constrictions of the hegemonic account of this idea that draw on Hardt and Negri and others (he does not, however, go very far down the line of thinking about institutional analysis and institutional design that this reference point might open up). And there remains something rigid about Harvey’s understanding of ‘public’ attributes – public goods and public space are understood as gifts dragged out of ‘the state’ by class and other struggles, a sort of grudging background that might be actively, creatively appropriated by practices of genuine commoning (what Harvey describes as commoning in this respect looks a lot like authentic public action as described by Arendt, which is only to suggest that it might also suffer from some of the same problems as that description, not least a hint of an image of pure action freed of instrumental concerns).

[The baby’s just been sick, I have to pause].

In this account of commoning as the appropriation of already constructed background environments, Harvey’s critical reconstruction of the notion of the commons ends up, then, looking quite ‘conventional’ itself, although not necessarily in a bad way – whisper it, but there is a minor theme in Harvey’s work I think, behind the rhetoric of revolution, that sees left politics primarily in terms of seeking after more just, more equitable distribution of surplus in the here and now (and there’s no reason that this need not encompass more just relations of surplus production). The rhetoric of unified revolutionary transformation is in abundance in this book, certainly, but it is not really supported by an analysis of politics, culture and economics that has so relentlessly, over many years now, demonstrated the dynamics of fracturing, differentiation and contradiction that inhabit any and all forms of human action (the idea of revolutionary transformation might, it seems to me, if you’ve read enough of David Harvey as a geographer, be deeply antithetical to a geographical imagination). The ambivalent nostalgia for social democratic settlements, for failed Swedish promises of surplus transfer from capital to labour and the like, are testament to a radical politics of redistribution that seems unable to speak its own name – it’s present in Harvey’s book about the New Imperialism, and goes all the way back to Social Justice and the City. This minor key is that of a Polanyian radicalism, not a Marxist one.

Geographies of radical democracy

For anyone interested in this sort of thing, I have a new paper, co-written with Gary Bridge, just published on-line in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, which addresses how best to theorise about the relationship between democracy and geography. It develops the idea of agonistic pragmatism, and the notion of transactional space, and explores how the idea of ‘all affected interests’ may, or may not, provide the grounds for rethinking this relationship. It’s an attempt to expand a little the range of reference points, in geography and related fields, for discussions of ‘radical democracy’. You can access a pre-publication draft of the paper here, and the abstract is below:

“There is significant interest in democracy in contemporary human geography. Theoretically, this interest has been most strongly influenced by poststructuralist theories of radical democracy and associated ontologies of relational spatiality. These emphasize a priori understandings of the spaces of democratic politics, ones that focus on marginal spaces and the destabilization of established patterns. This article develops an alternative account of the spaces of democratic politics that seeks to move beyond the stylized contrast of poststructuralist agonism and liberal consensualism. This alternative draws into focus the spatial dimensions of philosophical pragmatism and the relevance of this tradition for thinking about the geographies of democracy. In particular, the geographical relevance of pragmatism lies in the distinctive inflection of the all-affected principle and of the rationalities of problem solving. Drawing on John Dewey’s work, a conceptualization of transactional space is developed to reconfigure understandings of the agonistics of participation as well as the experimental institutionalization of democratic will. The difference that a pragmatist approach makes to understandings of the geographies of democracy is explored in relation to transnational and urban politics.”

Local Politics VIII: School Daze

There has been plenty of news coverage recently about the progress of education reform in England, partly coinciding with teachers’ unions conferences threatening action in response to various policies introduced by Tory education secretary, Michael Gove. Not least, of course, the move to systematically transform the structure of public schooling via the Academies Act of 2010, through which schools have been bribed and/or bullied into converting to Academy status. The not-so-stealthy stealthy transformation of the governance of schooling is based on sheer theoretical and ideological prejudice, and is busily realising one of the longest standing aims of right-wing politics in UK, which is the removal of schooling from Local Authority jurisdiction.  

One aspect of the reporting of this process has been the repeated line about how Gove’s project has not attracted the same sort of attention, or opposition, as changes to the NHS. There might be many reasons for this, but one aspect of it might be to do with the ways in which different public services, through the very ‘materiality’ of the services involved, constitute the subjects of public services in very different ways – a theme of the work of my OU colleagues John Clarke and Janet Newman, for example. I wonder if school education, as a public service, doesn’t constitute it’s publics in very different ways from health services?

One of the lesser reported features of the Academy-led transformation of schools is the conversion of primary schools – only 5% of primaries currently have or are seeking Academy status, but that is likely to increase. The school our eldest child goes to, since last Autumn, is one of these Academy primaries. In Swindon, as elsewhere, you apply for a place in local authority schools about 9 months before your child is due to start. So we applied back in January 2011, for a place one of three local authority run primary schools. The closest one, the preferred one, is about 500 yards outside the back gate, is a resolutely middle-class school in a middle-class area, not great Ofsted report last time round. In between applying and being informed of the successful outcome, sometime this time last year, around Easter, the school actually decided, however these things work, to apply for Academy status, in tandem with (and thereby bolstering) the Academy application of the secondary school which is in the next road over from ours, the one-time Grammar school for Swindon. We only found this out sometime in the summer, when we began to attend the induction meetings for parents of new starters. I remember being told in a conversation with one of the Governors that this application did, indeed, amount to accepting a bribe, since the offer on the table at that point from the Government was that schools which applied would get lots more money, which would not be on offer if they delayed. As of 1st August, the school has been an Academy. It’s not clear, yet, what difference this makes – it hasn’t changed its admissions policies, for example, the most obvious change that the Academy policy now allows. But it’s early days.  

So, we find ourselves enrolled into a new form of public schooling, without being consulted, right in the middle of being involved in the process of, nominally at least, exercising a bit of school ‘choice’.

Meanwhile… the decision by the local council, Tory-led, to build another primary Academy not so far from where we live in the Old Town part of Swindon (the ‘old town’ bit refers to what Swindon was before the railway arrived, down the hill, in what became ‘new town), has become the focus of very intense local opposition.

The opposition to this decision has been led by residents of the immediate area around the site of the new school – located next to a local authority sports centre, opposite our local SureStart centre, on local council land. The campaign against the school focussed on issues of procedure around planning decisions, and took a while to catch the attention of local news or politicians. But it has now become a staple item in the Adver, and the local Labour party also caught on too. Despite letters and petitions opposing the new school, it received the go ahead before Xmas, and work has started on the site.

As a news story, however, the new school continues to generate news – it’s due to open in September 2012, so is likely to remain a news item until then, at least. On March 24th, the only news item in the Adver of any significance which was not related to Swindon Town’s day-out at Wembley the next day (oops…) was about the continuing opposition to the new school by local residents. One of the leading figures in the campaign is now challenging the leader of the Tory council in the upcoming elections.

The thing is… the central issue in the debate about the school, beyond the procedural issues involved in the decision, have revolved around the concerns of residents that the new school will create traffic gridlock and reduce green space. This is, then, a very local campaign, focussed on the concerns of people living in the immediate vicinity of the new school. These are not to be dismissed lightly – what has kept the campaign has going, and made it more than a merely local story, is the fact that it is another example of a pattern of cavalier decisions by the Tory council that appear to circumvent democratic norms, such as they are at local government level. But the fact that the new school is an Academy school, and as such is part of the wider Gove-revolution, this has not been much commented upon. This isn’t the issue, in this case of local politics.

The company setting up the new school, which also runs other schools in town already, is also the same company that runs the private nursery which we send our other child to – very good, very nice people (when we only had the one child, pre-school, she went to the Council-run nursery down the hill, also very good, very nice). Our decisions about school and nursery ‘choice’ have been based primarily, I think, on issues of convenience, constrained of course by a fairly limited set of options to actually choose from – nothing unusual there (although, surprise surprise, higher income level groups benefit more from proximity effects in school choice than others).  It turns out, of course, that the sorts of information that parents are meant to use to inform their choices on such matters might well be close to ‘meaningless‘ – according to academic research at least.  

The point of all this is to try to clarify something about how the constituencies of a public service like schooling are constituted. Our relationship to this issue is inevitably partial, mediated by our children; a while back, I knew very little about these things. The relationship of those opposed to the school is somewhat different, although it might overlap in some cases, but is primarily shaped by a very local ‘community of affected interest’, as they say. In neither case are the long-term, structural changes involved in transforming the governance and funding of primary schools, much less secondary schools, with all the attendant issues about inequality and social mobility, a felt concern of those people most immediately affected by these decisions to build new schools, or to convert the status of existing ones. Those changes are, literally, rather abstract, not only for those parents swept along by them like us, but also it seems for those involved in the real politics around school building in this area. In certain respects, education seems to me to constitute its public subjects very differently than do those public services associated with health care, for example – at once more partial, more selective, more inflexible, and more choosy than the subjects of health care, perhaps?