AHRC and ‘Big Society’: What’s the story?

There has been lots of comment about the story in yesterday’s Observer suggesting that the AHRC had been ‘ordered’ by the government to fund research on the Big Society in order to secure it’s funding settlement. Lots of complaints, lots of gnashing of teeth about infringements of academic freedom, the erosion of the Haldane Principle, and the like. But something about this story doesn’t quite ring true. Firstly, there is an odd delay involved – the Research Councils received their settlements before Christmas, when they published their Delivery Plans. So why it took humanities scholars so long to notice the substance of the AHRC’s delivery plan is a little unclear. Second, the agendas around community, cohesion, fairness, and the like are not new, post-election issues, and nor is the impact agenda – again, it seems like some people haven’t noticed the general drift of funding policy which has been going on for a while. 

But the main thing lacking from the discussion I’ve seen so far is any acknowledgement that the ESRC’s delivery plan hardly mentions the Big Society at all – one mention, in passing. The relevant ‘priority’ area is dubbed ‘A Vibrant and Fair Society’. Now one might suppose that the social sciences would be more likely to be targetted to deliver research knowledge on the Big Society if there was such a coordinated intent by ‘government’ – the difference between the two Research Councils in this respect seems to suggest that this might be about the internal decisions at the AHRC, who reject any suggestion of undue influence. One might still bemoan the fairly brazen aim of the AHRC to ‘contribute’ to ‘government’s Big Society initiatives’, without having to buy into the idea that this reflects an inappropriate meddling by politicians. The credulity invested in The Observer story seems to indicate a naivety on the behalf of some academics about how research funding does work, and specifically a lack of awareness amongst people in the humanities about just how proactive the arts and humanities bodies have been with ‘instrumental’ agendas of public engagement and impact for some time now

A couple of final thoughts. First, isn’t this a story about the way in which University issues are reported, which might be a matter worth discussing in more detail. And second, what would be so bad with funding research on ‘the Big Society’ – wouldn’t that be an opportunity to do lots of research on Alinski, the histories of mutalism and co-operatives, the relevance of inequality to civic participation, and the like?

Oh, and where I live, of course, the Research Councils are one of the major public sector employers in town, after the Borough Council and the NHS, suffering like the rest of us from funding cuts and efficiency savings.

Big Questions for the Big Society

The New Economics Foundation has a new paper, trying to provide a left-inflection and critical redemption to the Big Society concept. It’s interesting not least because it indicates the degree of overlap between this notion and the sorts of ideas around The Good Society developed by Compass and others – and is an attempt too to identify some fundamental differences.

Vote early and vote often

The response to the election of Ed Miliband as new leader of the Labour Party was interesting not least because it was the occassion for various commentators to articulate their views on what counts as properly ‘democratic’. Julian Glover is The Guardian‘s resident apologist for the coalition, in the sense that he keeps writing these pieces which try to articulate the idea that the coalition reflects some sort of ‘intellectual powerhouse’ rather than, say, a political deal (what would be wrong with admitting this?). Today Glover came up with a very weak argument against equality, on the grounds that any argument which prioritises this value “overlooks the possibility that the actions needed to compel equality may be seen as unfair by those who do not benefit from them”. Er, yes, I suppose they might. This might be true of people earning lots of money who don’t want to pay higher, progressive taxes, just as it might be true of white South Africans benefitting from apartheid who might not have welcomed the onset of a new democratic dispensation. Glover goes on to claim that “An equally valid idea of a fair society may be one in which people are given the space and the right to strive for inequality: advantage achieved by their own efforts”, and then admits that this might all sound “horribly right wing“. It actually just sounds a bit dim (not much intellectual power-housing going on in this sort of argument), although it is certainly provocative to read Glover at the moment because he seems to be trying to articluate a kind of Nozickian-style hyper-individualistic take on coalition spending plans as not just unfortunate necessities but as positively welcome. Each to their own, I suppose, and Glover’s perspective does at least have the advantage of suggesting that ‘the Big Society’ idea at least has some intellectual substance to it compared to what passes as ‘orangist’ Liberal Democract thinking – it reminds one of how far the Big Society narrative departs from a fully-loaded ‘liberal’ individualism of the sort ascribed to ‘Thatcherism’, how far Cameron’s rhetoric for a long-time has been geared to transcending the burden of ‘there is no such thing as society’, and how far the Big Society is properly part of a ‘conservative’ tradition of thought with some intellectual weight.

Anyway, where was I? A few weeks ago, Glover described Ed Miliband’s victory as ‘peculiar and undemocratic’, without quite explaining why. It might have been peculiar, certainly, in so far as electoral college arrangements always generate some oddities; but the ‘undemocratic’ charge seems peculiar itself. Firstly, Ed Miliband won within the rules, of course, which no one contested. Secondly, though, the results indicate that Ed Miliband would actually have ‘won’ the election on just about any electoral system one can think of, if the ‘bias’  built into the unequal loading of the three-way division of the electoral college system between Labour MPs and MEPSs, party members, and members of affiliated organisations is lifted and one only looks at total number of individual votes casts for the Labour leader: he would have won under a first-past-the-post system counting first preferences (the system the Tory party uses); and he would have won under an alternative vote system which counted each indivual vote cast equally too (the system the Liberal Democrats use). It was only close because the votes of those individuals most likely to vote for Ed Miliband were systematically discounted in the electoral college system – quite legitimately, of course (the real issue in all this is whether one thinks trade union members should be enfranchised in this particular electoral system; and more broadly, this episode exposed the deeply undemocratic attitudes of many commentators to the position of trade unions in functioning liberal democracies).

Anyway, somehow Glover’s hyper-individualism seems connected for me with a certain sort of self-righteousness that is associated with current arguments about electoral reform, in which it is widely presumed that proportional representation is the preferred ideal against which any other alternative voting system is an unfortunate, temporary compromise. But what if PR harbours a horribly thin, de-racinated conception of political life, in which all that matters about politics is being counted as an individual bearer of opinions? There are other values worth considering, and across the spectrum from Tory (and not so Tory) worries about representing geographical communities to genuine concerns about accountability and efficiency, these seem worth acknowledging. I have always had a soft-spot for electoral geography, a much maligned field which actually has really interesting things to say about the politics of Politics, and one thing this field reminds us of is that ‘choosing an electoral system‘ is always a thoroughly interested, grubby, political act. We are about to experience, in the UK, at least 9 months of public debate about the fairness of different models of voting, and it will be interesting to see which democratic values are given most prominence as we publicy learn more about the pros and cons of different voting systems – the deafult assumption of ‘proportionality’ bundles up just some of the relevant values, certainly, but while it appears to be intuitively the most ‘fair’, it also tends to cover a series of mathematical problems which means that no purely proportional system is really possible, and might even mean that any imaginable democratic system must always contain an element of electoral dysfunction. The point of all this, I think, apart from any interest one might have in social choice theory or rationality, is that the mathematics of democracy reminds us that there is always a politcal, normative excess in any discussion of ‘fair’ procedures of the sort to which we are about to be subjected. Let’s see how much of this excess is allowed to be clearly articluated these next few months (this excess is precisely why elections are the place where the ‘the political’, in the sense this idea is conceptualised by post-structuralists like Mouffe or Ranciere, is routinely exposed and made public).

And, on a sort of related issue, there is a new podcast interview with Michael Dummett, on Frege, on philosophy bites. Dummett is one of the grand old men of English-language, Analytical philosophy, but kind of interesting despite that (!) – an anti-racist campaigner (who has reflected on the relevance or not of Frege’s anti-semitism for interpreting his philosophy), and author of an important theory of voting in precisely that same tradition mentioned above. A different model of engaged intellectual from the one we have inherited from the ‘Coninental’ tradition.

‘Big Cuts, Big Society’

My colleague at the OU, Nick Mahony, has just posted an invite to contribute to a new blog hosted by the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance (CCIG), discussing ‘the politics of the present’, focussing initially on the theme of ‘Big Cuts, Big Society’ – see: http://www.open.ac.uk/ccig/dialogues/blogs/big-cuts-big-society

Does size matter? Beyond ‘neoliberalism’

I attended a day-long seminar this week honouring the work of my colleague at the OU, Janet Newman. One theme of the day was how to understand the new political context in the UK, one of impending public expenditure cuts, lots of talk of ‘The Big Society’, and the coalition stoking ‘blame the poor’ rhetoric to justify fundamental restructuring of welfare regimes. What struck me over the course of the day was how the task of grasping this new political ‘conjuncture’ remains horribly constrained by the inherited academic conceptualisation of ‘neoliberalism’ that has held such sway over the last decade amongst critically-inclined, lefty social scientists [and critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization are very much a product of the 2000s, something which itself seems worth reflecting on – as simple descriptive term, ‘neoliberalism’ has been around a long time, and we all know what it means – but the formalization of grand explanatory theories around this name seems a much more recent phenomenon].

Amongst those who pioneered the development of theories of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, the new situation post-2008 has already been dubbed ‘postneoliberalism’. This is hilarious in its own way, but it is in line with a longer tradition in this neo-Gramscian strand of thought of always ensuring that any awkward real-world facts are rapidly taken to confirm the basic understanding of neoliberalization as involving a straightforward shift from ‘state’ to ‘market’. My favourite example of this theoretical sleight of hand is the conceptual distinction between roll-back and roll-out neoliberalism, as a way of suggesting that even when states were being expanded into new areas and government expenditure was growing, this was all still an expression of logics to reduce the state and expand markets – I have discussed the ways in which strand of theory retreats from serious social theory in an essay on publics and markets published earlier this year. Postneoliberalism as a term seems to acknowledge that something might have changed in modes of economic governance over the last couple of years, but that ‘post’ ensures that the basic understanding of neoliberalization in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s remain intact. Perhaps we should just describe what we are about to experience in the UK as ‘roll-back-again neoliberalism’.

One notable thing about these Marxist accounts of neoliberalization is the way in which they hold to the same zero-sum understanding of the relationship between markets and states that one can find in classic right-wing, conservative and monetarist thinking. Aditya Chakrabortty noticed in The Guardian this week how George Osborne’s account of the deficit crisis revolves around the rhetoric of public sector borrowing ‘crowding out‘ private sector activity, in a direct echo of high monetarist theories of the 1970s and 1980s. But what is noticeable about debates which revolve around the size of the state, shrinking public spending, or the Big-ness or not of Society is precisely how they all revolve around the idea that it is the size of the state relative to markets and ‘civil society’ that most matters. But as Raymond Plant observes in his new book on The Neo-liberal State (Oxford University Press, 2010),  if it makes sense to talk of a neo-liberal political philosophy then not only should this be seen as first and foremost a theory of the state [one which privileges a particular account of the rule of law], not a theory of markets as preferable to the state, but in this strand of thought [in which Oakeshott is as important as Hayek, and Friedmann hardly figures], it is not the size of the state that really matters. It is the character of the state, specifically with regard to the attitude to pursuing putative common goals, that matters most.

The point of all this is to suggest that in large part, the politics of deficit reduction, public sector austerity, and welfore reform under politically conservative regimes, now as in the 1980s, in so far as it does indeed revolve around understandings of the optimal size of the state, is probably not best seen as a simple projection of a single coherent ‘neo-liberal’ programme of the sort imagined by Marxist theorists. Of course those same theorists would acknowledge all this under the sign of ‘contradiction’, but this is really just a cover for the intellectual blinkers which enable any and all counter-evidence to be subsumed into a morally coherent but empirically immunized narrative of neoliberal ‘hegemony’.

One cost of the hegemony of these theories of neoliberal hegemony amongst leftist academics is an inability to think seriously about what markets might be good for, two decades after the flourishing of debates about ‘market socialism’. Of course, there is plenty of interesting work, mainly from economic sociologists, which provides much more pluralist accounts of the intellectual agendas often subsumed beneath the term neoliberalism – Marion Fourcade‘s work on professional economics, for example; or Viviana Zelizer’s challenge to the anti-market moralism of Polanyi, which is so important to critical theories of neoliberalism (see Phillipe Steiner in Theory and Society, (2009) Volume 38, Number 1, pp, 97-110). But this work does not, of itself, challenge the chilling effect that Marxist accounts of neoliberalism have, certainly in the academic fields I have been circulating in over the last decade, which continue to press any and all signs of pluralism and multiplicity into a singular narrative of complicity or selling-out.

What is most surprising about the continuing credulity extended to these critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization is these approaches actually display such a limited view of ‘politics’. Of course, these theories stake their primary claim on understanding neoliberalism as a political process, and also on uncovering this fact as itself a political gesture in itself. But this really just means that for these theories, ‘the state’  acts directly to secure the interests of Capital – either through policy and governance initiatives, in neo-Gramscian versions, or as purveyor of ‘ideology’ in David Harvey’s version. These theories of neoliberalism, which as I say flourished in the 2000s, are pale echoes of the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ developed by Stuart Hall amidst debates of the 1980s – this account was just one part of an extended attempt to grasp political change as embedded in broader socio-cultural as well as economic transformations. It was Michael Foot who once argued that the real author of the ‘neoliberal’ transformations wrought on  the British economy and British society in the 1980s was not Thatcher, Hayek, or Friedman, but Enoch Powell (Foot’s good friend), principled defender of sound money and fiscal prudence as well as populist race-baiter. Powell hardly features in the narratives of neoliberalization developed by Marxist and Foucauldian theorists, and not the least reason for this is that these approaches have little feel for the contingencies of political process: they either present policy-centric visions of the unfolding of neoliberal logics, or stress the contingent outcomes of technological devices and assemblages. Neither has any feel for the broad sense of social change one finds, for example, in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, or Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out. These aren’t ‘theory’ books of course, but in reconstructing the turbulent crossings of conservative, radical, individualistic, anti-authoritarian cultural politics in the 1970s, they succeed in unsettling critical narratives of neoliberalization. At the very least, they suggest the need to think more seriously about the possibility of popular neoliberalism, with all the unsettling implications this notion has.

Theories of neoliberalism have, indeed, had a chilling effect on critical social theory over the last decade, ensuring that attempts to acknowledge the determinate effects of other processes in shaping political outcomes and possibilities is always swamped within a discourse of complicity and hegemony. Notions of ‘postneoliberalism’ are just the latest efforts to maintain this grip by seeming to acknowledge change while putting beyond criticism previous formulations of neoliberalism and neoliberalization. Perhaps it’s time to recognise that one reason it is so difficult to think about the politics of the current conjuncture is precisely because this style of thinking, which continues to serve as the horizon for these efforts, has never been able to think seriously about politics in anything other than highly scholastic terms: as an effect of policy, an expression of intellectual programmes, or as a process of ideology.