The Performance of Pensions

The current dispute in UK universities over the future of the pension system for University staff has been the occasion for much solidarity and comradeship – publicly on picket lines, through teach-outs and on social media, and I suspect also more private, care-full channels of support and encouragement. The phrase a ‘teachable moment’ has been heard often enough over the last couple of weeks, although I’m coming to think of all this as a ‘learnable moment – for example, an awful lot of us know a lot more about pension financing and asset pricing and investment and projected life-expectancy, and the mendacity of our employers, than we did a week or so ago. Because that what academics tend to do when they are on strike – they read and research into the things animating their grievances; they think for themselves. Who knew?

All this learning has been facilitated by shared Facebook posts and tweeted links and blogposts, as well as real conversations and events (presumably). And, you know, it’s amazing what you can learn on Google. Part of me is embarrassed to admit to not knowing more about all of this before (but I used to be young and carefree about old age). Then again, the reason it has been so engrossing to learn more about the background to this dispute is precisely because what one is learning is that one’s trust in the good faith of Universities to protect the best interests of their staff that underwrote that ignorance turns out to have been rather ill-placed.

To say the least. My colleague Gail Davies has been tweeting her analysis of the role of the investment consultant Aon Hewitt in shaping the strategy of UUK – ‘The Voice of Universities’ – to redesign University pension system not just in the last year but for some time longer than that. You should have a look at Gail’s thread on all this. And then look at the thread by Felicity Callard that picks up the story, and then Shaun French, and follow where it all leads (it’s not pretty). 

There are all sorts of issues raised by the digging that Gail and Felicity and Shaun and others have been doing. Apart from anything else, the capacity of Twitter to serve as a genuine space of intellectual enlightenment, but also perhaps the limits of that (it can be difficult to keep track of the narrative arc emerging almost in real time as we all discover what a deep hole we have been dug into by our employers). But also some proper ‘theoretical’ ones of very immediate relevance: what Gail and Felicity have found, as a matter of public record, is that UUK and Universities have been complicit in a motivated effort not just to adjust to a ‘shifting landscape’ of pension economics but to help instigate a shift away from collective pooling of risk by Universities to benefit their staff through supporting a pension system to relocate all the risk onto staff by instigating individual savings plans (remember, we now all know that “a DC is not a pension at all“). It turns out the Universities we work for stand as very good examples of the efforts to deliberately enact market practices in new ways that academics themselves have analysed. These and other issues no doubt deserve much more attention – much broader attention is perhaps the better way of putting it – beyond the confines of this particular dispute.

One thing I have learnt, for example, is that reform of the USS pension system actually serves as a live empirical experiment for economists researching the unequal redistributory effects of pension scheme redesign. Financial economists have used the 2011 rule change, when USS closed its final salary scheme to new members, to assess the redistributory effects of rule changes to pensions systems (2011 is also when the national government withdrew from underwriting the USS system, thereby transforming the level of risk to which this system is technically exposed, a central issue in the current dispute). To cut a long story short, they find that this rule change involved a redistribution of wealth from ‘members’ to ‘sponsors’ (that is, from University staff to Universities); and that the costs of this redistribution fall unequally on younger/newer members. Here’s part of the summary of their findings: “The rule change in October 2011 resulted in the transfer of about £32.5 billion of wealth from the members to the sponsor during the 2011-2015 period. This is the equivalent of about £600 million per year, or over 60% of the sponsor’s contribution in 2011 of £938.4 million.” Let that sink in for a moment – and think about it next time you wander past a shiny new building on the campus where you work.

In a rather understated conclusion, the authors helpfully remind us “Since pensions are deferred pay, this represents a substantial pay cut”. And that was back in 2011!

Now, this all comes from a published academic research paper, using robust methods of data analysis (you know, that middle bit of papers that we all mostly skip over, where people show their workings), which addresses a more general issue of scientific significance in its own field, and, oh, remember, would have been through a thorough process of peer-review. You know, the sort of social science knowledge that Universities are rather reluctant to allow entry into their own forms of strategising. I wonder why?

After affect(s): Ruth Leys on affect theory

I’m not sure if this is the best way to keep up with exciting theory debates, but I spent an evening this week in a ‘car supermarket’, trying not to fall into a salesman’s traps while also working out whether or not I liked driving an automatic rather than a manual transmission – what do you do with your ‘spare’ foot? In between all this, I stumbled across this announcement of a forthcoming lecture at Duke by Ruth Leys, promising a critique of affect (the things you can do with an iPhone). I will not be in North Carolina next week, but this looks really interesting, and long overdue. The post mentions a forthcoming paper in Critical Inquiry later this year, and Leys mentions in a recent interview that she is writing a book on the relationships between scientific understandings of affects and the affect turn in cultural theory. The interview, from last year, provides a taster of what Leys argument looks like – what is most interesting about this is that she is providing a genealogical analysis of the coherence between the anti-intentionalism of certain fields of psychology and neuroscience and a broad range of ‘affect theory’ in cultural studies and beyond. I was first turned on to Leys work on this stuff by Felicity Callard, who studied with her as a graduate student, and who is also working on the use of scientific authority in the affective turn amongst social scientists and in the humanities. In the interview, Leys explains that “The question that interests me is why so many cultural theorists – geographers, political theorists, new media theorists, and others – are so fascinated by the idea of affect and are so drawn to the work on the affects by certain neuroscientists”. Of course, part of the answer is that the science provides authority for strongly ‘political’ readings of particular models of action, embodiment, habit, and practice.  One thing she talks about in the interview is the degree to which ‘strong’ theories of the autonomy of affect tend to be resolutely dualistic, adopting quite old fashioned styles of materialism in setting embodiment off from the mind, affect from cognition. I think she is dead right – this is a clear feature of debates in human geography about non-representational theory, emotions, and affect, in which remarkably simplistic understandings of intentionality, meaning, or rationality circulate.

I have wondered for a while, and tried to articulate in writing, what is the academic pay-off of constructing non-cognitive dimensions of action or practice in the strongly anti-intentionalist ways as one finds in Deleuzian inflected theory – what is gained by the effacement of intention and meaning from the scene of action, and from the re-distribution of knowing rationality almost entirely onto the figure of the expert-theorist? Leys’ argument, which emerges from earlier work about broader shifts from discourses of guilt to discourses of shame in the study of trauma, pinpoints the way in which claims of scientific authority underwrite a motivated reconfiguration of what counts as political: “The whole point of the general turn to affect among recent cultural critics is to shift attention from the level of political debate or ideology to the level of the person’s subliminal or sub-personal material-affective responses, where, it is held, political influences do their real work”. And she goes on, this authorises “a relative indifference to the role of ideas and beliefs in politics in favour of an ‘ontological’ concern with people’s corporeal-affective experiences of the political images and representations that surround them” (of course, in geography and perhaps some media studies, what is most interesting about this sort of work is precisely that it focuses on a much broader array of affective ‘environments’). This ontologization of affect allows for a dark narrative of bad affects – in which people get manipulated for all sorts of sinister ends; and a nice story about good affects, which is meant to be the positive political inflection of affect theory – although this often turns out to be a rather standard ‘proof’ that subjectivities are much more malleable than we think, and can be best transformed by being exposed to some form of aesthetic disruption or other.

All a bit troubling, once you notice that ‘knowing’ has been entirely evacuated from the field of everyday action inhabited by ordinary people, and is now a capacity reserved entirely for those able to handle what are properly thought of as esoteric (in a Straussian sense) theories of affect. In certain respects, and despite the loud rhetoric of political radicalism that accompanies so much affect theory, this style of cultural theory of ‘the political’ might actually be a symptom of a deeply ingrained, scholastic cynicism about the political virtues of ordinary people.

Leys’ genealogy of the science of affect theory is an important resource for thinking through the politics of the ‘political’ invocation’ of affect in cultural theory and social science. Like the Dreyfus/McDowell debate, it is an example of some proper thinking about the forms of reasoning, demonstration, and indeed evidence that lay behind claims of expertise and authority which often work, certainly in geography, to have a chilling effect on serious thought. One thing her work suggests is that the ‘ontological’ commitments of what is now orthodox affect theory in the social sciences and humanities are, indeed, strongly theoretical – the reference to the authority of cutting-edge life sciences might be much more contentious than it appears (and shouldn’t we know this anyway).  Or maybe we should just call those commitments ‘metaphysical’, in the bad sense.