January 06, 2010

Some answers to Graham


Graham raises some interesting questions in respect of Capitalist Realism:

    One of the critical remarks in the book is that academics are now crushed with bureaucratic paperwork obligations. As a result, the competitive injunctions of neoliberalism, when imported into academia, have paradoxically increased the worthless red tape that capitalism was supposed to eliminate.

    He’s definitely right in some way, though I guess my view on it is a bit more complicated. For one thing, Mark is writing from a British context, and my sense is that it’s far worse in the UK. Not only does everyone in British academia seem to be strangled by evaluative paperwork, but the British system is of course much more centralized when it comes to funding. There is obviously no such thing as a national research assessment for American universities. We simply have far too many institutions– thousands of them, and they are of too many differing levels of faculty expectations. There is a broad mix of public, private, religious, and even expatriate American universities. And of course even our public universities are organized on the state rather than national level. So, in the American context there is not the periodic nationwide Angst found in Britain, in which careers might instantly vaporize as the result of someone’s outside assessment. Even the question of “who will be the evaluators this time?” seems to cause ulcers in the UK, and understandably so.

    For another thing, I’m one of those who actually likes to write annual reports, progress reports, grant proposals, etc. They do me a world of good, and neither are they entirely extra-academic… I usually gain much clarity about my own projects from these exercises.

    In fact, my big complaint is that no one seems to read the damn things! Never once have my Department Chairs given me written feedback on an Annual Report, even though they are required to do so by University policy.

I'm not in a position to comment directly on the experience of working in American universities, and I would defer to others who have worked there if they find that their experiences do not match mine in the UK; and I certainly do agree that, instead of the long-forgotten Third Way, Britain has reached a worst-of-all-worlds scenario, in which a former centralized bureaucracy has reinvented itself as a metastatizing rhizome, and a simulated market has been used to impose hyper-precarious conditions on workers. But my feeling would be that the issue of centralized funding only inflects things slightly differently in the UK and the US. As I point out in the book, funding in Britain is increasingly 'decentralized' in any case - in the college that I worked, it was the soon-to-be-abolished Learning and Skills Council's directives which were used as a pretext for "deleting" the philosophy and religious studies provision. Furthermore, the institutional pathologies I discuss in Capitalist Realism arise from decentralization. What I am pointing to is a situation in which the intermittent "inspection" gives way to an audit culture in which evaluation becomes embedded into the everyday fabric of work. In such conditions of generalized anxiety, one is almost nostalgic for the former "periodic nationwide angst". Decentralization reaches its properly Kafkaesque conclusion when everyone becomes their own auditor, all of the time. The situation that Graham describes - no-one reading progress reports - is surely routine. Their addressee, after all, is no-one - the no-one that is the market Stalinist big Other. The report, like the door in Kafka's parable, was meant only for you.

I should point out right away that most of the experiences I recount in Capitalist Realism didn't take place in universities, but in a Further Education college teaching 16-19 year olds. My impression is that the situation in British universities is bad and worsening, but it is as nothing compared to what is happening in Britain in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Here, bear in mind, teachers and lecturers have up to thirty hours of teaching to do every week. If on top of this, you are required to continually record what you are doing and "evaluate" your practice, the strain is unbearable.

I grant that some benefits can occasionally be derived from performing some of these bureaucratic operations; but this is an idiosyncratic side-effect of procedures which are universally imposed. (I should point out something that I don't think is that clear in the book, namely that I'm not opposed to bureaucracy per se, only its lunatic excrescences. A coming political task, I think, will be to invent new kinds of bureaucracy.) It could in fact be argued that the only possible subversion of auditing procedures is to perform them in the way that Graham does, with sincerity, given that the expected situation is cynical compliance ("I know this is nonsense, but nevertheless I have to along with it"). My team leader and I tried to treat bureaucracy in that way for a while, hyperconforming with all the auditing procedures, but eventually I snapped. For one thing, we were facing a situation in which while, our wages were going down in real terms, we were nevertheless being asked to take on an increasing workload of additional "administration". There's a kind of fallacy involved in applying neo-Taylorist practices to education, which is that they are cost-free. They are certainly cost-free to the employer, who gets to contract out their auditing processes to their worker; but they are not cost-free to the worker, who, not only find themselves doing more work for the same (or less) money. But their biggest cost to the worker is in energy. Energy that could have gone into reading about one's subject, preparing lessons or even simple convalescence was instead diverted into these auditing activities. Far from improving performance, far from these activities being merely a waste of time, the very fact of doing them makes it harder to perform your job properly.


Graham notes that there is still a tendency for "non-performing academics" to get away with it. No doubt this is true, and will probably always be true, in any system - and it's evident to everyone now that is not only in the academy or public services, but also in business. There are then two questions: how successfully do auditing regimes root out poorly performing teachers? And how efficient is it to impose these procedures on all teachers? For me, it's clear that poor teachers are not rooted out by these auditing procedures which - by definition - do not register how good you are doing your job, but how good you are at representing your practice according to the aesthetic protocols of the audit. Some of the most inept teachers I know were very good at filling in the forms - why wouldn't they be? And in terms of university work, we have to consider the massively conservative effect that initiatives such as the Research Assesment Exercise and its successor produce by their sheer existence alone - they have empowered precisely the "careerist sandbaggers" that Graham rightly derides in Prince Of Networks, producing a climate of anxiety which favours unchallenging work.

Graham makes another important point:

    In the USA there are plenty of hideous aspects of applying the business model to everything. But there is also a freewheeling “entrepreneurship” aspect to it, in which capitalism doesn’t just mean number-crunching management, but also means a free-for-all in which ambitious outsiders may well come from nowhere to win the day.

But much of my critique comes from the perspective of entrepreneurship. It is precisely the tendency towards entrepreneurial thinking that is blocked by the imposition of these neoliberal initiatives. Frewheeling entrepreneurs aren't filling in performance reviews. This is one of the supposed ironies I identify in Capitalist Realism. I say "supposed" because it is crucial not to accept neoliberalism on its own terms - as if its true aim was delivering better conditions for the entrepreneurial spirit. This is a cover for its real project, which you don't have to be a vulgar Marxist to recognise is a redistribution of wealth and resources to the rich. (In the year that I was made redundant - for "economic" reasons - the college Principal - now calling himself a Chief Executive Officer, naturally - was earning well over 100 grand.) The real aim of neoliberal bureaucratic initiatives in education is to (1) make a case for increased managerialism (2) weaken and demoralise workers and (3) engender more "critical compression" in the public sphere.

Note that I'll be discussing these issues with Matthew Fuller and Alberto Toscano in a session on Capitalist Realism and NuBureaucracy at Goldsmiths on Friday 12th February, 2-4 p.m.

Posted by mark at January 6, 2010 12:05 PM | TrackBack