It’s the economics, stupid…

Thatcher economy

Just as a quick addendum to the last post…I randomly stumbled across this Thatcher quote last night:

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

I think this really gets to the point of the matter. The game has changed. Simply focusing on “better advocacy” will not convince politicians that public libraries (or public services in general for that matter) should be “saved” or invested in. The whole thrust of twentieth century economics has been to change us from a society to a collection of individuals (no matter how nonsensical this philosophy is). The aim has been both to smash the post-war consensus and to devalue public services. Where economics has been the method by which to achieve this, no advocacy campaign can hope to turn the tide. The battleground is not our libraries or even our public services. The battleground is economic theory. If we do not collectively reject, and coherently argue against, the economic orthodoxy, then the battle is lost.

Why “better advocacy” won’t make any difference…

Better advocacy will not free us… (image c/o Edward Badley on Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0)

A few years back, I wrote about the need to capture the narrative when it comes to public libraries. In the face of the challenges put before public libraries and librarians, it was clear that a change was needed. Librarians needed to seize the narrative and make it their own. However, I do not think I went nearly far enough.

There has been a growing trend in the past couple of years to use the language of radicalism and revolution in librarianship. I’m obviously a part of that having got involved in a group of self-identifying radical librarians. However, I would contend that most of the rhetoric has been misused and is, potentially, damaging because it presents a solution that doesn’t really exist.

The problem with much of the rhetoric is that it takes a somewhat liberal left position. Not a surprise in a profession that is dominated by those that sit on the liberal left of the political spectrum.  Those appropriating the language of radicalism and revolution contend that the system itself is not at fault, we have just failed to fully exploit the opportunities that it presents for us. There are two levels on which I find this train of thought problematic.

First, it implies that it is our fault. That if only we communicated our value better, we would thrive and prosper. The failure to take advantage of the opportunities presented to us is down to a lack of imagination on our part. If we came up with better strategies to communicate the value of libraries, we would find ourselves in a much better position. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the implication it is my fault, rather than the system. I’m not enamoured with the notion that I actually need to embrace the system to ensure a better environment for libraries and the profession.

Second, it implies that the current system is fine. That the neoliberal environment in which we exist is a good model. That we don’t need to change an inequitable economic system that sits at odds with our ethics and values. For how can a system that embraces profit over public good sit comfortably with a profession that fundamentally believes in free access to information? A profession that embraces the notion that all should have equal access, regardless of financial circumstance? The underlying message is clear: don’t rock the boat, you don’t really need to.

It is, without doubt, hugely naive to believe that if we just communicated better, the political elite would cast aside their deeply engrained political ideology and embrace the idea of the commons. This is a fairly standard position taken by the liberal left: the system is fine, let’s make the most of it. Such a position is understandable, the easy option is often the more attractive. The alternative is hard work, exhausting, unrewarding and will not be achieved in our lifetimes. Better to just accept the system and make the best of it.

Except that is exactly the position that plays into the hands of those that wield power. If we accept that the system is fine, doesn’t need changing and that we only need to take better advantage of the opportunities it affords, then we can be pushed a little further. Step by step those in power can push us into accepting the need for the system to expand. We may grumble but, ultimately, we will accept and work within the structures because we believe that we can make the best of it.

Better communication and better advocacy won’t save the day. They might make us feel better (in contrast to the alternative, they take little effort), but they will achieve nothing of any substance. Politicians will not be convinced by great advocacy because they have fully embraced an economic train of thought that rejects the belief in the public good in favour of private ownership and profit. Those schooled in the economics of Friedman and the ‘philosophy’ of Rand (such as it can be described as a philosophy), will not be convinced by some imaginative advocacy/communication/marketing. A lifetime of propaganda is harder than that to dislodge.

We need to stop ploughing the same liberal left, anti-intellectual furrow. It does not matter how well we communicate, how much better we advocate for public libraries, they will not reverse an overall political agenda that touches every aspect of public life on the basis of some great advocacy for libraries. Because the ideology that drives our politicians is not restricted to libraries, but applies to all public services. It is not that they can be persuaded by great library advocacy alone that they will retreat from a broader political belief that there is no such thing as a public good. That may have been true 10 or 20 years ago, it’s not true now. What needs changing is not the narrative about libraries, but the broader economic narrative. Until that is effectively challenged, advocacy will remain a blunt tool that makes us feel good, but achieves very little of substance, no matter to what extent we wrap it up in the flag of “radical revolution”. Ultimately, advocacy is a tool of conservatism, not of revolution.

Should the UK have a dedicated union for librarians?

Just a quick post based on some discussion today. Given the situation libraries/librarians are in, I’ve often wondered if a more specialised trade union is the way to go. CILIP can only do so much because of its charitable status and, in my view, existing trade unions are too broad in their membership, making it difficult to fully commit to a particular area. Indeed, I would say unions as they exist at present are unable to effectively deal with the neo-liberal world in which we exist (but that’s another argument).

My interest was piqued by a tweet from Simon at SLA Chicago earlier:


So could we have that here? Is it desirable? Would it be effective? Would it water things down? I should add, I am not thinking of this as instead of CILIP, more as well as. I’d be interested to hear what people think.

UPDATE: Further to this, Simon has pointed out the “Librarian’s Guild” in Los Angeles. Also, in looking into this, I have come across the Progressive Librarians Guild, also in the United States. I actually quite like the sound of the latter but not sure of its value at present. Would something like that be a valuable thing in the UK too?