What is the radical alternative to austerity?

I’ve just recently started reading David Graeber’s The Democracy Project. A History. A Crisis. A Movement, an interesting look at the Occupy movement by one of the leading figures involved in its emergence. Graeber explores the rise of the Occupy movement and explains why he felt it struck a chord with a broad cross-section of society in the fight against neo-liberal economic policy. Unlike many other protest movements, it drew support beyond the traditional middle/educated classes and tapped into something that other movements had failed to manage, despite the similarity in aims and objectives.

It’s an interesting read and has much to say about organising protest movements in the face of dramatic (and unnecessary) cuts. One section particularly stood out for me [pg. 27]:

“The main thing that stuck in my head about the talk about Bloombergville,” I volunteered, “was when the speaker was saying that the moderates were willing to accept some cuts, and the radicals rejected cuts entirely. I was just following along nodding my head, and suddenly I realized: wait a minute! What is this guy saying here? How did we get to a point where the radical position is to keep things exactly the way they are?”

“The Uncut protests and the twenty-odd student occupations in England that year had fallen into the same trap. They were militant enough, sure: students had trashed Tory headquarters and ambushed members of the royal family. But they weren’t radical. If anything the message was reactionary: stop the cuts! What, and go back to the lost paradise of 2009? Or even 1959, or 1979?”

Of course, this is entirely the case. The popular movement against cuts has not really been particularly radical. All it has done is called for a halt to cuts to public services, hardly a radical perspective. Since when has maintaining the status quo been a radical proposition? Indeed, when one considers the broader spectrum, maintaining public services at pre-2008 levels (or arguing against the cuts) is a relatively conservative (small ‘c’) position. The radical positions, it seems to me, are to argue for the cuts with increased deregulation of the private sector or to argue for increased spending coupled with a reversal of thirty years of deregulation.

That said, even the argument to increase investment isn’t really a radical notion. It certainly wouldn’t have been considered radical in the pre-Thatcherite era when Keynesian economics was the dominant force. Recent evidence certainly furthers the argument that the programme of austerity undertaken by the coalition is both unnecessary and damaging.

The programme of austerity owes some of its existence to a study published by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in 2010. The study concluded that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower.” In other words, countries with a debt to GDP ratio above 90% have a slightly negative average growth rate.

However, it has now emerged that the study was filled with errors as revealed in “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff,” by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As the Roosevelt Institute notes:

“[The authors] find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don’t get their controversial result.”

(You can read a further explanation of the flaws on the Roosevelt Institute blog.)

In essence, the premise behind the programmes of austerity around the world have been based on, as the Roosevelt Institute put it, “someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.”

Of course, most of the rhetoric around the need for austerity was deeply flawed even before the news that Reinhart and Rogoff’s conclusions were built on shaky foundations. Take the infamous, oft-repeated, national debt is the same as household debt claim. Leaving aside the idea that a household has the ability to print its own money (don’t try this at home!), the argument does not stand up to scrutiny.

When looking at household finances, is taking on more debt always a bad thing? Or are there circumstances where it is both justifiable and logical? Take, for example, someone in a job earning £20k. They don’t own a car and rely on public transport. They are offered a job paying £40k per year but the job is located further away and public transport is not feasible. They then decide that the best course of action is to take out a loan to buy a car, substantially increasing their debt. The car enables them to travel to their new job and double their annual salary. In the short term they have substantially increased their debt, however now they are earning twice as much, this debt will be cleared within a few years of earning a greater income. Once the debt is cleared, they are clearly in a much stronger financial situation. The debt is gone and they are now £20k better off per annum and their standard of living is sufficiently higher. So was the greater short-term debt burden worth it? The answer is obvious.

And I think this underlines part of the problem. Capitalist systems seem to lend themselves towards short-term measures. Instead of looking to the long term and building long-term stability and prosperity for future generations, it lends itself to short-term solutions that will yield immediate profits, until the next short-term plan is required. Of course, it doesn’t help that the political cycle also lends itself to short-term solutions, solutions that can be used to aid re-election without dealing with long-term effects.

It is certainly clear that the current strategy isn’t working. Borrowing has increased by £245bn more than was originally planned. Consider that for a moment. If £245bn had been pumped into the economy in 2010 to support infrastructure projects and build public services, would our economy still be suffering? Would such investment have sparked growth as money flowed into the economy, into people’s pockets and encouraged greater spending? Quite probably. And yet £245bn has been borrowed with no real purpose or plan. That is a catastrophe and a worrying sign of economic incompetence.

So I look at the current picture and I wonder, what is the radical position? For me the radical answer has got to be to increase spending and reverse deregulation of the private sector. For library campaigners it means the fight needs to be more than against closures and de-professionalisation. The argument needs to be about increased spending. It needs to be about investment in libraries. It needs to be about laying out a clear case for what libraries can offer communities if money is pumped into them rather than taken away. It’s about proposing what can be built rather than simply preventing their demolition. And not just libraries (before anyone thinks I am suggesting cuts to other services to enable spending on libraries – I pick libraries because that’s an area I am particularly focused on). All services should argue the casestrongly and persistently for investment. We should not accept that cuts and austerity are a necessity and must be accepted. We need to argue that the reverse is true: spending and investment are the answer.

This may be seen as naïve (who am I kidding, it will be seen as naïve), but the argument should be made and with great vigour. Rather than meekly accepting cuts as an inevitability and buying into the “greater debt is bad” argument, we need to take the battle to those arguing in favour of austerity. They are not expecting an assault on these terms but rather that the opposition will take the moderate halt (or slow) the cuts position. The position for increased investment should not be allowed to crumble when it is faced with the arguments used by the austerity drivers. Instead, the argument should be intensified, not abandoned. The longer people suffer as a result of austerity measures, the more they see wages stagnating and opportunities restricted, the more recovery seems a distant unobtainable fantasy, the more that alternatives will begin to appeal. The trick is to maintain the argument, consistently and coherently. It is this very trick that the right have used to convince people to accept policies that are counter to their own interests. The persistent drumbeat will build support in the long-term and pressurise those driving austerity. The longer we persist in arguing for greater spending, the louder our voices become and the greater support we can mobilise.

But then again, maybe I am just a naïve dreamer…

Thatcher’s legacy

I guess in many ways there is no real pressing need to share my thoughts on the death of Margaret Thatcher.  At the time of writing there have been countless other personal contributions and there is probably very little to add on top of the blogs, news coverage, tweets etc etc.  But I’m going to have a go at committing some of my thoughts to writing.

I should start by saying that I was born in 1976 and whilst I didn’t directly feel the impact of the Thatcher government, I was aware of it.  Up until the age of 14, all I knew was Thatcher as Prime Minister.  Even after she left office, it was only when I hit 21 that I saw the end of one Conservative Party, and the beginning of another.  There is no doubt, however, that her premiership had an impact on me and it still does to this day. I grew up in a town in the south-east that had a strong socialist worker presence and, despite having a Tory MP, I don’t think anyone could accurately describe it as a town of the right (indeed, it has fluctuated between left and right for decades).  I worked with people who had a visceral hatred of her. People who were desperate to see the back of her.  She was a divisive character, provoking extreme emotional responses.

The news of her death today provoked a mixture of responses from me.  I felt that her passing would mean a sort of closure for many people whose lives had been destroyed by her destructive economic policies.  But I was also well aware that her death is, in many respects, meaningless.  The ideology she espoused of Friedmanite economics, the shrinking of the state, expansion of the private sector and assault on workers’ rights live on to this very day.  Indeed, so powerful has this corrosive ideology been, that even the party of the left has caved in to the neo-liberal agenda.  Thatcher may have died, but her ideology lives on and will, sadly, live on for some time to come unless progressive forces challenge it effectively and coherently.

But I was also angry. Angry because of the way history is currently being re-written.  Throughout the day, right-wing commentators have been acclaiming Thatcher as one of our great Prime Ministers.  Not only acclaiming her, but demanding that opponents keep quiet as a mark of respect for her passing.  Of course, this was not about a mark of respect, but presenting the right with an opportunity to whitewash her record and present her as a modern-day Churchill – a hero who saved this country from destruction.  I even saw John Major claim that he can’t think of a single peacetime prime minister in the twentieth century who comes even close to her impact (to which I screamed Attlee at the TV – a man who introduced social security and a National Health Service on the back of the economic crippling of the Second World War…a man who created, rather than destroyed). All the while, her opponents were supposed to remain quiet and allow this whitewash to proceed unhindered…standing by whilst history was re-written before their eyes.

Well, Thatcher wasn’t the great Prime Minister that some would have us believe. The truth about the miner’s strike is gradually coming out, with allegations emerging that the police provoked a riot to justify their brutal crackdown on the strike .  A crackdown that helped pave the way for the brutal economic policies that followed.  Of course, this has all been presented rather differently by Thatcher’s supporters.  This isn’t seen as an assault on decent, hard-working people, but as part of a clinical, necessary process to turn the country around.  Never mind that public support was won on the back of smears and possible MI5 involvement, this was, as far as the right would have us believe, a regrettable but necessary move.  And no matter how hard you try to argue with them, they will remain convinced it was justifiable because, in their minds, it was a crucial step towards ‘saving the country’ and building the Great Thatcher Myth.

But it’s not quite so easy to bat away all aspects of her record.  In 1999, Thatcher spoke of the‘debt’ the UK owed Augusto Pinochet and thanked him for bringing ‘democracy to Chile’.  Pinochet, a man who came to power on the back of a coup against a democratically elected government. A man who murdered many thousands of left-wing opponents of the coup and his subsequent military dictatorship.  A man who, alongside other right-wing dictators in South America, had suspected communists murdered across the entire continent.  And Thatcher considered this man a friend and a man that she felt the UK was in debt to?  A vicious, murderous dictator? And some believe this support for a murderous dictator warranted receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Amongst all the talk of Thatcher as being a great and powerful voice for freedom and liberty from her supporters on the right, I have never come across any who have been able to explain away or whitewash her part in enabling the vile Pinochet regime.  Sure, they bat away the other criticisms with great ease, claiming that those who argued against them were somehow beholden to vested interests or were simply enemies of progress.  Whilst I disagree with that, it’s hard to argue against it (which has perhaps been a general failing of the left, a coherent argument that the vast majority can rally around).  I can’t possibly comprehend how anyone can put forward a coherent, moral defence of her support for Augusto Pinochet. This support will, for me, always be her legacy.  And it will be what I tell my children of her.  Because I don’t want that aspect of her record to be eradicated as part of a drive to present her as a ‘great leader’.

Economically speaking, there is no doubt that the Thatcher legacy lives on.  We see it all around us, in the world that she has created for us (a world, incidentally, where she gets the credit for the positive consequences of her actions, but must not be criticised for the negative consequences – social breakdown etc).  We see it in the way those on benefits are demonisedon a daily basis.  We see it in the way the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are hastening the end of the National Health Service (a service created by a truly great and courageous leader).  We see this in the way that the poor are divided between those who are deserving and those who are not.  We see it in the way that those who must pay for the banking crisis are not the bankers or the financial sector, but the poor.  We see it in the way that democratic accountability is eroded as public services are shifted to the private sector and removed from public scrutiny.  For me, Thatcher will be remembered both for her support for vile regimes and for her destructive economic policies.  We must ensure that her public record is not whitewashed to present her as the great leader the right demand.  But, more importantly, progressives must make a concerted effort to undo the Thatcher Legacy rather than adopt a watered down variant (Labour). Her legacy should be confined to the history books, but only as a footnote.

The need for information: are the free market and freedom of choice incompatible?

Are we truly free in a free market economy?
(Image c/o Daniel Lobo on Flickr.)

The notion that capitalism and free choice go hand in hand seems to be incontrovertible. For decades we have been led to believe that the two are interdependent. Freedom of choice and individual liberty are only possible in a capitalist society built on the foundations of a free market. As Milton Friedman, the arch-capitalist and God to the economic far-right, once claimed:

“Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

According to the Friedmanite far-right (and let’s not kid ourselves, Friedmanites are on the far-right), true individual freedom is borne out of a free market. Without such an economic model, there is no freedom, no liberty, no freedom to choose – at least, that’s as they would have it.

It speaks volumes for the times we live in that this ideology is accepted as a given. As we know the dogma of the economic far-right has been broadly accepted as the only theory in town. There are slight deviations from the ideas and models outlined by Friedman and his acolytes, but they are slight. Both the centre-left and the centre-right have adopted the language and ideology of the far-right economists, pushing the notion that if we are to be a truly free society, we need to consolidate the free market economy. But is this really the case? Are we a free society under a free market model?

Fundamental to any definition of freedom is the ability for the individual to be able to choose freely. Without freedom of choice, you have a fairly limited freedom. But to be able to choose you need to have the tools at your disposal to make informed choices. You cannot make a choice if you do not understand the nature and implications of the choices that you make. The ability to choose freely is, therefore, central to any notion of liberty.

I recently stumbled across a blog post by Puffles that underlines a key issue regarding choice:

For ‘choice’ to work, you need the means to exercise it. In neo-liberal world, this particularly means having the money. But it also means having the information, knowing how to use/interpret it and also having the time to do so.

In a free-market economy, true liberty is dependent on both income and access to information. Furthermore, it does not necessarily follow that if you have the means at your disposal to access information that you are also in a position to interpret and utilise that information in order to make free, informed choices. Of course, all of this is dependent on whether the information is available to make those choices in the first place. Very often, the information we need to make rational choices is not publicly accessible.

Whilst it is often suggested we live in an ‘Information Age’, in many respects we still face familiar barriers in terms of the control of the flow of information. Whether it is the state or corporate interests, there still exists forces which attempt to disrupt the flow of information, preventing the development of a fully informed citizenry able to make rational choices. Indeed, in a capitalist economy it is in the interests of both the state and corporations that we do not enter a state of total transparency where citizens have access to information and therefore can make informed choices. The consequences for both corporations and the state of a society entirely transparent would be devastating.

The exposure of the pharmaceutical industry in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma is a case in point. In his book, Goldacre reveals the extent to which ‘unflattering’ negative results are buried by the industry. In fact, as Goldacre points out, ‘trials with positive results are about twice [as likely] to be published as trials with negative results’. As Goldacre wrote in the Telegraph last year:

“…drug companies can hide information about their drugs from doctors and patients, perfectly legally, with the help of regulators. While industry and politicians deny the existence of this problem, it is widely recognised within medical academia, and meticulously well-documented. The current best estimate is that half of all drug trials never get published.”

Goldacre adds:

“…while regulators should be helping to inform doctors, and protect patients, in reality they have conspired with companies to withhold information about trials. The European Medicines Agency, which now approves drugs for use in Britain, spent more than three years refusing to hand over information to Cochrane on Orlistat and Rimonabant, two widely used weight loss drugs. The agency’s excuses were so poor that the European Ombudsman made a finding of maladministration.”

The free market, with its insistence on light touch regulation or ineffective regulators, enables an environment where information about trials is withheld from doctors, professionals who rely on information to make crucial decisions affecting the lives of their patients. Where there is regulation, it is so loose as to allow regulators to conspire with those they are supposed to be regulating. By withholding this information, not only are doctors not able to make the appropriate choices, but patients’ lives are put at risk. And for what reason? Because it would damage corporate profit, as Cory Doctorow underlines in an article on Goldacre’s book:

Paroxetine, a drug that was known to be ineffective for treating children, which had a risk of suicide as a side-effect, widely prescribed to children, because GlaxoSmithKline declined to publish its research data after an internal memo stated “It would be commercially unacceptable to include a statement that efficacy had not been demonstrated, as this would undermine the profile of paroxetine.

In a free market system, control over the flow of information is paramount. Transparency may enable true freedom of choice, but it can also damage business interests and profits. In a free market system, if access to information can damage profits, access must be controlled and the flow of information must be restricted. Where access to information is controlled, freedom of choice clearly cannot be possible. For how can one make a truly ‘free’ choice if one does not have the information at one’s disposal to make that choice effectively?

The food industry is another example of the gap between what free market advocates claim and the reality of liberty in a free market economy. For several years there have been calls to better regulate the food industry. Ultimately, all previous attempts have failed because corporations have argued very strongly that any such regulation would actually hurt consumers rather than ensure they are better informed. As a result, instead of ensuring strictly applied regulations, governments have encouraged voluntary systems that they believe are sufficient to protect the consumer and provide the information they require to make those informed choices.

As I wrote back here, intense efforts were made by the food industry to prevent the EU from introducing a mandatory traffic light system, a system that would have enabled the consumer to make a more informed choice about the food they bought. Rather than adopt a system that would provide the consumer with more information, the food industry spent €1bn lobbying to maintain the status quo. Again, the reasoning is clear. Regulation designed to make the industry more transparent will hurt profits and so, as with the pharmaceutical industry, the needs of the business come before the needs of the consumer. With government unwilling to legislate, corporations will ensure that their profits are protected by resisting any call for transparency. Strictly appplied regulation can enable corporate transparency, the free market prevents it. In essence, the free market inhibits the individual’s freedom of choice by placing corporate profit above transparency.

Is the free market compatible with genuine freedom of choice? I would argue that it is not. It is clear that transparency is a threat to corporate interests and, therefore, it is crucial that citizens are not prevented from accessing information with which to make informed choices – a mark of true liberty. You cannot exercise freedom of choice if you do not have access to the information with which to make that choice. In order to do so, you must have both access to information and the means with which to understand it. If corporate interests are unwilling to provide such information to ensure informed choices, it is incumbent on government to ensure that information is made available via the levers available to them. The introduction of strictly applied regulation, enforced transparency across the corporate sector and the death of far-right free market economics will enable true freedom of choice. The free market never can.

Designing a better library experience

A few weeks back I was asked by a CPD25 Task Group member if I would be willing to talk about the use of social media as a tool for engaging with students and obtaining feedback, primarily as a result of this blog post I wrote a while back.  The presentation would be one of four looking at how universities and libraries can obtain feedback from students. Other presentations included a representative from Anglia Ruskin talking about their ‘Tell Us’ scheme, Jo Aitkins from the award winning University of Leicester and Niru Williams (University of East London) on the International Student Barometer (I’ll try to write all of these up at some point).

My presentation was split into three main parts:

  • definining the current HE environment
  • how social media can assist in the challenges this new environment brings
  • our experiences of using social media at Christ Church.


The final slide contains a list of references made throughout the presentation which hopefully will be of interest.  That said, if you would like to see the script, do feel free to drop me a line.  One article that isn’t listed but influenced the title of the presentation and reinforced some of my beliefs, was “Students tweet the darndest things about your library – and why you need to listen” [PDF] by Steven Bell of Temple University, Philadelphia. It was this article that led to the discovery of some interesting stats related to Twitter use that are quoted in the presentation and I agree wholeheartedly with his concluding paragraph.

Finally, my presentation touched on some theories around ‘relationship marketing’, indeed they provided the foundation for much of the presentation.  If you are interested in this area, I’d really recommend Service Management and Marketing by Christian Grönroos.  I used it quite heavily when completing the marketing module on the MSc and I think it has some interesting ideas.  That said, ‘marketing’ is a controversial term in LibraryLand, and rightly so.  Some of the terminology associated with it is, I think, inappropriate for public sector institutions.  Some of the ideas are sound, but certain aspects are not a comfortable fit.

To that end, I came across a fascinating article a couple of days ago exploring this particular area.  Marketing and Public Sector Management [PDF] by Kieron Walsh may have been written back in 1994, but I think it is one of the most intelligent articles on ‘marketing’ in the public sector that I have come across.  I’ve always been taught never to end a piece of writing with a quote, but I think this is an appropriate point to end on:

Marketing is a dangerous language for the public service to begin to speak, because the way that we think is influenced by the language that we use. However ill-defined the public service ethic may be, we do need to distinguish between the values that guide the public and private sectors. It is already apparent that the language of commercialism fits ill with that of service…If marketing is to be developed for the public realm, then it will need to develop a language that is defined by the specific character of that realm, not negatively, by contrast with the private sector.

Opening the floodgates – Library Land and the perils of the free market

Lauren Smith recently wrote an excellent post on the “political elephant in the room” in libraryland.  She hits the nail bang on the head in terms of the need to be conscious of the language that is used and how this impacts upon both the profession and beyond.  For me, one of the biggest concerns in this regard is the influence and power of the rhetoric of the market, particularly the creeping impact of free market ideologies and where this will ultimately lead.

 

It is important to be clear that the free market is not a benign force that can be easily manipulated.  On the contrary, it is a dangerous force that threatens to destroy professions and create a culture of amateurism.   The profit motive is not one that drives up standards, instead it diminishes them substituting the ideals of quality for “cost-effectiveness” and supposed ‘efficiency’.  Some might argue that, handled with care, free market ideology can be ‘humanised’ and adapted to make it benign and acceptable.  I would argue, however, that this is at best naive and at worst highly dangerous, particularly in the field of information production and consumption.  There is a pressing need to be aware of the nature of market forces and be prepared to confront them, but adopting the mannerisms and ideologies of the free market is not the way to do so.

In his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides a number of examples of the consequences of permitting the market to gain a foothold in areas where it was previously anonymous. For example, Sandel points to the impact the market has had on baseball paraphernalia and memorabilia.  According to Sandel, the collection of baseball memorabilia and autographs went from being an innocent activity to satisfy an individual collector, to a ruthless marketplace where people literally fought for the right to own highly marketable and valuable property.

The turning point came in the 1980s when such memorabilia became viewed as “marketable goods”, bought and sold by a growing number of collectors. Seeing the growth of this market, baseball players jumped in and began offering their autographs for a fee (sometimes for as much as $20 per autograph).  By the end of the century, the market was such that fans literally fought over memorabilia.  In one case, a ball hit for a record breaking home run led to a mass brawl and months of legal wrangling in the courts.

It is unlikely that baseball players trading their autographs knew the consequences of their actions, but they certainly hastened the extent to which baseball memorabilia became a highly lucrative business.  It is interesting to note that whilst many baseball players did play the game of selling their autographs for money, a minority did not.  That minority found the notion of selling their autographs for money obscene and undermined the relationship between themselves and their fans.  However, it is clear that due to the actions of the majority, the market corrupted this relationship and those who did refuse to open up to the market were unable to stem the tide.  Those who did “play the market” very quickly found that the market ended up playing them.

However, such naivety when it comes to markets is not restricted to sports. Troublesome though that undoubtedly is, there are areas where a failure to grasp the danger of playing with market forces can have an even more serious impact on society.  This is particularly the case in the field of information.  Where the information sector has been opened up to the market, there have been disastrous consequences and where it has not yet had an impact the prospects are bleak.

Education, for example, has increasingly been forced to open up to the marketplace.  Again, Sandel relates the potential impact that commercial interests can have on the education sector.  In relation to its impact in America, Sandel points out that whilst there has been a degree of commercialism in schools for some time (he points to the use of Ivory Soap in soap-carving competitions in the 1920s and ads in high school yearbooks), this influence has steadily risen since the 1990s.  A particularly good example of this is the rise of Channel One.

Channel One was launched in 1989 by Chris Whittle.  Whittle offered schools free television sets and video equipment in return for an agreement that the school will show the program every day and require all students to watch it.  As well as broadcasting a twelve minute news program, Channel One was also packaged with two minutes of commercials.  Due to its reach, it was able to charge corporations such as Pepsi, Taco Bell and the Army up to $200,000 per slot.  According to Sandel, Channel One effectively paved the way for corporations to have a significant presence in US schools, including corporate sponsorships and product placement.

This market ultimately extended to the distribution of “sponsored educational materials” to schools and a host of promotional materials sent to teachers.  As a result, students could learn about nutrition from materials supplied by McDonalds.  This is troublesome in many respects.  Schools should be a space free from bias and a place to encourage critical thinking, this is seriously compromised when the commercial sector has such an influence.  Indeed Sandel points to the example of Proctor and Gamble offering an environmental curriculum explaining that “disposable diapers were good for the earth” (Sandel, pp. 197-198).

Whilst these examples are restricted to the United States, they should cause alarm in terms of the existing plans for the education system in the UK.  The training of professional teachers is already seen as an expensive luxury.  Michael Gove has previously made it clear that a teaching qualification is not necessary to teach in academies.  As far as he and the government are concerned, teaching is not a skill to be acquired.  Whilst some might argue that education in our schools at present is severely lacking in applying critical thought in teaching, the introduction of unqualified teachers will surely exacerbate the extent of the problem.  Without a background in training and an ability to impart critical thinking, the role of the teacher merely becomes one of imparting unfiltered information and providing “crowd control”.  De-professionalisation is the ultimate aim, primarily because professionals are expensive and amateurs are, almost by definition, cheap.  The government are keen to encourage those from business and the private sector to get involved and teach, the removal of the need for a teaching qualification makes this significantly easier.  How long before corporations have members of staff on the payroll teaching in our schools and distributing materials that amount to nothing more than free publicity for our corporate elites?

Of course, the ultimate goal is to significantly reduce the traditional role of the teacher (some might argue to remove the teacher altogether).  The first step in this process is the de-professionalisation enacted by Gove.  The next stage is to automate the teaching process.  Think this is a far-fetched notion that is a long way off into the future?  Think again.  The latest Private Eye reveals that one corporation is already taking steps to make this a reality.

Rupert Murdoch recently announced that he was planning to “take on the education establishment and empower pupils” (words like “empower” are always utilised when the opposite is true).  The aim is to replace teachers with tablet computers in each of the schools with which Amplify (formerly known as Wireless Generation) has a contract.  Indeed, Amplify has announced it is developing its own “tablet-based platform” to “bundle curricular and extracurricular content” and “facilitate personalised instruction and enable anywhere, anytime learning”.  The tablets themselves would be paid for by reducing teacher budgets.  This is all happening in the United States but, of course, with deprofessionalisation a key government education strategy, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the technology would be adopted here at some point in the relatively near future.  With budgets effectively squeezed, pre-loaded digital content provides an attractive and cost-effective alternative. After all, you won’t need a teaching qualification if you are merely presenting pupils with pre-loaded content on a digital device.  As Private Eye comments, this is a “real world nightmare, where digital learning is used to turn schools into closed, captured markets for Murdoch.”

As for advertising in schools, now schools have been granted control over their own budgets, how long before headteachers desperate for money start selling advertising space within their schools?  Indeed, the US experience is instructive and deeply troubling.  Where schools have struggled financially, the market has offered a ‘neat’ solution.  But is this welcome?  And, more importantly, where is the debate?  Rarely is there any real debate or discussion about the impact that such commercialisation will have on our education system.  And yet the consequences of such developments are severe.  Are we really content to allow the commercial sector a significant presence in our school system?  Surely we want our children to experience an education system that encourages critical thinking and debate rather than brainwashing them with commercial messages provided by our school’s sponsors?

The impact of the market has already had a significant impact on the ways in which information is distributed.  One only need cast a glance at the impact the market has had on journalism to see that our access to quality information has been severely compromised.  As commercial pressures have grown, so have the media sought to reduce costs and protect their bottom line.  This has led to a move away from expensive investigative journalism (with the odd honorable exception) and towards a culture of churnalism.  To be a truly informed citizen in the so-called information age, one has to be more than just a consumer, one needs to actively seek out accurate and reliable information.  It is easy, however, to be complacent – to accept the information we are given without question, particularly when it is presented as authoritative and reliable.  Finding accurate, reliable information is time consuming, and that is before we even contemplate the dearth of critical analysis skills.

In short, the extent of the market has had a significant impact upon us in terms of the quality of information that is available to us as adults, and there is a serious threat to the quality available to our children.  Our sources of information are increasingly commercialised and subject to the whims of the market.  As Chomsky wrote in What Uncle Sam Really Wants:

“The media are only one part of a larger doctrinal system; other parts are journals of opinion, the schools and universities, academic scholarship and so on.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pg 69)

In order to challenge these doctrinal systems and the systems of power, Chomsky reinforces the power of the library to connect people with original sources and thus circumnavigate the doctrinal systems that are in place.  Libraries, as repositories of information and providers without bias, enable the populace (with a bit of work admittedly) to access the materials that the larger doctrinal systems and power structures ignore.  They offer, effectively, the last bulwark against the influence of commercial interests in the dissemination of information and, therefore, the only institution standing that can ensure effective, participatory democracy (that is, true participation of the populace in our democratic institutions rather than the effective fig leaf that presently exists).  However, they only have the potential to do so. As Steven Harris noted back in 1999:

“Librarians should start recognizing that there are inequities in both the production and consumption of information, and that libraries themselves can reinforce those inequalities.”

There are inequalities (created by the doctrinal systems of education and the media) and both libraries and librarians can either reinforce them or challenge them.  It is fair to say, I think, that at present they are failing to challenge them.

The institution of the library and the role of the librarian are now under unprecedented ideological assault.  As the profession has failed to communicate its value, so it has seen its value greatly diminished.  As Lauren points out in her post:

“Agendas have been set and we haven’t acknowledged how political in nature they are. Librarians and information professionals don’t control the discourse around library and information issues. We haven’t made it clear what values we’re espousing, because a lot of the time we aren’t savvy enough to know. We’ve courted private companies and governments whose values directly undermine the values of librarianship, like free expression of thought, privacy, and equity of access.”

This is exactly the problem.  The power elites and the market (private companies) have no interest in the provision of access to information equitably and without bias.  Indeed, they are interested in the opposite, to preserve the status quo and ensure that the existing doctrinal systems are both broadened and consolidated.  It serves the interests of the market to ensure that these doctrinal systems are not undermined.  To ensure this, institutions that presently exist outside the realms of the market need to be brought inside.  Which is why we are witnessing the de-skilling of the library network, both through privatisation and amateurisation (ie volunteer run libraries).  The market cannot function effectively whilst there are elements existing outside it.  Control of all aspects of information dissemination (through education, the media and the public library network) ensures a world in which information is truly controlled by the market and there is no telling where this might lead. Whilst it is true that librarians have been slow to address the inequalities of the production and consumption of information, will the success of the assault on the profession make it more or less likely that these inequalities will be addressed?  The answer is, I think, self-explanatory.

 

The only way to limit the perils of the free market and its entrenchment of the doctrinal system is to ensure that it is confronted head-on.  This means debating openly and honestly about the institutions that we value and confronting the impact that the market will have. As Sandel concludes in his book:

“Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square.  But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided.  It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades.  The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance.  Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.” (Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, pgs 207-208)

But it is not enough to simply deliberate about the meaning of the social practices we prize, we also need to confront and challenge those that seek to control and widen the doctrinal system and consolidate the systems of power.  Again, as Chomsky notes:

“One of the things they want is a passive, quiescent population.  So one of the things that you can do to make life uncomfortable for them is not be passive and quiescent.  There are lots of ways of doing that. Even just asking questions can have an important effect…any system of power, even a fascist dictatorship, is responsive to public dissidence.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pgs 71-72)

We need to question, we need to stop being passive and quiescent.  We need, ultimately, to confront the elephant in the room.