Dundee, Radical Librarianship and changing the world

The view on Dundee’s waterfront out across the River Tay.

A little while back I was approached to deliver a session at the CILIP Scotland conference on the concept of radical librarianship. I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to speak at the conference, not least because it also afforded me the opportunity to meet up with some of my favourite people on the internet (well, and generally some of my favourite people – hi Jennie, Lauren and Lisa!). I should make it very clear right from the start: I am not a spokesperson for the Radical Librarians Collective. If you are interested in someone coming to talk at your event about radical librarianship, then please do contact the Collective directly rather than me! Whilst I was delighted to be asked, we don’t want (I certainly don’t want) any one person to become the public face of the Collective. Ok, now that’s established, I guess I ought to talk about my talk and the conference itself…

As noted above, I was asked to basically do a talk explaining what radical librarianship is. Even for someone involved in it from the start, this was a fairly daunting task. I would argue that all of us engaged within the Collective have slightly different perspectives about what radical librarianship actually is. Not wildly different, but marginally different. This is probably not surprising, we come at this from different experiences, different backgrounds and environs, it’s not much of a surprise that we might have slightly different perspectives on the concept. For me, I hold to Angela Davis’ definition of “radical” – that it is about grasping things at the root. I see this in two respects: understanding the root causes of the issues we face (ie capitalism and, in particular, the neoliberal orthodoxy) and the roots of the profession (ie professional ethics and the values which are fundamental to the profession). So it was this dual interpretation that I decided to focus on.

I won’t go into the presentation itself in too much detail (I have a rough outline of a script here [ODT] and the slides are available below and original PDF is here – fonts render better on the original PDF compared to Slideshare), but I will explain the rationale behind the structure/content etc. Unlike some of my fellow RLC-ears, I’m not so good at the theory/philosophical stuff. For me, having come from an English Literature/History background, I tend to very much take an historical approach to my thinking. I look at and interpret historical events and use those to form the basis of my views and perspectives. For example, in my presentation I used the example of Chile, the coup against Allende and the policies of Pinochet to inform my views on neoliberalism, rather than the theories of Hayek and the economic thinking of Milton Friedman. I guess, ultimately, I’m more interested in the actual outcomes of political ideas than the theories and ideas that underpin them. I like to think (and I very much hope this is the case) that providing a historical perspective can be easier to engage with than heavy theory (although I appreciate not everyone is as enthused by history as I am).

The oppressed penguins of Dundee.

In terms of the structure, I decided early on I want to lay out a few themes and define them clearly to help establish some foundations on the talk. To that end I decided to outline how I interpret the word “radical” as well as explaining what “neoliberalism” is. Fortunately with the latter I came across an excellent article exploring neoliberalism which had a neat summary explaining the difference between laissez-faire, a planned economy and neoliberalism. It’s probably, for me, the clearest explanation I have come across and really underlines how it operates as a thing (hopefully if you read it you’ll agree!). As with other sources I used in preparing my presentation, I decided that I would add this to a list at the end of the presentation, highlighting not only resources I used in preparing it, but also other resources on related issues that I think people might be interested in. It did take up five slides, but I hope people find at least one text there of interest that they hadn’t come across before.

I also wanted to explore things such as surveillance and the myth of neutrality, as well as giving some examples of things that we have done in the Collective since it emerged. Surveillance in particular is a topic I’m very keen on us as a profession engaging in (this seems like a good place to plug my recent article…). Indeed, I was really pleased that that issue came up a few time throughout the conference in a number of different sessions and keynotes.

In terms of the other talks during the two day conference, all the keynotes were interesting in a variety of different ways. I was very much interested in the issues raised by Colin Cook, head of Digital Public Service for the Scottish government – I particularly liked the use of the term “digital participation” rather than “digital inclusion”. The former, for me, speaks of the importance of activity rather than just equal access. There’s something deeper and more meaningful about the notion of individuals participating rather than just being included. Again, this raises the question of surveillance and the impact of this upon the extent to which people can participate (marginally, because of the divide between those who can seek information online and those that cannot).

Gary Green talking about the most excellent Library A-Z Project.

These themes were again picked up by Stuart Hamilton, Director of Policy and Advocacy at IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions). It was interesting to hear of the work of IFLA in this area, the importance of intellectual privacy and information rights in general. I think it’s fair to say Stuart’s talk was the one I really got a lot out of. If you could design a keynote that hits all my buttons, then Stuart’s was pretty close to nailing it. So much so that, contrary to my standard conference tactic, I actually pitched a question after his talk (an actual question too, not one of those “I am going to wrap my question up in a point that I think will make me look good because I’m less interested in your perspective and more interested in grabbing a platform for myself” type things…):

Given the #ipbill is going through parliament today and the historic issue around individual liberty/privacy in the UK, what do you see we can do to protect intellectual privacy here?

Stuart’s response was basically we need to keep engaging and pushing in this area…particularly working with other groups (for example Open Rights Group) to help push forwards with this. I certainly think collaboration with ORG could lead to some very profitable developments for the profession, and I really hope something can move forward and develop in this area.

Other keynotes included Jan Holmquist (who I finally met having first made contact with him back in about 2009 when my local authority were looking at introducing ebooks and I was charged with investigating the possibilities), who talked about some of the interesting initiatives he has been involved with, particularly emphasising the notion that we should “think globally and act locally”. And we also had author James Robertson who delivered an entertaining talk with some interesting reference points, not least the reference to v. by Tony Harrison (not the pink bladder from the Mighty Boosh obviously…).

Other sessions I attended during the conference included Scottish PEN talking about some of the assaults on free expression across the world (again, the Investigatory Powers Bill came up here), which was very interesting yet depressing at the same time. I also got to see my good friend and colleague Gary Green delivering a talk on the Library A-Z Project, how it came about, how it was delivered and where it is now. It’s a great project and one that deserves a huge amount of credit, not least in the original way in which it seeks to advocate for libraries with key influencers and decision-makers (to use those rather euphemistic terms we use to describe people that wield power).

I’ve not been to many CILIP conferences over the years (although I have been to a fair few conferences now), but I really did enjoy this one very much. There seemed a good atmosphere and everyone seemed positively engaged in the conference as a whole. I certainly came away with plenty to think about, which is always a good sign about a conference (who likes a conference where you come away never thinking about the issues raised?).

Couple of additional things I’ve been contemplating as a consequence of the conference…

Libraries as safe spaces

This came up a lot during many of the talks I attended. Now, I don’t want to disparage this idea too much. I understand the safety that libraries offer. What I would argue, however, is that they offer a particular kind of safe space – a safe space free from violence that manifests itself physically. I’d argue, however, that libraries are more vulnerable to the kind of abstract violence against the individual employed by the state and its actors. So, for example, I would argue that libraries are not (currently) immune from mass surveillance. As a consequence then, is the space offered in the library no longer a safe one? Because you are ultimately protected from physical violence by person[s], but you are not immune from state violations upon you mentally. In a library you can only ever be safe from physical violence, not other forms of violence, perhaps?

Changing the world

One of the questions that cropped up was one that I had pretty much expected: isn’t it already too late – too late to tackle neoliberalism and the state we are in? To which I return to my history (because that’s ultimately how I try to understand the world). In Chile during the height of the Pinochet regime, change seemed nothing but a hopeless dream. But change happened. Although progress is slow, the forces of opposition to the Pinochet reforms are gaining strength. Reversal of reforms looks like a realistic possibility at last. The same is true throughout history. Societies are never static, they are ever changing. The challenge is to ensure that we are the ones that seize the opportunity to achieve change. I think that is possible.

In addition to this the broader picture regarding professionals also cropped up (I forget where this came up, I think possibly this was also at the end of my talk, but forgive me if the detail is hazy). My wife works in a different profession and I see the same issues there. Professionals have been the biggest culprits of our current malaise. They have broadly become (you could argue they always have been) apolitical in nature. The politics has been completely stripped out of our professional existence. Some might argue this is a net consequence of neoliberalism which, ultimately, seeks to replace ethics and values with one sole consideration: market exchange (I would subscribe to this). What I see RLC doing is tackling this head on within our own profession. Forcing people to confront our values and seek out ways to ensure that our ethics are defended against an assault by an ideology hostile to ethics, values and principles (because they obstruct the process of market exchange). Librarians can’t save the world, but they can save their profession. Further, if all professions were to vigorously defend their values and principles and seek solidarity with others across professions then, yes, maybe we could effectively block some of the hostile forces ranged against us and our communities. Who knows, maybe collectively we could halt the progress of neoliberalism, push back and reclaim territory. Maybe. Can librarians change/save/liberate the world? No, emphatically not. Can people? Absolutely.

It is easy to be disheartened in the battle for change. The forces defending the status quo are very strong. Here in the UK, we very much exist in a country that has rarely seen dramatic change and has instead drifted down a particular course with very little deviation (I can think of maybe two real examples in the last century – the immediate post-war Attlee government and the Thatcher government). As I said in my talk, I know that the world I want to see won’t emerge in my lifetime (if at all). The important thing for me, and the thing that keeps me prepared to battle, is to remain idealistic in my goals, but realistic in my expectations. It’s the expectations that will kill you, it’s the idealism that makes you feel alive.

Further Reading

DEFINITION OF A RADICAL:   Davis, A. Y. (1984). Women, culture and politics, London: The Women’s Press Ltd

CORE PRINCIPLE OF NEOLIBERALISM: Fox, J. (2016). “Neoliberalism” is it? Retrieved from: opendemocracy.net/uk/jeremy-fox/neoliberalism-is-it

WHAT IS NEOLIBERALISM?: Martinez, E. & Garcia, A. (nd). What is Neoliberalism? A Brief Definition for Activists. Retrieved from corpwatch.org/article.php?id=376

FREE MARKET LIBERALISM: Smith, A. (1776). The Wealth of Nations.

NEOLIBERALISM AS TERRORISM: Letizia, A. (2012). A Conversation with Henry A. Giroux. Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/13030-a-conversation-with-henry-a-Giroux

LIBRARIES AS APOLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: Annoyed Librarian (2006). Libraries as Liberal Institutions. Retrieved from http://annoyedlibrarian.blogspot.co.uk/2006/12/libraries-as-liberal-institutions.html

ALL LIBRARIANSHIP IS POLITICAL: Jaeger, P. T. & Sarin, L. C. (2016) All Librarianship is Political: Educate Accordingly. The Political Librarian. 2(1), Article 8. Retrieved from: openscholarship.wustl.edu/pollib/vol2/iss1/8

NEUTRALITY: nina de jesus (2014) Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression. In the library with the lead pipe. inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/locating-the-library-in-institutional-oppression/

PROFESSIONAL ETHICS: CILIP (2015) Ethical Principles. Retrieved from: http://cilip.org.uk/about/ethics/ethical-principles

LIBRARIES AND PERSONAL DATA: Travis, A. (2016). Snooper’s charter: cafes and libraries face having to store Wi-Fi users’ data. Retrieved from: http://theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/13/snoopers-charter-theresa-may-cafes-wifi-network-store-customers-data

FEAR OF SPEECH BEING MONITORED: President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. (1967). The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society, (February), 1–342. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=42

DECLINE OF WIKIPEDIA VIEWS: Penney, Jon, Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use (2016). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2016. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2769645

THE CHILLING EFFECTS: National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2016). Lack of Trust in Internet Privacy and Security May Deter Economic and Other Online Activities. Retrieved from https://www.ntia.doc.gov/blog/2016/lack-trust-internet-privacy-and-security-may-deter-economic-and-other-online-activities

CITIZENS AS CONSUMERS: Mobiot, G. (2016) Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

VOCABULARIES: Massey, D (2015). Vocabularies of the economy. Retrieved: https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/soundings/kilburn-manifesto

MORALITY OF NEOLIBERALISM: Amable, B. (2011). Morals and politics in the ideology of neo-liberalism. Socio-economic Review, 9(1) 3-30. DOI: 10.1093/ser/mwq015

NEOLIBERALISM IN CRISIS: Peck, J., Theodore, N. and Brenner, N. (2010), Postneoliberalism and its Malcontents. Antipode, 41: 94–116. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2009.00718.x

IMMEDIATE RESULTS: Luxemburg, R. (1900). Reform or revolution? Retrieved from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/ch05.htm

WHITENESS IN LIBRARIANSHIP: Hathcock, A. (2015). White Librarianship in Blackface: Diversity Initiatives in LIS. In the library with the leadpipe. Retrieved from: http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/lis-diversity/

JOURNAL OF RADICAL LIBRARIANSHIP: Barron, S. (2015) A radical publishing collective: the Journal of Radical Librarianship. In the library with the leadpipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2015/a-radical-publishing-collective-the-journal-of-radical-librarianship/

CRITICAL THEORY: Smith, L. (2014). Radical Librarians Collective (Part Three): Critical Theory. Retrieved from: https://laurensmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/radical-librarians-collective-part-three/

RLC GATHERINGS: Radical Library Camp: in the fight over information, librarians start to get organised. Open Democracy UK. Retrieved from: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/bradford-radlibcamp-collective/radical-library-camp-in-fight-over-information-librarians-

COMMODIFICATION OF INFORMATION PROFESSION: Lawson, S., Sanders, K. & Smith, L., (2015). Commodification of the Information Profession: A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication. 3(1), p.eP1182. DOI: http://doi.org/10.7710/2162-3309.1182

RLC OVERVIEW: Arkle, S., Brynolf, B., Clement, E., Corble, A. & Redgate, J. (2016). Radical Librarians Collective: An Overview. Post-Lib, 79.

CRITICAL INFORMATION LITERACY: Tewell, E. (2015) A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature. Communications in Information Literacy. 9(1), pp. 24-43. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10760/28163

DISASTER CAPITALISM: Klein, N. (2008). The Shock Doctrine. Penguin.

LATIN AMERICA: Guardiola-Rivera, O. (2011) What if Latin America ruled the world? Bloomsbury | Galeano, E. (2009). Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Serpent’s Tail.

CHILE: Guardiola-Rivera, O. (2014). Story of a death foretold. Bloomsbury

SURVEILLANCE & LIBRARIANSHIP: Clark, I. (2016). The Digital Divide in the Post-Snowden Era. Journal of Radical Librarianship, Vol. 2. Retrieved from: https://journal.radicallibrarianship.org/index.php/journal/article/view/12


CRITICAL THEORY: Critical Theory in Library and Information Studies reading list https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OJVC40-SPRKlw02ck2FBMySGHdtMAjan9m30IEa6GVg

INFOLIT: The IL Articles That Blew Us Away in 2015-16. Retrieved from: https://rlc.sandcats.io/shared/ejgPhpxK_gnyDuJi1fNajEMQT_npy1rpywfHgeOXgjY

How neoliberalism disenfranchises us…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of the neoliberal culture on our organisations and the way we operate within them. The imposition of the current HE environment (and it is imposed, there is nothing democratic about it) is causing a massive shift in the way universities are run. Increasingly, we see universities becoming competitors with each other. There is a renewed focus on “the brand”, of how to stand out from the crowd/competitors of how to drive up student applications and to increase revenue etc. There’s nothing new here. We all see it and read about it every day. This is what it was designed to do. There are, it goes without saying, consequences of this shift for all of those that work in this environment.

As has been demonstrated throughout history, neoliberal environments tend to come hand-in-hand with authoritarianism. We’ve seen this, for example, in Chile during the 1970s where the Chicago Boys had their opportunity to embark upon their economic experiments whilst the Pinochet regime kept the Chilean people at bay. We know that neoliberal reforms are unpopular, undemocratic and, ultimately, disenfranchise the populace – taking away publicly owned institutions and placing them in the hands of private companies. We see this manifest itself today in the student protests. The post-2010 reforms to HE (which, let’s not forget, have their roots in the Blair era) have re-awakened the spirit of student protest that has for so long remained dormant. Neoliberalism is unpopular with all but those who wield the power. And it is through neoliberalism that those with power reinforce it.

As I said before, this has consequences. For the Chilean people, for example, it led to a life of fear and terror as the Pinochet regime set about dismantling all of the public institutions that had developed and prospered. The people had no say in this dismantling, they had to endure it and stand by helplessly as power was concentrated in the hands of a small elite. This concentration of power is part and parcel of the neoliberal process. The two are inextricably linked because neoliberalism encourages a system where power is concentrated.

Contrary to how advocates of neoliberalism portray it, it is not an ideology that frees people, it constrains them. In an organisational context, we find replications of authoritarian structures the more neoliberal the environment around that structure becomes. So, for example, we find in many large corporations there is a very top-down, authoritarian approach to how they do their business. Everything is centralised, controlled from the centre and individuals within the structures (particularly those at the bottom end) often have no influence on the system. They are cogs in a machine. Everything is controlled for fear of potential damage to the brand. And so we find that large corporations often replicate the structures we find in authoritarian regimes. Centralisation of power for fear of failure of the regime if power is too widely dispersed.

But what relevance does this have to HE? Well, we have found ourselves in an environment that is neoliberal by design. It has created a sense of competition, a Darwinesque survival of the fittest, where the weak will perish and the strong will prosper. This creates a fear factor: a fear of the failure of the regime. The only way to respond to this fear, as they see it, is to centralise power. By centralising, so the theory goes, you can gain control and minimise rogue elements potentially unbalancing the regime. This centralisation, therefore, restricts the freedoms of the individuals working within these structures. The ability to influence the organisation is rapidly diminished.

The consequence of this is that we have less control. We are less able to do the things that perhaps we might like to do, because we are disenfranchised. As structures become centralised, the importance of consistency throughout the organisation becomes key (because this is more efficient according to the capitalist class – “efficiency” being a key mantra of the neoliberal ideology). No longer can we communicate with users in the way we see fit, but instead we have to communicate in the way the organisation sees fit. There is no freedom in the sense of control over our own work and immediate environment. We have to submit to the will and concerns of the over-arching structure within which we reside, this is the danger of the neoliberal environment created around the structures we inhabit. This goes for library services as much as any other aspect of HE.

To ensure we have the freedom to do our jobs in the way that we, as professionals, believe they should be done, we must surely first resist the shift towards a neoliberal culture? For it is this neoliberal culture that will inhibit our freedom and prevent us from fulfilling our roles as professionals, with the knowledge and expertise to perform our roles in the ways we see fit. If we are to be subsumed by the neoliberal culture, we will not have that freedom. We will not be able to perform in our roles as we see fit. We will become consumed by the structures that have developed around us as part of this cultural shift. We can talk as much as we like about the things we should be doing, the approaches we should take, how we can reach out beyond our traditional role. But, ultimately, if we do not fight back against the structures that are growing around us, this shift towards neoliberalism in libraries, then we will not have that freedom. We will not have that power. Perhaps, ultimately, all we will be is a cog in a machine? And if we are to fight against the culture, how do we do it?

The marketisation of higher education – a warning from Chile

Several years before the 2010 election, the publication of a book by perhaps one of the most influential journalists of the 21st century hinted at the economic will of our political leaders.  It explored, drawing on historical record, how ‘massive collective shocks’ (natural disasters, wars, terrorist attacks etc) provided opportunities for those of a certain political outlook. Only last year, Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman (awarded for “his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity“) claimed that the book “really helps explain a lot about what’s going on in Europe in particular”. In short, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine sets out almost exactly the ideology behind the austerity programme. A programme that is not about returning individual states to economic equilibrium, but about taking advantage of  “economic distress” to push through unpopular ideological reforms, regardless of their economic and social impact.

What we are currently witnessing, through the drive to “austerity” and the overzealous pursuit of public sector cuts, is an ideological drive by those beholden to a destructive neoliberal economic philosophy. This is not about economic necessity, despite the oft-repeated rhetoric of Cameron, Osborne and Co. Indeed, we can see some similarities between the course of action being taken by our current Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition and previous examples of the pursuit of shock doctrine economics. The economic experiments conducted in late twentieth century Chile, for example, certainly provide a telling example in terms of where this neoliberal economic ideology may take us.

The experience of Chile in the latter half of the twentieth century tells us much about how some of those on the extremist fringes of the neoliberal right view the balance between the state and corporate interests. In short, the state needs to be scaled back and private control of public services and utilities needs to be expanded, regardless of the will of the people. To pursue these ideological goals was, evidently, near impossible so long as the people could exercise their democratic rights (why would the population support policies that weaken their influence?). Such actions were, therefore, needed to be built on the back of a tyrannical, oppressive dictatorship. An oppressive dictatorship that terrorised its people such that it prevented the emergence of any organised opposition and where, even if it does start to emerge, it is crushed at source.

Image c/o seven_resist on Flickr.

The Chilean economic experiment had its roots in the murderous overthrow of Salvador Allende, the destruction of its democratic institutions and its replacement with a military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s crime? A programme of nationalisation of Chilean industries and a raft of reforms including: expansion of land redistribution (begun by his predecessor) and government administration of healthcare and education. What was to come following his overthrow was a very different Chile to that envisaged by Allende. One that was less democratic and one which significantly widened the divide between the richest and the poorest in Chilean society.

The shock of a coup against the democratically elected Chilean government provided the window of opportunity required for a number of University of Chicago educated neoclassical economists to seek to influence government economic policy.  Receiving their education via an exchange programme with the Catholic University of Chile, students sat obligatory classes on basic economic theory by Milton Friedman, a keen advocate for free market economics.  Friedman believed that markets, free from state interference, yielded better economic outcomes than those that resulted in state intervention. His economic thinking had a massive influence on these young Chilean students, who returned to Chile inspired by Friedman’s economic theories.  These students became known as “The Chicago Boys”.

Upon their return, after Allende’s successful bid for the presidency, they were so alarmed by the policies enacted by Allende and his adherence to the notion that the state must play a key role to ensure economic prosperity, beliefs that were so alien to the teachings of Friedman et al, that they set about drawing up alternative economic proposals. Upon the conclusion of the coup against Allende, they presented a “189-page draft of diagnosis and proposals“, which they gave to the generals”. By 1975, two years after the coup, Pinochet moved to install a number of Chicago Boys to positions of power in the government.  After their installation, the Chicago Boys set about introducing the economic policies inspired by the teachings of Friedman, removing the influence of the state from every aspect of Chilean life. Chief amongst their proposals were the moves to privatise both healthcare and higher education.

The economic experiments in Chile were observed closely by many in the West, keen to move towards a neoliberal economic model, shrinking the role of the state and embracing free markets.  This was particularly true in the United Kingdom as the free-marketeers looked to smash the post-war economic orthodoxy founded on the political consensus around Keynesian economic principles (ie that optimal economic performance requires economic intervention by the state). The impact upon higher education was particularly devastating, and some of the consequences of the shift towards privatisation are only just starting to be realised.

Following the coup in 1973, and acting on the guidance of the ‘Chicago Boys’, Pinochet and his accomplices began to radically overhaul the education system. Chief amongst their reforms was the decision to move funding of higher education away from the state and towards the individual. As a result, university students were required to pay tuition fees, either directly or through taxes after graduation. Due to this drive to create a “classic non-interventionist state” under the influence of the Chicago Boy’s economic vision:

“The education system is the most market-driven on the planet with 90 per cent of university education and 35 per cent of secondary schools run by the private sector.”

Such was the depth by which the Chilean education system had been handed over to the market that, in a 2013 OECD report, Chile was found to have the lowest proportion of public expenditure on all four levels of education (pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary with 57.9% of education spend coming from public sources (see table B3.1 – PDF).

In terms of higher education, the state contributes approximately 22.1% of the cost of higher education (the UK spends 25.2%), whilst Denmark, Sweden and Norway all spend over 90% (see table B3.2b -PDF). As for Chilean society in general, the country has, according to the Gini index score (which rates the degree of income disparity) the worst score amongst OECD members (it is worth pointing out that the OECD itself does not advocate a system of free higher education). The education system as it has developed in Chile is clearly a reflection of the neoliberal agenda pushed by Milton Friedman via his foot soldiers, the Chicago Boys.

Image c/o Emilia Tjernström on Flickr.

Whilst the reforms in Chile, pushed through by Pinochet under the guidance of the Chicago Boys, were watched with interest by liberal Western governments (not least by those who embraced Friedman’s economic theories) they were not wholly and immediately adopted by his Western admirers. Indeed, there was an understanding that such reforms could prove difficult in a democracy, even zealous advocates such as Margaret Thatcher understood there were limits as to what they could impose.  Not least due to an awareness that the introduction of such reforms would run contrary to long-held democratic principles. In an exchange with Friedrich von Hayek, another of Thatcher’s ideological heroes, she flatly rejected his call to fully adopt Pinochet’s economic model, arguing that:

“…in Britain, with our democratic institutions and the need for a higher degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times, the process may seem painfully slow.”

Despite a shared ideological zeal for the free market ideology preached by Friedman, it was clear that forcing such policies through, without the economic shock to smooth its path, would not be possible in a democratic society with liberal traditions.  Some might argue that the necessary ‘shock’ to ensure the safe passage of such reforms came twenty years too late for Thatcher.

Although there was a reluctance to embrace the Chilean economic model in the late seventies/early eighties, there certainly seems to be parallels in this post-economic shock era with the neoliberal reforms enacted by Pinochet and the Chicago Boys.  For example, due to the shifting of responsibility from the state to the individual, the majority of students in Chile rely on government-subsidised loans, which often results in substantial debt.  In 2012 alone, more than 100,000 students defaulted on their loans owing an average of $5,400, about a quarter of the average annual income. Interestingly, and in a striking parallel, a year earlier in the UK the average student debt was £5,680. The average salary in 2011? £26,200. Debt was, therefore, just under a quarter of the average annual income in the UK. And yet there has been a substantial difference in the way these two societies have reacted to the same problem. Of course, the average debt in the UK is now significantly higher due to increased fees, which underlines the difference in student tolerance levels in the two countries.

Image c/o on Flickr.

In response to these reforms, the student protest movement in Chile has been gathering momentum for some time, with students no longer prepared to accept an enforced ideology that has been in place for many years, despite the recent shift towards a democratic system. The protests reached their peak in 2011 with the “Chilean Winter” protests led by various student leaders including Camila Vallejo, then president of Chile’s main students’ union. Chief amongst their demands: free and equal public education. Specifically, the students demanded (original text in South American Spanish):

  • increased state support for public universities
  • creation of a government agency to apply the law against profit in higher education and prosecute those universities that are allegedly using loopholes to profit.
  • more equitable admissions process to prestigious universities

The popular support behind the protests was such that it has begun to have a significant impact upon the democratic process in Chile. Michelle Bachelet, elected President towards the end of 2013, vowed to radically overhaul the Chilean economic system with free higher education for all being high on the agenda. Of course, this is deeply troubling for those who profit from the status quo and vehemently oppose a policy of free public higher education, a system common across Latin America. Indeed, so troubling do they find it that Forbes, a publication that is firmly in the free market camp, published an article headlined:

Is This The End Of The Chilean Economic Miracle?

A somewhat interesting and alarmist (if unsurprising) take on the future prosperity of Chile composed by an Executive Director of a think tank that advocates for:

“…limited government, private property, entrepreneurship, private enterprise and a free market economy.”

It’s little surprise that a keen advocate for free markets and private enterprise in Chile is alarmed by the emergence of a leader that has supposedly (and it remains to be seen whether she will make good on her stated intentions) committed to reversing some of the negative impacts of such a system.

Camila Vallejo – one of the leaders of the student protests, elected to Congress in 2013. (Image c/o Eneas on Flickr.)

But the movement against the existing model is growing in Chile and momentum seems to be building for a rejection of the model that has held sway since the Chicago Boys first began to influence government policy in the early seventies. So much so that former leading figures in the student protest movement, (including Vallejo, Karol Cariola, Giorgio Jackson and Gabriel Boric) won seats in Congress following the 2013 election. Whilst there is still a long way to go to reform higher education in Chile, there are signs that the protest movement is on the verge of a breakthrough, a wholesale rejection of neoliberal economic policies in regard to higher education. Interestingly, their rejection comes around the same time as the government in the UK are turning towards the Chilean model as an answer to a supposed funding shortage. The 2008 ‘shock’ providing the cover that Thatcher did not have at her disposal. Will it be another 40 years before we start to see a rejection of this model in the UK?

If there was any doubt about the extent to which the Chilean economic model influenced the West, one need only consult this article from 1993, three years after the dictatorship came to an end, published in Foreign Affairs (the journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations):

Chileans are bemused by the attention paid the robust economy bequeathed them by General Augusto Pinochet. Reformers as far afield as Europe and America have taken special note of his reform of health care, education and social security…If the Chile model holds, then, nations only learn the hard way – that is, by their own trials and experiences. Nonetheless, Chile’s revolutionary example – the withering away of the state – stands for those inspired to follow.

They certainly did take note.  Over twenty years since the people of Chile rejected the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the so-called “Chile model” still influences those of a certain political mindset. In the 1980s the United Kingdom lacked the “shock” required to instigate many of the economic policies adopted in Chile. The global economic crisis in the early part of the twenty first century provided that “shock”, and it also provided the opportunity that many had been waiting for.

There are signs already of what the future might hold should the UK government continue to pursue a course of self-funded higher education. After years of rather timid student action, protests are becoming increasingly common as financial pressures begin to take their toll. If the Chilean experience is any indicator, such protests will grow, becoming more vociferous and influential before, potentially, challenging the orthodoxy and leading to a radical re-think by our political leaders. However, just because a policy creates a certain reaction in one country, does not mean it will be repeated in another. Conditions vary, environments vary, history and culture varies. It would be unwise to predict that the reaction in Chile will be replicated exactly here.

But if there is one thing we can be sure of, there will continue to be reactions. They may be small and sporadic, they might not lead to the kind of organised opposition witnessed in Chile and they might not have an impact that comes even close to that experienced in South America. But, as we continue to follow the path set out by the Chicago Boys in Chile during the 1970s, we may well find there is an increasing reaction against the continued marketisation of higher education.

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.