Radical librarianship and the language journey

House of Knowledge by Jaume Plensa, via Flickr.

Recently I attended the 2015 Lilac conference at Newcastle University. At some point I’ll write about this a bit more on my other blog, but something occurred to me whilst I was there and it got me thinking about the process of language in public (and in this case, professional) discourse. Specifically, I got to thinking about how frequently the term “neoliberal” had come up, which seemed at odds with the things I had been hearing from people who have been to such conferences in the past (this was only my second such conference).

Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that there is a very specific journey in terms of radical language and how it is processed in a professional context. I ultimately narrowed it down to five steps in terms of the journey of the term “radical librarian”, although admittedly I am not entirely happy with some of the terminology here:

Hidden
˅
Ridiculed/Dismissed
˅
Recognition
˅
Shift in outlook
˅
Embedded

Hidden – Virtually non-existent in professional discourse.
Ridiculed/Dismissed – Where the language emerges but the majority reject it or ridicule it.
Recognition – When it is clear a new perspective is emerging and then starts to enter the discourse.
Shift in Outlook – When the language and ideas start to shape perspectives.
Embedded – When it becomes a natural state of thinking (I’m not happy with this particular terminology actually, so I’m open – as always – to critiques/suggestions etc).

I see the Recognition stage as particularly crucial. It is at this point, after the language has emerged, that it is most susceptible to corruption and co-option. Once it becomes a thing that people are talking about, there is a danger that it begins to be seen as “a cool thing”, a thing that can enhance reputations or raise profiles rather than a thing that challenges the status quo. I see this stage as particularly dangerous if the ethos of “radical librarianship” is to remain true to itself. As the terminology emerges from the ridiculed dismissed stage, it becomes a term that some can use to differentiate themselves and enables them to be seen as visionary/alternative/leaders, capturers of the zeitgeist. This co-option waters down and weakens the radical baggage that comes with the term, turning it into something mainstream and non-radical. So, I’d argue that this shift from “dismissed” to “recognised” is very dangerous for those with a radical perspective.

The key, I believe, in maintaining the purity of the radical ideas expressed through language is to keep building radical infrastructure throughout the above language process. It’s important for radicals to keep building, to be strong and determined throughout every stage of the journey of the language. They must not be afraid to push forward when it is hidden, nor be cowed into abandoning it when they are ridiculed or dismissed. Likewise, when the recognition stage is reached, it is vital to ensure infrastructure is continually built and built openly and quickly. This would, in my mind, manifest itself in the continual growth of Radical Librarian Collective gatherings, in the further development of the journal and the various other means by which we communicate radical ideas.

I think that the process of continually building this infrastructure can undermine any attempts by the mainstream to weaken and undermine radicalism, for how can their co-option take root if authentic radical ideas are being built in parallel? How can they portray themselves successfully as radical, when it is clear that their ideas are not nearly as radical as they suggest? Rather than their ideas undermining radicalism, radicalism undermines their co-option.

It then follows if we successfully negotiate the recognition step, to continue to remain true to radical ideas, we can successfully shift outlook to a more radical perspective (rather than the mainstream, watered down variant). Once we shift outlook, we can reach a point where the radical ideas take hold and become the default as opposed to the position it held during the hidden/dismissed stages where it was marginalised. But the key is to keep building foundations, keep building infrastructure…if we stop, then we risk the danger of the recognition stage going against our favour and resulting in a perverted radicalism that serves to line pockets rather than engender real change.

As I said, these are very rough ideas that I’ve sketched out from what I have noticed in the professional discourse. I am not overly happy with some of the terminology I’ve used to describe the process as I see it (I’m unconvinced “Embedded” is a term that I believe aptly describes the final step that I envisage). But I would be interested to hear how others view this process and whether this holds true for them, or whether they have a different perspective.

Interview for El Mundo Web Social

(Full image available CC-BY – ijclark.)

The following interview on communications and radical librarianship was conducted with El Mundo Web Social (you can read the original Spanish version here). Many thanks to Fernando Jerez for approaching me to be interviewed on these topics for his site, it certainly got me thinking about the motivations behind some of the things I do, as well as considering what are, I think, the fundamentals of a good communications strategy.

  1. You are working in a university library. What do you think about the situation regarding adaptation (training) of fellow professionals in terms of social networks?

I think social media has come a long way in libraries in recent years. Whereas there has been some reluctance to engage with the medium in the past, I’d argue that we have moved on significantly in the past couple of years. It is no longer seen as a fringe communication tool that we can ignore if we choose, rather it has become an essential tool in our communications armoury.

That said, there are still some in libraries who, whilst seeing the need for it at an organisational level, don’t see the value of it as a professional tool or as a tool that needs to be on their radar. It’s still seen as fringe in a professional context, even if not in an over-arching organisational sense. There are difficulties associated with this, particularly as social networks help to foster professional discourse and enable the profession to progress in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible before when practitioners were so widely dispersed and often remote. I think it is important to talk about and demonstrate the value of engaging in the medium, but ultimately we have to accept that some will not be converted.

  1. Taking a look at your presentation “Designing a better library experience“, you are talking about some concepts to develop, including ‘commitment’ as the basis of strong, open communication. How do you explain to general managers of libraries the need to increase this investment in online communication?

I think it is vital in the current climate that libraries, institutions and users are brought closer together. I am a great believer in flat organisational structures and I believe that, as much as possible, users should be engaged in the overall running of the service. It’ll take some time to get there, but communication is a key element of laying the foundations to enable such integration to take place. I’d argue that close co-operation between users and the service will create a better service that meets their needs and strengthens the bond between the service and the user.

A stronger bond between the user and the service has a number of positive effects, not least a positive perception of the service by those that use it. Through open dialogue and effective communication we can ensure a powerful relationship that benefits the library as well as the overall institution. However, this must be a two way conversation, it must avoid being hierarchical and must ensure that we learn from those we communicate with as much as they “learn” from us. This is particularly important as social media provides a public forum and such public interactions, if employed effectively, can help to ensure greater collaboration and co-operation with those that use the service. Whether we want to succeed in the terms set for us by a competition orientated, marketised HE, or whether we want to move towards a more cooperative model of library service provision, online communication plays a key role in bringing us closer to the user with the subsequent mutual benefits that brings.

  1. In your articles you speak often of progressive marketisation of services in libraries. Do you think public libraries in social networks are directed to the user ‘as a customer’ or ‘as a citizen with rights’?

I’m very critical of the use of neoliberal terms which act as enablers to a damaging and regressive ideology. As a result, I try to avoid terms such as “customer” as I believe that this is an inappropriate term for the people we engage with in our libraries. The term “customer” immediately creates a barrier between us and the user which then has to be overcome, usually through the use of “marketing strategies”.

For me, as someone who has worked in a retail environment for many years, a customer interacts with a service at a very limited level. I find the use of the term “customer” troubling because the relationship between HE and a student is nothing like that of a “customer” and a retailer. A retailer sells a complete product that the user purchases and uses as they please. In HE the relationship is more of a partnership as we work with students, in co-creation of knowledge to ensure that they obtain the best possible education and ultimately create informed, educated citizens. They don’t buy a good education, because to accrue knowledge is reliant on the user as much as it is on the service provider. It’s a collaboration rather than seller/buyer relationship.

This is also true for public libraries. Public libraries are not there to sell a product to a user, they are about helping to ensure a well-informed, literate citizen that is able to play a full role in the democratic process. Whether this is by ensuring all children have equal access to information resources, or whether it is by tackling the digital divide by providing free access to the internet to ensure everyone has equal access to government as services and information shift online.  Public libraries are not about producing and enabling greater consumption, but in ensuring that, as much as possible, all can engage equally with society and the democratic process.

So, I would argue that at present many are orientated to communicate with users as “customers” but, I would further argue, this is a consequence of a shift in local authority to the belief that profit and consumption are primary concerns whilst engagement in the democratic process and people as citizens being secondary concerns (if it is even on the radar at all). This shift is, in my mind, a direct consequence of the ingrained neoliberal ideology that has corrupted our public services and placed concern for the profit motive above that of the public good.

  1. You’re part of the “Radical librarians” in England (and Voices for the Library too), which emerged from the difficult situation facing public libraries due to cuts from the Government. This movement has a good presence in social media. How do you think you are helping to address the situation from the organized events, blogs and social networks?

The radical librarians movement emerged not just out of the so-called “austerity” agenda here in the UK, it is also a reaction against the increased marketisation of libraries in general,  the gradual corruption of the profession as ethics are abandoned in the hope of remaining “relevant” and a renewed focus on the roots of the profession. We have slowly grown and I think we have seen a slight shift in rhetoric across the profession in general since the emergence of RLC (Radical Librarians Collective), although I am realistic about the extent to which this is the case.

It has not been without its difficulties however. Initially there were many dismissive voices that were dispiriting and challenging to those of us that wished to open up spaces for conversations that had hitherto been hidden. There is also, of course, the danger of burn-out borne of unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve. For me, I think it is vital to ensure that you remain idealistic in thought and deed, but realistic in expectations. I think too often the idealistic can be too optimistic about what they hope to achieve and, in doing so, they run the risk of being exhausted and dispirited if their expectations aren’t realised. I think it is important to understand that building a lasting alternative takes time. What is vital is to build infrastructure, whether that be through gatherings (I don’t like the term “unconferences” but I guess that’s the popular term), journals, blogs and social networks. The building of radical frameworks is crucial to achieve what we want to achieve and our minds should be focused on that rather than outcomes.

In terms of RLC, the journal, social media and the gatherings all lay foundations for consolidation of radical ideas within the profession. By providing a platform for radical ideas, we increase the prospects of the ideas spreading and a clearer understanding of what it is to be radical with respect to the information profession. Before RLC, there was little room for such public discourse. The emergence of RLC not only provides a space for such discussion, but leads to an opportunity for it to spread and take root.

I think, by its nature, the emergence of such groundwork is important as, in the long-term, it helps to address concerns and sows the seeds for radical change. It is a long haul, but a continued focus on infrastructure building is our best hope to challenge the status quo.

  1. Librarians, at the library and the social networks, are working to improve access to information for citizens. People can have more knowledge, but … how to be aware of our freedom to change things, in your opinion?

I think it is vital that we (as librarians) facilitate access to information about alternatives. In the current climate, both politically and professionally, we are beset by the myth of TINA (There Is No Alternative). At a political level, this manifests itself in the belief that “austerity” (government spending cuts) is the only logical path to ensure national and economic wellbeing. In terms of our profession it manifests itself in the belief that the only way to ensure our relevance is to adopt the language and strategies of the market. Anyone seeking to espouse alternatives risks being seen as outdated and failing to acknowledge contemporary realities.

I see it as therefore vital that we facilitate a raised awareness of our freedom to change things. Not only in terms of citizenry but also professionally. The myth that we are neutral is a problem that besets our profession and needs to be overcome. We are a political profession that makes political decisions with every book we purchase and every collection we maintain, because our decisions are filtered through our own beliefs and prejudices. There is an imperative to provide the information required for individuals to form their own judgements. Users must not be steered, but we must ensure that the information sources we facilitate access to are valid and have a solid empirical basis and be wary of the dangers of applying equal weight to all resources. We must also make them aware of the risks inherent in the resources they use, but be mindful of overt intellectual direction. In facilitating such access and ensuring we avoid overt intellectual direction, we empower users and encourage greater intellectual freedom and therefore enable greater awareness of the freedom citizens have to engender change.

We must embrace the political nature of our profession. Realise that our core mission is to provide equality of access to information for all. In terms of our democratic systems, this means facilitating access to state information by guiding people on how they can hold the governing to account through Freedom of Information legislation. It also means giving people the tools to ensure they are protected from state surveillance and an abuse of their privacy.

Teaching these skills can undermine the current structures as people become aware of the methods by which they can protect themselves from the state apparatus, capitalist appropriation of their data and a pernicious neoliberal agenda. Providing such skills can help citizens not only understand how they can initiate change, but also ensures their own freedom. Citizen awareness of our freedom to participate and transform the world should be absolutely central to our profession, for without awareness of such freedoms we cannot ever be truly free.

Creators not consumers: visualising the radical alternative for libraries

The following post was written in collaboration with Andrew Preater.

We are often presented with two choices within librarianship: a forward-thinking approach and a supposedly old-fashioned approach. These are sometimes characterised as progressive and conservative positions respectively. We argue, however, that this is a mis-characterisation and, in fact, the forward-thinking approach could be best described as conservative.

When considering what is progressive and what is conservative we need to consider our context. We exist in an environment that increasingly focuses on market fundamentalism as the default approach, and assumes markets as the most efficient path to provide solutions, drive progress, and ensure the most equitable outcome for all. Indeed, market fundamentalists argue that where there is a fault, it is due to a failure to make our economic system truly market-oriented. We see this for example in the way the cause of the current economic crisis is presented as rooted in public spending, rather than the failure of free market economics.

For us, this raises a question: what is progressive? Slotting in comfortably with the market consensus, the status quo, or embarking on a path that is visionary and alternative? Surely if we are to ponder what constitutes forward-thinking, we would want to consider alternatives that are original, distinct, and even radical?

The use of language is important. The packaging of certain ideas as “progressive” more easily allow questioning, protesting, or rejection of such ideas to be cast as old-fashioned or even regressive. Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users. We see this abduction of language played out repeatedly throughout social and political discourse. A particular path – typically one that rejects a sense of ethics – is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.

Regarding libraries, a “progressive” approach has increasingly accepted marketised solutions to service provision. As a profession we have broadly accepted the idea of members or users as “customers” or “consumers”, and accepted the need to adopt market strategies to meet their needs. Within the broader context of a societal shift towards neoliberalism, it is hardly surprisingly the societal consensus – the common sense of our time – has been replicated within libraries. This is so accepted that a rejection of this approach, for example rejecting the label of “customer”, has become seen to be old-fashioned and outdated.

This progressive approach to libraries is problematic. It advocates a belief there is a market relationship between the service and the user, with barriers placed between the two, and reduces the relationship between libraries and users to a transactional one with the library supplying information – viewed as a commodity in a market setting. Strategies based on market approaches seek ways to overcome these barriers, to better understand users and research their needs to market the service more effectively and to more efficiently provide commodified information. However, we argue a more radical approach might see library users incorporated into the library service itself in a model of co-creation of service and co-production of knowledge, with librarians challenging dominant, marketised models of service provision. In a model of co-creation or co-ownership users would own the service as much as those running it. This would negate a need to “market” the service or to promote “customer service” as users would already be fully embedded within the service itself.

While not perfect by any means, the approach taken at Mondragon University in Spain offers an example of what can be possible if we re-calibrate the relationship between our services and our users. Rather than making the user distinct from the service, the user (in this case the student) is incorporated into the running of the university. Mondragon realises this through a democratic governance structure with a General Assembly composed of a third staff, a third students, and a third outside interested parties. As David Matthews’ article notes, this Assembly has significant powers from deciding priorities to dismissing senior managers. This is certainly radical in the current climate of higher education in the United Kingdom.

The Mondragon approach is far from ideal. It does, however, point to alternative ways of delivering HE and, potentially, for delivering services to students and our broader publics, and there are lessons we can learn and utilise for delivery of academic and public library services. There is no doubt this sits outside the normative discourse in UK HE. It is, in that sense, a radical and forward-thinking approach in opposition to the conservative marketised approach that dominates.

The problem we face is, increasingly, alternatives to the market-based approach such as that offered at Mondragon, seem so far removed from the dominant ideology as to be almost impossible to imagine within the existing framework. As we have moved further down a consumerist path, the default position of our profession has shifted further towards neoliberalism so alternatives become increasingly seen as too “radical”. Whereas a rejection of a market-based approach was once seen as acceptable, partly due to it being at odds with our professional ethics, such opposition has become seen to act as a barrier or an unnecessary restrainer on progress, and those expressing such moderate views have become irritants that “hold us back”. On the other hand, those enthused by commodification of information and market approaches are motivated and driven to enact changes they feel are necessary.

As once-moderate alternatives are seen as increasingly radical, so that creates a range of problems. Spaces for resistance shrink and the effect is to make a move to an alternative seem so large, that it seems barely possible to realise. Indeed, the effort to engender such change becomes so large as to encourage a sense of hopelessness at the task ahead. This hopelessness itself paralyses opposition to neoliberal approaches and even inhibits engagement with the issues at hand. People feel that the task is so substantial, so difficult, that it is not worth making an effort to challenge the dominant ideology.

This plays out against a backdrop of economic crises and austerity economics that make any form of resistance that much more challenging. For example, in public libraries we see fears that during cuts to public services those who speak against the dominant ideology will be those targeted first as trouble-makers. In higher education we see the use of political policing and other forms of repression of student and trade union protests as a warning not to resist.

The library profession is hampered by a growing apathy at its centre. There is a motivated or ‘activist’ core on both sides, both driven by ideological convictions to realise alternatives in the delivery of services. But there is a disengaged, detached middle who are less motivated. This middle are a powerful weapon for the forces of progression. They can be counted on not to protest or resist because they lack the motivation or will to engage on this level, due either to exhaustion or a more general apathy.

This is not to apportion blame, or pretend we can deliver a radical alternative by being a bit more professionally engaged. Across the board we see a tendency for people to engage less with the forces affecting them, evidenced by declining political party membership and declining trades union and professional organisation membership. Opposition is stymied and alternative paths are inhibited as we lack both spaces and structures within which to organise and the willingness itself to resist.

Herein lies a major challenge for radicals to overcome. The odds are stacked against them both in terms of those driving “progression” and an exhausted or disengaged middle. Disengagement benefits orthodoxy after all, not alternatives: the alternative requires action, progressives merely require a weak, ineffectual alternative to prevail.

Advocates for a radical alternative need to be patient. With the odds so stacked against them, an alternative approach will not be quickly accepted and adopted: it will take time. Radical alternatives must be constructed carefully and persuasively. At this stage, the most significant victory for the radical alternative can have is to open dialogue about the alternatives. Without dialogue, without alternatives being voiced and discussed, there is no hope for a radical alternative. So long as the progressive option is dominant and unchallenged, it will remain ascendant.

We need public discussion about the alternatives because it sparks interest, galvanises those who lean towards a radical alternative, and in doing so, builds momentum for a movement. But in sparking discourse, the radical alternative must capture the language. It has to re-frame the discussion. It has to be made clear that the “progressive” course is not forward-thinking, but rather sits within a conservative viewpoint that accepts the dominant ideology, rather than pushing against it to create something new and alternative. It is not true progression but rather it is drift – in part due to the lack of critical analysis that would accompany serious progression.

It is possible to create an alternative. We have the skill and imagination to construct an alternative vision to that which sits comfortably with the dominant ideology. But to do so we must communicate the alternative clearly and publicly. We must be careful in how we utilise language to ensure that the alternative is not perceived to be simply harking back to the past, but as something new and challenging. Something that has not previously been visualised or realised. Something that is distinct from the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy. Something alternative. Something radical.

Questioning professional vocabulary

I’m currently in the process of writing a post about how librarians and libraries can act as enablers for the dominant culture (yeah, not really selling it there am I?). One of my key thoughts on this topic is the use of language and how it enables dominant ideologies by normalising certain terminology (ie by making certain words ubiquitous, we make them seem acceptable in contexts where they perhaps they should not be acceptable). Language is a big bugbear of mine for this reason. Corrupt the language and you corrupt the ethos.

Anyway, all of this got me to thinking what questions we should ask of language utilised in our professional discourse to help identify whether they are appropriate to use within the context of our professional values. In a not very well thought through process, I sort of came up with the following questions that we could (should?) ask:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. What are its origins?
  3. In what context is it usually deployed?
  4. Who does this language benefit?
  5. Does it reflect our values?

I sort of think they are a good starting point when considering the use of language across the profession. I’m sure there are better questions to ask. Would be interested to hear if anyone has any advance on these as a way to help us unpick some of the language we often see utilised.

Language, libraries and ‘The Market’

The central market in Valencia, Spain.

One of the trends in library rhetoric is the increasing use of neoliberal words and terminology. This has been ongoing for some time and, in many ways, is nothing new (indeed, the discussion about it is nothing new). However, it seems to me to be ever more prevalent as growing numbers of people talk about library services (and public services in general) in broadly capitalist terms. We see this through the growth of the use of terms such as ‘customer’, ‘marketing’ and, most recently, in the suggestion that libraries should adopt a ‘market orientation’.

Language is probably not given the importance it deserves. Care needs to be taken with the words we use and how we use them. Words have meaning, but they also come with baggage. It can help engender cultural change within an institution, changing the collective mindset and corrupting the values of an institution.  There are increasing efforts, some might argue, to “roll-out neoliberal logics” within institutions and language is a powerful tool in paving the way for these “logics” to take hold.

But what of neoliberalism? Why should we be concerned about language reflecting neoliberal ideals? Self (Rolling Back the Market: Economic Dogma and Political Choice, 1999) argued that neoliberalism consists of five main dogmas:

  1. The “free market” and market led growth are the principal and most important sources of wealth.
  2. Large incentives are necessary to market efficiency.
  3. The wealth created by free markets will trickle down to benefit all members of society.
  4. The market is intrinsically more efficient than government.
  5. Government should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives to ensure greater efficiency.

Neoliberalism argues that public services are inefficient unless they adopt market strategies to deliver services. Public services should, in effect, adopt a ‘market orientation’. It is by adopting such a strategy that, according to neoliberal dogma, public services will thrive. Not only should we be wary of the strategy, we should also be wary of the terminology that enables it.

Concern about the use and meaning of language is undoubtedly unfashionable. To value language and its meaning is to be too old-fashioned, to hold back progress or to be an infuriating block on progress.  This is a typical characteristic of neoliberal debate – to present the argument as being between two opposing and simple perspectives:

1) The forward-thinking, progressive view.

2) The old fashioned, backwards view.

Such a strategy is well established by neoliberals: neoliberal ideas are painted as progressive, forward-thinking and exciting. Opposition to such ideals (and there will be opposition when espousing neoliberal ideals that are odds with the values of the majority) is somehow a block on progress and somewhat old-fashioned. These old-fashioned perspectives, underpinned by a fear of change, prevent us from making progress. It’s not just about the way they use language, it’s about the way in which they frame the debate.

Language is repeatedly abused by neoliberals to further their goal of turning us from citizens to consumers [pdf]. Our language has become increasingly capitalist, which is perhaps unsurprising when one also considers that we are increasingly living in conditions that could be best described as ‘extreme capitalism’. One does not necessarily cause the other, but it cannot be mere coincidence that our language is increasingly utilised in capitalist terms. Does the shift in language facilitate the growth of the capitalist system, or does the expanding capitalist system influence our language? Is language, in fact, the weapon that enables the rollout of “neoliberal logics”?

In 1961, Raymond Williams pondered the term ‘consumers’ and wondered if we were seen as ‘users’ instead of ‘consumers’:

“…we might look at society very differently, for the concept of use involves general human judgments – we need to know how to use things and what we are using them for… whereas consumption, with its crude hand-to-mouth patterns, tends to cancel these questions, replacing them by the stimulated and controlled absorption of the products of an external and autonomous system”.

Perhaps the changing of our language influences the way we view our society and how it might develop. Maybe using ‘consumers’ (or ‘customers’) instead of ‘users’ sows the seeds of a particular mindset. A mindset that sees society as one filled with consumers rather than citizens, one that enables the establishment of these “neoliberal logics” within institutions.

It is primarily due to concerns about the extent to which language enables the expansion of “neoliberal logics” that I am weary of its growing (mis-)use in libraries. I’m not comfortable with talk about ‘market orientation’ (or ‘marketing’ if I am entirely honest) with respect to public services in general, let alone with specific reference to libraries. Libraries do not exist in a market (although it could be argued that HE libraries operate increasingly within a market environment). Talk of “market orientation” in terms of a public service is, for me, deeply troubling (and I come from the retail sector where such language is obviously deepy ingrained). Not least because one has to question when a market based solution has ever worked for any public institution (clue: never). But also because of what the word actually means.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘market’ as:

Of a manufacturer, advertiser, etc.: to place or establish (a product) on the market; esp. to seek to increase sales of (a product) by means of distribution and promotion strategies. Also (in extended use): to promote the public image of (a person, organization, etc.).

Marketing is:

The action or business of bringing or sending a product or commodity to market; (now chiefly, Business) the action, business, or process of promoting and selling a product, etc., including market research, advertising, and distribution.

Using the terminology of the market simply validates it and encourages its spread, enabling the “neoliberal logic” to take hold. By adopting capitalist language we accept that information is a commodity (a product) that can be promoted and sold (marketed) – in essence “neoliberal logics”. If we accept the logic, do we then accept that our services should be re-designed according to market methods and incentives?

Is it appropriate to frame information as a commodity? And, if it is, how do we square this with our professional ethics? Commodities have prices, it therefore follows that if we treat information as a commodity we accept that it has a price. But if we are concerned with facilitating free access to information, isn’t there a conflict? In a neoliberal, extreme capitalist state the answer is, of course, that there is and that, therefore, the conflict must be resolved in favour of the market (the market trumps all in an extreme capitalist society). We then become marketers and sellers of a product, rather than facilitators of access to a social good. The roll-out of “neoliberal logics” would be complete.

The problem for me is exacerbated by how such terminology is couched. If you oppose such language (as I mentioned above) you are seen as obstructive block to progress, an out of date annoyance. This is how the discussion is often framed: accept market terminology or face marginalisation. The truth is, however, that that particular side of the argument is actually deeply conservative and is, in many respects, the real block on progress. After all, how progressive is it to adopt the terminology and strategies that constitute much of the frameworks of our capitalist society? Surely to reject capitalist norms is to be progressive and forward-thinking? Is a fascination with ‘market orientation’ the actual block on progress? Shouldn’t resistance to “neoliberal logics” be respected in a professional context, rather than rejected out of hand as obstructive? Such resistance is, after all, entirely in tune with our professional ethics.

The adoption of capitalist language and strategies lacks imagination. It’s easy to reach for a solution readily available from there, even when such solutions have had limited success over there.  It seems much harder to come up with a strategy that is substantially different. It takes time and effort to construct something new. We can do much better, we can construct something imaginative and distinct. We do not have to adopt capitalist, neoliberal norms because that’s the path others have followed. We have the skills and the capabilities. It’s no good being fearful and negative, believing that we can do no better than what is done there. We have to believe that we can construct something better.

And this is where the debate often leaves me filled with despair – it prevents us from constructing something new, from using our imagination to construct something better. If you dare to criticise the rollout of “neoliberal logics”, your argument is nullified at source, prevented from being explored in any meaningful sense. There are alternatives, there should not be one dominant voice in the debate, all avenues should be explored and critiques should be a launching pad for further discussion not seen as a threat. However, neoliberals and arch-capitalists frequently frame the debate in such terms so as to close down the opportunity to explore alternatives – leaving us in the state we are in now where we have seen continual ‘progress’ towards an extremist capitalist state.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to be fearful of the alternatives. We do not have to accept that by rejecting capitalist rhetoric we are, in some way, holding back progress. We do not need to enable “neoliberal logics” to take hold within our services. Fear may prevent us from taking action, from challenging existing norms to create something distinct. But we shouldn’t be fearful of rejecting these norms and creating something new. We have it within ourselves to build an alternative, we just need to be fearless, collaborative and patient.

Neoliberalism, language and ‘The Alternatives’

Neoliberalism n. a political philosophy that argues in favour of privatisation, deregulation, and shrinking of the state to the benefit of the private sector.

(Image c/o Michael Thompson on Flickr.)

Neoliberals have a peculiar belief system. They believe that neoliberalism is about shifting power away from the state, freeing us from its “oppressive” influence on every aspect of our lives. It is about freedom and liberty. It is about the individual having more control over our lives. Of course, this doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Whenever neoliberals are in a position of power, they have to deceive the people to ensure that their political philosophy can be put into action. Deception because, ultimately, the people will often reject the reforms proposed if they were offered to them in advance and with total transparency (see the NHS). It’s why very often the most extreme neoliberal reforms take place under authoritarian regimes (Chile being the obvious example).

Deceit is one weapon they deploy frequently and with ease. But more broadly, their weapon is language. It is through language that they are most effective in winning arguments and closing down perfectly rational opposition to their political philosophy. It is their chief weapon against dissent.  As Greene and McMenemy argue (£):

“The introduction of the concept of choice for individual public service users is an example of a neoliberal rhetorical tool used to overcome any foreseen resistance to marketisation and restructuring of the public sphere.”

Terms such as ‘choice’ are deployed in such a way as to ensure that opponents of neoliberal philosophy are seen as somehow opposed to ‘choice’, opposed to the individual being able to exercise their right to ‘choose’. Thus any dissent is effectively neutered. After all, what right-thinking person could be opposed to the inalienable right for an individual to choose?

This neutering of debate and hijacking of language is apparent in much of the language we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Presenting a new initiative as ‘efficient’ or ‘progressive’, for example, ensures that anyone who disagrees with these positions is easily labelled as somehow ‘anti-progress’ or as a defender of inefficiency (it’s worth noting that in the UK and US the term ‘progressive’ is used in very different ways by the right-wing. In the UK it is a term embraced by the right for political expediency, the US right-wing sees it as a term of abuse). Neoliberal maneuvering can, therefore, ensure that opponents are seen by the majority as old-fashioned and out-of-touch, even when the opponents are perhaps even more radical and forward-thinking.

We see this frequently across society in general and in terms of our own profession. Those who object to certain language or who question certain new ideas are seen as obstructive, outdated refuseniks who merely hold back both the profession and the institution as a whole. However, I would argue that such voices are not merely naysayers, refusing any hint of ‘progress’. They can and do hold ‘forward-thinking’ ideas that are often truly radical in the sense that they offer an alternative path that sits outside established orthodoxies.

One example of the infiltration of neoliberal ideology is the growing use of the word ‘customer’. This is a problematic term for a public service to utilise. Reflecting on an interaction in an art exhibition with a representative of “customer liaison”, Doreen Massey notes in her article “Neoliberalism has hijacked our vocabulary”:

“The message underlying this use of the term customer for so many different kinds of human activity is that in all almost all our daily activities we are operating as consumers in a market – and this truth has been brought in not by chance but through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices. The mandatory exercise of “free choice” – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one’s children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.”

Indeed, as the late Tony Benn explained in an interview for Michael Moore’s Sicko, the term ‘customer’ implies a financial transaction, one where money must pass hands. The implication, therefore, is that if you do not have money you cannot be a customer as you do not have the means to pay for the service. This, of course, gets to the heart of neoliberal doctrine – that everything has its price. The risk of employing such terminology is that it validates neoliberal ideology. Not only validates, but also opens the door to commercial influences and, ultimately, commercial “expertise” (this is why language should be carefully deployed, it ultimately erodes the influence of the professional). After all, if you are going to argue that concepts such as ‘customer services’ are integral to the delivery of library services, why not get in the ‘experts’? However, there are alternatives visions to the relationship between the user and the service. Visions that are not old-fashioned and archaic, but fresh and “forward-thinking” (to adopt clumsy terminology).

Take, for example, Noam Chomsky’s view of on an alternative future for higher education:

“First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.”

That seems to me to be a truly forward-thinking and radical idea. Although it is radical only in the sense that the current social and political climate makes it appear radical. Who could argue that this is not a ‘forward-thinking’ proposition? It rejects standard orthodox thinking, replacing a hierarchical system with something more democratic. Replacing a traditional approach with something alternative, untested and, ultimately, revolutionary.

The alternative path to a customer/service relationship need not be old fashioned and traditionalist. It can be radical, bold and resolutely non-traditional. Rejecting the customer/service relationship need not mean that the refusenik lacks a radical, alternative vision. Indeed, the alternative may be more radical than that which accepts traditional hierarchical structures and operates within broader environmental and political norms. To a certain extent, this radical alternative to the neoliberal customer/service relationship is already being tested in Spain.

Whilst not a perfect example of the kind of structures that could exist as an alternative to the neoliberal model, Mondragon University does offer a more democratic, co-operative system. In comparison to the neoliberal model, it is somewhat radical in that it rejects orthodox hierarchical structures. As Times Higher Education discovered last year:

“The university has a highly democratic governance structure. Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation [note: Mondragon Corporation is the overall federation of workers cooperatives which includes Mondragon University]. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team. (It last used this power in 2007 when one manager was dismissed, according to Altuna.)

“Mondragon is also highly decentralised. “We say that the chancellor [also known as the rector] has less power than the deans,” says the current holder of the top post, Iosu Zabala Iturralde. (Zabala appears to be the only member of staff who wears a tie – but he does not go as far as wearing a suit jacket.)”

This alternative to the neoliberal model is forward-thinking in outlook. Embracing a system that enables all stakeholders to be actively involved in the governance of the institution. The alternative to neoliberalism is not, therefore, backward or ‘anti-progress’. It is clearly more forward-thinking and ‘progressive’ than the neoliberal model that merely shifts hierarchies whilst factoring in cynical exploitative economics.

Opponents of increasing neoliberal language and ideas are not always, therefore, regressive unreconstructed dinosaurs. The alternative vision is not necessarily one that sees a return to an old fashioned way of delivering a service. It can be just as forward-thinking and ‘radical’, if not more so as it abandons the hierarchies beloved of traditionalists and neoliberals. And yet still to question neoliberal language and ideas is to be seen as a defender of an ‘old order’. As an ‘obstacle’ to progress. As someone that is holding back the profession and the institution. Why should this be?

There is an alternative to the neoliberal model. We can create a system that rejects neoliberal ideology and embraces something new, alternative and radical, something that is distinct from existing norms.  We can create a system that is co-operative, democratic and that ensures all stakeholders have an equal say in the delivery of services. This alternative is forward-thinking and radical. The problem is, how to deploy language?

At present there is a lack of clarity regarding what makes a radical, non-traditional alternative to the customer/service or neoliberal models that seem so dominant at present. It is difficult to coherently express this vision when the terms of debate and language have been co-opted by a neoliberal agenda. But it is vitally important to ensure that those that reject the current terms of the debate are not dismissed as irrelevant or as a block on ‘progress’. The alternatives are radical. The alternative is a break from existing orthodoxies. It just hasn’t yet been communicated effectively. If we can communicate the alternative effectively, maybe it could be possible to construct a model that re-casts the relationship between the institution and the user as less cynical and more co-operative.