Reflections on radical librarianship and #radlib15

anarchism

Image c/o Travis Gray on Flickr.

The Radical Librarian Collective has come a long way since it first started to emerge back in 2013. Back then I think it is fair to say that many of us involved in getting it off the ground had no idea two years later the third RLC gathering would have drawn to a close. Back then it was a bunch of like-minded people who felt that there was a need to bring radical politics into the discourse and had a vague idea that others might wish to engage in challenging some of the drift that had taken place in recent years.

Since those heady days of 2013, a lot has happened. As mentioned above, there have now been three gatherings of like-minded folk, an OA journal has emerged, there’s now a mailing list to encourage discussion across the library and information sector and there was the creation of an Open Access declaration to encourage a commitment to producing content that is free from copyright restrictions. Much has been achieved with much more still to do. As I always argue, the key to development is infrastructure building which must be progressed quickly to ensure momentum and avoid co-option (which emerged but currently appears to have been seen off).

What has been particularly notable has been the way RLC has been received. Initially there was a somewhat dismissive response (something that occurs when people build infrastructure that challenges accepted narratives), if not openly mocking. It’s noticeable in the last two years how that has declined as barely noticeable now. Partly, I think, this is due to a growing belief in the values and ideas behind radical librarianship. I’ve certainly noticed a growing radical rhetoric within the profession, particularly in the United States where a number of influential and highly respected individuals have been taking clear radical stances on key issues affecting our practice. Perhaps the highlights being Barbara Fister’s keynote at Lilac [pdf] and The Nation‘s coverage of Alison Macrina’s work in the United States (taking radical librarianship to the front page of a well-respected left-wing publication). We are still at early stages, but the movement has gathered momentum and asserting confidence, which perhaps explains the decline of the dismissals.

But what of #radlib15?

Once more the day was filled with interesting discussion and a political take on some of the issues that we face. In terms of my input, I ran or co-ran two sessions on the day. The first, with Sarah Arkle, focused upon the creation of small RLC regional groups. This is, for me,of utmost importance.ive had several discussions with other RLC folks in recent weeks about how RLC can push forward as a thing. For me, the building of small groups is crucial. Ultimately, I believe, small distributed groups that are part of a larger national network is where we should be. The annual national gatherings should then be about pulling together these small regional groups to share actions, discuss activities and work together to strengthen all that underpins the radical librarianship movement. I think issues are best resolved locally rather than nationally, and where there are resolutions, they can be shared and incorporated across all groups, spreading throughout the network.

At the end of the day, we encouraged people to pull themselves together geographically and exchange contact details and, ultimately, organise. There was some talk about building local radical networks, so I’m pretty optimistic that this will start developing and I’m excited about the potential of it doing so. (You can find notes from the session here and here [pdf].)

The other session I proposed was on Althusser and Ideological State Apparatuses. I won’t get into this too much here as its something I would like to explore further in a long form piece of writing, exploring the theory and its relationship with our practice. The theory itself is something I stumbled upon last year and has been whirling around my head ever since I read the piece. I’ve always been interested in how ideologies are spread and disseminated throughout a populace and it’s something that I feel has a strong relationship with our work practice as facilitators of access to information.

In terms of the session itself, I felt that a discussion around this theory would be interesting because there are a number of points of discussion that could be brought into it. I’ve often remarked in discussion with people that specifics in relation to theory is my weak point. Whilst my entire first year on the English Literature aspect of my undergrad was literary theory (which, by the way, I think looking back was vital in developing my critical thinking skills – Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory being the only text we really devoured for a year), I have never been good with specific theories. Indeed, the history aspect of my degree has had a much greater influence on the way in which I understand the world around me from a political perspective. Essentially. I like to learn from the deeds of others rather than the thoughts of others.

In terms of the Althusser piece, I think there is some interesting theory for the theorists to get stuck into, but there are also ideas that are very easy to relate to our practice and how we operate. It was for this reason I thought it would be a good point of discussion and certainly I got the impression that similarly non-theory minded folk got as much out of it as the theory orientated ones. One thing that I think did help with this session, was the 15mins of silent reading to begin with. Whilst I had posted the extract online before the event, I figured it would be good to just ensure we were all at the same starting point and just quietly read to ourselves within the group. Something about this seemed both somewhat radical (in an “unconference” that is all about talking and sharing ideas) but also calming coming as it did at the end of the day. Should I run a session like this again in the future, I will definitely try to incorporate that silent reading aspect once more. (You can find notes from the discussion here [pdf].)*

I took a lot from the other sessions on the day, but I won’t go into my feelings about every session here. There was, however, an interesting discussion about imposter “syndrome” (which was recognised as a problematic term due to the connotations around clinicalising the feeling) that got me thinking a lot about class and the marketisation of our role. This arose as a result of a couple of blog posts by Elly O’Brien and Laura Woods. My take on this as a thing is entirely personal, but having grown up in a working class household in Kent (where we have selection whereby at age 11 you are either sent to a grammar school with supposedly higher standards of learning or a state comprehensive) I can identify with the notions of being somewhat of a fraud. What was interesting was hearing how this feeling manifests itself in those from a middle class background. I’d roughly characterise this as:

“I shouldn’t be here” (working class) vs “I’m not measuring up to the expected professional norm” (middle class)

That’s a rough approximation (obviously nothing is as binary as that), I’d be interested in how others view the distinction.

It was also interesting to consider the disconnect between a marketised version of ourselves and the ‘real’. The trauma of this disconnect thus provoking stress and anxiety which feeds into a feeling of being an “imposter”. It’s an interesting area of discussion when taking into account class issues as well as the neoliberal construct and the extent to which this provokes a trauma related to an unattainable ideal.

As always, I took a lot away from the day and it will take me some time to process things fully. What I have identified, however, is that sense that these discussions are becoming accepted and there have been efforts to try to incorporate them more widely in the discourse (see the recent CILIP Conference). As I have argued before though, this is a dangerous moment for those of a radical persuasion. The more ideas are incorporated into mainstream discourse, the further away they move from their radical roots. In essence: be aware of co-option. The ideas and concerns that lay behind RLC are radical in nature and sit outside mainstream discourse – that should not be forgotten.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a Schopenhauer mis-attributed quote (to Schopenhauer) I wish I had been aware of when I wrote about the journey of radical language a little while back:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

I think this is something I can certainly identify with as things have developed over the past two years.

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in two entities that have had at least some influence on general discourse relating to our practice. Both Voices for the Library and RLC have been (and continue to be) things I feel fortunate to be associated with. Not only because of what they represent and what they have achieved, but also because they have enabled me to collaborate with people I hold in high regard and have a huge amount of respect for. Whilst I do reflect on what they have achieved thus far with a certain degree of “how on earth did this grow into something?”, my focus is always on the process of building and pushing things forward. So I look forward to the continual construction of infrastructure with fellow radicals in order that we can continue to build solidarity and mutual support in the face of an ideology to which we are united in opposition.

* Further to this, I am looking at establishing (alongside fellow like-minds) a radical library chat with the first one being a discussion of Althusser’s ideas. I hope to get this up and running within the next two weeks so keep an eye on RLC for details.

What is a radical librarian?

 

Photo credit: ijclark cc-by.

I’ve considered and then abandoned writing about radical librarianship before for many reasons. In some respects, I felt it was too introspective and expending too much time and energy on something that is really a fringe concern (I’d rather concentrate on doing stuff than getting into a drawn out cycle of discussion about language etc). But it keeps cropping up as a point of discussion so I thought I’d put my thoughts down, not least to ensure that in future I can just point to a URL rather than repeat the same perspective ad nauseum.

I would like to add that these are my personal views and my personal interpretation of the terminology. They do not necessarily reflect the views of any organisation I am affiliated to (I want to make that clear in case people assume that the definition I use for the term “radical” is the definition everyone involved in RLC subscribes to) and I accept that there will be those who hold to very different interpretations of the term than that which I subscribe to. I obviously don’t believe that the following is definitive, and I would certainly very much value other perspectives on this, not least to more fully inform my thinking.

The first thing I think is important to clarify is that, for me, radical doesn’t mean smashing up windows or engaging in illegal and violent activity. You know, the kind of radical that the media likes to present to us. Radicalism for me doesn’t mean violence or even law-breaking*. I think those who have difficulties with the word “radical” break down broadly into two groups: those who think it represents a violent/law-breaking attitude and those who think the term itself is a bit, well, teenage. Being a radical (in whatever form) does not mean that one is either violent or a law-breaker. There is, clearly, a difference between a criminal and a radical.

Last year I wrote a post explaining how librarians enable neoliberalism with particular reference to Althusser’s “Ideological State Apparatuses” (such as education, which is obviously an area where librarians play a key role). Althusser argued that the dominant ideology is reinforced by these ISAs. That the dominant ideology relies on these state apparatuses to ensure it can consolidate its influence, reinforcing its dominance. This notion of the dominant ideology (ie capitalism) is, principally, where I draw my definition of the term radical.

For me, what is radical is to offer something that stands in opposition to the dominant ideology.  Rather than accept the capitalist environment within which we operate, a radical position would be to not only oppose it, but to advocate something that runs counter to it. Because for me, to be radical in the current environment is to reject the language and ideology of capitalism and to work towards something different, something that runs counter to the orthodoxy.

As the position of the radical is determined by the dominant ideology, I would argue that a radical now is not necessarily a radical “then”. In other words, with respect to librarians, the roots of our profession are tied up with certain professional ethics. These ethics, in a neoliberal society, are attacked and, if we are not careful, severely diminished. But remaining true to these ethical roots is by nature radical. Should we, despite the best efforts to erode and corrupt our values, remain true to our ethical foundation, then by definition we are remaining defiant to the dominant ideology. Navigating through a neoliberal, extreme capitalist environment whilst holding onto our core values, is a radical act, because the conditions are designed to weaken and corrupt our resolve.

Basically, for me, a radical librarian is someone who remains true to the core ethical foundations of our profession…in fact, not even stays true, has it at the core of everything they do. But it is also about rejecting the dominant ideology and about seeking to find ways to undermine this ideology. For me, undermining it could be allowing a space for these ideas to be discussed and built upon. It could be in creating a journal, in building a physical event whereby like-minds can share ideas and plan actions, in seeking to explore alternative structures/approaches to those that currently exist within the profession. It does not mean engaging in violent activity, in militancy. You are a radical, in my view, merely in challenging that dominant ideology.

I’m not sure how much all of that even makes sense and I’m certainly not sure if I have even clarified how I define what it is to be “radical”. I’d obviously like to hear more about how others define it. Whether you agree with how I interpret it or not. Ultimately, the hippy that I am, I would like to see if there is some consensus in how we interpret what it is to be “radical”. Not least because the above doesn’t even really satisfy me, even as an entirely personal interpretation.

Update 6/5/15

* I should have added here that whilst radicalism ≠ violence or law-breaking, some may wish to express their radicalism in these ways. What I am getting at here is that being a radical is not necessarily expressed through violence or law-breaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

How librarians enable neoliberalism and inequality, and what we can do to resist it

Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, by David Edwards on Flickr

We live in an era dominated by the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism. Since the abandonment of the postwar settlement just over forty years ago, neoliberalism has become the dominant socio-economic ideology. The notion that an unconstrained private sector (via the profit motive and supposed greater efficiency) is best placed to deliver public service has been broadly accepted by the political establishment. Its successful dominance of political thought was confirmed with the arrival of Tony Blair and his embrace of a liberal economic agenda, casting aside the virtues upon which the Labour Party had been founded in favour of the market. But how has this ideology come to dominate? There is no single solitary component that has enabled its acceptance, rather a series of complex and varied factors that have been complicit in its dominance.

Neoliberalism disenfranchises citizens, converting individuals from citizens to consumers. No longer does the individual have ‘rights’ as citizens, rather they have the gift of “choice”. Choice in so far as the capitalist economic system permits. As Doreen Massey argues in Vocabularies of the economy [PDF]:

“It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told (as we saw at the outset of this argument) that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by ‘choices’, many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.”

Image c/o Alex Proimos on Flickr.

The shift away from citizenry to a consumerist culture is one that particularly benefits those with the financial means with which to engage in such a culture (enabling access to the best healthcare, the best education and so on). It follows, therefore, that such a culture penalises those who lack the financial means with which to make the choices available to those who do. This, obviously and inevitably, breeds inequality. Neoliberalism is, essentially, a system that creates and entrenches inequality (and, arguably, inefficiency as a result) – see Piketty’s much reported (if little read) analysis.

Of course, neoliberalism needs a foundation upon which to grow and thrive. Arguably, no system would be able to do so without certain institutions of power enabling its spread. Without the enabling of such institutions, neoliberalism as an ideology would barely sprout roots. It needs the nourishment that only vital, trusted, public institutions can provide.

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser argues that dominant ideologies are enabled primarily through the non-violent operation of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). Chief amongst the ISAs referred to is the “educational apparatus”. Althusser argues that:

“…behind the scenes of its political Ideological State Apparatus, which occupies the front of the stage, what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant Ideological State Apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church.”

Althusser argues the educational apparatus is key to consolidating the influence of the dominant ideology, and drawing on Gramsci’s (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971) concept of cultural hegemony, that it plays a role in ensuring that the establishment worldview is accepted as a cultural norm, as universally valid. Education is not the sole enabler of a neoliberal, consumerised society, but it plays a key and fundamental role in ensuring it remains dominant. When the language becomes embedded within an educational apparatus that is perceived to be apolitical in nature, the dominant ideology is strengthened. As Althusser goes on to argue:

“The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology…”

This lends itself to the defence utilised when employing neoliberal language: the terms are harmless as they are used in a neutral context, purged of ideology. We can employ these terms because we are not political and we’ve stripped away all political context.

In their article, The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action (Progressive Librarian #40), Stephen E Bales and Lea Susan Engle contend that higher education institutions are well positioned to perform this indoctrination considering their “place of high authority in western society”. They go on to argue that the academic library is a “necessary and inseparable component of the educational ISA, reproducing the political milieu through its collections and library staff or faculties”. The effect of this normalisation is a student class that is “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production”. As David Sweeney, director for research, innovations and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recently argued, the UK has:

“…comprehensively failed to get away from the social elite in higher education…Do we want people like us leaving universities? Do we want our graduates to be engaged with society or part of an elite? Would it not be good to act as models for people who will tackle the big global challenges?”

Our system of higher education does not produce students who challenge the status quo, rather it produces graduates that will protect it, perpetuating and reinforcing the over-arching ideology of the political establishment. The educational ISA is a powerful tool in perpetuating the dominant ideology, ensuring its dominance and primacy. Any attempt to breakdown this dominant ideology, therefore, relies on challenging the status quo in our education system. Only by weeding this ideology out of our education system can we hope to breakdown the structures that create division and inequality.

Image c/o Pierre Metivier on Flickr.

This causes a number of problems in terms of the role of the librarian within the educational ISA. Our position as “neutral” figures of professional standing is a fallacy. Whilst we may strive to be “neutral” our actions are anything but. For example, as Bales and Eagle argue, the ALA “Code of Ethics” can be interpreted to mean that librarians must take a neutral stance on social justice issues, giving equal access to items that preserve the status quo and those that promote the advancement of marginalised groups (this is also reflected in point 7 of CILIP’s Ethical Principles – that we should remain “impartial” and avoid “bias”). The logical conclusion of such equal weighting, appearing to remain impartial, is to create a kind of equilibrium whereby to maintain inequality is as valid as to challenge it. When explored to its logical conclusion, is maintaining neutrality truly fitting with our ethical values? By giving an equal platform to materials that entrench social division, are we not taking a political position? In doing so are we not also undermining the very values we espouse?

Bales and Engle go on to argue that our position should not be of neutrality as imagined by the ALA “Code of Ethics”, but rather it should be:

“…one of social and moral responsibility to challenge the academic library as an ISA, to contribute to the creation of authentic knowledge and history, not simply the reiteration of canonical indoctrination.”

One of the key ways in which we can challenge the academic libraries as an ISA is through awareness of the language we utilise. The growing adoption of neoliberal language, normalises and legitimises it, reinforcing the consumerist culture. Through this use of language we endorse the use of words that are neoliberal by nature and have meaning that is contrary to our ethical values. Endorsement leads to acceptance of the terms as normal modes of language, as orthodox terminology. Using terms such as “customer”, “brand” etc imply an acceptance of the neoliberal driven transformation of citizens into consumers. This is, of course, problematic on a number of levels, not least because this normalisation embeds the discourse of the market in the minds of those who will join the ranks of the social elites, ensuring the consolidation of the dominant ideology. It also causes problems in terms of both our professional ethics and the future of the profession in general. As John Buschman argued in an address at Rider University in 2004, as such “business buzzwords” become ubiquitous:

“Thus does a privatized and economic vision of the library come to dominate discussions and assumptions about its future and define its purposes.”

The transformation of citizens into consumers results in the corruption and, ultimately, the destruction of publicly funded higher education (which has been privatised “further and faster than anywhere else“) and our public services. This transformation results in the adoption of market strategies, gradually eroding the notion that we are entitled to free education, healthcare etc.; instead convincing us that we are consumers without rights, only choice. For a profession steeped in the values of free and unimpeded access to information without discrimination, such an ideology presents a serious threat. A move towards marketisation means a move away from a service provided free and without discrimination, and towards a service for the few. We cannot tolerate a situation whereby we discriminate against those without the means to access the services we provide. Aping the language of business will not, as Buschman concludes:

“…save libraries, it transforms them into something else. We’re a profession and an institution in crisis because we have a structural contradiction between our purposes and practices as they’ve historically evolved and our adaptation to the current environment.”

Without challenging the use of the language of the dominant elite, we essentially become agents of the ruling bourgeois elites. The neutral academic librarian becomes, effectively, an agent ensuring that the dominant ideology is reinforced. As Massey points out [PDF]:

“The vocabulary we use, to talk about the economy in particular, has been crucial to the establishment of neoliberal hegemony.”

In Education Under Siege, Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (quoted in Bales and Engle) described academics that work passively in the service of the controlling interests of society as “accommodating intellectuals” (expanding on Gramsci’s distinction between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals). These “accommodating intellectuals” stand:

“…firm within an ideological posture and set of material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups. Such intellectuals are generally not aware of this process that they do not define themselves as self-conscious agents of the status quo, even though their politics further the interests of the dominant classes.”

Image c/o Daniel Horande on Flickr.

Such “accommodating intellectuals” are essentially, unaware that their posture reinforces and strengthens the status quo. They would not recognise, Aronowitz and Giroux argue, that that is what their actions enable, but they are working passively and, perhaps, unwittingly in the service of the elites, employing their language and ideology within the dominant ISA. The same might be said of the neutral academic librarian who through their passivity reinforces the ideology of the dominant classes. Whilst they might consider their passivity “neutral” it is, on the contrary, overtly political. They take a political position through the adoption of “material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups”. The normalisation of the language of the dominant class legitimises it, that process of legitimising is a political act because it validates language that is a key part of the political agenda. By utilising their language, the librarian demonstrates acceptance of the ideology of a political movement that wishes to transform citizens into consumers. They have, effectively, become active enablers, reinforcing the dominant ideology and ensuring its normalisation.

So, if the neutral academic librarian, or “accommodating intellectual”, is an agent of the dominant classes, what is the alternative? The alternative must surely be to position ourselves as, what Aronowitz and Giroux describe as “transformative intellectuals”? According to their definition, “transformative intellectuals” are those who:

“…earn a living within institutions that play a fundamental role in producing the dominant culture… [but] define their political terrain by offering to students forms of alternative discourse and critical social practices whose interests are often at odds with the overall hegemonic role of the school and the society it supports.”

In order to be consistent with our professional values and to work to create the conditions for an alternative to the dominant ideology that asserts information as a commodity, we must surely become “transformative librarians”? Rather than adopting the language and strategies of the dominant class, we should be challenging or rejecting it. The language of the market has become the dominant discourse within our profession, our libraries and higher education in general. We are too accommodating of neoliberal ideologies that are at odds with our ethical values. Remaining “neutral” is no longer an option. “Neutrality” makes us both accommodating intellectuals and enablers of the dominant ideology. Why should we enable an ideology that is in conflict with our values?

Neoliberalism is a corrosive, destructive ideology. It leads to an unequal society that transforms, without consent, citizens into consumers. Adopting the language of this dominant ideology legitimises and normalises it, ensuring a steady flow into the establishment of graduates “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production” [Bales and Engle, PDF]. Rather than passively and uncritically accepting the use of terminology that is alien to our professional values, we should challenge its use and instead of accepting the language of the dominant ideology, we should offer students forms of alternative discourse that reject and challenge it. The prevalence of what Buschman terms as “business buzzwords” legitimise this dominant discourse and therefore cannot be considered neutral, but purely political. It is up to us to refuse to act as passive agents that reinforce the power of the dominant classes and to reject the legitimisation of language that act as tools of inequality. When neutrality reinforces a dominant ideology that runs counter to our values, we are no longer neutral. There is a choice before us: we either act as enablers or we act as transformative agents.

Woolwich, surveillance, politics and extremism

I wasn’t going to write a post on this initially. Even at this early stage, there will be a million other blog posts on the topic (a million better written blog posts on the topic). But there are some things I felt I could not ignore or not pass comment on. Sometimes the urge to share a perspective on events is too strong not to ignore, or to bury away for fear of being seen to make political points on the back of what is a very tragic and distressing event. Given that, this may come across as a somewhat confused and stumbling post.

Whilst still coming to terms with an event that has shocked everyone, there are already the familiar rumblings about How This Must Not Happen Again. As is to be expected, the talk of legislation has once more reared its head, in particular the Draft Communications Data Bill has been put forward as a necessary step to ensure such events are prevented. Unsurprisingly, this has been proposed by the usual authoritarian figures, principally John Reid, a man who was and remains a keen believer in invasive state power (and is, incidentally, a spokesman for the security industry in the House of Lords – being a director of security firm G4S).

But, as we know, the Draft Communications Data Bill would have made no discernible difference in this case. Both suspects were, apparently, known to the security services before this terrible event took place. They already had their suspicions about these individuals without the power of the Draft Communications Data Bill, so it is unclear how much difference the powers behind the proposed bill would make in this particular case. Even Eric Pickles, not one I am keen to cast in a positive light in normal circumstances, argued that it would have made no difference whatsoever in this case.

Whenever such an event as this takes place, security measures are proposed that, so the politicians claim, will make the streets safer and prevent such tragedies from happening again. But will they really? Will any legislation prevent two individuals armed with knives from going out onto the streets and butchering someone in broad daylight? No, the problem of violent extremism, no matter how it manifests itself, needs to be tackled at a far deeper level than just through simple, flawed legislation.

Whilst it is impossible to know their true motivations, or the sequence of events that led to their decision to launch such a vicious attack, one does wonder how violent extremism in general can be tackled effectively. I should emphasise here that I am not talking about the incident in Woolwich, but rather the broader issue of extremism and marginalisation. Could it be, perhaps, that our political culture is so limited as to push individuals ever closer to the fringes of both the political spectrum and of society in general? Where factors such as poverty probably have a far greater impact, perhaps the way political discourse is framed in this country is also a contributory factor?

Over the past fifty or sixty years (perhaps more than that), our political system has increasingly crowded around the so-called ‘centre-ground’. Despite what many of the ‘loyalists’ on either side might argue, there is very little difference between the main political parties. They have been broadly united on a number of key issues in the recent past, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the need for ‘austerity’. There is very little room for discussion on the margins of these issues (how often do you hear a mainstream politician argue against ‘austerity’, for example, considering the number of esteemed economists who argue it is a damaging economic policy?). For those who take a reasonable position in opposition to these policies (reject ‘austerity’ or oppose foreign wars, both entirely reasonable positions), where is there to go? Given the majority of the media and the political discourse doesn’t really enable reasonable arguments in opposition to the governing orthodoxy (or at least very rarely), it is perhaps no surprise the people shift to the fringes to look for answers. And when you shift to the fringes, where you feel that no-one is listening or representing you, desperation sets in – the desperation to be heard.

In my entire voting life, I have never voted for the Labour Party. The first time I was able to vote was in 1997 and I chose not to vote Labour, predominantly because I felt Blair was, in essence, a Tory wrapped in a red cloak (a very flimsy red cloak at that). However, whilst I am not pre-disposed to voting for Labour, this doesn’t mean to say I would never have considered voting Labour had I lived in an earlier era. Take the Attlee government of the immediate post-war period. If the Labour Party adopted the kind of platform Attlee’s government occupied, I would be more inclined to vote for them as it is a great deal closer to my position than the current Labour Party (although perhaps still not as close as I would like). But this is no longer the party of Attlee and Bevin, and it is highly unlikely ever to be so again. They have, in essence, conceded the battle fought in the 1980s and have accepted neo-liberal economic positions that are at odds with the views and positions espoused by those at the heart of the Attlee government (even though that government was itself not as radical as many would have liked).

So what is left for me? I cannot conceivably vote for any of the major parties, and I am left with the fringes (or the Greens) and I fear that many others across our society equally feel that their views have been marginalised and that there is no-one expressing their own particular point of view. People feel that there is no-one speaking for them and consequently that they have little option but to look to the fringes for the answers they crave. Whether that be radical preachers in mosques, or racist thugs. This isolation from the mainstream and marginalisation is not an excuse for violence, one does not have to resort to violence to express a perspective that public discourse has pushed to the fringes. But one wonders whether the marginalisation itself would be minimised if public discourse wasn’t constrained within such tight boundaries. If, for example, it was seen as reasonable to argue that ‘austerity’ is built on a false premise or that the wars in the Middle East are immoral, perhaps those that hold those reasonable views would not feel so marginalised and consequently pushed to the extremes.

Throughout history, a clustering around the centre-ground has resulted in people being pushed to the extremes in ever-increasing numbers. Where the answers provided by the centre seem inadequate, people begin to look elsewhere for answers. Perhaps we should pause for a minute and ponder whether it is healthy for our society to have otherwise reasonable and sensible positions (moral and political) pushed to the margins. Perhaps, and this seems incredibly naive I accept, perhaps our political debate should be more mature, accepting that there are reasonable views outside the orthodoxy. Of course, broadening public discourse would in no way be a panacea in terms of dealing with extremism or marginalisation but perhaps providing that room for alternative voices in the public debate would be a step towards dealing with the problem

As I said at the beginning, these are at present rather confused and incomplete thoughts. There is no doubt that the murder in Woolwich was a deeply shocking and tragic event. I am not convinced, however, that any amount of legislation or ‘snooping’ will prevent such despicable acts from happening again in the future. The only thing I am sure of is that we need to look at our society, our political culture and our public discourse and see if we can find some answers. We certainly should not look to John Reid and his authoritarian acolytes.