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 Alternatives are, by their nature, a block on progress and their proponents unrealistic and outdated – perhaps even luddites selfishly putting their own interest above improvements for their service users.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– is presented as inevitable, and any opposition can easily be dismissed as the archaic complaints of an isolated and outdated few.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.

The marketisation of higher education – a warning from Chile

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

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

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

Image c/o seven_resist on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image c/o Emilia Tjernström on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

Image c/o on Flickr.

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

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

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

Is This The End Of The Chilean Economic Miracle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do library occupations help campaigners, or the government?

Ok, straight off the bat I should say that I am by and large a supporter of both the Occupy movement and UK Uncut.  My politics, as if you didn’t already know, are to the left and broadly influenced by people such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.  I’ve got a relatively long history in blogging lefty political viewpoints and I am vehemently opposed to the current government’s policy of slashing the state under the guise of a supposed need for austerity (note, guise).

However, as a library campaigner and a qualified, professional librarian, I am more than a little concerned about the way these particular groups have handled the question of library closures.  So concerned, that I am prepared to write a blog post criticising a group of people I am broadly in agreement with (‘broadly’ is probably understating it) and, furthermore, to do so from the comfort of my own home whilst they are out there actually fighting the cuts.  Although I am uncomfortable with the situation I am about to put myself in, I feel that it needs to be said.

Whilst I have been fairly supportive of the occupation of libraries that have been closed, this support has been tinged with a sense of horror and concern.  Supportive because quite often these libraries are being closed against the wishes of the local population.  Often they have not been consulted and where they have, the options have been limited (invariably “run it yourself or we are closing it down” or “you find the money to run it, or we are closing it down” – localism in action…).  In this position, it would be hard to criticise anyone for occupying the library and delivering the service in defiance of the anti-democratic decision-making process at the heart of their local authority. But…

Those that are occupying these libraries are very often not librarians, or information professionals.  They are, in actual fact, untrained volunteers.  And herein lies the problem. With a backdrop of local authorities forcing local residents to run their local library service at their own cost (in effect paying twice as they have paid for the service through their taxes and now paying to maintain it), this is very dangerous.  Indeed, it rather plays all too conveniently into the hands of this government and its Big Society agenda.

Whilst those occupying libraries such as Friern Barnet are doing so out of protest and aiming to highlight the destruction of our library service, what is actually happening is that they are reinforcing the perception of the ruling elites, ie that anyone can run a library so let’s encourage local volunteers to do so.  Certainly, if those occupying the library have actually managed to increase visits to the library, as they claim, then this does not weaken the hand of the library cuts brigade, it strengthens it.  Ultimately, what is likely to be the end result of claims in the national media that the occupiers “have doubled the number of visitors“? Answer: more community libraries and more local people being blackmailed into providing a service they should expect from their local council.  This is an unsustainable model.  A model that even those running existing community library services have urged caution against.

It is highly damaging to see reporting in the national press that suggests that the protesters are equivalent to librarians:

Eight-strong group become ‘community librarians’ with locals’ support after law change forces them out of residential property.

The illegal tenants-cum-librarians attracted international media coverage…

…the squatters, who have acted as librarians…

The occupiers are not librarians, nor should they be seen as such.  Being described in this way does great damage not only to the profession (librarians are easily replaced with volunteers), but to local communities who will be expected to provide a service that their local authority will claim is equivalent to their existing, professionally delivered service.

Of course, this could be down to media reporting of the occupation.  I notice, for example, that the BBC more accurately describe the service as a “book-lending service in a library” (which is what it is, it isn’t a library).  But that does not detract from the fact that the strategy being deployed by the occupiers isn’t actually slowing the assault by both national and local government, but accelerating it.  When your protest is actually making the government’s case for them, then there is a very real, very serious problem.

Now, this post may be dismissed by those involved as someone seeking to undermine their protest for the benefit of the local council.  I can only assure them that my anti-austerity, left-wing credentials are clear and irrefutable (as anyone who knows me, or my blogging history, will testify).  My support for Occupy remains strong. I believe that their cause is just and essential.  It’s just, in this case, I fear that they are empowering the government’s agenda, rather than strengthening the case of library campaigners. Of course, I have been known to be wrong…I hope, in this case, I am.