It’s the economics, stupid…

Thatcher economy

Just as a quick addendum to the last post…I randomly stumbled across this Thatcher quote last night:

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

I think this really gets to the point of the matter. The game has changed. Simply focusing on “better advocacy” will not convince politicians that public libraries (or public services in general for that matter) should be “saved” or invested in. The whole thrust of twentieth century economics has been to change us from a society to a collection of individuals (no matter how nonsensical this philosophy is). The aim has been both to smash the post-war consensus and to devalue public services. Where economics has been the method by which to achieve this, no advocacy campaign can hope to turn the tide. The battleground is not our libraries or even our public services. The battleground is economic theory. If we do not collectively reject, and coherently argue against, the economic orthodoxy, then the battle is lost.

Why I think we need to speak out against media assaults on public libraries

Image c/o Stew Dean on Flickr.

Another day, another attack in the media on public libraries. This time by Tim Worstall, fellow at the Adam Smith Institute (so you can pretty much already guess which line he will take), in an article provocatively titled “Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription“. I’m not going to dwell too much on the article itself – suffice it to say it contains the usual logical failings (it is clearly not cheaper to give everyone an Amazon subscription and purchase all the equipment needed for those who are not connected etc etc – frankly it’s astounding a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute is advocating greater public spending). But it did bring to mind, once more, the constant refrain of “ignore this, it’s not worth engaging in”. Which, I think, is a mistake.

Every now and then, a piece arguing for the closure of public libraries emerges that causes consternation and outrage. In some respects, this is what the author intends. Whip up a frenzy, get your name out there, ego stroked, job done, who really cares about libraries? This frenzy, however, results in a kind of split in the library world. There are those who, for example, argue that a counter-attack on such a piece is a sign of a lack of confidence, a sign of weakness. By arguing against such assaults we are overly defensive and we would be better not engaging with these kinds of attack. I, unsurprisingly, disagree.

The problem is that such assaults aren’t really attacks on libraries. Look closer at the arguments and you see this is part of a broader pattern. Often the argument is that libraries are no longer required, that they are irrelevant as everyone is online. Worse, that the amount of money spent maintaining them could be more ‘efficiently’ utilised elsewhere. Is this really a specific attack on libraries? Irrelevance and inefficiency? Is that argument only deployed in relation to public libraries? Of course not. This is a standard strategy when it comes to attacking all public services. They are not required any more, there are more efficient ways of delivering what this service delivers. You see this argument deployed in relation to many public services. And here is the problem: it’s a strategic assault on public services. It is a mistake, I believe, to characterise such attacks as “attacks on public libraries”. It’s a very narrow interpretation of an over-arching political strategy.

I won’t go over the nature of this political ideology as such (see previous posts on this topic). But we need to be clear that an ideological war is being conducted here. It is not a war on libraries. It is a war on public services. Ideological warfare is being conducted and we (by ‘we’ I don’t just mean librarians) must confront this ideological assault. Pretending that these sorts of attacks will go away if we ignore them is equivalent to an ideological war with one side disarmed. The consequences are stark. Ideological wars are not, generally, won with silence. Yes, we need to express our “value” with confidence, but we also need to confront this ideological war head on.

These assaults are not even restricted to public services, they are also an assault on those that rely on public services: the most vulnerable in our society. As professionals (again, I’m talking about all professionals, not just librarians here) we know that there are many that rely on our expertise. We know that there are many who, without our expertise, would suffer even greater hardship. We know, also, that the most vulnerable are often voiceless. As librarians, we are well aware that there is a large minority of people who rely on us and yet also do not have a platform to express that reliance. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as a profession to speak up in defence of those without a voice. I would argue this applies to all professionals and, I would also argue, this is something that the professional class have largely failed at in the current political climate (it’s amazing, in fact, the extent to which the professional class will remain silent in the face of an assault upon those they should protect). Rather than speaking out strongly on behalf of those who rely on us, we have been largely complicit or unwiling to speak out.

None of this is to say that everyone needs to speak out. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t suggest that collective silence is an option. That turning the other cheek is a logical choice. That if we just ignore these assaults the problems will go away and public libraries will continue as before, unaffected by the words of someone writing a provocative piece on a website that is bound to host such views. This is not about public libraries. This is about an ideological assault with multiple targets determined to undermine and weaken our public services. Libraries are one of these targets, but to think it is a target in isolation is a mistake. The arguments against libraries are variations of the same as those used against other public services. Likewise the arguments for libraries are the same as for other public services. By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Martin Niemöller

Q. Why does Francis Maude hate the elderly?

“So, you see, either buy one of these or we will ensure you cannot access the services you require and have paid for.” (Image c/o The Cabinet Office on Flickr.)

There is nothing wrong with moving government services online. Undoubtedly it has made a whole range of services much easier to use and access for the majority of citizens. I can now go online and purchase my car tax disc in a matter of seconds rather than having to dig out a load of paperwork, complete a paper form and stand in a long queue at the Post Office. I can access information about a range of government services relatively quickly and painlessly (well, considering it’s gov.uk), and I wouldn’t swap that for doing things the ‘old’ way for anything. However, this is where Francis Maude and I depart in terms of understanding the digital world (obviously in broader political terms we depart much earlier than that). Because I understand that it’s a majority not because the minority can’t be bothered to get online, but because for many it is simply not possible to take advantage of digital services.

It’s for this reason that Francis Maude appears to have launched a rather bizarre crusade to get the elderly online. Rather than persist with a mixed approach to government services (ie digital and ‘analogue’ in tandem), Maude is determined to move towards an online policy and if the elderly or the poor are unwilling to get on the internet, then they will lose access to key government services. It is unclear how exactly his government will then provide these people with the support they need, he appears to believe that they can be sidelined and ignored without having an impact on society in general.

There are any number of things wrong with Maude’s rather blinkered approach to digital services. The most obvious is, of course, that to get online costs money. Not only does it cost money to buy the initial start-up equipment (computer and other equipment), but it also costs money every month to have a connection to the internet. When one considers that Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures demonstrate that 13% without an internet connection point to equipment costs as the reason and 12% say access costs are too high (all age groups), it’s clear to see that the reason why they are not online is not down to a proportion of citizens being, as Maude terms it, computer “refuseniks”. They are not refusing, they are unable to choose to get online. Quite a substantial difference, and one that is often overlooked by the comfortable middle classes who assume that, because they have a computer and an internet connection, everyone must be online (it’s this same middle-class assumption that leads to the old “we don’t need libraries anymore because everything is online” nonsense).

And it’s not just the cost of getting online that prevents pensioners from getting online. The ONS figures also reveal that 20% claim that a “lack of skills” is the reason why they are not online. Again, these people are not “refuseniks” they are people who simply do not have the skills to get online and make use of the many services the rest of us take for granted. If we are going to effectively force these people to get online, where is the support going to come from (aside from the paltry ‘one-off’ ‘assisted digital option’ proposed by Maude)? Public libraries seem to provide the most obvious mechanism for addressing this lack of skills but, well, they are being closed, hollowed out and stripped of their ability to provide the kind of support that would benefit those that are digitally excluded.

All of this rather begs the question: what will the government do about those that are excluded? It’s all very well talking ‘tough’ as Maude occasionally likes to do, but what does this mean in real terms? For those who cannot afford to purchase the equipment or to obtain the skills necessary to get online and utilise public services, what are their options? Will they just be left, excluded from important government services with the subsequent knock on effects and additional costs to the taxpayer (to adopt standard Tory terminology for a second…I promise it won’t happen again)? Or will the government purchase the equipment and the connection for those without in perpetuity (highly unlikely given the ongoing costs)? Nowhere in Maude’s grand scheme does he explain how the government will ensure that those who cannot afford the equipment will not be left behind. Perhaps he doesn’t care.

But there’s another element to this that is deeply troubling. The switch to digital also puts the emphasis on the citizen paying to access government services – government services that they have paid for through taxation. Whereas accessing government services would have come at no cost to the citizen but would be met by the government agency (eg leaflets, consultation time etc etc), the cost is now borne by the citizen. Twice. Once through taxation and once in accessing the government service online (which although does not require payment in and of itself, requires the citizen to make a payment to a corporate entity in order to access those same services). Now, that might be fine for people like myself and Maude, but I would argue that the most vulnerable and the poorest in our society should not have to expect to pay twice to access government services. They should be free and accessible to all in whatever format suits their needs. This may cost the government a bit extra, but better that than costing the citizen extra. Government services must be free to access, not effectively placed behind either state or corporate paywalls.

For some time now Maude has been pontificating about the need to drive government services online. Of course it is of great benefit for the majority of us that these services are available online and facilitate quick and easy access to government services. However, there remains a minority who, should the move towards a digital only policy take effect, will be marginalised and excluded from our society. The needs of the people must take precedence over the need to save money, the consequences of getting these priorities in reverse order will be felt for decades to come. The government would do well to remember that, not just in terms of the move towards digital only but also in terms of their broader economic and social policies. But I won’t hold my breath.

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.