Globalisation and the automation of work

Trump, trade and technology Michael Roberts blog post 10/12/2016

The biggest reason Trump — or anyone else — can’t bring back home these manufacturing jobs is because they have been lost in large part to the success of efficiency. Manufacturing output in the US was at an all-time high in 2015. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, manufacturers have created more than seven million jobs while producing more stuff than ever.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported in The Manufacturing Footprint and the Importance of U.S. Manufacturing Jobs that “If you try to understand how so many jobs were created, the answer that you come up with over and over again in the data is that it’s not trade that caused that — it’s primarily technology,”…Eighty percent of increase jobs were not replaced by workers in China, but by machines and automation. That is the first problem if you slap on tariffs. What you discover is that American companies are likely to replace the more expensive workers with machines.”

What these studies reveal is what Marxist economics could have told them many times before. Under capitalism, increased productivity of labour comes through mechanisation and labour shedding i.e. reducing labour costs. Marx explained in Capital that this is one of the key features in capitalist accumulation – the capital-bias of technology – something continually ignored by mainstream economics, until now it seems.

Mark Carney: ‘Every technological revolution mercilessly destroys jobs well before the new ones emerge’

The World Economic Forum (WEF) believes we are in the midst of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” with robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) transforming economies around the world. WEF estimates that 5 million jobs will be created by these forced by 2020.

Roscoe Lecture: Mark Carney (full speech on YouTube) Also full speech as a pdf file.


The role of empathy in the sociology of everyday life

Apparently there are three types of empathy. In the sociology of everyday life, if we are to understand the motivations for behaviour, the basis of decisions made, be they conscious or habitual, we need to be able to recognise in some nonjudgmental way, the subjective and material experience of the individuals and groups we wish to study.

This is of particular relevance now as a common cry is that ‘experts’ and academics, liberal and political elites and so on, do not know anything about or understand the experience and realities, the fears and concerns of ‘ordinary’ people, for instance those that voted for Trump or Brexit’.

Clearly this need therefore a method of seeing and to some extent entering into the point-of view of others, commonly referred to as empathy. I assume that to identify a point of view is not the same as identifying with a point of view, where through a process of empathy and sympathy there is a danger of #going native’ as the old anthropologist and participant observers used to call it.

The three forms of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.

The type of empathy best suited to a sociological critique of everyday life is a mixture of the cognitive and the compassionate.

I’m currently reading Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life from the point of view of literature . The following are a few notes on this.

The word ‘critique’ is often associated with finding fault, negative criticism. This is not necessarily the case. A film critic can praise as well as condemn a film, can point out its strengths and virtues as well as perhaps things that could have been better. Critique is also a method of disciplined systematic study and can therefore be, or attempt to be, initially neutral with respect to the object of critique. In philosophy it is seen as the methodical practice of doubt, of examining and challenging prejudice and authority. Since the European Enlightenment it can have associations with emancipator projects in conflict with religious and/or political authority.

A critique that aims to challenge and orthodoxy or expose the unwarranted assumptions and constructions of a discourse, must, implicitly or explicitly, hold to some notions of the grounds for challenging the orthodoxy or for claiming assumptions and constructions are unwarranted. In Marxist critique not surprisingly what is being subjected to critique are forms of ideological obfuscations, self-serving distorted accounts of reality,  various political and economic doctrines that describe the world in distorted and partial ways and, relevant to the notion of everyday life, prescribes, reinforces and legislates forms of life, ways of thinking and acting, that both legitimate and to some extent produce the world as imagined and projected by the doctrines. So critique in Lefebvre’s and the Marxist sense challenges various orthodoxies and the common-sense, taken for granted everyday ideas, beliefs, opinions, actions and behaviours that are in various ways, directly and indirectly, produced by the doctrines. For example, if it is taken for granted for the moment that we live in a neo-liberal world, and that through education, the media, the law, political action and policy, this world is reinforced and reproduced daily through the beliefs and actions (chosen and constrained) of the majority of members of society as they live out their everyday lives. A critique of everyday life would reveal the connections between the experience, conduct and understanding of individuals as they lead their lives, make conscious and habitual decisions and interact with other members of their society, family, friends, fellow citizens in various roles and the doctrines and ideologies that produce, legitimate, regulate and, through the actions of individuals, reproduce the neoliberal world.

Two things follow from this. It assumes that ideology is not purely a false account of how things are and that a critique of ideology has as its main purpose to show the truth that is hidden by ideology. If ideology is implemented via the colonisation of the people who shape and produce the world daily, then it has a positive function in that it makes our world, it doesn’t merely falsely depict it. To some extent ideology, rather than being false, makes true, it realises the world according to its own template. Critique lies not in demonstrating its falsity but in revealing the process by which it makes itself real and, by demonstrating the contingency of this and in so doing shows how things are not as they are because they are so naturally but that they could be different. Ideology is not exposed as a false account, a body of false ideas. It is analysed as a process that produces reality whilst offering an explanation and solace for it. Ideology on the one hand produces a reality, a particular one that is in principle one of several possibilities, and then disguises it. The disguise is twofold – it disguises the historicity and contingency of the reality it produces; it naturalises it and forms the ground for claims that there is no alternative, and it obscures the mechanisms and machinations that produce the reality it produces.

So an important part of critique is not just to demonstrate the inconstancies and contradictions in various texts. An indispensable aspect of critique is the analysis of the everyday life of society that is the motor of ideological realisation. Doctrines are translated into the exercise of productive power. The productive power is deployed through various channels, politically, economically, legislatively and culturally. All this shapes the everyday life world of society. This is a text of another sort, the symbolic universe of living. No doubt this can be done anthropologically but anthropology is a different sort of text, a different sort of narrative to that of the everyday. Much research in the post Trump post Brexit shows that individuals are swayed not so much by facts or academic and expert accounts, they cannot be swayed by any sort of education initiative. This if anything reinforces the feelings of many of being patronised, misunderstood and does not recognise the reality and experience of their lives. The contemporary distrust of experts and claims of expert knowledge easily translates into a resistance, even aversion, to patronising condescending offers of education and betterment. What influences people and recruits them to particular ways of thinking, doing, understanding the world and their place in it are narratives, stories fragmentary or complete, that chime in with their experience, make sense to them, gives them ways of understanding their predicaments, disappointments, frustrated hopes. It also offers them a way to feel more positive about themselves, as part of a community of suffering and fate, confronting the same predicaments, and perhaps a hope of personal vindication and happiness. Narrative trumps expert knowledge and paternalistic offers of education, especially if these are seen as being foisted by self-important educated liberal metropolitan elite. A different world will not be achieved by teaching everyone to be an anthropologist, an historian, political scientist of sociologist. It is not just an educational project that will elicit right thinking and right doing.

Most of life consists of being a spectator and reacting to events on the basis of habitual behaviours and internalised routing reactions, sometimes in the guise of independent decisions. At the most general level this perspective sees someone living and reproducing the narrative of their lives. Individuals are not necessarily freed from this determining narrative by turning them into scholars, academics or experts. In fact they are already experts in understanding the realities of their lives and circumstances and coping with them. They are lay experts in the art of living in their world. They make judgments, decisions and plans on the basis of their knowledge as organic intellectuals (in Gramsci’s sense), adapted to and experts in their lives. What they need, arguably, is a different narrative that entails a different art of living.

So the anthropological study by itself is not the best approach although it has an important part to play. Nor is any other formal academic expert account of the reality of their lives. This is possibly where literature comes in. The dominant narratives that are so influential today can best be countered by alternative narratives that also chime in with people’s everyday life. They would have to function the same way as the current narratives, meet the same needs, give people hope, but can only do so if they penetrate everyday life and begin to shape attitudes and behaviours and people’s understanding of the causes of their problems. Literature, radio, film, digital media and to some extent organised experiences can problematise the dominant narrative, tear away the veil of assumed common-sense and inevitability, the naturalness of things, and begin to construct an alternative understanding, an alternative narrative, and open up the possibility of living differently. The critique of everyday life becomes the basis for a counter narrative offering the possibility of a new understanding and a different way of life.

Sliding Doors and Short Cuts

Physics and cosmology (the study of the origins, evolution and fate of the Universe) are essentially mathematical now, in its theory and its experimental practice (in the case of physics). Current mathematical modeling demonstrates the possibility of the existence of multiple, perhaps and infinite, number of parallel universes. The theory also predicts that in some circumstances these universes can be moved between, can leak into one another, via ‘worm holes’ in the space-time continuum. One is tempted to say, from a commonsense point of view and based on experience, these possibilities are merely artefacts of the mathematics. Even though much of the world can be modelled mathematically it doesn’t mean that the world ‘is’ mathematical.  Much of the world can be described in mathematical terms but a description is not the same thing as that being described; a model is not the same as what the model is of and a map is not the same as the terrain mapped. All models, maps, theories, whether constructed with numbers, lines or words, are partial and incomplete representations of something else. To some extent words and mathematical formulae have their own internal logic; they are realities in their own right and have their own rules and customs. It is entirely possible that the multiple parallel universes are modelled by mathematics are possibilities of the maths, not the universe. It is a permanent feature of the use of instrumentation and apparatus in science that the scientist has to distinguish between the pre-existing reality the instrument enables us to see and measure and features that are observable that are caused by the instrument itself, the artefacts. In this case maths is the instrument and the parallel universes it enables us to see, at least theoretically, are artefacts of the instrument, mathematical possibilities rather than actually existing.

But are they?

The films Short Cuts and Sliding Doors suggest there is a real world interpretation of interpenetrating parallel universes, real world analogues.  The films suggest ways that multiple biographies, lives, leak into one another and can be consequential for both (some or all). But there are not an infinite number of different personal universes, experience, necessity, contingency and fate. Every life traverses cusps, hinges, moments when decisions (conscious or otherwise) or events. Every door chosen or even unknowingly traversed through opens up a new landscape of possibilities but also closes an infinite number of other doors to many other landscapes. Even the conscious decisions may seem to be trivial at the time, as are the external events that impinge and impact on individuals’ lives and biographical trajectories.  When an individual chooses to go through a particular door at the confluence of multiple possibilities and possible choices, this impacts and makes a difference to all the other current interpenetrations into other lives, near and far. One life leaks into other biographies and reconfigure their landscape of opportunity, obstacles, their structure of necessity and contingency. Adding the Short Cutes and the Sliding Doors modes of social interaction, immediate, proximate and afar, we end up with infinite possibilities for personal universes, the lapsed, the actual and the possible.

Life long learning, information literacy and the ‘expert patient’

I’ve extracted this from an archive of a learning and teaching blog I kept from June 2005 ’til August 2010. This post was dated August 2006. I’ve reposted it as I think the issue of open and public access to research reports and data is as relevant and important today as it ever was in the in these days of fake and ‘alternative; facts, false news and the denigration of expertise. I can’t find the audio files referred to in the post so far but these aren’t important for the main points. This topic overlaps with discussions om Gramsci’s notion of organic intellectual and Collin’s ideas on ‘interactional expertise’ A contemporary example of the use of Gramsc’s ideas is The Role of Organic Intellectuals In The Era of a Trump Presidency. Zygmunt Bauman’s distinction between sociologists as either legislators or interpreters can be seen to map loosely onto Gramsci’s traditional and organic intellectuals, at least in terms of their focus and allegiance.

Life long learning, information literacy and the ‘expert patient’ (August 31st, 2006)

A little while ago I suffered from a complaint called plantar fasciitis. I didn’t know it was called that to begin with, I just had a tremendous pain in my right heel when I got up in the morning and could hardly walk. It seemed to come from nowhere. It was so bad I went to the doctor a couple of days later who said I must have bruised it badly somehow despite there being no visible bruising and I could not recall any event that might have caused it. I looked the symptoms up on the web, found an exact description of the symptoms and context, followed the advice and, as predicted, about 10 days later all was well.

A very good friend of mine lost his father and brother to cancer of the oesophagus. Like them, he suffers from recurrent heartburn, or acid reflux. In researching this he found that about 10% of heartburn sufferers have Barrett’s oesophagus, a precancerous condition, and that these are between 30 and 125 times more likely to die of oesophageal cancer than the 90% that don’t have Barrett’s oesophagus. Neither his father nor brother were diagnosed with Barrett’s O. My friend arranged to have the appropriate test, which his doctor had never heard of, and sure enough he has it. The good news is that there is a great deal that can be done to reduce the likelihood of BO becoming full blown cancer – diet, weight loss, etc. – so my friend is quite upbeat about it and feels he has a measure of control.

Another close friend suffers from Torticollis, or wry neck. This developed very quickly and had the effect of forcing his head round over his left shoulder. Apart from being very embarrassing, it stopped him driving and at meetings he had to make sure he was sitting at the side of the conference table where he could look at and address the Chair. His doctor advised surgery to cut the contracting neck muscles was the only solution and he would have to wear a neck brace to stop his head lolling around. Research on the web found that increasingly the condition is being treated with regular injections of botulinum toxin. This partially paralyses the contracting muscles and relaxes them thus allowing the muscles on the other side of the neck to stabilise and control head movement. His doctor had not heard of this and took up the research. As a result my friend receives the botox treatment and leads a normal life, looking to the future rather than where he has just been, and his doctor has had a free episode of professional continuing education.

Several messages could be gleaned from these last two stories. One might be that, if you are a friend of mine, you are probably ill and definitely dying.

Another, more positive, message is the one that John Wilinsky describes so eloquently and entertainingly in his keynote presentation to the UBC Okanagan’s 2nd Annual Learning Conference ‘Learning Free of Boundaries’: A newly Open and Public Quality to Learning. This is an mp3 audio file about 62 minutes and 50 Mbytes. The whole presentation is a very rewarding listen when you have the time. The bit of the presentation relevant to this post topic starts at the 21st minute. However, I have taken the liberty of extracting the 11 minutes or so where John is talking about the internet, literacy and reading ability, and how people are increasingly using the internet to research their medical and health issues and how this is changing their relationship with doctors and the medical profession. This is gradually developing into a process of “shared decision making”. Of particular interest is John’s account of the process whereby individuals develop from not even understanding the title of some research papers to gradually developing the context that enables them get a handle on it and talk productively to their doctors about it. He draws some important and interesting general conclusions about the nature independent learning, developing critical thinking skills but in the context of a vastly expanded access to knowledge.

Sociology as a crime

In 2013 after two men were arrested in Canada for conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack the then Canadian Prime Minister when questioned about what their motives might have been in a news conference said ‘now is not the time to commit sociology‘.  When a conservative MP Pierre Poilievre was asked to elaborate on Harper’s comments and what is wrong with trying to understand why people turn to terror he replied unhelpfully “The root causes of terrorism is terrorists”.  As The Toronto Star said in 2014 in a reference to Harper’s 2103 statement but on another topic, until the prime minister recognizes the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women is a ‘sociological phenomenon,’ no solution is possible.

The notion that sociology is something that is ‘committed’ in the same sense that crimes are committed is not surprising from the establishment’s point of view. As a sociologist I take great comfort from the fact that it has been condemned at various times by both left wing and right wing governments.  By condemning sociology politicians are condemning the ability to understand the way societies work, how different forms of power operate to structure and reproduce society, how it attempts to colonise and shape peoples’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. It is an attack on informed critical thinking, an attack on the demonstration that existing forms of societies, their structures, cultures, distributions of power, influence and reward, are historically and contingently formed and could be other than they are. It demonstrates that the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) is an ideological illusion that benefits certain groups in society and keeps others in a position of more-or-less despairing acquiescence.

I for one am happy to commit sociology; a sociology committed to the project, as described by Zygmunt Bauman and many others, to tearing away the veil behind which power in all its forms operates, demonstrating that the society we live in could be other, and better, than the one we live in, and that gives a voice to all those groups that have been rendered inaudible by the marginalisation and denigration of their experience and circumstances. This is not without serious difficulties but is surely better than rolling on to our backs to be either violated or having our tummies tickled.


Defining and Implementing a Critical Pedagogy

This is a draft article that started life as a collaboration between myself and a number of postgraduate students after the conference mentioned at the beginning of the article. The article was posted in June 2010 using a now defunct WordPress blog using the Digresit theme that allowed paragraph by paragraph commenting. The comments made by collaborators are included at the end of this post.

The Critical Theory and Education Conference last March, organised to launch the student led critical theory journal Roundhouse, was the most enjoyable and stimulating conference I have been to for many years. The topics and discussion were given an added poignancy by the then threat of a lecturers’ strike in response to feared Faculty closures and redundancies. In fact one of the presentations was accompanied by the background noise of a student rally in support of the lecturers’ proposed action. The unrest and conflict at the University of Leeds due to economic cuts and organisational restructuring proposals were seen as symptomatic of many of the changes in University education, its marketisation, the commodification of knowledge, the development of instrumentalism and the general malaise resulting from the adoption of a neoliberal ‘business ontology’. These developments have a number of implications for the role of academics and the experience of students. Some of the contradictions and tensions engendered by these changes can be seen in the confusion about how students are understood: are they ‘customers’ or ‘products’ of the Higher Education system for instance?

A number of common themes and issues emerged from the excellent presentations and discussions. Two I particularly noted were the necessity of developing a critical pedagogy and the difficulty of implementing it in practice within the physical and cultural confines of the University. What do we mean by ‘critical pedagogy’ and how in practice can it inform the process and content of our teaching and learning?

Pedagogy is usually taken to mean the art or science of teaching. A pedagogy will dictate to some extent both the style and the process of teaching. Potentially no doubt there are a number of different critical pedagogies but the general usage is that derived from the sense of ‘critical’ developed by the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School based on the work of Marx. Broadly speaking, Critical Theory has the task of unmasking the reality of capitalist interests and exploitative social relations hidden behind the illusions and obfuscations of the dominant ideology, a dominant ideology that ‘naturalises’, legitimates and secures the conditions necessary for the reproduction of the capitalist system and the social relations it depends upon. Our understanding of the nature of capitalism and ideological processes has moved on a lot since the days of the original Frankfurt critical theorists. Nevertheless critical pedagogy based on critical theory aims to enable students to question and challenge the forms of domination that lead to exploitation, injustice, poverty, and social and environmental degradation. There is a reflexive element in this for both students and teachers. According to the critical educator Paulo Freire, students need to develop the ability to think critically about their education. In particular they should be able to “recognise connections between their individual problems and experiences and the social contexts they are embedded in”. This will sound very familiar to students of sociology who know C. Wright Mills’ work The Sociological Imagination where he says it is the political task of the social scientist – as of any liberal educator – continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals. This reflexivity is equally important for teachers and students. A key aspect of critical pedagogy is to question and reconstitute the relationship between teachers and students, so the development of a reflexive critical consciousness is a promising collaborative enterprise in the co-production of a form of knowledge.

But what is this critical consciousness? What is it that we are being asked to be critically conscious of? With earlier theories of ideology this seemed relatively straightforward. The orthodox theory of ideology went something like this. The dominant ideology is the system of ideas and beliefs that reflects the interests, self understanding and world view of the dominant social class. In a capitalist society the dominant class is that which owns and controls the means of production and the disposal of its products. The dominant ideology in various ways colonises and shapes the understandings and world view of the subordinate and exploited classes and so legitimatises the capitalist system and ensures the acquiescence of the population and the conditions for the reproduction of the status quo. Ideology naturalises a state of affairs that is in fact contingent and constructed. Things could be other than they are. Critical theory’s task is to tear away the veil of misinformation, expose the falsity of the consciousness of the ideologically incorporated masses, and reveal the truth of the dominant class interests and the exploitative social relations that serve those interests. Once the exploited class becomes conscious of their exploited position their acquiescence will give way to forms of resistance and revolution. Job done.

There have been two areas of modification to this rather crude conceptualisation of ideology. The emphasis has moved from analysing the content of ideology to expose its distortions and untruths (this epistemological critique of ideology is fraught with all sorts of problems, for instance what would be an undistorted account, what is the ‘truth’?) to a concern with ideology as a process. Examples of this would be Althusser’s work on how ideological processes ‘interpellate’ individuals by ‘addressing’ them and constructing self-identities and self-understandings with which they recognise themselves and understand the world and their place in it, as parents, as workers, as students, as citizens, as captains of industry and so on. This is achieved through the workings of what Alhusser called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) amongst which he identified the family, the media, religious organisations and, most importantly, the education system. Gramsci shows how ideological processes, operating within and shaping the cultural sphere, colonise people’s common sense and shapes beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Both Althusser’s and Gramsci’s work focuses on how forms of ideological domination penetrate and shape individual’s subjective experience, their conscious articulations of their world and life, and, rather more sinister, even the unconscious, unexamined and taken for granted aspects of their selves, their lives and their world. These social psychological and psychoanalytic aspects of ideological processes have been taken up subsequently and developed by many writers and theorists and incorporated into second and third generation critical theory.

The main point to be taken from this though is that it is no longer possible to see ideology simply as a distorted version of reality and all that is needed is to find a way of removing the distorting lens of ideology to see what is ‘really’ going on. This is because ideological processes simultaneously both represent and construct reality. Ideology constructs social relations, shapes mental conceptions, and provides people with repertoires of understanding, action and behaviour. If society is materially and structurally the sum of the outcomes of the agency of social actors, then ideology constructs reality rather than hides a pre-existing reality. It is not simply a contingently constructed representation hiding an underlying ‘actual’ reality. Since reality is partly a construction of ideological processes and representations, reality cannot be appealed to in any simple way to provide an independent falsification of the ideological representation of itself. More accurately, reality can be seen as the result of a process of co-construction, even co-evolution, involving both material and social processes. Reality is itself contingent in that it is a material and social construction actualised by the contingent ideological representations and processes that shape and constrain actors’ mental conceptions and behaviours.

With Gramsci and Althusser, then, we no longer see ideology as just the construction of a psychological illusion. We see ideology more as a process that constructs and is constructing reality, as a social and material reality. This makes a strategy that somehow exposes a non-ideological reality to be placed in opposition to a distorted ideological representation of reality unavailable. However, what can be done is the exposure of the processes by which powerful interests are converted into particular contingent social, cultural, political economic and material realities. This opens the way for different sorts of societies and social arrangements to be envisioned by ‘denaturalising’ the taken for granted ‘realism’ of the status quo. Clearly the ‘real’ has a number of different senses here. If a critical pedagogy aims to expose some aspects of what is ‘really’ going on, then it is important to clarify what we mean by the ‘real’. What is the nature of this ‘real’ and how can it best be understood, investigated and represented in knowledge?

This is where the perspective of Critical Realism may be useful. This is usually traced back to the philosophical and epistemological work of Roy Bhaskar and developed more sociologically by writers such as Margaret Archer and William Outhwaite amongst others. Broadly speaking, Critical Realists assert that reality is multidimensional and stratified. The social and material world we observe is the visible and contingent product of underlying generative mechanisms and processes. The reality we observe is partly contingent on the way human society, symbolically and materially, interacts with these underlying generative processes. This suggests the reality we observe has been and could again be different. I say that reality is partly contingent and shaped by the way we interact with the underlying processes because to some extent these are aspects of ‘intransitive’ reality, i.e. that which is independent of human knowing and human knowledge. One way of thinking about this is to see intransitive reality evidenced in the ways that nature hits back and escapes our techniques of control and intentions, or in the way that the dynamics of social processes produce unintended consequences that confound our social and political strategies and policies. Some processes evidently work beyond our understanding and intentions.

There seem to be clear affinities between Critical Theory and Critical Realism. What we see is the ‘surface of things’. The reality presented to us as observers of the everyday, or even as scientists, is in fact contingent effects, traces, of underlying mechanisms (natural, social, economic). The reality we see and directly experience is symptomatic of deeper invisible processes and the key to understanding the reality we see is to somehow read from these down to the underlying processes that, intermeshing and impacting on one another, produce the surface reality as their emergent and contingent product. The implication is that the self-same processes are capable and could have produced the observable reality differently. The produced reality could be other than it is and part of the explanation of why reality is as it is, contingently, is the exercise within society of economic and cultural power. This emphasis on the contingency of reality associate with the exercise of power is a key point of connection between Critical Theory and Critical Realism. This is why it is ‘critical’ realism. This also has the consequence of generalising some features of ideology, as a representational system and as a meaning-making process, to all forms of knowledge including science. It extends the critique of social forms of knowledge, their embeddedness in social relations and networks of power, to the sciences as well.

Another take on what is real is offered by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism. By capitalist realism he means “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable and political system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine an coherent alternative to it”. (p 2 author’s emphasis). Fisher claims we are now living in a post-ideological age, certainly in the sense of the classical concept of ideology. Capitalism no longer needs to dissemble via ideology. We live in and collude with capitalism with a degree of bad faith and cynicism largely because of a sense of its inevitability and because it is seen as the least bad system. This is a ‘realistic’ acceptance of the capitalist system as “the only act in town”. Symptomatic of this is the prevailing mood that the best we can do is ameliorate its most destructive and unjust consequences. Ameliorate global injustice by buying Fairtrade products. Ameliorate global warming and climate change by trading carbon and the right to pollute. According to Fisher most events in the name of anti-capitalism concede too much to this capitalist realism and, in practice, limit themselves to the ambition to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism rather than replace it. They don’t expect too much. Capitalism can comfortably incorporate anti-capitalism and even exploit it. In his view most anti-capitalist protests create “a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism and […] share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8” (p 14). So capitalist realism is “like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought an action” (author’s emphasis p 16). When politicians repeatedly use the phrase “the reality is that …. “ when prefacing an argument about cutting public expenditure, increasing taxes, privatising some aspect of public services or increasing student fees the reality they invoke is that naturalised by capitalist realism.

Fisher invokes with approval a Lacanian distinction between the ‘Real’ and the ‘real’ that Žižek has recently revived. The Real can be seen as the realm of possibility that a naturalised contingent reality must suppress. The ‘real’ is the contingent reality that has succeeded in naturalising itself by suppressing, by blocking off from consciousness and knowledge, the underlying processes that the maintenance of the contingent reality relies on. The task is to reveal the current reality as contingent and therefore potentially other than it is. To do this we must look for and exploit fissures and tears in reality that provide glimpses of these processes. The connection with Critical Realism’s notion of ‘intransitive reality’ can be seen here. Fisher identifies a number of rents in the fabric of capitalist realism revealed by developments in the environment, in education and in the role of the State. Each of these developments expose contradictions that have the potential to ‘denaturalise’ and give the lie to capitalist realism and the impression that there is no alternative.

There is an application of critical realism that may illuminate what a critical pedagogy might be in practical terms. This can be illustrated by the writings and work of photographer and documentary film maker Allan Sekula. Much of his work is a commentary on and critique of the workings and consequences of global capitalism. Representations of reality recorded in photographs and film cannot be seen as objective and neutral records. We are aware of how a photographer’s point of view and selection of subject matter constructs a photograph and we are aware of the postproduction processes such as cropping. But the content is not bent entirely to the photographer’s will or subconscious framings. There is a sense in which the photograph ‘knows’ more than its author. It is a representation of a reality that is initially autonomous with respect to its author. In a documentary photograph the reality represented pre-exists the photographer’s interest and intent and was already there to be found. Critical realism in this aesthetic modality is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms and the product of a history that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens. From a critical realist perspective the underlying processes and mechanisms are fundamentally those of the workings and logic of the globalising capitalist economy. These processes create and present the visible surface of things to the camera and the photographer and can be revealed so that the image can be understood as the product of these processes. In Sekula’s work these underlying processes are understood in Marxian conceptions of the circulation of value to acquire growth, capitalist labour relations, processes of commodification, commodities as the product of exploitative social relations, commodities as the embodiment of ‘dead’ labour.

Typical of his recent work is the 2006 film Lottery of the Sea (the title is taken from Adam Smith’s observation that the prospects of work and success in capitalism is like a lottery) which is a densely woven and moving documentary on globalization and its political and ecological discontents. Amongst many other events and scenes in the Lottery of the Sea, there are depictions of life working on deregulated container ships sailing under flags of convenience, the dispossession of marginal and powerless communities to make way for container ship dockyard developments and tourist accommodation and facilities, and the local inhabitants’ attempts to clean up the oil spilt on the beaches from The Prestige, an oil tanker that sank in controversial circumstances in 2002 off the Spanish Galician coast polluting thousands of kilometres of Spanish and French coastline and disastrous damage to the environment and the local economies based on the fishing industry. The images and film sequences can be unpacked in terms of the labour relations under the conditions of global capitalism that constructed the reality depicted in the images.

So what does all this imply for a critical pedagogy, for practical styles and methods of teaching and the relationship between teachers and students and their collective relationship with the learning process? What is the critical consciousness that critical pedagogy should try to develop with students? How is this achievable within formal higher education institutions that have been culturally colonised and structured by the ‘business ontology’ naturalised by the neoliberal hegemony and, in Fisher’s sense, capitalist realism?

In the spirit of critical theory and a putative critical pedagogy, this would perhaps best be discussed and formulated as an exercise in the collaborative co-construction of critical knowledge by students and teachers with interests in conceptions of the public good and social and environmental justice. Several of the speakers at the conference paved the way for this discussion. For example, Monica Mclean suggested that we should become activists in our own places of work and, in order to face the distorting colonisations in the university environment, we need to be critical and “agree what is right”. Ricardo Blaug, on the other hand, seemed to suggest that little was now possible to foster this sort of critique within the structures and strictures of the University. His suggestion was that we should explore the possibility of following and enacting the principle of ‘parallelism’ adopted by activists in the Prague Spring of 1968. Students and academic staff should look for ways that the critical aspects of education and political critique and engagement in danger of being neglected by our marketised and commodified education system can be pursued alongside the existing educational institutions. Personally, as a teacher of sociology, and bearing in mind C. Wright Mills’ characterisation of the ‘sociological imagination’ referred to above, I see critical pedagogy as fully compatible with an engaged and politically relevant sociology. This is the case with many of the social sciences, arts and humanities. It is not inevitable that these disciplines will lose their reflexive and critical edge in today’s political and educational climate. But what are the practical implications of critical pedagogy for mathematics, for modern languages, for engineering and for the natural sciences? The answers to these questions are specific to the disciplines but also general to the purposes and functions of higher education in the production of informed and engaged citizens who will have to solve not only their own problems but to some extent consider what they hand on to future generations, possibly beyond the era of capitalist realism and the neoliberal hegemony. This urgent discussion is still needed and hopefully Roundhouse, initiatives like the Really Open University, and the critical ethos that still exists within the Academy will carry this forward in imaginative and effective ways.

References and Resource
Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher
k-punk Mark Fisher’s blog
Critical Pedagogy definition

Terry Wassall 11th June 2010 3312 words.


Terry says
I had originally intended that this article would draw some conclusions about what a critical pedagogy would be in practice, given the analysis of the various sorts of realisms etc. But it is already over 3000 words and perhaps this could come out in some discussion, especially if I make the concluding paragraph of 2 more of an obvious invitation discuss it. The last 3 paragraphs begin the discussion after a fashion. Or perhaps a follow up article that I could put on my own blog and link to from the Roundhouse blog.

Leon says
But I would argue that there is a distinction between reality and any constructed ideas about it [Sayer (2000) has a good account of this position], (mis)perceptions of which could be ideological in that they do distort it. For instance, would you not want to argue that your picture of the construction of reality presented here is a more accurate picture of reality than mine?

Terry says
You’d have to tell me what yours is first! The relationship between a symbolic representation and that which it represents can vary of course. A map of a mythical island can presumably be shown to be false if the referent, the island, cannot be found or empirically demosntrated in any way. Or a unicorn perhaps. But a map of the London Underground does have a least a schematic relationship to the network of railways and stations and this can be demonstrated empirically and in practice. This is hardly surprising as the ‘actual’ underground system and the schematic map that now represents it are both constructed from the original plans that built the empirical railway network. To what extent is the underground map either true or false? This is why I think your claim “there is a distinction between reality and any constructed ideas about it” is problematic, or at least the ‘any’ is. Some realities are not distinct from the constructed ideas about them because the constructed ideas have constructed the reality, socially or materially. This is what Bachelard was trying to get at in another context with his claim that scientific apparatus should be understood as ‘reified theory’ and his notions of ‘surrealism’. And perhaps Murphy with his ideas about ‘recombinant’ nature.

Leon says
On ‘fissures’ and ‘tears in reality’ John Holloway’s new book is insightful:

Terry says
Great. Thanks Leon. I’ll have a look. Going back to our discussion in paragraph 7. These ‘tears’ are perhaps evidenced, made visible, by a mismatch between the reality posited by a discourse (say neoliberalism’s account of the operation of free markets) and what reality actually comes up with, empirically and demonstrably.

Leon says
‘Critical realism in this aesthetic modality is based upon the idea that the reality available to the camera’s lens and our direct perception is the surface of underlying processes and mechanisms and the product of a history that are not immediately apparent in the visible aspect of the images projected onto our retinas or the photographic medium behind the lens.’ Perhaps a little hard to decipher the meaning here.

Terry says
Thanks. If the article get to go-ahead I will be attending to some of the more obscure forms of words. This sentence is, verbatim, a note I made while listening to a presentation about Sekula after a screening of ‘The Lottery of the Sea’. It is rather condensed an enigmatic.

Terry says
Looks like a discussion of another piece may leak into this one! Never mind. I am here playing the Devil’s advocate

“ creating social relations on a different basis, on the basis of love, friendship, solidarity, collaboration, fun”.

A problem with this is that it is not necessarily anti-capitalist and doesn’t necessarily threaten capitalism. As Fisher says, capitalism can colonise counter currents and relationship, exploit them, commodify them, marketise them, legitimate itself with them, demonstrae its inevitability with them, etc.

“Either we take the highway of subordination to the logic of capital, in the clear knowledge now that this leads directly to the self-annihilation of humanity; or else we take the hazardous paths of inventing different worlds, here and now and through the cracks we create in capitalist domination”.

The cracks mentioned here “we create” are due to the volition of actors and may not be cracks at all. Some of them will be accommodations and adaptations to the capitalist reality. I think the tears and fissures Fisher talks about are due to structural contradictions that create the opportunities to see beyond the ‘naturalised, capitalist realism and do not depend on deliberate human agency for their existence although agency (informed presumably by a critical consciousness looking for the cracks) would be necessary to expose them and articulate them in a genuine anti-capitalist discourse and project.

Or though (thinking aloud!) ‘we’ might create the cracks in the sense that the contradictions Fisher refers to as being inherent in the capitalist system may well have an impact on our behaviour and experience and force the sort of reflexivity that Giddens and Archer refer to. Then it is a matter of how we translate that reflexivity into adaptation and a strategy of accommodation or a critical consciousness and a genuine anti-capitalist discourse and project. Another increment of self-annihilation as in the quote above or a step on the hazardous path to inventing a different life.

Speaking truth to power

Today’s brief post is about my growing irritation with the frequent cries that we should ‘speak truth to power’.  Of course we should but this is not the real problem. The people who have and manipulate power in the various political and corporate institutions and organisations know full well, generally speaking, that they are not dealing in truths. They’re not usually stupid. They know for instance that immigration is not the cause of most people’s problems, that many aspects of austerity policies are not necessary, that free markets are in fact inefficient and cause a great deal of poverty, insecurity and stress. They do not make the policies they make and say the things they say through ignorance so that if we could just put them right they would become good guys. They know the world could be different and that the world we live in and that advantages them so much is largely constructed through an ideological narrative and the policies, actions and manipulations of powerful people and institutions that make it real. They don’t want change and will resist and denigrate any other narrative that, should if ever be implemented politically, economically and culturally, would destroy their world. So they are not suffering from a knowledge deficit and consequently addressing this supposed knowledge deficit is not a sufficient strategy to change the world we live in for the better.

Arguably the real problem is that their narrative has been normalised and largely accepted by the people who keep them in power. The power we are encouraged to speak to is exercised through various political, economic and cultural processes and institutions to produce a more-or-less compliant and often complacent public who in the majority of cases have been schooled to accept the narrative of the powerful and see the world in their terms, accept that this is the natural order of things, there is no alternative and that individuals must sink or swim according to their own faculties and abilities and, whatever the outcome, it is their individual and personal responsibility. This is the underpinning of the belief that virtue is commensurate with income, wealth and material possessions. Rich equals virtuous, poor equals degenerate and all those in the middle are doing the best they can with whatever talents god gave them. It is a notion of the just society built on the assumption of just desserts.

Our compromised and hollowed out democratic process is just one of the ways that the powerful exercise their power. The people have spoken, so it is the democratic will of the people. But what if the people have been ventriloquised by the powerful’s narrative? After the 19th century Reform Acts that progressively gave voting rights to, initially, working men and the legitimacy of government moved from being based on the monarch and god to ‘the people from below’, the subsequent education reforms to extend education to workers (prompted in part by the perception the British economy was beginning to lose out to other nations with better educated work forces) were seen as problematic politically. Somewhat cynically it was said at the time that it would be necessary to ‘educate our masters’ and a form of elementary schooling was introduced which would socialise the poor into subservience.

Louis Althusser, a french sociologist and philosopher, studied the ways that individuals were induced to see the taken-for-granted world and their ascribed place in it as legitimate and inevitable. Key to understanding how this essentially ideological process takes place, he said, is to see it as the role and outcome of what he called ‘ideological state apparatuses’; in particular the education, religions and the mass media. There are serious problems with much of Althusser’s thought but the ideological incorporation and recruitment of the population into particular narratives is undoubtedly of enormous political significance in today’s world. So as well as speaking truth to power it seems that those that want to promote change to a more fair, just and equal world must tackle the fact that the dominant power is exercised through a variety of cultural and political institutions that must either be bypassed or transformed in some ways. Religion, the mass media of communication and the education system become important sites of resistance and the promotion and promulgation of an alternative narrative, different ways of thinking that tear away the ideologically constructed veil behind which power hides and legitimates itself, and different ways of conducting our lives and relations with others. And this is happening.

Back from fishing

A recent comment, from Victoria, asked if I had gone fishing. Not quite. I’ve made a few posts here since last September when she commented but the last couple of years with accidents, surgery and so on I’ve not been as active on here as I had expected. Having said that, I have been a fairly regular poster to Facebook and occasionally get involved in minor spats on political issues. Given the eclectic nature of my followers and friends there this is not perhaps surprising. I’ve decided to have another go at using this blog for issues and posts that might lead to some discussion. Then if anyone wants to take me to task or help develop the ideas here they can do so without it being inflicted on everyone else.

Blaming the ‘baby boomers’

For a number of reasons it suits our government and their powerful backers and clients to find as many scapegoats as possible to divert us from any knowledge or understanding about our masters’ complicity in our social and personal decline. Immigration is perhaps the trump scapegoat but other stigmatised groups are the poor and the elderly. As far as the elderly are concerned, the whinge is that Baby Boomers are the real ‘me’ generation and are apparently being advantaged to the detriment of the younger generation. Their selfishness is one of the main causes of our social ills. May I say, as politely as possible, this is a load of bollocks.

A recent report on housing shows that the Bank of Mum and Dad (not to mention Grandad and Grandma) are the fourth biggest source of money for the younger generation to get on to the housing ladder. In fact grand parents are increasingly skipping a generation and passing on money to help their grand children (house deposits, university fees, etc.) rather than their children. This is certainly the case with many of my older friends.

More generally, services provided by retired parents and grandparents to their children are also a massive contribution not only directly to their kids but also the economy. Free child care, collecting and looking after school children while their parent are at work, help with holidays and unexpected household bills, and many other services make a significant contribution to their children’s quality of life and working prospects. It constitutes a massive contribution to the local community and economy. And this is before you factor in any voluntary work many retired people undertake at their own expense.

Many retired people plough back into their families and communities much more than their state pension, still one of the lowest in Europe and the Western world. In most cases they can only afford to do this because they have contributed for much of their working lives not only National Insurance contributions but towards occupational and private pensions too. In the meantime their income tax has paid for the welfare state that their own parents and grandparents have benefited from as they have got older. Arguably it’s their turn now.

It is a fallacy to see the State pension as a hand out or a benefit. It has been paid for through a working life time (in my case 51 years) of National Insurance and taxes. Something I haven’t seen mentioned in the claims of the culpability and greed of pensioners is that much of their working lives was under regimes of wage control. The argument then was this was a form of deferred wages and by agreeing to wage restraint we were, in addition to NI, funding our old age pensions.

In short, the older generation to a large extent is rescuing the younger generations from the consequences of neoliberal privatisation and marketisation policies, the flat lining of real income levels for over 30 years and their absolute decline for at least 10 years. Many ‘baby boomer’ parents and grandparents are recycling their hard earned pensions into the debt based privatised Keynesianism that, one way or another, is keeping us all going despite the self interested incompetence of successive governments.

I know some pensioners are smug self-congratulatory selfish bastards. So are many politicians, plumbers, teachers, highway engineers, cyclists, car drivers, pheasant pluckers, doctors, in fact human beings generally. But most are not. Beware lazy generalisations, a key weapon in the government and media ideological tool kit. Don’t fall for it. The aim is to stop you thinking.

Nothing in the corridors of power for his kind of sociology

This is a quote from Madeleine Bunting’s profile of Zygmunt Bauman’s Guardian profile in April 2003.

He says he “sees nothing in the corridors of power” for his kind of sociology; the audience he has in mind for his work are ordinary people “struggling to be human”. What preoccupies him is how social conventions obstruct the possibility of human liberation and it makes him a stern critic of the status quo, particularly in his growing focus on how an individualistic society finds common cause, and how the public realm can be renewed and sustained.

This reminds me of something that BSA Presidential Event, held on 8 February 2010 at the British Library London, on ‘How to put “Society” into Climate Change’ that was said by Malcolm Wicks MP in his opening address ‘Climate Change: What is the Question?’. He made it quite clear that he was only interested in what social science had to say about climate change to the extent it was inline with government climate change policy. All the rest is ideology.