coromandal


tyranny of managerialism and the privatization of results

Image result for for profit universities contemporary photography

You will: write proposals, be judged, anticipate and deflect criticism.

You will not: do research, follow your curiosity, solve problems.

You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work.

Jonathan Katz, astrophysicist

The privatization of research results:

You will: jealously guard – as you would personal property – your findings, make findings difficult to access.

You will not: share in convivial competition.

Industrial Revolution British economics was distributed between high finance and local crackpot inventors and researchers, and was highly successful. After 1945, the US and Germany fought over who would replace Britain as world power, and starting with the atom bomb in the 1950s, built our current, stagnant, technological, government funded economy.

In the natural sciences, to the tyranny of managerialism we can add the privatization of research results. As the British economist David Harvie has reminded us, “open source” research is not new. Scholarly research has always been open source, in the sense that scholars share materials and results. There is competition, certainly, but it is “convivial.” This is no longer true of scientists working in the corporate sector, where findings are jealously guarded, but the spread of the corporate ethos within the academy and research institutes themselves has caused even publicly funded scholars to treat their findings as personal property. Academic publishers ensure that findings that are published are increasingly difficult to access, further enclosing the intellectual commons. As a result, convivial, open-source competition turns into something much more like classic market competition.

[…]

Giovanni Arrighi has noted that after the South Sea Bubble, British capitalism largely abandoned the corporate form. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had instead come to rely on a combination of high finance and small family firms—a pattern that held throughout the next century, the period of maximum scientific and technological innovation. (Britain at that time was also notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.)

Contemporary, bureaucratic corporate capitalism was a creation not of Britain, but of the United States and Germany, the two rival powers that spent the first half of the twentieth century fighting two bloody wars over who would replace Britain as a dominant world power—wars that culminated, appropriately enough, in government-sponsored scientific programs to see who would be the first to discover the atom bomb. It is significant, then, that our current technological stagnation seems to have begun after 1945, when the United States replaced Britain as organizer of the world economy.

Of Flying Machines and the Declining Rate of Profit, David Graeber, The Baffler



non zero sum game

You can win and lose in music or cooking, as crazy as that seems. In order to win, others must lose, in the American way, developed by the emotionally stunted, and everyone takes the risk of losing in the belief that someday there will be a big win. Of course there never is.

For Thomas Hobbes social existence was a war of all against all, zero sum. For him competition is an ideal not a problem.

But there is also the cooperative paradigm, the non zero sum game, in which the rising tide floats all boats. It enables strength, sustainable lives, health, freedom.

From Benjamin Barber:

It is much the same with entertainment. Our most successful shows, themselves in a competition for survival with one another (sweeps week!), pit ­on-­camera competitors against one another in contests only one can win. The eponymous show Survivor is the Darwinian prototype, but the principle rules on all the “reality” shows. On American Idol, singing is the excuse but winning the real aim. In the winners’ world of television, nothing is what it seems. Top Chef is not about excellence or variety in cooking, but about winning and losing. Project Runway turns a pluralistic fashion industry that caters to many tastes into a race (with clocks and time limits) in which there is but one winner. The competitive culture hypes winners but is equally (more?) fascinated with losers. “It is not enough that I win,” proclaims the ­hubris-­driven American competitor, “others must lose.” And Americans have shown themselves ready to become big losers in order to be eligible to become big ­winners—­however remote the odds. We are a nation of gamblers willing to tolerate radical income inequality and a large class of losers (into which we willingly risk being shunted) for the chance to ­win.

[…]
That tension is hard to maintain, however. The two modes of being inevitably become the source of rival theories of politics and society and, as a consequence, two distinctive approaches to human identity. When we contemplate nature as a kind of parody of human warfare and anarchy, as Thomas Hobbes did, our social existence becomes a “war of all against all.” According to this model, we live in a ­“zero-­sum” world where one man’s victory must be another man’s defeat. We either have to sacrifice our liberty to secure tranquility or live well through rivalry and conquest. The price of attenuating competition is always high, even when it is deemed necessary for survival (as posited by social contract theory). In our very impetus to move, this view argues, we cannot help but collide with others. In collision, we cannot help but experience others as limits on our own freedom. The preservation of freedom demands competition, while any restraint at all on competition, even mere civility, becomes an unfortunate limit on ­liberty.

This celebration of radical competition has, of course, been contested by theorists such as ­Jean-­Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey, who have treated competition more as a problem or pathology to be overcome than an ideal to be realized. In the cooperative paradigm, the world is understood to be a ­non–zero-­sum game in which we can win by helping others win. We are psychic as well as material beings and can ­co­exist in common space with similar beings, even become stronger by doing so. Mutual aid and common ground are extensions of our common being and make possible healthy and sustainable lives. Freedom becomes a feature of our cooperative interaction with others rather than a symbol of our rivalry with or independence of them. We are free not when unconstrained but under constraints and norms we choose for ourselves. And we are free together, not ­alone.

The Lost Art of Cooperation by Benjamin Barber



acquiescence

In case you wondered why: the complete cynicism, the lack of public ideals, the acquiescence, the inability to combat evils:

There is in America a subject called civics, in which, perhaps more than in any other, the teaching is expected to be misleading. The young are taught a sort of copybook account of how public affairs are supposed to be conducted, and are carefully shielded from all knowledge as to how in fact they are conducted. When they grow up and discover the truth, the result is too often a complete cynicism in which all public ideals are lost; whereas if they had been taught the truth carefully and with proper comment at an earlier age they might have become men able to combat evils in which, as it is, they acquiesce with a shrug.

The Functions of a Teacher, Umpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell



money is a promise: American jubilee

 

Here is a story about fierce people.  A king decides to sell a servant and his family into slavery to settle the servant’s debt.  The servant begs the king for leniency to repay the debt, and the king has pity and mercy and not only releases the servant but forgives the debt in full.

The same servant meets a man in the street who owes him money and grabs him by the neck, and demands repayment.  The debtor pleads for leniency, but the servant has the man thrown into prison.  Friends of the servant see this cruelty and relate it to the king, their common benefactor.  The king calls the unforgiving servant to him, chastises him for his hypocrisy and lack of mercy, and throws him into prison.

Unhappy ending, sorry.  You probably remember this story from Matthew’s gospel from childhood when you went to Sunday school.  Or if you’re of another faith, echoes of the universality of the message in stories from your own religious teachings.

***

The author David Graeber wrote a book called Debt: The First 5000 Years.  I have excerpted three passages from one of his chapters below to introduce the idea of Jubilee, which is state sanctioned debt forgiveness.

Jubilee, called amargi (freedom) by the ancients, was perfectly described in the moment – in Matthew’s gospel – when the king forgives the servant and the servant is made free of his obligation.  What exhilaration must have accompanied this transformative moment in the servant’s life.

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rioters and partiers
August 23, 2011, 6:24 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life, unseen world | Tags: , , , , , ,

In America you have the tea party, in England you’ve got this.

– UK rioter.

They see the hierarchy and riot; we are told there is no hierarchy and believe it.

A friend on facebook asked:  why do the Brits riot while in America we have the tea party?  They have rioters and we have partiers.

He is of course assuming that economic events – budget cuts and economic stagnation – are the common cause which give rise to both the rioters and partiers.  I waited and watched the thread for two days during which time he received, as could be expected, representative opinions from the cultural extremes:  the rioters are thugs and n’er-do-wells, or they are disenfranchised and have lost hope.  Partiers are crackpots working against their own best interests; they are the true fiscal stewards.

But these pat answers don’t address the question – a good one – to name the constituent difference, between England and America, that would lead to profoundly different reactions to arguably the same social impetus:  drawbacks based on a failing economy.  There has to be profound differences between societies that react so differently.

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strange place

From the Economist, 2003:

The usefulness of dividing the broad subject of “values” in this way can be seen by plotting countries on a chart whose axes are the two spectrums. The chart alongside (click to enlarge it) shows how the countries group: as you would expect, poor countries, with low self-expression and high levels of traditionalism, are at the bottom left, richer Europeans to the top right.

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the degradation of intelligence
January 18, 2011, 7:33 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

I was wandering with a friend through a lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan, having just moved into town and relishing each new street and bar and topic that came up as we ambled along and talked.  He had moved to the US three years prior, and I had been here – in another city – for over ten years.  But now I was new to New York and he was my guide.  Too, he was a confessor of sorts for me to test my ideas about the strangeness of life in America.  And so on that day I made some generalizations between bars, including one about my bafflement about our love affair with dumbing down, our anti intellectualism.  His answer surprised me both for how quickly he reacted and for the content.  I asked, why do I always feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation with anyone, friends, acquaintances, colleagues?  He said, because in America you have to pay for your education.

This is George Monbiot on the degradation of intelligence in the US. Regardless of personal politics, it is a topic worth taking a dispassionate look at.  Topics include fundamentalism, darwinianism and slavery.  A really clear if biased discussion of a big problem for a society that continues to describe itself as free.

From the article:

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

/…/

Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

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staring blankly
January 11, 2011, 7:31 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

When the Iraq war started, we began to see the American heart more clearly.  During this time, if I spoke out, I found myself taunted – both for my immigrant status and my beliefs – in the small thuggish design office I worked in at the time, full of self aggrandizing ivy league graduates, aggressing for partner attention, banking their lives on strenuous opinions of taste, committing no small error to make sad, lousy products.   All the pettiness went on full display at our Christmas gift exchange game:  a large circle of the self satisfied and opinionated each needing to elucidate her arrival in the blessed state of tastefulness.

After the game, partners sweated worry that minutes weren’t being billed, and the rest of us resisted:  snacked and chatted.   I had had enough and – like a good soldier tossing a grenade – brought up the war:  its fundamental wrongness.  At the time I had no idea it would take seven long years for the country at large to finally, sort of, begin to admit that, maybe, it had been a mistake.  One of my more opinionated colleagues, whom I had wrongly pegged as sympathetic stated categorically, without a whiff of hesitation, in thrilling smugness, that it – the war – was just a job.

Handy!  Convenient!  The soldier with his orders taken and his head down has no responsibility.  And the professional back home who has successfully skirted military service has no responsibility.  And the citizenry (also sometimes called consumers), who for seven long years willfully ignored evidence of illegality, has no responsibility.  And that’s saying nothing about public and private leadership.  It’s just a way to earn a living.  It’s just a job.

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in the countryside and down the hole
December 19, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

In architecture school in the mid 90s, a hip faculty faction spoke of virtual space, by which they meant the burgeoning world we were just falling into, through the computer screen looking glass, out into new places of media, commerce, friends, fantasy.  Most of us clung to old world sticks and bricks, finding how paper models and renderings and drawings could support our earnest visions of social and urban enhancement and change.

About 10 years ago, a colleague who hailed from Ireland related going back to the old country for a visit.  He said the difference between the 80s and 90s was stark because of cable, not internet:  evenings once spent on rotations between friends houses for drinks and banter were finished as people kept their doors shut to watch their favorite shows.

In this essay, Lewis Lapham, in proper critical form, shows us how the virtual world has been sold us as a viable substitute for real civic space.  For him, the virtual world is a logical end game in the American pursuit of space and distance from one another.  He describes how American power and cultural elites have always occupied exurban environments, and even distrusted the ‘foreign’ elements that come to the country through urban ports of call.  And how our developing virtual world is the logical next step.

The big screen Steve Jobs Apple roll out show is the unchallenged sign of the times, brilliantly seared into the collective consciousness.  Is it the only thing we do and think about any more – our shiny phones, our social networks, thumbs up, thumbs down, streaming and faster downloads?  No doubt, incredibly seductive.  And clearly we think about other things.  But we don’t like thinking about the things we did back in architecture school:  making our cities better, improving infrastructure, education, medicine etc.  So we naturally turn back to the bright shiny objects and the virtual world.  Into the rabbit hole.  Curiouser and curiouser!

Lapham:

What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.

/…/

During the 1980s the synonym for America’s wealth and power moved south to Washington, DC, which, like Los Angeles, possesses both the character and sensibility of an expensive suburb. As was true of their Puritan forbears in the New England wilderness, the nation’s ruling and explaining classes regard the urban temperament as the port of entry for all things foreign and obnoxious. Over the last thirty years the government bureaucracies have come to employ more people than lived in seventeenth-century England, planting the bulk of their intelligence operations in the Virginia countryside with the fruit trees and the birds; our larger corporations retreat to pastoral compounds bearing a postmodern resemblance to the manors in medieval France; artists and writers of note drift away to villages in Connecticut. The projectors of the urban future meanwhile define the Internet as the civilizing agent that replaces the need for the New York Stock Exchange and the Broadway theater, and the great, good American place, under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security and safe behind a gated perimeter, comes to be imagined, as was John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, as a refuge from the storm and wonder of the world rather than as the progenitor of its energy and the locus of its desire.

-Lewis Lapham, City Light, Lapham’s Quarterly



heroes
November 30, 2010, 7:43 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Heroes, for the most part, are made by the yearnings of ordinary people.  If we’re not careful, and we yearn too much for the qualities we imbue in the heroes we prop up, we can become dangerous to ourselves:  delusional, ineffectual, uncritical, zombified.

There is a too big element in American society that holds these untruths sacred:  American exceptionalism, its inherent goodness, its guaranteed success.  Very hubristic, don’t you think?  And we all know what hubris leads to.  Yet these are the very heroic qualities which we continue to yearn for, dream up, codify, bundle, mount high, enshrine, and most damnably, believe in.

Why do we do it?  A crisis of leadership?  An addiction to happiness-at-all-cost?

Socrates sat in the market in Athens, ugly and insightful and alone, and devised dialogues that challenged the hypocrisies inherent in Athenian society.  He pricked peoples’ inflated hopes.  He pissed people off.  He was an anti hero because he was interested in the truth.  Enough of that, they eventually said and killed him.  That’ll shut him up, they thought, but it had all been written down and we can still read it today.

This kind of critical thinking doesn’t play well in an amnesiac culture like ours, prone to propping up a continuous parade of hero idols.  And yet, now that history has healed all wounds – or something like that – we accept Socrates as being important to the health of Athenian society and, vicariously, of our own.  Maybe that’s an answer that gets us somewhere:  we need new philosophers who aren’t afraid to take on the special orthodoxies of our time.  They are out there if you can see past all of the other noise.  And with enough traction their new ideas can challenge and perhaps even help to change our hero fetish.

Michael Brenner writes about heroes in his essay Celebrities as Heroes:

Nations deserve the heroes they get. A hero is one part the actuality of person and performance; three parts need of the observer for confirmation, reassurance, hope. Heroes are made more by the yearnings of others than by their own features and feats. Where the intensity of those needs stunts critical faculties, the powers of illusion and self-delusion grow. That holds for the object of hero worship as well — for the emotional currents flow both ways.

Heroes are enemies of truth. For they evoke powerful feelings that give distorted meanings to inchoate emotions. They provide the personified symbols of legendary dimension that inspire unjustified confidence and offer the comfort of a cult. Thoughtless loyalty follows.

Contemporary America’s craving is exceptional. /…/ The personal resources of our fabled individualism quickly run dry without the steady sustenance provided by the blind belief in our exceptional virtue, competence and claim on the future. Suspicions that we may not be destiny’s child born under a providential star erodes the optimistic self confidence that is our lifeblood.

/…/

Why is it that all segments of American society are so credulous, so literally mindless, so lacking perspective, so unready or unwilling to call the burlesque that is contemporary American politics what it is?

Michael Brenner, Celebrities as Heroes