Marina Warner, David Graeber and the perils of paperworkby / March 13, 2015 / Leave a comment
I was an academic in a previous life, and occasionally people ask me why I left the university to work in a “dying industry” (print journalism, that is). Occasionally—very occasionally—I ask myself the same question. But a conversation with those of my contemporaries from graduate school who stuck it out—and there are a few, along with the man who jacked it in after doing a PhD on the early Heidegger and went on to make millions in the biotech industry—is usually sufficient cure for any lingering nostalgia I might have for the senior common room. Reading a powerful piece this week in the London Review of Books by the writer and critic Marina Warner had much the same effect.
Last year, Warner resigned a teaching post in creative writing at the University of Essex that she’d held for a decade. Having been encouraged by university managers to chair a literary prize and also to accept the offer of a fellowship at All Souls—all this, her superiors reasoned, being grist to the “research assessment” mill—she was subsequently informed that “policy had now changed” and she would be required to teach full-time. She wrote about the experience and was deluged by correspondence from academics and students “howling in sympathy and rage”. “I had thought that Essex was a monstrous manifestation,” she writes in her follow-up, “but it turns out that its rulers’ ideas are ‘the new normal’…” Warner quotes a letter from an anonymous professor “who resigned from a Russell Group university”: “Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain… Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’… It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s.”
As Warner observes, over the past 20 years or so (maybe even longer—some think that the rot set in with Sir Alexander Jarratt’s 1985 report on “efficiency studies” in British higher education), universities have been “beaten into the shapes dictated by business”. But it’s not only universities that have been subjected to the enforcement of “competitiveness” through audit and other forms of bureaucratic oversight, of course. Civil servants in Whitehall, for instance, or producers at the BBC would no doubt be able to tell similar stories.
Writing about 19th-century laissez-faire in his wonderful 1944 book The Great Transformation, the political economist Karl Polanyi argued that the “road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in centrally organized and controlled interventionism”—by an immense bureaucratic apparatus the philosophical rationale for which was supplied by Benthamite utilitarianism. Our age—the age of the “target”, the “benchmark” and the “vision statement”—already has its Benthams (the adepts of the theory of “New Public Management”); now it needs its Polanyi.
David Graeber, the American anthropologist and political activist who teaches at the London School of Economics, could be a candidate for the role. His new book, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology. Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, is an anatomy of what he sees as a “nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism”. Graeber thinks this dispensation is the product of the acquiescence of the “mainstream left,” desperate to protect what remains of the old welfare state, in “attempts to make government efforts more ‘efficient’ through the partial privatization of services and the incorporation of ever-more ‘market principles,’ ‘market incentives’ and market-based ‘accountability processes’ into the structure of the bureaucracy itself.” I spoke to Graeber on the phone a couple of weeks ago, and he told me he thought that the distinction between public and private had become “meaningless”. “Something like ‘Obamacare’ is a perfect example of the way that bureaucracy has shifted from a welfare statist or corporatist system to something about which it’s hard to say if it’s public or private. The big American banks are also making money from bureaucracy, from fees and penalties. They set up these rules you can’t follow and then penalise you for not following them.”
Graeber posits something he calls the “iron law of liberalism”, which holds that any market reform designed to cut “red tape” and improve competitiveness will have the opposite effect to the one intended. I suggested to him that this sounds a lot like the kind of thing Polanyi said about the “paradoxes” of laissez-faire. “Polanyi is an influence,” he acknowledged. “Polanyi had a lot of insight into these things. In the 19th century, you have people like Herbert Spencer who laid down the standard line: originally, there were these feudal, military forms of power, then the market springs up and there’s a popular alternative in the form of the free market and free association. But if you look at what actually happened in the 19th century, it wasn’t like that. Spencer was kind of the first free-market anarchist—he thought the state would become unnecessary as the law of contract replaced the old feudal structures. But, thanks to Polanyi and others, we know that governments create these markets and maintain these markets.”
As for Marina Warner, she received compensation of sorts this week in the shape of the Holberg Prize, established in 2003 by the Norwegian parliament, which awards the best part of £400,000 to scholars who have “made outstanding contributions to research, either within [the arts and humanities, social sciences, law and theology] or through interdisciplinary work.” So much for academic “stars” who, as the vice-chancellor of Essex University once put it, “don’t earn their keep.”
David Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy” is published by Melville House