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There’s a very longtime acquintance of mine, a man I admire. I know him through the Labour Party. He’s dependable, thoughtful, well read, a retired industrial worker and experienced shop steward. He’s more than a pollster’s or a sociologist’s category; he’s real working class and holds the values to prove it. He’s a socialist; he and the Labour Party are a natural fit but there’s something wrong these days.

I bumped into him in town recently. He’s great company and I was glad he suggested a pint.

He was bothered and thoughtful about a meeting he’d attended the previous evening. He feels left out and odd at party meetings. The discussions, he says, are too confined to gender, identity, management and liberal issues generally and when they refer to work and trade unionism, they go on about organising as if nothing much had happened in the last 30 years or so. (As for me, he says that I’m not much better, always on about inequality of income, republican citizenship, and the type of work – jobs – that he doesn’t recognise.)

He has no difficulty with any of the liberal, cultural, identity issues. They’ve always been there – part of the movement – and he’s always taken the progressive position. No, the problem is what has disappeared, and disappeared to the extent that he now seldom speaks at meetings because the things of his concern, expertise and experience don’t appear on agendas anymore.

There is no industry and industrial worker that he recognises, no factories. Yes, he would like a return to that way of life, when there was stability and the expectation that the next generation would come up a bit in the world. He is not, however, like those duped by Trump; he knows those jobs are now in low-pay countries or gone forever, designed and automated out of existence, no longer necessary.

What can I possibly say to him? We’re both working class and know the score. He took a route that ended in redundancy in his early fifties and apartment blocks on his factory site that once nurtured a whole community. I didn’t take a route at all, I just drifted, did alright and now talk about the changed world but without his profound sense of loss.

When we meet, we have two areas of common ground. Firstly, agreement that the trickle down economy with well paid, permanent, satisfying jobs is gone. What we have now is a small number of high-expertise jobs at the top end, a lot of low-skilled, poorly-paid, boring, insecure jobs at the other end and in the middle, yes, some – but not many – old-school, good jobs with new titles. It is a different expression of capitalism, of exploitation and of yawning inequality. It is a loss about which the party seldom, if ever, talks and in that silence ignores “old-Labour”, those who planned prudently for upward mobility. While patronising attention is often paid to the “left behind”, little consideration is given to those whose plans and aspirations have been thwarted by a change that has made jobs befitting their hard-won education very scarce indeed.* 

He likes and I like too Jack O’Connor’s and other trades unionists’ approach to improving standards, security and wages by way of labour reforms and collective bargaining but that doesn’t speak openly about the fact that so many good jobs are gone for good and what that means for society and socialism. It’s a hard position for a party that has so linked work and prosperity but that’s the very reason Labour cannot credibly avoid it. Discussing traditional labour responses to the new situation without regard to how we deal with the loss is a drift away from socialism. The most fundamental change in industrial society cannot be ignored.

Secondly, he can’t stand it when gougers are described as working class. He gets apoplectic over the screaming, foul-mouthed thuggery – some of it lead by upper class nits – that is too often presented as working class. He expects the Labour Party to talk about the working class. Like me, he sees his class as setting a standard for decent behaviour.** I express that a bit differently: that working class is characterised by a set of values and that is what Marx saw when he identified the agents of progress. ***

This is where our recent conversation got really interesting, agreed and controversial. What we edged close to was a sense that the Labour Party needs to help take back the meaning of working class, get it back from pollsters, patronising professionals and upper class dilletantes, and state it as a set of values. That’s not vague; it’s quite clear and most know exactly what we’re on about. Yes of course, it would take a book-length piece to spell out the markers of working class membership, to contrast it with markers of lumpen loutishness, and to tie the difference to a political programme but perhaps that’s not necessary. For now let’s just set down opposites – streotypes, if you like – and leave it at that because in truth anyone steeped in the labour movement knows the difference only too well but is normally too polite to draw attention to it.

A working class kid is reared neither to look up to nor down on anyone and never, ever to resort to crude abuse – and here’s a small, sharp identifier, an easy way to tell the difference these days: there is no chance whatsover that they would refer to someone as a “c*nt”.


Grave offence is taken when media label such conduct and abuse as working class. 


It’s time the Labour Party spoke up for the working class to prevent it being traduced by the media and to prevent its record, good name and historic role being tarnished by lumpen yobs.

 

 

 

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

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Populism is not another word for democracy. It is, however, a word for a crude kind of majoritarianism which the market-oriented right finds very attractive. Unfortunately those leftists who have abandoned universal aims and class politics feel a similar attraction.

Concern over democracy descending into a crude head count is certainly not new. Since the development of mass democracy there has been a consistent fear of what a majority might do, possibly harming a minority or overriding individual rights which have been progressively established. There are two responses to the fear. One is to limit democracy. The other is to enhance democracy by accentuating its usually ignored feature, deliberation.

And there’s the jump-off point for today’s concerns over populism. The will to democratise has always rested on a belief that citizens will be informed, thoughtful and deliberative, that they will participate in the affairs of their republic not merely as volunteers, community activists and the like or as self-interested members of pressure groups but as people who will talk, argue and participate in public discourse.

Of course no democrat could ever have been confident that all citizens would be participants. There would always be those who would opt out, having no active interest in the direction of the republic, no interest in politics, or who would be excluded, lacking resources of income, leisure, education or ability.

This then gives the most basic division in a republic between, let’s call them, passive citizens and participative citizens. The latter want public discourse, the former want leadership, simplicity and promises. Both can vote.*

It has long been possible – perhaps even necessary – to be elected by offering services, goods, promises or even a focus for anger to citizens who have no participative interest. What has dawned in recent years is a full realization of the size and political potential of passive citizens. These are citizens who don’t want to hear and discuss contending arguments but who want reassurance and deliverance. They want leadership and there are leaders and parties with simplicities who are anxious to compete for their support, populist leaders. Again, it’s not new but it has been growing for two reasons. Firstly, potential leaders have increasingly sought out data about what people want to hear so that they can patronise rather than convince voters. Secondly, passive citizens – previously content – have lost faith in a political system which they thought catered to them at least adequately.

The fear now is that meaningful democracy will be reduced further in the direction of crude majoritarianism. Before looking at how passive citizens lost their faith, it would be sensible to set down the characteristics of populism. Nowadays they are all too familiar.

Populism: its familiar features

There is an essential belief that society is composed of two antagonistic but internally homogeneous sections:

a) The “establishment”, undifferentiated but including the rich, business, banks, media, elected politicians, state officials intellectuals and experts;

and b) The “ordinary people” who are more wise and virtuous than the “corrupt establishment”.

Populists have an uncomplicated approach to democracy. They seek strong and charismatic leaders who will reflect the will of the people. They also like direct and majoritarian democracy, favouring referenda and plebiscites over representative democracy whose checks and balances might give undue attention to minorities and thwart the will of the majority.

They are strongly nostalgic, looking back to what they consider better, simpler times both economically and culturally, when industrial employment gave a basic prosperity and the prospect of inter-generational improvement, and before cosmopolitan values, multiculturalism, “political correctness” and feminism made life less certain. This can lead to expressions of support for isolated nationalism and for crude misogyny to the point of foul-mouthed sexism.

The passive citizen’s loss of faith

There is no point in pretending otherwise, things have changed for very many people who are passive/disengaged but who were formerly more or less content. Their employment is gone, their expectations are undermined, their understanding of family, gender, community and race now seems incongruent. And yet, it is clear to them that others are flourishing in the new circumstances. They feel as though they’ve been left behind and are in need of rescue, restoration, deliverance, a leader, even something familiar in which they can have faith.

When this is theorised there tends to be two approaches. One talks about economic insecurity, emphasising the low pay consequences of declining industrial production and the attendant increase in unskilled and semi-skilled work which rarely leads to promotion. **

The second talks about a cultural backlash, an objection to the progressive value changes and increased migration that were concomitant with the loss of industrial jobs.

Austerity and the decline of the left

The rise of populism is frequently contrasted with the decline of Socialism, social democracy and Labourism. The conventional argument is that people are angry over left involvement in business and especially in the defensive cuts to pay and welfare (austerity) thought necessary to stabilising – even, saving – the capitalist system.

It is true that for the greater part of the 20th century socialists were complicit in a deal with capitalism which saw the system encouraged and promoted in return for relatively good pay, conditions and systems of welfare. It is equally true that right wing as well as left wing elements were deeply unhappy with this arrangement. Right wing dissent took the form of neo-liberalism which wanted a reduced role for the state and an increasing resort to markets, especially labour markets. Left wing dissent saw participation in the management of capitalism as a sell-out. They claimed a monopoly on the term, socialism, while social democracy became a term of abuse applied to socialists who operated within representative democracy.

The early 21st century economic crash was a happy day for both sets of dissenters; clearly the deal they hated could no longer deliver. Worse, the establishment – including socialists – moved to save or stabilise the system by rescuing banks, investors and industry, and cutting wages and welfare provisions.

At this point, according to conventional argument, people were no longer convinced that those who ran the deal and did well out of the deal – the establishment – would protect them, and they turned to alternative leaders who offered deliverance.

The flaw in this conventional argument is located at that word, “convinced”. The thing is that when considering populism it is a mistake to think in terms of a Demos comprised of thinking citizens who no longer hold with the argument behind the 20th century deal, who no longer agree with what has been termed social democracy. Rather, it is more accurate to think in terms of passive people who were never convinced of anything.

The truth is in a range of criticism appearing over the greater part of the 20th century which was concerned with citizen abandonment of appraisal, analysis, discussion and judgement, i.e. participation. That old fear of mass society crackles across the thoughts of democrats from Marxist alienation, through the “descent into a vast triviality” to just at the birth of the web, “The Culture of Contentment”. Then a decade and a half later there’s Barack Obama, “… in politics and in life ignorance is not a virtue”. Now it’s opposition to populism but it’s the same old fear: democracy stripped of citizen deliberation. Democracy reduced to brutal majoritarianism. ***

Leaders of the passive

The right will seek power by trying to manipulate passive citizens. A revolutionary left could try the same. A left which has, however, abandoned revolution but wants to lead the masses faces a dilemma: oppose right wing demands even when expressed by “ordinary workers” and lose their support or agree with them and go over to the other side. ****

What to do?

Democrats – as opposed to majoritarians – know that without deliberation the whole point of the democratic project/tradition is lost. It would be undesirable – as well as unlikely – that liberals, socialists and some conservatives elide their differences and come together but as democrats they must always be aware that populism is a common foe. To be blunt, political controversy whether arguing individual freedom, equality or class conflict is part of the establishment that is now threatened.***** Fortunately, there remain citizens who are amenable to argument. They must be addressed. They must be encouraged to speak up, to participate as they wish. No democrat should ever patronise passive citizens; that’s partly what led to this crisis for democracy.


+ + + + + + + + +

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/07/02/worried-about-simplistic-lies-in-public-debate-consider-the-audience-for-them/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/
https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602869/manufacturing-jobs-arent-coming-back/

***

On alienation and later: https://aeon.co/essays/in-the-1950s-everybody-cool-was-a-little-alienated-what-changed

descent into a vast triviality.” Neil Postman (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death, p.6

https://quote.ucsd.edu/childhood/files/2013/05/postman-amusing.pdf

Contentment sets aside that which, in the longer view, disturbs contentment; it holds firmly to the thought that the long run may never come.” – J.K. Galbraith (1993) The Culture of Contentment, p.173

John Waters, Amused to Death, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsspXqCe4kI

Barack Obama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjGUUGw0pQ8

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/the-conservative-embrace-a-home-for-former-revolutionaries/

***** Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

A joke doing the rounds way back in the 1970s went like this*: The CEO of a car manufacturing plant was showing off his new assembly robots to a trade union official, “You’ll never organise them!”, he boasted. “And, you’ll never sell them a car!”, replied the trade unionist. Funny and true. So, we’ve been aware of the direction of production, work and capitalism for a long time. However, until very recently it was difficult to get people to pay attention. Even now it is probable that a majority would prefer to argue and make policy as if it were still the hey day of industrial capitalism and industrial workers. It may be that the significance of I.T. is lost on them but it could be that they are unwilling to change familiar, comfortable ways of thinking.


A long-standing trio is crumbling because the productivity of today’s technology i) undermines the working of industrial capitalism, ii) undermines state welfare systems designed to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and iii) requires socialists to rethink their basics.

The best way into the heart of the question is via Marx. (Yannis Varoufakis has been on about it recently.) It goes like this: it is labour that creates ‘value’. Work is the core; it transforms raw material into useful products.

In steps capitalism. Profit emerges in selling products but obviously selling relies on buyers. Bluntly, the supply of products makes no sense without demand. Demand depends on money moving about – circulating – but that in turn depends on people having incomes. Traditionally this has meant jobs paying wages and salaries.

It’s hardly surprising then that the history of industrialisation is punctuated by workers resisting new productive technology. The purpose of new industrial technology is to reduce the amount of labour necessary to produce the goods. In short, its purpose is to do away with jobs.

Of course there was a time when it wasn’t as simple as that because growth and new technology created other jobs, lots of them, with titles that would have meant nothing a few years earlier. Moreover, the new jobs tended to be dry, clean, quite well paid and prestigous. By the 1960s and 70s “ordinary workers” were not defying death by going to work but were relatively comfortable, educated, healthy, ambitious and many were buying houses. Certainly there were still dreadful jobs and piecework remained a curse but there was hope.

The hope rested on the unfounded belief that things could only get better, that because a generation was better off than the preceding one, it was now to be expected for succeeding generations, that education and a job meant comfort and a fulfilling life, and that the state would provide in the event of a life-changing catastrophe or a period of unemployment. Okay there were still fatcats, privilege and exploitation but overall the majority found the “trickle down” argument plausible.**

Things are different now. Forty years of neo-liberal economics coupled with IT development have produced a society in which ordinary workers cannot buy houses, cannot assume that they’ll be better off than their parents, cannot assume that a good background and education will lead to a satisfying career. There are baristas and carers with PhDs. There are people living hand to mouth on piecework which we choose to call the gig economy. There are people employed but living in poverty, dependent on welfare just to keep going. This isn’t part of an economic cycle. Those good jobs which made the mass of people prosperous are no longer required; they’re gone.

The naive response would be to cite capitalism for screwing down incomes. Sure, there are rich chancers making money by exploiting vulnerable people but there is more to this and a naive left response is much worse than useless.

The reality is that productive technology has reduced the cost of doing the bulk of those good jobs to zero; no labour is required to do the jobs that so many people thought were their future. Some of course do exist but work has been moving upmarket and downmarket, evacuating the middle. The need now is for high level expertise and for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The process is in its infancy but these days the likes of doctors, accountants and drivers of all sorts find they are reading more and more about artificial intelligence – the latest manifestation of productive technology – and they are worried.

Here’s the thing: At some stage in this process capitalism becomes pointless. As technology – artificial intelligence – reduces to zero the labour required for most production, the owners of the means of production increasingly come face to face with the new reality. It dawns on them that they cannot realise value as profit. This is the end stage foretold in the 1970s joke and unless capitalism – or rather industrial capitalism – can find a way to accommodate the new order, it faces an existential threat.

Some years ago it was argued that the industrial jobs still existed but globalisation had allowed them to be moved to low wage economies. That did happen and it remains the case that where wages are sufficiently depressed, labour is cheaper than machines but machines today are utterly effective and efficient, and there’s a greater proportion of software as opposed to hardware production.

The welfare state whose mission for decades was to support capitalism by dealing with unemployment – paying workers temporarily unemployed, providing training, retraining and education to serve industry, providing all sorts of aid to investment – has to confront a fundamentally different problem: a shortage not of educated, skilled workers but a shortage of work befitting them. States and governments, having created an educated workforce and having made job creation a measure of success, are resisting change. Indeed for the most part they are doing as they’ve done for decades because the change required is as yet inconceivable.

While the modern liberal state finds it hard to adapt, many socialists – so theoretically and emotionally bound up with labour, the working class and jobs – may find it next to impossible. However, adapt they must because otherwise there will be no plausible counter to today’s and tomorrow’s forms of exploitation and structure of inequality.

In Ireland unemployment is at about 6% and the trend is downward. Allowing for those who don’t want a job, those who are between jobs etc., it will be said at about 3% that full employment has been reached. Even among socialists it is often still believed that a job is the best route out of poverty. Now, it may be the best available route but clearly it is not anything like a guaranteed route. This is because – yes, again – those mid 20th century rewarding jobs are gone and the 6 – 3% unemployment figure is achieved largely through the expansion in poorly paid, insecure, unattractive jobs.

Socialists and Trade Unionists will try to secure better pay, conditions and security for these workers but they cannot change the nature of the work itself. The work is what is left after the present generation of automation.

Already it is frequently argued that there is no point in educating masses of people for non existent jobs, that higher education should be concentrated on a smaller elite and that money saved would be better spent on training. Now, this is precisely what should be done if the purpose of the state and particularly education is to create workers for the jobs available. However, when meaningful work for the masses cannot be created, then leftists must demand that the purpose of the state change. Such a demand depends on an enormous change in the thinking of socialists because no matter who owns and controls the means of production, one thing is clear: machines, automation, I.T., artificial intelligence cannot be uninvented.

To be at all plausible socialist argument and policy must address not 19th or 20th century capitalism but today’s iteration.

__________________________

* https://www.robotics.org/blog-article.cfm/The-History-of-Robotics-in-the-Automotive-Industry/24

** https://www.thebalance.com/trickle-down-economics-theory-effect-does-it-work-3305572

When I taught Political Communication at UCD, one of the topics that students found most interesting was, “Terrorism: Violence as Communication”. It was based on a well-established approach within the study of terrorism which emphasised communication as a key defining feature. A popular way of putting this was that terrorists wanted a lot of people watching rather than a lot of people dead.*

The recent murders by beheading of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines remind many people of the similar murder in 2002 of Daniel Pearl. There are different ways to approach these murders.** Firstly, they could be discussed as evidence of a change in the status of journalists who until relatively recently were not targeted by terrorists. Secondly, the murders could be located within a history of beheading particularly within Islamist tradition. Thirdly, they could be viewed as part of the “genre” of statement or confession before violent death. A fourth approach, however, would be to see the murders as old-style terrorism, i.e. violence as communication, and much like the modus operandi of the likes of the IRA (killings to suit the news cycle and supported by professional media relations), the Unabomber and the Oklahoma bombers (killing to get media coverage of a message), and indeed the perpetrators of 9/11, the most spectacular and expressive murder-for-media.

It’s worth noting that the difference between the 2002 and 2014 murders by beheading is due primarily to changes in technology. When Daniel Pearl was murdered, the web was young and the murderers were reliant on older technology to distribute their horror video, and on journalists and editors (gatekeepers) to publicise it. Technical advance has made coverage of the murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines different, and not just in terms of superior sound and vision. The net has liberated his murderers from traditional mass media gatekeepers; now the audience can access the horror message directly and it can be stored, copied and multiplied with ease.***

There remains, however, a fundamental similarity between the killings and it is this that categorises them along with the older 20th century terrorism or rhetorical violence. The grisly, scripted, stage-managed murder – from introduction through slaughter to aftermath – guarantees attention. The complex message or messages can then reach the desired huge audience and the smaller support or potential recruit audiences. Job done but in the welter of communication something radical is being said of the victim.

The victim is central to the production but has a peculiar unchanging value. Living, dying and dead the victim is never a person but rather a component part of the medium, as necessary and disposable as USB memory sticks, magnetic tape or paper. This is worse than slaughter; it is beyond the reduction of a living creature to meat. At no stage is the victim other than material used to make a point. The point remains after the body parts are cleared, after the media equipment moves on, and as the managers of the killers consider their next production.

Beheading is particularly gruesome, medieval and exotic. The killers and their media managers know this; that’s why it was used. It would be a mistake however to consider them more depraved than those who bomb. The victims’ deaths serve no strategic purpose; neither can they be described as an unfortunate consequence of hitting a target that might be considered important. Whether by blade or bomb the calculated reduction of people to the level of disposable newsprint is depravity beyond war criminality.

______________________________________________________
* To make study possible a great deal of effort goes into defining terrorism. This is because it is a contested term. It has been reduced first to a term of abuse (“If you call me a terrorist, I’ll call you a terrorist.”) and then to a synonym for bad (“We need to say who are the real terrorists.”).

** http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/08/20/from-daniel-pearl-to-james-foley-the-modern-tactic-of-islamist-beheadings/

*** There’s been some thoughtful work done on the theatrical killing of Daniel Pearl, which could now be reviewed in the light of the murder of James Foley. Davin Allen Grindstaff & Kevin Michael DeLuca, The corpus of Daniel Pearl, Critical Studies in Media Communication Volume 21, Issue 4, 2004, pages 305-324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0739318042000245345

Reaction to Russell Brand’s manifesto in New Statesman* has been almost exclusively of three types: supportive, dismissive, or patronising. Because the level of support for his position is so large the dismissive and patronising reactions will not do. What is needed is engagement with his perspective. It needs to be examined and subjected to the level of critique due to all public arguments.

New Statesman is attracting a great deal of criticism for publishing Russell Brand (RB) and allowing him to edit an entire edition. This is not deserved because the journal has performed a service in giving this political perspective space, respect and above all attention. The political perspective offered by RB is not at all uncommon. It would appear to be shared by at least a significant minority of people and possibly by a majority. It is the perspective which dominates mass media and social media. That it has been expressed by Russell Brand should neither increase nor decrease its importance.

His presentation of the position goes something like this.

He builds a case for casting aside the whole Westminster model including representative democracy. The starting point is “most people” and the observations that they don’t give a fuck about politics, view all parties and politicians as the same and hold them in equal contempt. He reckons that all political “agencies” are irredeemably and totally corrupted by big business. The conclusion is that “the current paradigm” should be renounced.

He holds a particular contempt for the Conservative Party and the smaller more extreme right wing parties but contempt for their opponents is only marginally less. Paradoxically for someone with such strong anti-state/anti-politics (ASAP) views, he has a positive attitude to leftist values, and leftist figures and achievements of the past.

He lists very real inequalities, poverty, deprivation and exclusions from decent living. Things are so bad and reform so impossible that only a revolution will do, a spiritual revolution. Now, he is not alone in using “spiritual” in relation to revolution; Rosa Luxemburg, the late 19th – early 20th century Marxist philosopher, does so too. However, he is quite explicit that the revolution is not about the overthrow and replacement of institutions and that “spiritual” refers to individual rather than collective change and to some kind of conversion rather than persuasion by argument.

He holds that media, public relations and polling combine to delude the people, keeping them apathetic rather than angry.

There are problems with all of this but first it is necessary to deal with those who would patronise him and those who share his views. RB has defenders on the left who appreciate the publicity he has given to the scale of the problems we face and to some of the issues that they too might prioritise. Moreover, they may share his view of the importance and wisdom of “most people”. They say that because he is not a politician, practiced in argument or particularly well-educated or informed, he cannot be expected to offer any solution or be subjected to analysis. Now, RB himself tries to exploit this (Indeed, he invites patronising admiration.) by saying that because he knows so little, little can be expected of him. In this position and that of his supporters who seek to patronise him there is acceptance of elite authority – a reliance on one’s betters (Yes, very likely the same betters already rejected as complicit in the problems.) to devise a solution. It is a rejection of the ordinary citizen’s involvement in great debates. It is a rejection of the notion that anyone may express a view in public and when they do, they invite criticism and counter argument. The patronising of RB’s views is an example of a modern form of censorship in which, “everyone is entitled to an opinion” has come to imply that a speaker’s opinion should not be questioned. It is tolerance turned on its head and made to mean the opposite. RB’s views deserve the respect of being challenged, particularly so because those views are commonplace, shared by so many people.

The overriding problem with the perspective now associated with RB is that it is for the greater part right wing. There are three important overlapping right wing perspectives which dominate. Firstly, though it might seem daft at first sight to associate RB with right wing dogma – given his apparent hostility to the establishment and in the UK to the Conservative Party – he is embracing an old and familiar approach to citizenship. Opposition to the state, and rejection of ideologies and of traditional forms and accepted norms for public debate signal opposition to the republican or participative model of citizenship. This is a model with which most leftists would identify and support. He opts instead for a variation on the liberal model of citizenship which cares little who is in charge or what is done as long as a level of comfort is guaranteed.** It should be admitted and then emphasised that a level of comfort is increasingly denied to many, many people and they are sorely, justifiably aggrieved.

Secondly, the ASAP thrust is meat and drink to those whose views can be loosely identified with the highly individualistic Freeman movement. Because of its anti-state, anti-tax, pro-property and standing-up-for-the-little-guy approach this is particularly attractive right now. In Ireland its largely bogus attempts to prevent debtors’ property – especially houses and lands – being seized are proving attractive because so many people in debt are in need of some relieving faith.*** These same characteristics give it credibility at protests and either confuse leftists or tempt them to turn a blind eye to the reality of a political perspective which in other circumstances they would oppose.†

Thirdly, it is plain that “New Age” thinking or what is frequently termed Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS) approaches are central. Indeed, for the edition of New Statesman which RB guest-edited he invited Deepak Chopra – among others – to write a short piece about revolution. Moreover, he talks admiringly of “sacred knowledge” in various pantheistic myths and seems to think that these myths were killed off because they were “socialist, egalitarian and integrated”. Clearly he believes at least some of the huge range of MBS doctrines. He may also realise the importance and influence of the New Age/spiritual/MBS constituency among his supporters. It is this that provides the quickest line of retreat from ordinary understanding of revolution into the radically individualist notion of a spiritual revolution.

It is worth returning to his view that the media are to blame for deluding the people. He may well be right but the delusion supports rather than hinders his perspective. To be fair to RB, it is true that journalists are generally loud in their condemnation of rioting and violent protesters and that they seek out examples in order to make a largely peaceful demonstration newsworthy. It is also true that what little analysis of disorder there is takes place months later in documentaries aimed at a small, more thoughtful audience. However, for decades the media have been deriding both politicians and politics,†† presenting an overall view that is remarkably similar to that of RB and – significantly – to that of the majority of citizens. It may be very hard for many of those accustomed to condemning the “mainstream media” to grasp the extent to which routine media output supports the denigration of politics, the acceptance of an elite political class, the reduction of the citizen to supplicant seeking favours, and the rejection of a demos in favour of minorities competing for resources at each other’s expense.††† It is a view which is incompatible with leftist thinking but many leftists decline to tackle it and instead either make common cause with its adherents, attempt to lead it or patronise it by asking no questions.‡

RB has performed a service in underlining the extent to which there are problems beyond the competence of any one state. The world, organised in competing states and federations and pinning almost all hope of a better life for citizens on economic growth, faces an existential threat in Global Warming. Moreover, within and across developed states there is a refusal to face two looming issues. Firstly, not only are there more people now but they are living much longer. The very idea of a pension rests on the assumption of employment until 65 and death soon after. That is plainly not how things are. Secondly, almost all policy assumes that a good society has full employment in decent jobs. The enormous productivity wrought by technology means that plainly this too is not how things are.

Russell Brand and the huge numbers who think similarly are disappointing not only because they are right wingers under their socialist fleece but in rejecting reform in favour of a vague hope they bring to mind a hoary old joke told too many times in Ireland:

A tourist stops and asks a local for directions to be told, “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”

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* http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution
** http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/
*** http://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/lawyers-advise-against-use-of-groups-claiming-secret-formula-to-circumvent-law-1.1396641
̾† http://freemanireland.ning.com/
†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/the-politicians-one-way-that-journalists-limit-debate-in-the-republic/
̾†̾†̾† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/now-that-almost-everyone-is-anti-establishment-whither-dissent/
https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/rulers-peasants-journalists-and-activists-a-note-on-vincent-brownes-piece-marking-rousseaus-300th-birthday/

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/technology/net-results-digital-economy-begins-with-teaching-kids-coding-1.1340843
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/could-inaccurate-use-of-the-term-tech-sector-be-misguiding-education-policy/
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/
**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
***** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

I realise that Una Mulally’s piece in the Irish Times on Saturday (*) last was essentially about the lifestyles of young workers in successful, fashionable companies located in Dublin’s docklands but there is something odd about it which prompted me to return to doubts I have about the basis on which rests the view that Ireland needs to increase the numbers graduating in science and engineering.

While I fear that the level of general knowledge and basic expertise in maths, science and engineering is well short of what a competent citizen requires to participate fully today, I can’t seem to find data which compels support for the view that the third level educational system should increase significantly the number of specialist graduates. The conventional media view, fuelled by those who teach maths, science and engineering – especially I.T – is that students are foolish if they do not clamour for entry to these courses which more or less guarantee employment. This is at odds with anecdotal evidence which suggests at least some level of unemployment. The key to this puzzle may lie in the term “tech sector”.

Here’s what Una Mulally reports, “Apparently some kind of economic crisis is going on, but in Dublin’s tech sector, where Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, eBay, PayPal and Microsoft reign, the only way is up.” She then goes on to talk about skill shortages in Ireland which result in the immigration of bright young people from across Europe. However, here’s the interesting aspect: the only specific skill mentioned is languages and the only formal degree mentioned is a PhD in politics held by a young Italian woman who works in Dublin for PayPal.

With the possible exception of risk management (**) none of the jobs mentioned suggest that a degree in science or technology is a requirement; these people are working in marketing, customer support, business development and recruitment. However, they see themselves as working in the “tech sector”. It seems plausible to suggest that when journalists talk about career opportunities in the “tech sector”, they are not talking exclusively about technical jobs but about jobs traditionally filled by humanities and business graduates who now need a range of skills – well short of graduate level expertise – such as to make them employable not in a technological role but in office-type industries created by or fundamentally changed by I.T. generally and the net in particular. (***)

The almost cavalier use of the term “tech sector” may be contributing to woolly thinking about third level education in two distinct ways. (****) Firstly, there is risk that the requirement for science and engineering graduates becomes overstated. Secondly, there is a risk that the degree to which the office workplace has changed is not recognised and – language skills aside – this may be why the companies mentioned in the article need to search far and wide when recruiting graduates.
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* http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2013/0209/1224329821083.html

** The article doesn’t mention it but it is posibble that maths graduates are involved here.

*** I’ve written before about the changes wrought by technology and the skills which are now essentially a precondition for the employment of humanities graduates: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

**** The two are discussed here:https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/

The recent death (August 25th) of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, prompted quite a bit of discussion. Now it’s prompted this short piece which makes the point that the Apollo project has a lesson for Ireland at this time, i.e. just before the Irish state at last gets access to some limited investment capital.

Back in the day there were arguments against Apollo, that the money would be better spent in other ways. However, Apollo was a big, big project which asked new questions, pushed research, came up with answers and materials, and left an engineering legacy scattered across the U.S.

From a political perspective there is a tendency to see Apollo as a cold war project trying to give America a lead in the great technology race of the time or as an attempt to wave an American flag in everyone’s face. All of this can be true but still hide a more useful truth. What is usually forgotten is that Apollo was a state objective, that it was state funded and state managed. If it is viewed as an economic and development success, it is telling us something. It is telling us that despite protestations to the contrary, the US can adopt socialist approaches and that they are effective.

Ireland will have limited capital. What seems to be about to happen is that entrepreneurs, innovators and ideas will compete for a slice of the money. This is a depressingly familiar approach. Most people know that it will result in waste but it’s hard to argue with nonsense when it’s expressed in the only terms that receive attention but terms that have been drained of all useful meaning. Only in some mad, neo-liberal fantasy does a bag of money of itself call forth enterprise, innovation and ideas. That wasn’t the Apollo way and it shouldn’t be the Irish way.

In the real world of projects success is tied to effective management. That means breaking the big job down into its constituent manageable parts, then delegating, contracting and controlling finance until bit by precious bit the parts come together. On anything remotely of a national scale research, innovation and enterprise will start with a major project – a huge idea – and a considerable budget. Realisation of the big idea requires that same disciplined project management but writ large and it relies on defining the building blocks, costing and financial controls. The building blocks are projects in themselves necessary to the big idea. They can be to do with manufacturing or building but in the early stages they will mostly be to do with research and development, trying to solve a problem, to find a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before or in a way that hasn’t been tried before. Each building block for the big idea is put out there for innovative companies to see. Then they compete to convince the management of the big idea that for a price they can solve the problem and deliver. The successful companies then get finance and are expected to deliver; over the course of their work they will be regularly progress chased. This is the Apollo way. It’s the sane, business-like way, the complete antithesis of scattering money among entrepreneurs and hoping for some undefined good outcome.

In a nutshell the idea is to deliver on some enormous but useful mission and in doing so, fund and drive a plethora of development projects that will leave a legacy of expertise that will survive long after the realisation of the big idea.

Here’s the fundamental problem: Ireland doesn’t have a big idea. There’s no Irish equivalent of “going to the moon”, no obvious Apollo. Ireland too seems to be particularly cursed with just one view of capitalism and enterprise: that of feeding SMEs as if they were all the same. However, a talk with any small manufacturer or developer reveals a keen awareness of thriving by serving a larger operator which generates projects requiring answers.

What is needed is a fresh look at state enterprise (That will mean abandoning the tired orthodoxy which limits public discussion today.) and a search for one or a small number of national projects. Defining a national project means looking at what Ireland wants to achieve with limited capital. The conventional approach would be to build or install labour intensive things. However, Irish commentators witter on about research, development, knowledge economy, hubs, expertise etc. Clearly building and installation – while they might deliver useful infrastructure – are not enough. What is needed is a huge project which keeps installation of imported technology to a minimum, which will generate many, many new/original technical problems – the sort of problems that can be addressed locally so as to create and leave a coherent pool of expertise and active companies. Ireland needs to be the site of expertise in an emerging industry or the site of expertise in a new approach to an older industry and one way to do that is the Apollo approach to a national project.

When discussion goes down this road, it can be hi-jacked by yet another piece of tired conventional Irish wisdom: that because we live on a green, windswept island surrounded by choppy seas the simple answer is renewables. There might be a big idea left there on which a new industry could be built but clearly development of wind and wave technology now has limited scope and the bulk of technology will be imported.[i]

Taking the argument beyond this point and giving examples risks the ridicule of conservatives and cynics. It also risks diverting the discussion away from the proposed method and into a limited discussion of the respective merits of big ideas. Suggestions are for a later debate. For now the debate involves two very different approaches: the familiar neo-liberal approach of scattering investment money versus a much greater degree of care with scarce capital.


[i] While nothing like the Severn potential exists in Ireland, there may be possibilities in becoming expert in small scale tidal energy but that’s for discussion if and when the argument presented here can be carried.

There is a need for a shower of realism over many who talk of Ireland’s educated workforce and the need to bend education to serve the knowledge/smart/information economy/society. I fear that the level of education is pretty poor in precisely the areas that emerging society demands. I fear too that those who talk most of the knowledge/smart/information economy/society have reflected least on what it means.

The backward workforce

Too many of my students have poor literacy skills. This is a common topic of conversation among university lecturers. So too is the lack of general knowledge among students. It is far less common to have such conversations about the poor command of pretty basic math, science and technology. I don’t want to clutter this piece with examples but an archetype might write “shouldof”, think that the USSR still exists, be unable to manipulate percentages, have no grasp of statistics and consider basic science a no-go area for all but the expert. Such a person betokens neither an educated workforce nor a competent citizenry.  

Not so smart policy

No one in their right mind would argue that that the kind of society and economy determined by increased application of technology – especially IT – does not require experts or does not require quite a few experts in these fields. However, no one who has looked at the effect and the likely future effect of these same technologies on society and the workplace would place too great an emphasis on the creation of an excessively large numbers of experts. For a long, long time technology has had a democratic vector: it demands proportionately greater numbers of effective, creative users than experts in the field itself.  The danger in the current pre-occupation with science education is that it might be successful and produce two categories of frustration: a glut of experts with no career prospects and a mass of people without the skills to prosper or create prosperity. A considered, realistic education policy will try to ensure that mass education will deliver citizens and workers who are competent to contribute in our time.

The smart worker or even the smart citizen

The world of work – or at least that part of it that pays reasonably well – that has emerged over, say, the past 30 years demands that people be articulate, literate, numerate and informed. (I should add “secure” but this would open up another argument.) These are the preconditions for flexibility, creativity and innovation. There is absolutely no point in talking about a smart society or economy unless the mass of people are pretty smart.

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/09/university-challenge/

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/09/unloved-british-universities/

I was posting over at Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s blog   ( http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/) when I thought that I should make the point on my own blog. Ferdinand was saying in support of changing university education that, “we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training.” I disagreed. Of course increased numbers and different times mean change but the whole purpose of increased access is to make higher learning available to all who can benefit. Moreover, that’s what the world of work now requires.

More vocational training rather than education is the demand of people – including students – who fail to appreciate what has happened to work and yet are aware that too many graduates complete their education lacking important skills.

The “information society” has consequences for university education. As a term, it is often reduced to meaningless guff but it should not be dismissed by thoughtful people. In careless use it becomes fused with “knowledge society” and provides a justification for a pretty daft approach to education: an increased emphasis on mere training for the majority and an increase in the number of PhDs. I don’t want to talk right now about the latter but training in preference to education is precisely what, let’s call it, industry doesn’t need right now.

Anyone who has given serious thought to the concept of an “information society” either from a political or a business perspective realises pretty quickly that such a society depends not merely on skilled people but on educated, thinking, and – yes – innovative people. In short, the humanities graduate’s time has come! (I recall commenting during a discussion with a group of lecturers that innovation is what separates a 2.1 from a 2.2.)

There are however “employability” problems with some graduates and the problems have nothing to do with the traditional university approach to learning. Too many students lack the skills necessary to making the best use of their education. Too many are not fully literate, cannot cope with the mathematics essential to a full life today, have no real understanding of technology or economics, have poor general knowledge and cannot present themselves or their work in public. These are mere skills and could never figure in a university education. However, it should not be possible to achieve the status of graduate without these skills. They are essential and they should be mastered while in primary and secondary school. Most lecturers are aware of the literacy and the general knowledge problem. Many may be aware that perhaps the majority of students are poor communicators and that work today demands effective participation at meetings and making presentations. Some lecturers may not have noticed the mathematics problem. What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples that I’ve come across. Students frequently have no grasp of the magnitude of numbers. They would find the creation of mathematical expressions for, say, a spreadsheet very difficult. The concept of random distribution would be new to them. I won’t labour this on into basic science, technology and economics. The point is that today effective citizenship – never mind a job – requires these skills. While someone without them should not be at university, most certainly a graduate must have them.

A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them. There can be no question of awarding grades, let alone making it part of the degree programme. This is about finding competence; it is pass or fail. I realize that suggesting such tests – and I’m not talking about labour intensive exams. – seems impractical or extreme for institutes of higher learning but I can’t come up with another short term remedy.