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Author Information: Daniel Robins, University of York, UK,

Robins, Daniel. “Toxic Necro-Waste.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 39-42.

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Image credit 43545234@N03, via flickr


The concept of necro-waste is a fascinating one, with a wide application across the social sciences. Something that I wanted to highlight in this reply was the toxicity of necro-waste. Olson acknowledges this by discussing how necro-waste can cause harm to labour.[1] The example that he gives is the embalming fluids which can poison the embalmers working with them. This also applies to cremated remains, which can be breathed in by the crematorium staff handling them, causing breathing problems. But, for me, the toxicity of necro-waste goes beyond its materiality. It’s also socially polluting as toxicity can be drawn from the meaning of the corpse materials.

Ian Brady’s Remains

The question over what to do with the remains of the British serial killer, Ian Brady, demonstrates this point well. Between the years of 1963-1965, Brady, along with his accomplice, Myra Hindley, abducted, tortured, and murdered five children between the ages of 10-17. They then buried four of the victims on Saddleworth Moor. The body of 12 year old Keith Bennet is believed to still be buried there. Brady died in May and, four months after his death, the coroner’s inquest was held. For those four months, his corpse was held in a ‘monster morgue’, alongside the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi.

It was not long after Brady’s death that the media reports turned to the question of what would happen to his remains. Christopher Sumner, the coroner that handled the body, stated that it would not be released until two assurances had been made. First, there would need to be a funeral director and crematorium staff willing to work with it. Second, Brady’s cremated remains were not to be spread on Saddleworth Moor.

Yet, Brady was born and raised in Glasgow, and it was believed that he wanted his cremated remains to be scattered there. However, Glasgow council were quick to state that his remains were not to be scattered on their lands. Thus, from early on there was a tight control over where Brady’s remains could and could not be disposed of.

This control exhibited in the management of Brady’s corpse is not unusual. Myra Hindley died in 2002 and there was a similar reluctance from funeral directors to work with her body. In the end, the final resting place of her remains was kept secret from the public and the funeral director that carried out the ceremony was never named for fear of their reputation being tarnished. In a sense, these mechanisms of control demarcate the remains as poisonous. There’s a reluctance to house them. Nobody must know where they have been disposed of as the meaning of the disposal site will change.

Ian Brady as Toxic Necro-Waste

The meanings associated with the remains of Ian Brady transform them into a form of toxic necro-waste. If necro-waste is a way of categorising corpse materials as waste, toxic necro-waste is a way of contextualising the most harmful and poisonous aspects of this waste. This could be present in their materiality, as stated at the beginning of this reply, or could also be present in the meaning of the waste material.

In the discussion above, Brady’s remains are comparable to barrelled radioactive waste, in that they are tightly controlled to prevent poisoning the environment. Much of this control, however, emanates from the meaning of the corpse materials. While Brady may now be deceased, the depravities that he committed do not simply go away. His corpse still holds the meaning of these because it is the vessel through which they were committed. The challenge becomes what to do with that vessel.

Disposing of Toxic Necro-Waste

The concept of toxic necro-waste problematizes the process of disposal. Indeed, Mary Douglas understands disposal as an act of putting something beyond a threshold. It is a way of creating boundaries and order.[2] However, the disposal of something also includes disposing of that ‘thing’s’ meaning.[3] The meanings attached to Brady demarcated him as something poisonous to society while he was alive. His body had been locked inside Ashworth hospital since 1985. It had been disposed of from society during this period as it was barred from the public, and suitably pacified. But, now that he’s dead, his corpse sits in an uncertain space. It has not yet been disposed of and, thus, not yet repositioned in the social order.

When necro-waste is physically disposed of, its meaning still remains. People visit grave sites to mourn, wear objects containing cremated remains, and visit sites of mass murder, such as the Cambodian killing fields. Brady will have no grave site. When the material disposal is carried out, the final location of his remains will likely be kept a secret. He will, however, continue to exist in the public consciousness through documentary, film, and television adaptations.

Toxic necro-waste brings these questions of disposing of necro-waste back to the forefront. There’s clearly more to be said about the interaction between necro-waste and the process of disposal. How, for instance, does society dispose of the socially poisonous when the disposal of meaning is incompatible with the physical process of disposal? These questions stretch necro-waste further than the fields of death care and health care. It’s a cultural waste too.

Troyer hinted at this with his sub type ‘Anxiety Producing Necro-Waste’.[4] Toxic necro-waste feeds into necro-waste on the movie screen. The story of Brady is told and retold until the meaning becomes adapted. In a sense, the toxicity becomes more consumable. It moves from being akin to barrelled radioactive waste to being similar to a cigarette. Cigarettes are still toxic, but we are happy to disregard the negative effects for the positive, psychological ones. Similarly, Brady is still toxic, but public fascinations with the morbid lead to a disregarding of this toxicity. It has been re-established as consumable through media.[5] This could be an attempt at disposing of the socially poisonous.

Toxic Necro-Waste

Bigger questions over cultural waste come out of this, but these are too big to adequately address in this reply. Though, what I hope that the concept of toxic necro-waste demonstrates is the powerful role that necro-waste can play in understanding contemporary culture. Perhaps this could be extended in further publications. Either way, the concept of necro-waste clearly has an exciting future. Its wide application across the social sciences guarantees this.


Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. London: Routledge, 2001.

Munro, Rolland. ‘Disposal of the Body: Upending Postmodernism.’ ephemera 1, no. 2 (2001): 108-130.

Olson, Philip R. “Knowing ‘Necro Waste.’” Social Epistemology 30, no. 3 (2016): 326-345.

Penfold-Mounce, Ruth. ‘Corpses, Popular Culture and Forensic Science: Public Obsession with Death.’ Mortality 21 no. 1 (2016): 19-35.

Troyer, John. “‘Owning’ Necro-Waste.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 3 (2016): 59-63.

[1] See Olson, 2016, 335.

[2] Douglas 2001, 2.

[3] Munro, 2001, 112.

[4] Troyer, 2016, 63.

[5] Penfold-Mounce, 2016, 19.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick,

Fuller, Steve. “How to Study: Roam, Record and Rehearse.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 62-64.

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Image credit: Jeffrey Smith, via flickr

My most successful study skill is one that I picked up very early in life—and perhaps is difficult to adopt after a certain age. Evidence of its success is that virtually everything I read appears to be hyperlinked to something in my memory. In practice, this means that I can randomly pick up a book and within fifteen minutes I can say something interesting about it—that is, more than summarize its contents. In this way, I make the book ‘my own’ in the sense of assigning it a place in my cognitive repertoire, to which I can then refer in the future.

There are three features to this skill. One is sheer exposure to many books. Another is taking notes on them. A third is integrating the notes into one’s mode of being, so that they function as a script in search of a performance. In sum, I give you the new 3 Rs: Roam, Record and Rehearse.


Let’s start with Roam. I’ve always understood reading as the most efficient means to manufacture equipment for the conduct of life. It is clearly more efficient than acquiring personal experience. But that’s a relatively superficial take on the situation. A better way of putting it is that reading should be seen as itself a form of personal experience. In the first instance, this means taking seriously the practice of browsing. By ‘browsing’ I mean forcing yourself to encounter a broader range of possibilities than you imagined was necessary for your reading purposes.

Those under the age of twenty may not appreciate that people used to have to occupy a dedicated physical space—somewhere in a bookshop or a library—to engage in ‘browsing’. It was an activity which forced encounters of works both ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’ to one’s interests. Ideally, at least in terms of one’s own personal intellectual development, browsing would challenge the neatness of this distinction, as one came across books that turned out to be more illuminating than expected. To be sure, ‘browsing’ via computerized search engines still allow for that element of serendipity, as anyone experienced with Google or Amazon will know. Nevertheless, browser designers normally treat such a feature to be a flaw in the programme that should be remedied in the next iteration, so that you end up finding more items like the ones you previous searched for.

As a teenager in New York City in the 1970s I spent my Sunday afternoons browsing through the two biggest used bookshops in Greenwich Village, Strand and Barnes & Noble. Generally speaking, these bookshops were organized according to broad topics, somewhat like a library. However, certain sections were also organized according to book publishers, which was very illuminating. In this way, I learned, so to speak, ‘to judge a book by its cover’.  Publishing houses tend to have distinctive styles that attract specific sorts of authors. In this way, I was alerted to differences between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics, as well as ‘high’ and ‘low’ in culture. Taken together, these differences offer dimensions for mapping knowledge in ways that cut across academic disciplinary boundaries.

There is a more general lesson here: If you spend a lot of time browsing, you tend to distrust the standard ways in which books—or information, more generally—is categorized.


Back in New York I would buy about five used books at a time and read them immediately, annotating the margins of the pages. However, I quickly realized that this was not an effective way of ‘making the books my own’. So I shifted to keeping notebooks, in which I quite deliberately filtered what I read into something I found meaningful and to which I could return later. Invariably this practice led me to acquire idiosyncratic memories of whatever I read, since I was basically rewriting the books I read for my own purposes.

In my university days, I learned to call what I was doing ‘strong reading’. And I continue it to this day. Thus, in my academic writing, when I make formal reference to other works, I am usually acknowledging an inspiration—not citing an authority—for whatever claim I happen to be making. My aim is to take personal responsibility for what I say. I dislike the academic tendency to obscure the author’s voice in a flurry of scholarly references which simply repeat connections that could be made by a fairly standard Google search of the topic under discussion.


Now let’s move from Record to Rehearse. In a sense, rehearsal already begins when you shift from writing marginalia to full-blown notebook entries insofar as the latter forces you to reinvent what it is that you originally found compelling in the noteworthy text. Admittedly the cut-and-paste function in today’s computerized word processing programmes can undermine this practice, resulting in ‘notes’ that look more like marginal comments.

However, I engage in rehearsal even with texts of which I am the original author. You can keep yourself in a rehearsal mode by working on several pieces of writing (or creative projects) at once without bringing any of them to completion. In particular, you should stop working just when you are about to reach a climax in your train of thought. The next time you resume work you will then be forced to recreate the process that led you to that climactic point. Often you will discover that the one conclusion toward which you thought you had been heading turns out to have been a mirage. In fact, your ‘climax’ opens up a new chapter with multiple possibilities ahead.

Assuaging Alienation

I realize that some people will instinctively resist what I just prescribed. It seems to imply that no work should ever end, which is a nightmare for anyone who needs to produce something to a specific schedule in order to earn living!  And of course, I myself have authored more than twenty books. However, to my mind these works always end arbitrarily and even abruptly. (And my critics notice this!) Nevertheless, precisely because I do not see them as ‘finished’, they continue to live in my own mind as something to which I can always return. They become part of the repertoire that I always rehearse, which in turn defines the sort of person I am.

Perhaps a good way to see what I am recommending is as a solution to the problem of ‘alienation’ which Karl Marx famously identified. Alienation arises because industrial workers in capitalist regimes have no control over the products of their labour. Once the work is done, it is sold to people with whom they have no contact and over whom they have no control. However, alienation extends to intellectual life as well, as both journalists and academics need to write quite specific self-contained pieces that are targeted at clearly defined audiences. Under the circumstances, there is a tendency to write in a way that enables the author to detach him- or her- self from, if not outright forget, what they have written once it is published. Often this tendency is positively spun by saying that a piece of writing makes its point better than its author could ever do in person.

My own view is quite the opposite. You should treat the texts you write more like dramatic scripts or musical scores than like artworks. They should be designed to be performed in many different ways, not least by the original composer. There should always be an element of incompleteness that requires someone to bring the text alive. In short, it should always be in need of rehearsal. Taken together, Roam, Record and Rehearse has been a life strategy which has enabled me to integrate a wide range of influences into a dynamic source of inspiration and creativity that I understand to be very much my own.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, New Democratic Party of Canada,

Riggio, Adam. “Beyond Socrates: The Philosopher as Creative Craftsperson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 13-21.

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Image credit: Diogo Duarte, via flickr

This essay is a response to Robert Frodeman’s insightful “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise,” published 22 May on this site. I hope he, the rest of the SERRC community, and our readers will forgive the lateness of my reply.

Frodeman’s essay continues his challenge to the orthodoxy of academic institutions whose detailed manifesto was Socrates Tenured. He calls us to remember the rebellious character of philosophical thought. Philosophy today is a discipline institutionalized in the university system. It is a science requiring several years of training in its techniques of research and analysis. When I say science in this context, I mean it in the sense of a disciplinary (and disciplined) field of knowledge whose producers require expertise if they’re going to build high-quality product. Think of the old-fashioned German term Wissenschaft and you will have an effective image.

At the heart of Frodeman’s argument is the image of Socrates—the persecuted activist who was executed for obnoxiously challenging the moral and political orthodoxies of his society. His recent work explores the tensions and paradoxes between free thinkers and subject matter experts. The most important question in “Socratics and Anti-Socratics” is what kind of expertise marks the philosopher in the academy, and what kind of expertise marks the philosopher as the free thinker.

Frodeman’s answer—with which I agree—is that there appear to be two kinds of expert in the discipline of philosophy. There is the sub-disciplinary subject matter expert who offers a complex body of content to be mastered. This is his Anti-Socratic category. Then there is the free thinker who acts as a gadfly in her community, the expert in destabilizing popular certainties and common sense, who offers training in the deft use of techniques to do so.

The disciplinary thinker systematizes and delivers received wisdom using institutionally sanctioned techniques. The critical free thinker asks incisive questions that identify the material shortcomings and paradoxes of received wisdom when it’s put into practice. The two constitute a single movement in thinking among a community. A disciplinary approach to understanding the world becomes mainstream and institutionalized, and critics show how those mainstream ideas have become inadequate to the world in which they practice. Yet for all its questions, Socratic philosophy leaves the most important inquiry hanging: Now what?

Frodeman’s duality of an opposition between Anti-Socratic institutional experts and Socratic critical experts is fundamentally unfinished. His picture results in a tension and a conflict that appears insoluble. We must show how criticism is institutionalized to become a new mainstream better suited to the current era. An act of innovation in thought must complete this movement, and prepare for it to repeat as the new model of knowledge ossifies and faces its critics in the future.

Who Are a Socrates and a Protagoras Today?

But such innovation is no systematic synthesis out of the SparkNotes version of Hegel. That would be too simple. For instance, there need not be any content of the original calcified disciplinary framework that survives its creative assault—progress may include sweeping away the old way of doing things entirely.

Take the following analogy as an illustration: picture an artistic scene and society that has been entirely corrupted through a gentrifying city, and the collapse of any financial investment except for a few big-name producers. Rhetorically speaking, who in their right mind would ask Damien Hirst what is new, hip, boundary-breaking, and exciting in installation art in 2017?

Same thing for an academic discipline—major players who are at the end of long careers and have built significant institutional support are rarely connected to fresh younger scholars pursuing previously-neglected new directions. For the sake of this argument, lay aside—but please never ignore—the more vile and corrupt forms of decadence into which an institutionally-established academic all too often falls upon their old age.

Frodeman began his short essay with an example of a contemporary debate among the disciplinary community of academic university philosophy and the different lay experts of activist communities. This was Rebecca Tuvel’s essay in Hypatia on the possibility of transracial identity. The reception of “In Defence of Transracialism,” to put it mildly, inspired some controversy. The immediate, most hostile, response was that Tuvel’s article had done a kind of violence to transgender people. The intense criticism was called a “witch hunt” in New York Magazine.[1] In response, some members of Hypatia’s editorial staff issued an apology for having published Tuvel’s article in the first place. Higher-ranking editorial and board staff of Hypatia then denounced the apology, and some editors have resigned from their positions.

Perhaps the most straightforward lesson we can learn from Tuvel’s transracialism controversy is that academic research journals should simplify their editorial structures and have policies that clearly define the boundaries of responsibility and power for each staff member. Frodeman sees a more profound lesson, where this transracialism controversy is an illuminating example of different visions of expertise. Tuvel’s supporters take the stance, generally described, that her qualifications as a researcher specializing in feminist philosophy and the study of race and gender legitimate her right to articulate and defend her stand in the public sphere. Tuvel’s critics, generally speaking, hold that her legitimacy to speak on transgender issues should be rooted in material experiences of transgender life.

How would this fit into the binary Frodeman develops of Socratic and Anti-Socratic thought? Anti-Socratic thinking grounds the legitimacy of expertise in disciplinary knowledge of the academy. Socratic thinking focusses on challenging that disciplinary legitimacy, on grounds that the subject matter expert misses important aspects of reality thanks to its concentration on a limited number of ways of knowing. The expert speaks with self-assured certainty, while the gadfly challenges the expert by identifying important aspects of life that the expert’s disciplinary lens misses. So Tuvel would be an expert, that expertise allowing her article to walk us through a variety of different ways to understand what a genuine transracial identity could be. Her critics would be the gadflies, interrogating the limits of Tuvel’s expertise, showing how her disciplinary approach misses aspects of transgender people’s lived reality that are critical to understanding the material possibilities of trans existence.

Limits of Institutional and Critical Knowledge

I want to spend some more time analyzing the Tuvel controversy and some related issues, because I think this case reveals kinds of expertise that can supplement Frodeman’s vision. First, the institutionally-sanctioned expert describes some investigation into a real phenomenon using her disciplinary tools. So what tools did institutionally-sanctioned expert Rebecca Tuvel use to explore the possibility conditions of transracial identity?

If you read “In Defence of Transracialism,” you will find that Tuvel has masterfully used philosophical methods of conceptual analysis. Her essay fits seamlessly into the tradition of moral, ethical, and political philosophy established with G. E. Moore’s Principia Ethica. She examines a number of different ways in which we can conceive of the personal and physical transformations of gender and race, most of which other philosophers in the field of feminist and gender studies have developed or analyzed.

Tuvel’s overall argument in the essay starts with the presumption that transgender identities are legitimate, then runs through several different ways we can understand the ‘trans’ of the transgender such that transracial identity could be legitimate. She concludes, from her analysis, that while several conceptions of transgender’s ‘trans’ cannot apply successfully to transracial’s ‘trans,’ there is at least one that can. Therefore, Tuvel concludes, it is possible to develop your own transracial identity, although the circumstances in which such an identity would be legitimate are much more narrow than those for transgender identity.

That’s all fine in its own context. At the same time, “In Defence of Transracialism” is clear evidence that the tradition and methods of philosophy which Principia Ethica began is out of steam and out of step. These methods cannot offer the insights that moral debates of our era require. There are several reasons why they fall short. One is a matter of audience. The essays published in journals like Hypatia are intended only for other disciplinary experts who have been sanctioned as such by the discipline’s institutions. They have been hired or are on the job market for positions in university humanities departments. The disciplinary community was not where the intense critique of Tuvel came from: it was the community of intersectional political activists. They had very different priorities in political thought and engagement from institutionalized academics, which made them an inappropriate audience for Tuvel’s explicitly conceptual essay.

An important aspect of this audience mismatch comes from a more fundamental way in which the academic mainstream style of moral and political thinking through conceptual analysis falls short of what our times call such thinking to achieve. Frodeman understands the controversy over Tuvel’s article as a matter of different standards of expertise competing over which will provide the popular ground rules for investigations of various possible trans identities. That was an important part of the controversy, but I think the idea which sparked the most fiery debate was over the real-life issue that brought the notion of transracial identity to public consciousness in the first place: the human train wreck named Rachel Dolezal.

When You Are Caught Unexpectedly in Reality

The debate over Tuvel’s essay unfolded as a matter of competing standards of expertise, what gives someone the legitimacy to speak on trans issues in public venues. However, in the eyes of her most strident critics, Tuvel’s primary offence had nothing to do with that, but that she introduced her inquiry as a comparison of actual transgender people with Dolezal. It suggested that Dolezal’s demented idea of transracial identity was of the same type as transgender people’s painful and risky innovations in the material possibilities of human identity. Tuvel’s argument unfolded at a highly abstract level of purely conceptual analysis about the possibility conditions for a transracial identity that considered no real people. She discussed only the ontological and ethical possibility conditions of a legitimate transracial identity.

The problem was that her introduction mentioned Dolezal as having brought the idea of transracial identity so forcefully to public consciousness. In those few first paragraphs, Tuvel used a casual, non-technical vocabulary. Any institution-bound academic humanities researcher would interpret such vocabulary as signalling the cursory scene setting of an introductory paragraph. University academics are encased so thoroughly in a professional world and discourse of experts that they know such words are inconsequential. It is common sense that the vague words of the introduction were precisely introductory, and that the words which really mattered would follow.

Outside the discourse of the university world, where political arguments are literally and frequently matters of real people’s lives and deaths, it is common sense that the most important words of a politically relevant essay are its links to material reality. They are the words that explain why what follows matters to all our lives. In Tuvel’s essay, the only words that linked her analysis to the lives of real people was her brief comment about Rachel Dolezal’s media circus. So the common sense of a political activist would take Tuvel’s essay as an explicit, if dry, comparison of transgender people to Dolezal herself. The institutional knowledge of Anti-Socratics had failed so epically in practical matters.

A Socratic Voice in the Marketplace of Content

It is clear from the most insightful and accurate examinations of Dolezal’s priorities and personality that her own transracial identity possesses nothing of what Tuvel herself could most charitably grant even an inkling of legitimacy. I want to focus on the only piece of philosophical writing I could find that cut through the idiotic ejaculation of witless soundbites that made up the enraging, sorry media spectacle of Dolezal. When I call this essay philosophical, I use the term in a very Socratic sense. Ijeoma Oluo isn’t a university professor. She is a Seattle-based journalist. But her interview with Rachel Dolezal has a Socratic spirit: a determined, intelligent interrogation of a mystifying world, aiming to understand what order there might be to its politics and morality.

I do not want to walk through Oluo’s entire article. You should read it yourself, because even after I discuss its most salient points for my own discussion, her interview itself is rich with ideas. It could be the seed of a novel with the psychological depth of Alice Munro, whose protagonist is as vile and magnetic as the greasiest creations of Mordecai Richler. The advantage (or horror) of the story is that its protagonist is a real person. Tuvel’s entirely abstract approach remains blind to what Oluo’s Socratic interrogation of the real woman Dolezal discovered: the practical impossibility of genuine transracial existence.

Oluo’s interview with Dolezal reveals the latter’s attitude and approach to her transracial life. Dolezal herself has not adopted a transracial identity for anything like the reasons transgender people pursue their identity. A transgender person faces incredible danger because of their identity.

Transgender people are frequent targets of violent hate crime, including murder. They often experience discrimination, both from fellow citizens and from aggressively transphobic elected politicians. Such hateful atmospheres of daily massive and minor persecutions cause terrifying mental health problems. Suicide rates of transgender people are horrifyingly high.

Rachel Dolezal has experienced none of this suffering in her attempt to live as a black woman. Oluo’s interview reveals that she believes herself to have suffered at a similar intensity, that she takes herself to be a victim of persecution. Oluo’s interview with Dolezal is a philosophical conversation about the nature and purpose of the latter’s own transracial identity. Its nature is in a decision that Dolezal made, based on her shoddy understanding of what social construction means. Dolezal understands race to be socially constructed, but she believes that the socially constructed is entirely unreal, a matter of simple human decisions about what to believe in.

Revealing Our Inadequacies

As any professional practitioner of the humanities knows, socially constructed systems of knowledge are as durable and resistant to change as a society itself. Anyone who has read any accessible, affordable, straightforward book about social theory knows that. Rachel Dolezal chose to become black to demonstrate, through her own example, the unreality of race. Oluo’s interview revealed Dolezal’s self-image as a messianic martyr ushering a post-race society into existence. She sees herself as a one-woman harbinger of a utopian humanity. The ego, self-importance, and ignorance on display is dazzling.

Even Tuvel gives a very glib account of social construction in “In Defence of Transracialism,” describing the practical possibility of genuine racial change like so: “Although race change is theoretically possible, whether it is practically possible will depend on a society’s willingness to adjust its rules for racial categorization to better accommodate individual self-identification.” As a scholar of inter-disciplinary feminist traditions, she should know better.

But the rarefied abstraction of her style prevents her from engaging with the physical difficulties of changing socially constructed institutions and cultural mores. Tuvel’s only engagement with the problems social construction’s inertia causes for a transracial identity is when she leans on Sally Haslanger’s conception of race. Haslanger’s notion that race is a matter of how others see you is interesting, but its conception of identity sticks to a community’s interpellation—a technical elaboration on the basic notion that race is a matter of how others see you.

These ideas are simply not adequate to the psychological and ethical complexity of Dolezal’s actual derangement. The thinking of this real woman, not an abstract consideration of the possibility conditions of transracial identity, has driven this political discourse about what the boundaries of racial and ethnic identity can be.

What Would a Creative Philosophical Discourse Look Like?

Oluo’s interview was never written with an eye on the controversy over Tuvel’s article or her arguments. Nonetheless, comparing how both writers approach the issue of transraciality illustrates the ossifying tendency of institutionalized disciplinary thinking and the fire in the belly of a Socratic interrogator. Tuvel’s approach to analyzing the possibility conditions of transracial existence was so tone-deaf because she was concerned only with a technical academic debate in the language of a narrow humanities discipline.

Hers was an argument entirely for the world of scholarship, and Tuvel’s expertise was entirely within that narrow disciplinary scope. She might privately maintain the political relevance of the issues she discussed, but how she discussed them utterly sidestepped the issues’ political relevance. Oluo is an improvement, her work being rooted in the critical interrogation of a real person’s actual values. Her thinking and writing shows the acuity of a philosophically sharp mind employing complex concepts of race, ethnicity, and social construction to the values of a real person, and that person’s attempt to impose her values on a hostile world.

The establishment voice has spoken and been shouted down. The gadfly has revealed the sad truth and could only walk away, exasperated. The camel and the lion have had their say. Can anything be built from this?

The most important groundwork of building a creative philosophical discourse is to admit the inadequacy of all the concepts you know best. The politics of race and nation throughout North America, Europe, southern Asia, and Africa today calls for publicly engaged philosophers and other humanities researchers and writers to engage and develop new ideas to battle racism and violence.

Rachel Dolezal’s twisted reasoning is an unfortunate blend of philosophical incompetence and delusions of grandeur. Ijeoma Oluo is uniquely perceptive in having understood this, and having been able to identify through the shrieking buzz of Dolezal’s extended media circus the precise ways in which her reasoning fails. Rebecca Tuvel fares far better than Dolezal herself, but still relies on the bloodless detachment of scholarly debate to engage with issues of many people’s real lives and deaths. Both Socratic interrogative criticism and Anti-Socratic disciplinary expertise have proven inadequate to the task.

The approach to racial politics that missed the mark most wildly was Dolezal’s own, for two reasons. She failed to understand the material power of socially constructed norms and institutions, and she was motivated by an egotistical desire to make herself a messiah for the revolution of a raceless world. Tuvel at least understood enough about the humanities’ scholarly debates on the nature of race to say something coherent. But her scholarly approach failed to comprehend the real urgency of race politics for our current moment. Worse, she did not even understand how her work would be received outside the scholarly community.

Both her article itself, as well as the reactions of Hypatia’s editors, supplies further evidence that disciplinary academic training does not prepare one for effective activism.

Tuvel’s failure was clearly empirical. She did not understand what is at stake for real people in questions of transgender and transracial identities, or at least wrote as if those stakes did not matter for her question. Oluo’s greatest success in her interview with Dolezal about transracial identity was her application of an incisive philosophical mind to an empirical case, understanding the ideological and political priorities of a real person.

A New Empiricism: Material Thinking

So whatever philosophical approach to political thinking succeeds will be essentially empirical, a unity of conceptual rigour and meticulous, systematic observation. Philosophers must understand human actions with the same analytic attention to detail as they have understood concepts and ideas for the last century. Such analysis must understand human action at the individual level of single people’s decisions and beliefs in their daily lives. But it must also understand the systematic dimensions of action, the complex web of relationships in which human activity is interlinked across the globe.

Techniques for achieving this analysis of action can, at least most obviously for now, be found in the discipline of ethnography. This includes rich skills of observation, understanding how reasons, ideology, and relationships throughout and across social networks, impact the development of personalities and self-conceptions. Philosophical reflection should no longer begin only with concepts, but with the personalities that put concepts into practical action through their individual and community’s ideologies and moralities.

Begin from understanding human thought in the real world of practice, where people are making a living and building their lives. Probe people’s political beliefs, moral ideals, relationships with their communities, countries, and the rest of the world, as well as how a person actually understands who and what she is. Analyze those concepts systematically. That means understanding how those concepts shape a person’s thinking and life priorities, as well as their internal coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions. Analyze how those concepts fit together into a broader philosophy or ideology, their coherence, paradoxes, and contradictions in co-existence as they build a single world-view. Understand what kind of world and personality those concepts will build in a person or community that lives according to their implications.

Begin with the world, work in thought, and let thought guide you to a better understanding of the world. Then communicate with the people whose ideologies, ideas, and philosophies you are analyzing. One of the central reasons for the enraged reaction to Tuvel’s essay was that she wrote it in a format appropriate only for journals of the professional academic humanities.

Even subtle differences in writing style helped doom her popular reception. She wrote her introduction as an unimportant prologue, where many in the popular audience read her introduction as a substantive hook. Adapting philosophical writing style to a popular intellectual audience with composition techniques from popular current affairs and journalism genres can be an aid to clarity and true practical impact. I am, of course, not talking about some institutional impact factor rating, but the real impact that philosophy can have: simultaneously interpreting the world and changing it.

Creative developments in philosophy come in many forms. They are all responses to changes in a society where typical ways of thinking and talking about ideas were shown to be inadequate. Different circumstances brought this inadequacy about each time philosophical creativity became required. We need to acknowledge when the old ways of doing things will not work as they did before, and see what has changed in the world to make our old ways ineffective. We must understand the causes of our own obsolescence, and upgrade our practice and skill-set to keep up with the demands of a world that will not bow to whatever is convenient for our established approaches to knowledge.


“Editors Quit at Feminist Journal that Compared Transgenders to Rachel Dolezal.” The College Fix (2017):

Flaherty, Colleen. “(Another) Shake-up At Hypatia.” Inside Higher Education (2017):

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

Jeffries, Stuart. “German Philosophy Has Finally Gone Viral. Will That Be Its Undoing?” Foreign Policy Magazine (2017):

Oluo, Ijeoma. “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black.” The Stranger (2017):

Singal, Jesse. “This Is What a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Looks Like.” New York Magazine (2017):

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defence of Transracialism.” Hypatia 32, no. 2 (2017): 263-278.

Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. “Months After ‘Transracialism’ Flap, Controversy Still Rages at Feminist Philosophy Journal” Chronicle of Higher Education (2017):

[1] The use of the term “witch hunt” can easily be interpreted as a politically-charged denunciation of Tuvel critics with the same terms of abuse that progressive activists receive from Trumpist and alt-right conservatives. Voices in the academic community who are generally conservative about the institution have been unsparing in denouncing Tuvel’s critics. Although they may have overreacted, the editors who issued the apology in the light of controversy no more deserve aggression and pile-ons than Tuvel herself. Brian Leiter, a reliable weathervane of belligerent conservatism in the academic humanities, has been especially vile to former Hypatia editor Cressida Hayes, describing her as hypocritical, unprofessional, and appalling.

Author Information: Willem Halffman, Radboud University, and Hans Radder, VU University Amsterdam,

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder, editors. “International Responses to the Academic Manifesto: Reports from 14 Countries.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Special Report (2017): 1-76.

The PDF of the report gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Editor’s Note: On 23 July 2017 corrections and minor changes to this report, both the html and pdf formats, were made and posted.

Please refer to:

Image credit: Simon Ingram, via flickr

Table of Contents

Report Introduction
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

1. The Wolf and the Sheep in Québec
Michel Lacroix
2. Beyond Privatization in U.S. Higher Education
Mark B. Brown
3. On the Ills of Management: The Brazilian Experience
Renato Dagnino and Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira
4. The Crisis of Japanese Academia: A Brief Report on Recent Developments
Makoto Katsumori
5. Australia: Reclaiming the Public University?
Simon Batterbury and Jason Byrne
6. On Wolves, Sheep and Shepherds: A Bosnian Comedy of Errors
Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić-Thomas
7. Beside the Wolf There Is also a Ravenous Giant Octopus Eating Away Academic Freedom in Hungary
Anna Wessely
8. Striving for Academic Authenticity: A Slovak Position in the Context of the Academic Manifesto
Jozef Hvorecký, Emil Višňovský and Matúš Porubjak
9. Anxieties and Tensions in the Nordic Model—Finland and Scandinavia
Anita Välikangas
10. Activism over Acrimony: Not Getting Better but Getting Beyond the UK’s Research Excellence Framework
Richard Watermeyer
11. The Academic Manifesto: The Situation in Flanders
Koen Bogaert, Valerie De Craene, Anton Froeyman, Karen Stroobants and Sigrid Vertommen
12. Complutense University of Madrid and the Academic Manifesto: Common Traits of a Global Crisis in Higher Education
Eva Aladro Vico
13. Problems of the French Universities
Christophe Charle
14. The Struggle for the Public University in the Netherlands
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

The Productivist University Goes Global (and So Does Its Resistance)
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

(Added) Polish Reform of Higher Education: “Operation was Successful and Patient is Dead”
Izabela Wagner

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Report Introduction
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

In April 2015, we published our Academic Manifesto, the slightly updated English version of an earlier Dutch article (Halffman and Radder 2013, 2015a). It described how universities are occupied by management, a regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation. Given the occupation’s absurd side-effects, we examined how this colonization of the university came about and why it still persists. Furthermore, we sketched an alternative vision of a public university, more akin to a socially engaged knowledge commons than to a corporation. We also listed twenty concrete measures to achieve this public university. From the fact that management seemed impervious to cogent arguments, we concluded that significant change could only happen if academics take action. Hence, we explored eleven different strategies for a renewed university politics.

The article seems to have raised quite a stir over the last years. We have received supportive reactions by academics from many countries. There is now a Hungarian, a Spanish, a Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and a Portuguese translation, while a French translation will be published shortly (Halffman and Radder 2015b, 2015c, 2016, 2017, forthcoming). All translations have been made in the context of academic protests in their respective countries as a call to action. Finally, at the moment, the Minerva website mentions 19K downloads of the Manifesto—which is quite exceptional for this type of journal.

On our part, these facts suggested the need for a follow-up. Apparently, the problems of academia we analyzed from a Dutch perspective were not limited to the Netherlands. Therefore, it seemed important to have a more detailed view of the current predicament of higher education in a range of different countries. For this purpose, we invited several colleagues who had earlier sent us a reaction to write a brief response to the Manifesto. These responses were to address the analyses, the evaluations and the proposed solutions of the Manifesto from the national perspectives of the respondents.

The aim was threefold. First, this overview would show the international dimension of the situation and could counter attempts to dismiss our criticism by claiming that the problems are merely local and incidental. Second, it would constitute an act of international solidarity and thus serve to motivate and support further forms of resistance. Third, it could help to devise effective strategies for political action by learning from each other.

As a result, we have received the reports that can be found below. Some are relatively short, others somewhat more extended. They originate from a large number of countries: Australia, Belgium (Flanders), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Canada (Québec), Finland (and Scandinavia), Hungary, Japan, Spain, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States. We have added to this inventory a concise piece on what has happened in the Netherlands since we published the first version of the Manifesto in 2013. Since the reports cannot be grouped in clearly different thematic clusters, we have ordered them according to the geographical regions of the authors’ countries. We conclude this collection with a sketch of our perspective on what we call the ‘productivist university’, both on the global features and on the equally global forms of resistance that we see emerging from the fourteen country reports.


Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2013. “Het Academisch Manifest: Van een Bezette Naar een Publieke Universiteit.” Krisis: Tijdschrift Voor Actuele Filosofie (3): 2-18.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015a. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” Minerva 53 (2): 165-187.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015b. “A Megszállt Egyetemből Legyen Újra Közintézmény!” [In Hungarian.] Translated by Anna Wessely. Budapest Review of Books, 6 (July): 114-120.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015c. “Akademski Manifest: Od Okupiranog dso Javnog Univerziteta.” [In Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.] Translated by Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić. Pregled: 173-203.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2016. “Manifiesto Académico: De la Universidad Ocupada a la Universidad Pública.” [In Spanish.] Translated by Eva Aladro Vico. (To be re-published in CIC Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, 2017).

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2017. “Manifesto Acadêmico: De uma Universidade Ocupada a uma Universidade Pública.” [In Portuguese.] Translated by Amires Cianci von Atzingen, Carlos Machado and Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira. Revista ADUSP. (60): 6- 25.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. Forthcoming. “Le Manifeste Académique.” [In French.] Translated by Michel Lacroix.

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1. Report from Québec and Canada

The Wolf and the Sheep in Québec
Michel Lacroix[1]

The Wolf is Everywhere

For a Québec university professor, reading the Academic Manifesto produces a very strong ‘worryingly familiar’ feeling. Indeed, the many-headed Wolf of management has occupied us too. One can recognize in Québec’s university system most of the symptoms of this occupation. The new regime of ‘indicator fetishism’ dominates the practices and discourses of university administrations, research grant institutions, as well as government and private funding organisations. All across the board, the pressure is on to produce ‘more’: more students in each classroom, in each education programme; more international students in every university; more publications and more research grants per scholar. The student/teacher ratio has gone up 40%, between 1995 and 2015, but the number of faculty burnouts has also been multiplied (by a factor of 6, in Laval University; see Leclerc, Bourassa and Macé 2016).

The intensity and intellectual emptiness of the competition between students, professors and institutions has reached very high levels and has created a circuit of systematic ratification of the precedent choices: most of the PhD grants go to students who received grants for their master thesis, and thus forward with the postdoctoral grants, the university jobs, all the way to the ‘Canada research chairs’, given to the previously most-funded scholars, who will then regularly receive yet more funding, for themselves and for their students. The concentration of grants in a few hands has thus engendered a very unequal academic oligopoly: 10% of the so-called elite of scholars receive as much as 80% of the grants’ money (Larivière 2013). All of this constantly devaluates teaching: the ‘true’ stars do not give more than one graduate seminar per year, the professors who have the ‘regular’ teaching load of four undergraduate courses are regarded as ‘poor fellows’, and about 50% of undergraduate courses is given by precarious lecturers. This also undermines the value of community service functions and thus the spirit of collegiality, to the point where undergraduate programme chairs, department chairs and, even more so, union officers, are considered obstacles or dead-ends for an ‘elite’ career. The Mathew Effect diagnosed by the Academic Manifesto affects Québec universities as much as the Dutch and European ones.

Here too, the deviation from the goal of preserving, transmitting and forging new knowledge, of developing critical analysis of ideas and practices, in order to compete more effectively, is based on an absurd ideology of excellence suggesting that every institution, every scholar, can and must be ‘in the top 1%’ of his domain, even as it actively aggravates structural inequalities, ‘naturalising’ them in tier systems. In the ever-increasing competition for new students, universities are building new campuses in each other’s backyards and are looking to open antennas in foreign countries. The same market-oriented logic pushes them to multiply teams for communications and international relations at every level. At the same time, the continuous governmental demands for more accountability, internalized by university administrations in their ‘new public management’ doctrine, has not diminished in the least their bureaucratic trends: more and more time and money are devoted to the production of reports (each university must send around 200 annual reports to the government). Between 1997 and 2008, the total payroll of the administrative staff has increased by 154%, three times as fast as the increase of the payroll for professors (FQPPU 2013).

The Wolf, as it has manifested itself in our universities, has two characteristics that were not described in the Manifesto. The first is the tendency of governments to put research funding at their own service, via thematic funds, which receive an ever-increasing portion of the money. While this breaches the autonomy of the academic field to choose and evaluate the relative interest of research domains, it has been much less intensely scrutinized and criticized than the funding coming from the private sector (the study by Lajoie [2009] has been severely criticized; see Gingras 2010). The second characteristic concerns the question of the ‘governance’ of the universities, or to use another language, the distribution of power inside the universities. There have been repeated efforts, from the government and the university administrations, to give more leeway to the principals and their teams, at the expense of collegiality. A projected bill, in 2009, would have given at least 60% of university boards to administrators from outside the universities. A unified opposition defeated this bill, but the struggle is still going on. In fact, in the last months, at the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal, two different proposals sketch new decision-making procedures with less power given to governance bodies where professors, lecturers and students are in the majority. Another aspect of administrative reforms inspired by the Wolf is the ‘budget devolution’, adopted by some universities, from the central administration towards the faculties and services. In their effects (if not in their objective), these reforms think of students as ‘revenues’ and of professors and courses as expenses, colouring most of the decisions with a strictly economic point of view.

I should also add that the student body, as organized through students unions, is in Quebec a very important force of opposition to the elitist and managerial transformation of the universities. Its strength flows and ebbs, but it can lead to massive mobilizations, as was shown in the ‘student spring’ of 2012, when a general strike against a 75% tuition fee increase lasted several months and rallied up to 300,000 students.

Despite these differences, the importance and magnitude of the similarities between the situation in Québec, the Netherlands, Europe and, I would say, North America, show that, regardless of the political, cultural or economic contexts, there is indeed a truly transnational movement towards a managerial university, based on a shared ideology, developed and made dominant by major institutions, with the benevolent help of governments. This is much more than a ‘crisis in the humanities’ (even if the humanities are the first to be targeted) or the consequence of years of government ‘austerity’. Twenty years ago, Bill Readings analysed the emergence and domination of the idea of excellence as a symptom of a globalisation movement transforming the university in a transnational commercial mall. The Academic Manifesto demonstrates that this movement has not only changed the conception of the university, but its whole fabric, from the day-to-day interactions between colleagues up to the university structures. What was still mostly a discourse in Readings’ book, has now materialized in procedures, forms, spreadsheets and burnouts.

From what a university professor from Québec can deduce from the Manifesto, it even seems that the situation has gotten worse in some European ‘national’ systems than it is here. Except for the deans, even the most stellar professors still have to teach at least one course every year; the sabbatical year is offered to every tenured teacher; the tenure is usually obtained by the vast majority, after four or five years; the universities still publish annual reports (even if their strategic plans are newspeak administrative prose devoid of any intellectual value); we have not seen any real pressure towards mergers; and the introduction of matching to finance research, while troubling, has been limited and open to ‘creative’ solutions.

The Sheep Strike Back?

There is a very important step, between the Manifesto and The University in Ruins (or the many important critiques of the managerial university, of which there were quite a few, around the time of the 2012 student strike [for instance, Baillargeon 2013; Martin and Ouellet 2011; Seymour 2013]), and this is the active research of concrete counter-attack moves. It also makes a very clear call for a transnational movement, in its conclusion: ‘Workers of all universities, unite!’ Some scholars will surely scoff at such a call to arms, even with its ‘tongue in cheek’ utopian consciousness. But this seems precisely one of the avenues that university professors, lecturers and students should examine, in order to shake off the feeling of a desperate rear guard (the village d’Astérix mentality). The study and critique of the university ‘world-system’, in its bureaucratic, elitist and mercantile guise, must not become another specialised field of study, but should engender, through networks of discussion and mobilization, an heterogeneous but combative republic of rebellious scholars. The logic of the present system (conferences, journals, seminars) could even be used against itself, to help foster an academic yet militant reflection and action.

As for the different strategies outlined in the Manifesto, some could offer important ways to achieve specific gains and build up solidarity locally. Collective refusal and collective opposition towards some administrative forms, documentation systems, or propositions, can be very useful. In my own university, they introduced a new evaluation policy, which demanded an annual, a triennial and a decennial evaluation for every program, all of them with pre-formed questions. After two years of experimentation with the annual report, in which they systematically wrote ‘nothing to declare’ to those questions, the programme directors of one department decided to stop compiling them, and stated why in the forms themselves, with copies to their colleagues in the same faculty. A few months after, the university abandoned the annual report.

The trade unions’ actions can also be very effective, depending on the local history and the legal context. At the Université du Québec à Montréal and the other branches of the Université du Québec, a collective agreement specifies the very structure of the university. This means that the administration cannot change the structure through a new collective agreement without reaching a deal with a majority of professors. Consequently, the union has a structural role in university affairs, from the process of hiring new professors to the process of creating new programs, and even concerning the overall teacher/student ratio.

Other university unions do not have this feature (some, as McGill, do not have unions, but only associations), but the possibility of a strike and the structures of collegiality still give them a say. However, even if many of the problems confronting professors in their work come from the same managerial, that is, the same ‘excellence’ ideology, most conflicts take place locally, with few echoes elsewhere. We have a provincial federation of professors (FQPPU), with a very combative spirit, which publishes well-documented studies on the state of Québec universities. One of the propositions put forward, which could hold back or even reverse the concentration of funds and prestige in fewer hands, is the provision of an annual research grant of CA$10,000 for every university professor (FQPPU 2016). However, there is no real ‘consciousness’, on the part of university professors, of what is really going on, concretely, in their colleagues’ universities. This seriously limits the possibility of a collective counter strike. The legal impossibility of a ‘social strike’ is another important constraint. Still, strikes could play an important role, in nurturing solidarity and in a structured, organized movement in favour of ‘contra-indicators’, an avenue where the expertise of many fields (labour relations, scientometrics, sociology of science, etc.) could come together. This would be even more necessary, in my view, at the international level (and could give purpose to the Education International [2017], or better still, create a Higher-Education International, since the former seems very distant and mostly focused on primary and secondary levels).


Baillargeon, Normand. 2013. Je ne Suis Pas Une PME. Montréal: Poètes de Brousse.

Education International/Internationale De L’éducation. 2017. “Education International—Latest News on Education.” Accessed March 24 2017.

FQPPU—Fédération Québécoise Des Professeurs et Professeures D’université. 2016. “Pour Une Subvention De Recherche Annuelle De Base.”

FQPPU—Fédération Québécoise Des Professeurs et Professeures D’université. 2013. “Ouvrir Ensemble Une Voie Pour L’université Québécoise.”

Gingras, Yves. 2010. “Qu’est-ce Que la Recherche Libre? Review of Vive la Recherche Libre! by Andrée Lajoie.” Recherches Sociographiques 51(1-2): 160-173.

Gingras, Yves. 2016. Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation: Uses and Abuses. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Giroux, Aline. 2006. Le Pacte faustien de L’université. Montréal: Liber.

Lajoie, Andrée. 2009. Vive la Recherche Libre! Montréal: Liber.

Larivière, Vincent. 2013. “La Concentration des Fonds de Recherche et ses Effets.” Découvrir (9).

Larivière, Vincent, Benoit Macaluso, Éric Archambault, and Yves Gingras. 2010. “Which Scientific Elites? On the Concentration of Research Funds, Publications and Citations.” Research Evaluation 19 (1): 49-53.

Leclerc, Chantal, Bruno Bourassa, and Christian Macé. 2016. “Dérives de la recherche et détresse psychologique: Une recherche qualitative.” Découvrir, no 6. Retrieved from

Martin, Éric, and Maxime Ouellet. 2011. Université Inc. Montréal: Lux.

Readings, Bill. 1997. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seymour, Michel. 2013. Une Idée de L’université. Propositions d’un Professeur Militant. Montréal: Boréal.

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2. Report from the United States

Beyond Privatization in U.S. Higher Education
Mark B. Brown[2]

In The Academic Manifesto Willem Halffman and Hans Radder (2015) deftly summarize many of the trends that are undermining the public university in the Netherlands and beyond. They see the ‘public’ in public university not primarily as a funding source but as a guiding philosophy and purpose. Even a privately funded university, such as many of the most prestigious universities in the United States, can be ‘public’ in this sense in various ways: it educates and informs the public; it provides not only private benefits but also public goods that have social and non-market benefits; and it strives to become a self-governing community that is publicly accountable to its members and to the various broader publics that have a stake in its activities.

As a faculty member at a regional public university in California, much of Halffman and Radder’s discussion sounds very familiar. Of course, the US higher education landscape is highly differentiated and complex, and I cannot offer a comprehensive comparison to the Netherlands. Here I only want to sketch a few points that speak to the situation portrayed by Halffman and Radder.

Privatization and Managerialism

Halffman and Radder paint a dismal yet, from a U.S. perspective, largely familiar picture of the current state of higher education:

A culture of competition increasingly undermines everyday collegiality and scholarly cooperation. Faculty compete for academic positions and recognition, while universities compete for public funding, private donors, students, and star faculty.

Commercially marketable research takes priority over both undergraduate teaching and basic research.

Contingent faculty comprise the majority of the faculty and teach most of the courses. They work on short-term contracts with very low pay, low job security, few opportunities for academic research or professional development, little or no say in university governance, and an everyday lack of respect and recognition.

Students tend to see themselves as consumers who care more about campus athletic and recreation opportunities than academic quality. Facing the prospect of high debt and a precarious labour market, they see the purpose of university education not primarily in intellectual inquiry or self-understanding, but as a means for acquiring the academic credentials and professional connections for a well-paying job.

Administrators increasingly rely on citation counts and other managerial accountability mechanisms to monitor faculty performance. Such mechanisms fail to capture the social value of research and teaching, create needless busywork, and foster a culture of distrust. Administrators claim such measures decrease costs and increase efficiency, but they generally do the opposite.

Each of these problems is easy to find at colleges and universities in the United States. Since about 1980, U.S. universities have increasingly come to define higher education less as a public good than as a private business enterprise. In his recent book, The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, Christopher Newfield (2016) shows that privatization, which has become the most common response to the problems facing higher education, is actually the fundamental cause of these problems.

Privatization takes many forms in the United States: increases in student tuition and fees that effectively shift the cost of higher education from tax-payers to students and their families; outsourcing of support activities like educational technology, financial analysis, student health care, and food service to for-profit companies; increased reliance on private donors and foundations who often exert subtle (or not so subtle) influence on research and teaching; a neglect in both rhetoric and policy of the social and non-market benefits of higher education (e.g., increased public health, happiness, and problem-solving capacities); and a redefinition of students and faculty as human capital, focused on continuous self-investment for the purpose of economic security (see also Brown 2015).

Most importantly, Newfield argues, both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. tend to misunderstand the basic dynamics of university privatization. Conservatives see universities as susceptible to wasting public funds, and so they call for more managerial oversight, fiscal discipline, and an orientation toward corporate modes of governance. Liberals tend to see privatization as a necessary if regrettable response to cuts in public funding. Both mistakenly assume that there simply isn’t enough money to fund higher education as a genuine public good. And both see privatization as a way to save money, when actually it does the opposite.

Tuition increases, for example, did not begin as a response to cuts in public funding, as commonly assumed, but instead preceded such cuts. As Newfield (2016, 42) explains, ‘Public colleges and universities raised tuition about 50 per cent during the 1980s in constant dollars, and another 38 per cent in the 1990s, when real state funding actually increased slightly.’ When state legislatures learned that universities could bring in more student tuition, they were emboldened to cut public funding. Between 1990 and 2012, tuition of all colleges and universities taken together increased 297 per cent, twice the rate of health care costs. According to one recent assessment (Newfield et al. 2017), in 2016 California spent 39 per cent less per university student than fifteen years before, while student tuition and fees have more than doubled at both the University of California and California State University, and tripled at the state’s two-year community colleges.

One of the most striking and consequential changes has been an enormous shift in the makeup of the academic labour force. According to a 2014 report (AAUP 2014, Figure 1), between 1976 and 2011 there was a 369 per cent increase in full-time non-faculty professional positions (‘buyers and purchasing agents; human resources, training, and labor relations specialists; management analysts; loan counselors; lawyers; and other nonacademic workers’). Full-time non-tenure-track faculty increased 259 per cent, while tenured and tenure-track faculty grew by only 23 per cent, despite massive increases in enrolment. According to a 2016 report (AAUP 2016, 13), ‘[t]he majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent’. The report also finds that spending on instruction at U.S. colleges and universities now makes up less than one-third of the overall higher education budget.

Under these circumstances, scepticism toward public funding for colleges and universities starts to seem entirely reasonable. Taxpayers rightly ask why they are paying for research that ends up subsidizing for-profit technology ventures with unclear public benefits. Parents rightly wonder why their children’s instructors are too overworked to provide adequate feedback on assignments, and why the most prominent professors devote so little time and effort to quality teaching (Brown 2015, 197).

Of course, public scepticism toward American universities also has other causes, including a long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism. Many conservatives in the U.S. still see universities as bastions of sexual immorality and Marxist ideology, filled with left-wing professors intent on indoctrinating their children. In a recent speech, President Donald Trump’s newly appointed Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (2017), echoed a familiar conservative theme when she said, ‘The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think’.

Finally, it is important to note a more insidious cause of public scepticism toward higher education in the U.S. From the 1950s until the 1970s, public universities were widely seen as a force for reducing inequalities of race, class, and gender. Despite serious shortcomings, the United States extended the promise of higher education to a broader cross-section of society than anywhere or any time in history. Over the past fifty years, the curriculum, the students, and (to some extent) the faculty have become far more representative of America’s demographic makeup (Newfield 2008). But the commitment to public higher education as a tool for reducing social inequality and rectifying historical injustices has gradually fallen by the wayside. In its place we have a vague liberal commitment to tolerance, pluralism, and multiculturalism, driven by an appeal to ‘inclusion’. To be sure, increased inclusion of historically marginalized groups is a major achievement, but it does not undo the accumulated effects of past injustices or eliminate racist and sexist attitudes. Indeed, while the story is complex, it is probably no accident that the white majority’s willingness to fund public universities has decreased just as the percentage of non-white students has increased.

What to Do?

Halffman and Radder (2015, 166) note that faculty critics of these developments have produced an ‘endless stream of opinion articles, lamentations, pressing letters and appeals’—and here is one more!—all with little discernible impact. And they place significant blame on themselves and their (our) fellow faculty: ‘[t]he ‘radical’ professor lectures on the French post-modernists, while using the citation panopticon to discipline the temporary staff. Critical philosophers publish sharp papers against ‘open office’ policies, but meekly conform to its introduction at their own institution. Today we publish a manifesto, tomorrow we pull the rug from under a colleague in the hope of gaining funds for a research assistant. Divide and conquer works because we all join in’ (173).

A similar message appeared in a recent piece by Kevin Birmingham (2017), the first contingent faculty member to receive a prestigious award for literary criticism at the University of Iowa.  ‘If you are a tenured (or tenure-track) faculty member teaching in a humanities department with Ph.D. candidates’, Birmingham wrote, ‘you are both the instrument and the direct beneficiary of exploitation’.

Halffman and Radder go on to list a series of potential resistance strategies, ranging from foot dragging and clerical sabotage to protests, strikes, and political advocacy. In many respects, the U.S. is ground zero of neoliberal privatization, and recent developments offer little cause for optimism in this regard. But there are also many promising examples of effective advocacy for the values and institutions of public higher education.

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years has been increased public awareness about contingent faculty. There have been numerous high-profile media reports about the dismal working conditions of contingent faculty (e.g. Fredrickson 2015). Contingent faculty have promoted their interests through research and advocacy groups like the New Faculty Majority (2017), the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (2017), the Delphi Project (2017), the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour (2017), and the AAUP (2016). And on many campuses, contingent faculty have won small but significant gains in pay, benefits, job security, and participation rights in academic self-governance.

Many faculty labour unions in the U.S. have been highly engaged and effective advocates for the values of public higher education in general, and for contingent faculty in particular. Halffman and Radder write that trade unions at Dutch universities tend to only represent established professors, not contingent faculty. At the University of California, the reverse is the case, and the labour union for contingent faculty (UCAFT) has won pay raises and benefits, rights for due process in hiring, and a minimal amount of job security for faculty who have taught six years or more. At California State University, where I teach, the faculty union (CFA) represents both tenure-line and contingent faculty. Across the country, many contingent faculty have become unionized in recent years through the efforts of the Service Employees International Union’s Faculty Forward campaign. According to a recent report (Herbert 2016), since 2012 there has been a 25.9 per cent increase in faculty unions at private universities, and a 2.1 per cent increase at public universities. And faculty unionization has clear benefits: contingent faculty with union representation have an average of 25% higher pay (Flaherty 2013).

Finally, student activism seems to be on the rise, and it has the potential to transform the debate on higher education. Of course, some commentators have ridiculed today’s students as the anxious and fragile children of anxious and overly protective parents (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). Today’s students, they say, demand coddling from college faculty and administrators in the form of speech codes, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and systems for reporting micro-aggression and other forms of disrespect toward women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable identities. But such assessments exaggerate selected high profile cases, and they neglect considerable counter-evidence.

Surveys show that high percentages of today’s students are deeply involved in political causes of all kinds. For example, a 2015 survey (Eagan et al. 2015) at UCLA found that about 9 per cent of first-year students (and 16 per cent of first-year black students) said there is a ‘very good chance’ they will participate in a campus protest while in college. About 22 per cent said that influencing the political structure is ‘very important’ or ‘essential’. And over 40 per cent said it is ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ to promote racial understanding, influence social values, and become informed about political affairs.

During the past decade, thousands of American students have become involved in political campaigns of all kinds, including the student anti-sweatshop movement, campaigns against sexual assault, the campaign to push universities to divest from fossil fuels, and protests against racism and sexism on campus. At my own university, the Students for Quality Education have been fighting for truly public higher education since 2007.

It’s time more of us joined the struggle.


AAUP—American Association of University Professors. 2014. “Losing Focus: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. 2013-14.”

AAUP—American Association of University Professors. 2016. “Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16.”

Birmingham, K. 2017. “The Great Shame of Our Profession: How the Humanities Survive on Exploitation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12.

Brown, W. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books.

Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour. 2017. “About COCAL.”

Coalition on the Academic Workforce. 2017. “Coalition on the Academic Workforce.”

Delphi Project. 2017. “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success.”

DeVos, B. 2017. “U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Prepared Remarks at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, February 23, U.S. Department of Education.”

Eagan, K., E. B. Stolzenberg, A. K. Bates, M. C. Aragon, M. R. Suchard, and C. Rios-Aguilar. 2015. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2015. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Flaherty, C. 2013. “Union Raises for Adjuncts.” Inside Higher Ed, July 26.

Fredrickson, C. 2015. “There is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts.” The Atlantic, September 15.

Halffman, W., and H. Radder. 2015. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” Minerva 53 (3), 165–187.

Herbert, W. A. 2016. “The Winds of Changes Shift: An Analysis of Recent Growth in Bargaining Units and Representation Efforts in Higher Education.” Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy 8 (December).

Lukianoff, G., and J. Haidt. 2015. “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The Atlantic (September).

New Faculty Majority. 2017. “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Newfield, C. 2008. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Newfield, C. 2016. The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and how We Can Fix Them. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Newfield, C., C. Hansen, J. Polansky, E. Hays, A. Hines-Shaikh, and S. A. Glantz. 2017. “The $48 fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for higher education.” Berkeley, CA: Reclaim California Higher Education. 48dollars.

Newfield, C., C. Hansen, J. Polansky, E. Hays, A. Hines-Shaikh, and S. A. Glantz. 2017. “The $48 fix: Reclaiming California’s Master Plan for higher education.” Berkeley, CA: Reclaim California Higher Education. 48dollars.

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3. Report from Brazil

On the Ills of Management: The Brazilian Experience
Renato Dagnino and Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira[3]

To put things in a proper perspective, it must be said at the start that higher education in Brazil is provided by a private as well as a public sector. The private sector is by far the largest, catering for about 75% of the students. With a few honourable exceptions, which are always mentioned, in private universities practically no research is done. They are not universities in the proper sense of the term, which applies only to institutions that have research as one of their prime functions. Strictly speaking, they do not belong in academia, and hence, will be considered here only in one respect, to wit in connection with the dissimilarities between the situations in the Netherlands and in Brazil; all other considerations will refer only to the public sector. But first the similarities.

The main similarity is that in Brazil, as in the Netherlands, the spirit of management prevails, with most of its features: the predominance of ideologically biased quantitative over qualitative evaluations, the intense productivist pressure, the exacerbated competition, the overvaluation of published papers to the detriment of books, and other forms of production, especially teaching activities, the greater value placed on publications in English, in relation to those published in other languages (including, obviously, Portuguese), the fetishism of indicators, particularly the impact factor and the h-index, the assumption that raising global university rankings is the prime aim of academic administration, the stress on innovation as the purpose of scientific research, etc.

The deleterious side-effects of management methods, which make the administration so dysfunctional, are also the same: damage to academics’ quality of life, health problems due to stress caused by competitive pressures, occasionally leading to burnout cases, overproduction of papers, with the accompanying fall in quality, increase in the frequency of cases of misconduct (falsification and fabrication of data, plagiarism, duplicate publication, etc.), erosion of the concept of authorship, lack of time and energy for academics to reflect on their work, and to practice the social responsibility of science and scholarship, etc.

The final item of the list in the last but one paragraph deserves a special mention. Around the year 2000, a vigorous drive was initiated in Brazil to promote innovationism, meaning the establishment of the production of innovations as the prime objective of scientific research, an innovation being defined as an invention that can be adopted by a firm, thereby increasing its profits. The drive involves a large number of measures, like the favouring, by funding agencies, of projects with a potential to generate profitable applications, the incentivizing of joint projects between universities and firms, the realization of campaigns to foster the ‘culture of innovation’, the increase in the value attributed to the obtaining of patents in the evaluation of researchers, etc. The inescapable conclusion, based on official statistics, is that this whole mobilization has been a complete failure. This is not the place to expand on the causes of the failure. What can be said briefly is that it results from the uncritical adoption of policies of the metropolis, without taking into account the differences in the structure of the economy, between the countries of the metropolis and Brazil. The negative side effect in this case is the waste of resources, and the lack of consideration of other possible functions for scientific research, not necessarily dependent on the market.

Now the dissimilarities. The central figure in the Manifesto is the many-headed Wolf of management, which has occupied academia ‘with a mercenary army of professional administrators’. In Brazil (as well as in other Latin American countries), the agents are not professional administrators, but former or practising academics themselves; not a mercenary army but, one may say, a fifth column, drawn from the higher strata of the hierarchy, mostly in the domain of hard sciences. Not only that, but in a considerable proportion of cases, in the Ministry responsible for science and technology, in analogous organs (secretarias) in each state, and in the research financing agencies the top posts are also occupied by academics—at that level, mostly former academics. Their adoption of the spirit of management is not due to pressures from the government, or the private sector, or from society at large; it is basically the result of an uncritical imitation, often a caricature, of the practices in the metropolis. The first move that may be interpreted as a step in the direction of putting professional managers in charge of the administration is a contract signed by University of São Paulo (our largest and most important public university) and McKinsey & Company, the well-known management consulting firm. The contract entrusted McKinsey with a project aiming at ‘the creation of a fund-raising model, and the improvement of the administration and financial management’ of the university, and ‘the strengthening of the relation of the university with society and the productive sector [meaning, private firms]’.

The second dissimilarity has to do with the competition for students among universities. In Brazil, the higher education provided by the private sector has to be paid by the students; in the public sector, by a constitutional provision education at all levels (with a few exceptions, in the form of master’s degree courses) is free. Another crucial difference is that at the higher level, the education provided by public universities is of much better quality (whatever the criteria used) than that of the private ‘universities’. The result is that in the public sector the demand is always bigger than the supply on offer, and the entrance examinations are very selective. Competition for students, and all the marketing strategies that go with it, are restricted to the private sector.

The reaction to the advances of management by members of the academic community not involved in administration has been feeble. Among old-timers, the dissatisfaction with the new methods, especially the productivist, quantitative forms of evaluation, is quite strong, but manifests itself only in private conversations. The newcomers, on the other hand, start their careers already fully adapted to the spirit of management, which they conceive in a completely naturalized way, as a fact of academic life. Moreover, the ‘publish or perish’ pressure leaves everybody with little time and energy to reflect on the meaning of their work and about the system. It thus acts as an addictive drug, which is not only harmful, but affects the cognitive faculties, preventing the users to recognize its ills. The only concerted action against management is that of lecturers’ trade unions. In that connection, it is worth mentioning that the periodical published by Adusp (the lecturers’ association of University of São Paulo, affiliated to the national trade union) has a thematic number concerning productivism, which contains a Portuguese translation of the Academic Manifesto (number 60 of Revista da Adusp).

As regards the possibilities of changing things for the better, it must be recognized that the situation recently has got worse, due to the severe economic crisis Brazil is going through. The austerity programme adopted by the right-wing government that took power after the parliamentary coup that removed President Dilma Rousseff from office, involves drastic cuts in the financing of scientific research and the universities. For instance, compared to the peak year of 2013, the funds provided to the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovations and Communications suffered a reduction of 40%. There are some dramatic cases, like that of the State University of Rio de Janeiro which, due to absolute lack of resources, has not so far managed to conclude the second academic semester of last year, as it was then interrupted by a strike. In this situation, the academic community concentrates its energies on fighting the cuts (by means of manifestoes and pronouncements by the leadership of the academic societies—so far with little effect) and on adapting to the imposed penury. While the crisis persists, little energy is left to deal with the occupation by management.

The last paragraph was written in February 2017. On March the 30th, the government decreed a further slash of 44% to the federal science budget. The scientific community is getting desperate. In the words of Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the new budget is ‘an atomic bomb strike on Brazilian science’ (Nature, 3/3/2017).

All things considered, we hold this follow-up to the Academic Manifesto to be an important move in the struggle against the advances of management, and in favour of truly public universities. Moreover, given that, as we have indicated, the spirit of management arrived in Brazil by a process of imitation, we believe that the internationalization of the struggle is actually more important to us than to the Netherlands and the other developed countries.


Barbosa de Oliveira, M. 2013. “On the Commodification of Science: The Programmatic Dimension.” Science & Education 22 (10): 2463-2483.

Barbosa de Oliveira, M. 2014. “Technology and Basic Science: The Linear Model of Innovation.” Scientiae Studia 12 (Special Issue): 129-146.

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4. Report from Japan

The Crisis of Japanese Academia: A Brief Report on Recent Developments
Makoto Katsumori [4]

The current problems of academia, as critically analysed by Willem Halffman and Hans Radder in their Academic Manifesto, seem to be mostly common to the situation in Japan as well. A series of structural changes introduced to Japanese universities during the last couple of decades may be seen as part of the worldwide neoliberal restructuring of academic systems. At the same time, however, there also seem to be some features specific to the Japanese situation. It is noteworthy, in particular, that the national government, specifically the education ministry (officially ‘the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’), plays a central role in imposing reforms on universities—reforms that, under the guise of promoting the autonomy of universities, are in fact designed further to strengthen the government’s control of them. In this brief review, I will largely limit myself to an ‘almost journalistic description’ of such recent developments that seriously affect academic life in Japan.

A major turning point came in 2004, when all Japanese national universities were ‘incorporated’, that is, given the status of ‘national university corporations’. This incorporation, which was ostensibly to enhance the ‘independence and autonomy’ of each university (MEXT 2003), has actually functioned in a contrary manner. With this incorporation, the ‘operational grant’ from the education ministry, which constituted the largest source of revenue for national universities (about 48% of their total revenue in fiscal year 2004), began to be cut back by 1% annually (see Oba 2006). This reduction of the operational grant was coupled with the introduction and expansion of various kinds of funds that are selectively allocated on a competitive basis. Moreover, in due course, the operational grant itself assumed a competitive character, that is, became allocated according to the universities’ performance as regularly subjected to ‘third-party evaluation’. This set of mechanisms has worked as an enormous pressure on the universities to reorganize themselves in full compliance with the government’s intent. In this way, as pointed out by a number of critics, the incorporation of national universities has helped intensify their state control, which serves to reorient academic activity increasingly toward the managerial logic of efficiency and measurability combined with perpetual competition.

The incorporation of national universities has also involved measures to reinforce the hierarchical power structure within the university. Particularly, under the new system, the university president is no longer elected by vote of academic staff members, but selected by a committee consisting of a handful of internal representatives and external experts (even though the votes by staff members may be ‘taken into consideration’); and the university’s decision-making is no longer based on a collegial system, but on a regime centred on the president and the board of directors (see Oba 2006). In this way, while the government officially speaks of the enhanced autonomy of the university under the president’s strong leadership, the new governance system of national universities has in fact effectively helped the government to control the universities through the presidents’ power to override internal dissent.

In this new institutional setting, there have recently been some further developments concerning Japanese academia. In 2014, driven by the right-wing Abe administration, two education laws relevant to university governance were revised. Specifically, the revision of the School Education Law, which concerns not only national, but all universities, has considerably restricted the academic staff members’ right to deliberate on matters concerning the university. Faculty senates, consisting of all or a large part of full-time teachers, until then had the right to discuss major matters regarding the university, including those related to management and administration, although, as noted above, final decision-making at national universities had already been centralized in the hands of the president. The revised School Education Law stipulates, however, that faculty senates discuss matters concerning ‘teaching and research’, and that they ‘express opinions’ on these matters provided that the president considers it necessary (MEXT 2014).

One of the ‘pioneering’ steps to realize this new mode of governance was taken by my own Akita University, a national university located in northeast Japan. Earlier in 2014—shortly before the revision of the School Education Law—Akita University, strongly backed by the government, opened a new college named the Faculty of International Resource Sciences. In this Faculty, most academic staff members were to be systematically excluded from the discussion of basic university issues, which was almost entirely left to newly established ‘councils’ consisting of a few executive members as well as members from other universities and private business. This new system of governance, completely devoid of faculty autonomy and academic freedom, was on the surface voluntarily designed and proposed by the university itself, but with the aim of obtaining an additional subsidy from the government. As expected, the system was highly praised by government and business circles as a model to be followed by other universities. Shortly after the revision of the School Education Law, Akita University again took the lead in extending the new governance system to the whole university, though not to a full degree in the face of resistance from part of the academic staff and the labour union.

In 2015, the education ministry issued a notice to national universities which called on them to restructure their humanities and social science faculties as well as their teacher-training faculties: national universities should ‘take active steps to abolish these organizations or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs’. This move sparked a wave of protest among academia and mass media, and was reported critically by overseas media as well. Specifically, the presidents of some national universities expressed their intention not to comply with the above request, and the Science Council of Japan criticized the education ministry’s disregard for the humanities and social sciences and its narrow view of ‘society’s needs’ (The Science Council of Japan 2015). Faced with these adverse reactions, the education ministry verbally moderated their stance, saying that they by no means neglected the humanities or social sciences and did not intend to force the universities to scrap these areas. As pointed out by some critics, the public reaction to the ministry’s notice was partly occasioned by sensational media coverage, which gave rise to the impression that the government had suddenly moved to abolish faculties considered socially useless (Yoshimi 2016). Actually, much the same request was already made earlier by the ministry, and, more essentially, the same logic was already built into the government’s overall university policy since the 2004 incorporation of national universities. That is, the institutional setting of incorporated national universities—particularly the uneven resource distribution based on the evaluation of achievements—has systematically worked to the detriment of social science and especially the humanities, which are generally far less suited than natural-scientific fields to produce short-term measurable or quantifiable outcomes. Under these circumstances, a number of national universities have already taken steps to scale back the humanities or social science faculties and/or to close down some humanities-related departments in the teacher-training faculties. In this way, Japanese academia today, especially areas considered less useful and profitable, find themselves in an unprecedented serious crisis (see Muroi 2015).

To be sure, as may be seen from the description so far, recent developments concerning Japanese universities are not entirely without internal dissent or public criticism. Unfortunately, however, there has been no major resistance powerful enough to help reorient the overall situation, and we can hardly have prospects for such resistance in the near future. This seems to be partly due to people’s obedience and conformism ingrained in Japanese society, including academia, and also because the logic of efficiency and managerial control has become partly internalized by not a few academics themselves. I personally refuse as far as possible to cooperate with systems of control introduced one after another (such as the evaluation and self-evaluation of individual academic staff members), and, on certain occasions, join hands with some colleagues to raise a protest, but always find it difficult to appeal to the ‘silent majority’ to question or challenge the imposed norms. Under these circumstances, international exchange and dialogue occasioned and stimulated by the Academic Manifesto are all the more valuable, as they provide us with a broader perspective needed for our continued critical engagement with the situation.


MEXT [the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology]. 2003. “FY2003: White Paper on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.”

MEXT [the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology]. 2003. “FY2003: White Paper on Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.”

MEXT. 2014. “Gakkō Kyōiku hō Oyobi Kokuritsu Daigaku Hōjin hō no Ichibu wo Kaisei Suru Hōritsu.”

Muroi, Hisashi. 2015. Bunkei Gakubu Kaitai [The Disbandment of Humanities Faculties]. Tokyo: Kadokawa.

Oba, Jun. 2006. “Incorporation of National Universities in Japan and its Impact Upon Institutional Governance.”

The Science Council of Japan. 2015. “Korekara no Daigaku no Arikata ni Kansuru Giron ni Yosete.”

Yoshimi, Shun’ya. 2016. Bunkei Gakubu Haishi’ no Shōgeki [The Impact of ‘Scrapping Humanities Faculties’]. Tokyo: Shūeisha.

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5. Report from Australia

Australia: Reclaiming the Public University?
Simon Batterbury and Jason Byrne[5]

In their provocative article, Halffman and Radder discuss the Kafkaesque worlds that academics in the Netherlands now find themselves in, as an underfunded university sector predates upon itself and its workforce (2015, 165-166). Their Academic Manifesto observes that many universities in the Netherlands have been ‘taken over’ by an ‘army of professional administrators’, who use managerialist approaches to drive performance-based objectives. The country’s tertiary institutions, they write, have become obsessively focused on ‘accountability’ and pursue neoliberal-style imperatives of ‘efficiency and excellence’. They paint a portrait of academics under siege, untrusted, and constantly micro-managed. The pursuit of so-called efficiency has involved accountability systems that are themselves wasteful, driving seemingly endless institutional restructuring. Moreover, institutions, the authors claim, have become obsessed with star-performers in research, driven by competitive targets that undergird global rankings. Metrics—publication outputs, journal quality, citations, impact and grant revenue—produce a culture of competition and sometimes, mercenary behaviours, on the part of academics and managers.

Profound changes across the tertiary sector are seen in many other countries, as this collection identifies. Many of these can be traced to shifting patterns of university funding. In the OECD countries, over the last thirty years, public higher education has been reconceived as a commodity (Watts 2016). As a result, students are now the clients, academics are customer-service providers and income earners, and many public universities have become businesses in all but name (Connell 2013). Against this backdrop, Halffman and Radder (2015) point to six major changes that have reconfigured tertiary education:

(i) Processes of benchmarking, auditing, and ‘indicator fetishism’ (e.g. targets, quotas);

(ii) A new landscape of competition (e.g. competition for students, research and teaching funding, ‘star’ professors

(iii) The casualization of university workforces and more unpaid work;

(iv) Multiple layers of management and administration, with increasing overheads in grant administration, and public relations, marketing, student support etc.;

(v) A relentless pursuit of excellence—however defined, and

(vi) Standardisation—in curricula, learning objectives, workload models, grant templates and personnel management.

These changes in the Netherlands have led to a system that is isolating, anonymous, bureaucratised and universalising, scaffolded by ambition, greed, incompetence and a constant quest for efficiencies and more status. While there may be beacons of light, they are heavily shielded in the article, which makes for depressing reading. Halffman and Radder’s provocation prompts two questions, to which we will try to respond: How does Australia compare? And what can Australian universities and their staff do?

Similarities and Differences

Tertiary institutions in Australia have experienced similar changes over thirty years. There have been funding cuts, a re-prioritization of higher education, and for academics, new performance-based research and teaching assessment metrics. As academics who have worked in Australia for over a decade, and with past experience in the United States and the United Kingdom, we have encountered the same issues. One of us was based at a ‘world top 40’ university, one of Australia’s oldest and best-resourced, and the other teaches at one of Australia’s leading universities in a tier of institutions that are less than 50 years old. Confronting different challenges, both institutions have experienced staff retrenchments, departmental reorganisation, bureaucratic systems of management, and externally-imposed targets.

Australia has several universities that are recognised globally, and a relatively highly educated population (ranking higher than average among OECD countries [OECD 2017]). It has been relatively untouched so far by recent international debacles beginning to affect higher education, such as immigration restrictions under the Trump Presidency in the USA, Brexit in the United Kingdom, major security threats, or financial meltdown in some European nations. Australia actually entered the 2007 Global Financial Crisis with a budget surplus. Its national governments tend to the right, viewed historically at federal level, and are voted in by a predominantly suburban population. International students are keen to study in Australia, and until strong immigration restrictions, also had a good possibility of staying in the country if they wished. Many of the problems we identify can be traced to the contemporary functioning of universities as market institutions, with diminished public funding. The national government is not keen on supporting the costs of a large university sector, even though student participation rates have increased substantially.

Tertiary Education Reforms

From 1974 (under the Whitlam Labor government) until the late 1980s, attending university in Australia was free or at nominal cost. Higher education was viewed as an important part of nation-building, to develop a competitive workforce, even framed as a ‘right’. However, in 1987, universities began to implement student fees, and within the next two years began charging full fees. Under the Dawkins Reforms (Sharrock 2013), the Hawke Labor government introduced legislation to enable students to take out interest-free loans via a Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). These loans were repaid through income taxes, after a critical earnings threshold was crossed later in life. This is the situation today.

The Dawkins Reforms also restructured a two-tier sector of 19 universities and 46 colleges or institutes into a ‘unified’ sector, with close to 40 public universities—many created through mergers. Remaining technical and further education institutions (TAFE) were funded by state governments. These reforms also spurred an increase in international student recruitment, since they paid higher fees. Universities began to compete for Federal research funding—based on their performance and success in meeting national social and economic objectives. The Australian Research Council (ARC) dates to 1988 (independent from 2001), and still awards competitive research grants.

A raft of further reforms saw the growing dominance of free-market principles from the early 1990s. A demand-driven funding system was introduced by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments in 2009. This was based on the Bradley Review (Dow and Kempner 2010) of higher education in 2008, which recommended higher enrolment targets—by 2025 the aim is for 40% of 25-34 year-olds to have a university degree (with a focus on those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds). The Review also reallocated Commonwealth (federal)-funded student places, based on demand, and established a Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to regulate teaching quality.

The ambition was for universities to reorient degrees to focus more on ‘skills development’, purportedly to meet the needs of the contemporary global economy. In 2014, a Higher Education Bill was narrowly voted down—it would have allowed universities to be ‘deregulated’, to charge what they saw fit—currently domestic student fees are capped. Universities Australia, the peak university management body, actually supported the 2014 Bill, to the dismay of students. There was only one dissenter—the Vice Chancellor of the small University of Canberra, Stephen Parker, who deemed unregulated fees to be unethical and unfair (Parker 2014). But in 2017, there are new government proposals to raise student contributions to fees, cut government funding for teaching, introduce new performance criteria, and sharpen loan repayment conditions.

Raewyn Connell (2013, 2015) traces much of the financial and bureaucratic measures in Australia back to the Dawkins reforms of the 1980s. She argues that after redesigning the tertiary sector in the ways described above,

[t]he next step was to find someone else to pay [for funding education], and a neoliberal solution was at hand: fees. The federal government share of university funding began an astonishing collapse, from around 90 percent of university budgets at the start of the 1990s to around 45 percent now. Student fees have risen, decade after decade, to compensate. (Connell 2015, 24)

The results are striking. For example, an international PhD student at the University of Melbourne will pay around AU$36,000 (€24,555) per year in 2017 (discounting is discretionary), an international Science undergraduate AU$39,680 (€27,065), and AU$29,728 (€20,277) in Arts. At Griffith, an Arts student would pay at least AU$26,500 (€18,075). These fees, some of which are a little lower that equivalent public US universities, are not profit-making or greedy—they are essential. Institutions have to cross-subsidise their research and teaching using revenue from international and other fee-paying students. The high Australian dollar and difficulty in sustaining international enrolments make this a difficult task.

The obvious solution, as Connell (2015) argues, is to fund universities adequately from public funds, with suitable checks and balances, given this is an affluent nation in which universities play a vital economic role. But no government has chosen this route since the 1980s, and government funding has not even kept up with inflation. Budgeting pressures cascade down to academics and professional staff. Universities, caught up in the New Public Management with its ‘metrification of ‘quality’’ obsession (Lorenz 2015, 7) now vie to outcompete each other, and to attract domestic and international students based on their reputations. Australian universities have fully embraced international university rankings. Vice-Chancellors and university marketing machines are quick to publicise any improvements (online, and around the campus). Reputations are buttressed by spending on campus infrastructure (even if this is at the expense of more personnel), such as dining and recreational facilities, on-campus accommodation and so on. Some of these generate needed revenue. Capital expansion is in part to accommodate more students, but ‘quality’ of facilities and ‘student experience’ count towards rankings, thus meeting costs through enrolments.

The Wolf in Australia

Most (or a significant percentage of) academics are on some form of permanent or multi-year contracts. Most are paid adequate salaries because they are a skilled workforce and potential revenue earners. With the decline in core public funding, income generation has become just as essential as generating ‘knowledge’ and ideas, and it is a feature of annual performance evaluations at most universities. Furthermore, there is no academic tenure, which makes retrenchment possible if finances are tight (for a debate on tenure, see Batterbury 2008). The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) represents and fights to protect academics and professional staff, through collective bargaining agreements at each institution. These are hard-won. The NTEU has become increasingly important as universities have sought to respond to fiscal austerity by tightening budgets, retrenching staff, switching to online course delivery and converting the workforce to a higher percentage of (cheaper) sessional teachers and researchers, on short-term contracts. Sessional lecturers are probably doing up to half of all teaching in Australia, although figures are not available (Connell 2015). Thanks to the NTEU, the hourly rates for teaching, marking and tutorial work are generally good (much better than in North America), but as in the Netherlands and other countries, sessional academics can become trapped, with massive teaching loads and little time for their own research.

Neoliberal management has ushered in a tier of highly paid executives, suggesting cost savings are not equally distributed. Vice Chancellors (Presidents) of Australian universities now receive annual salaries of up to AU$ 1 million (€709,100). They are supported by layers of management—Deputy Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Deans, Assistant Deans and Heads of School, with salaries from around AU$200,000 to almost AU$500,000. The situation varies across the sector but the irony of an over-paid echelon of managers telling overworked academics to ‘work smarter’ is not lost on academic and professional staff. As funding dries up, class sizes increase, teaching loads blow out, bureaucratic processes multiply and colleagues become retrenched or leave due to high rates of stress, anxiety and depression, why should millions be paid to management? Disputes over working conditions have yet to translate into large-scale strikes and protests—in part, because poor pay is less of an issue for the cohort of permanent academic staff than in some other countries.

Another feature of cost reduction is ‘restructuring’. This is less visible in the top-ranked universities (the Group of Eight). It is not always successful. At La Trobe University in the early 2010s, a large reduction in humanities and social sciences staffing was retracted after protest and strong action (Bode and Dale 2012). Professor Judith Bessant’s firing at RMIT University, Melbourne, was a test case of line-management power—it was overturned in the courts which found RMIT contravened the Fair Work Act, and it did not appeal (Bessant 2015). But both of us have experienced departmental and broader faculty reshuffles, regularly losing and gaining colleagues, degrees and facilities under a new ‘Business Plan’ each time. In the younger universities, some Departments have been merged into super-departments, folded into larger Schools, which sit within Faculties—each requiring oversight from a managerial class but saving on administrative posts. Research and teaching are bifurcated in some cases, where teaching is managed by Heads of School and Deans, and research by Research Centre Directors. This creates further layers of bureaucracy and fragmentation, although there are exceptions. Melbourne has created a single School of Geography for research and teaching, but only after a whole Faculty (Land and Environment) was axed and merged into two others.

Because the academics function as an income-earning resource, the professional staff are usually the first to suffer during budget shortfalls. Across the sector, Australian universities have cut functions like student support to the bone. For example, the Business Improvement Program at the University of Melbourne (2013-2016) was announced on the back of a financial shortfall. Some 540 administrative jobs were targeted for termination by 1 January 2016 (Fioritti and See-Tho 2014). We do not know how many actually went, but many people lost work, reapplied in competition with each other for fewer jobs, and functions were moved online (Campbell and Morrissey 2015). Griffith University has had rounds of retrenchments, redundancies and ‘voluntary early retirements’. Student centres at both universities and across the country, once numerous and offering personalised support for enrolments and other queries, have been downsized or replaced, in one of our institutions by AI-based ‘helplines’ such as IBM Watson. Remaining human support has been centralised and therefore reduced. IT support has also become centralised, or outsourced, with substantial job losses and oftentimes, marginal financial benefits. Mailrooms have closed, various systems automated and linked to smart phone apps, and marketing and school outreach have been consolidated and centralised. The aim is to save salary costs. Efficiency has resulted in some areas, but oftentimes with higher workloads of those remaining, and substantially less human contact and therefore conviviality.

The two universities we know best have followed different routes. Melbourne is a well-ranked university and oversubscribed with student applicants. The most pervasive result of New Public Management at Melbourne is struggles over how their fees are allocated. Faculties are given financial targets, and must meet them. But for several years now, faculties have been in competition with each other to ‘capture’ student fees. There are ‘ownership’ disputes for classes and whole degrees, with fears of ‘fee leakage’ to other faculties. This does affect student choice, often narrowing most ‘elective’ classes on a degree to those taught in the most central faculty. Arguing over undergraduate degree ‘ownership’ has continued since a major restructuring took place in the mid-2000s, the ‘Melbourne Model’. An Academic Board adjudicates, but a new degree was established in 2017, with the majority of fees accruing to one faculty, more so than the one it has essentially replaced.

At Griffith, a range of degree offerings have been consolidated into larger units—such as a generic Bachelor of Science. Similar to Melbourne faculties are becoming concerned about leaking student load and income. Unlike Melbourne, Griffith is often forced to manage its entry scores to attract enough students to ‘meet quota’. Academics then have to support and scaffold student learning, when a growing number of students (often from non-traditional backgrounds), may lack adequate study skills. This has increased rates of attrition, which are closely monitored by management, and has placed an additional burden on academics to change their assessments and course delivery mode, offer improved student experiences, follow up students with one-on-one meetings, and undertake other ‘pastoral care’ efforts to maximise retention. Much of this is attributable to the ‘permanent competition’ in the sector identified by Halffman and Radder (2015).

Individual Performance Metrics

Faculty are now seeing quantified, individual performance targets. These are relatively recent. They can apply to publications, ‘grant capture’ and even evaluation of teaching. Targets are a feature of the commercial world too, and always cause stress. Individual performance could be managed much more sympathetically and more supportively without hard targets, and through regular feedback. Hard targets mean in the last instance, noncompliant individuals can be sanctioned or retrenched. Research success is now defined as much by winning Nationally Competitive Grants and ‘soft-money’ consultancy contracts—as by publications. ARC or the medical NHMRC grants are hard to get with success rates below 15% for several disciplines (ARC Discovery: 17.8%, 2017 [ARC 2017a]; NHMRC project grants 2016: 15.2%). Those who win them can insulate themselves against higher teaching loads, which are often borne by early-career academics or those deemed not to be so research active. ‘Grant capture’ and publications in top-ranked journals with high impact factors, also sway hiring and promotion decisions—much more so than teaching excellence or public outreach (no matter that a grant is nothing more than an input—money to conduct research, not an output, and some researchers have little need of them).

Doing research cheaply is not rewarded at all (Martin 2011)! Neither is publishing ethically and cheaply—open access and outside the commercial publishers that are crippling university library budgets. Taking many years to produce a stellar edited volume, for example, without top journal articles, is punished because this does not win the university sufficient points during national research excellence appraisals (ARC 2017b). In their worst forms, injunctions on input and output are close to being breaches of academic freedom, and they have worsened significantly over the last decade. Critics like Lorenz argue that ‘professions need professional autonomy in order to function properly and [that] quantified control makes this impossible’ (2015, 7).

Teaching is also subject to scrutiny and performance metrics—adding to stress. Oversight of quality is needed, but The Australian Quality Framework has standardised curricula. ‘Learning outcomes’ are now driving assessment. These are required in course profiles, which are contracts between academics and students for service delivery. Academics are assessed annually by centrally administered, mandatory student performance evaluations of both teaching and course experiences, as happens in many countries. Repeated failure to achieve teaching evaluation targets can have some effect on promotion and job prospects—even though international literature cautions that numerical values cannot be used to assess ‘quality’ (Stark 2013).

Internal support for research and conference attendance has dropped at the institutions we know. An automatic right to a research sabbatical is now rare. Academics are expected (or forced) to undertake a good deal of research work outside a 40 hour week—yet are exhorted to have a good work-life balance. Those encountering stress and depression are given little sympathy, typically told to telephone an outsourced counselling helpline and to access three free sessions of counselling per year.

All of this might be bearable if there was sympathy, opposition and protest by the university workforce. Constant struggle against inequity and pressure is materially and symbolically important, and a key feature of healthy workplaces. But many Australian academics, and professional staff, remain silent. Actual dissent is muted as people worry about the implications of dissent. Hope lies with the ‘stars’—the full professors whose services are too good or too lucrative to lose. But even there, collective action is rare. Many professors are not accustomed to such struggles, and sadly they may share some of the values of the management—their success is, after all, because they achieved the required targets or because they were fortunate enough to have climbed the food chain before the structural reforms to tertiary education really began to bite.

Many senior academics reproduce exhortations to staff to publish in top journals, obtain grants, and boost departmental success. Yet there are plenty of examples of ‘top academics’ and executive-level managers being unable to achieve the same key performance indicators as the lowly staff they harass and cajole. In addition, if they were those on ‘normal salaries, who prioritise intellectual content and public interest over reputation’ (Halffman and Radder 2015, 176), then perhaps they would be more likely to side with their overworked colleagues. This would solve many issues with one stroke.


In sum, many of Halffman and Radder’s (2015) points ring true in Australia. But academics are not yet under desperate siege in our better-funded universities, even if restructuring and the quest for even higher rankings has been onerous. There are many clusters of decent, hardworking and convivial people that socialise together and even have time for some blue-sky thinking and research. Australia has many foreign academics that still find its universities much better, and more tolerant, than those in their own countries. But many others are hunkered down, trying to meet the next target or deadline, and it is our belief that this is more and more common as performance metrics and rankings have taken on greater importance. It is mid- to lower-salary professional staff, predominantly women, who have suffered the most.

As the British Athena-Swan gender equality accreditation system (SAGE 2017) reaches Australia, these and other issues are beginning to be scrutinised. Herculean efforts have kept teaching quality good enough to continue to attract students, but perhaps too many of them, and certainly with fees that are already high when cost of living is taken into account. In the mid-to-lower ranked institutions, academic life can be become almost unbearable. There is widespread burnout, high staff turnover, low morale, and some departmental closures and retrenchments. Again there are exceptions and clusters of goodwill, but the structural conditions of persistent underfunding can easily close them down.

We concur with most of Halffman and Radder’s (2015) Manifesto of twenty points to alleviate the pain of neoliberal university bureaucracy and its unethical outcomes. But Australian problems begin outside the university sector. With its vast resource-rich landmass and small population, Australia is strongly embedded in the neoliberal mind-set and there is little willingness to fully fund its public universities. Many students want degrees that will position them in a nation that is largely neoliberal and business-focussed. While we agree a university should be ‘aimed at the common good’ (175), the Australian version says that students (and maybe industry) should pay, not the state. Connell (2015) wants an end to Australian student fees and advocates a return to adequate support to universities from the public purse. Even if we could get ‘star’ professors to protest metrification and high fees, a prerequisite for change is a national government much more committed to the public university.

We return where we began—the problem is systemic, and financial. Running a university means managing a huge budget, paying hundreds or thousands of staff, and keeping the lights on. An ethical university, if we could somehow get back to that, will not come cheap, and this cannot be ignored (Bode and Dale 2012). Ending inter-faculty competition, and muting inter-university competition, is something that can be done by agreement (possible through centralised revenue distribution, with staff input into the models used, and de-emphasising rankings and metrics). Restoring academic autonomy is also essential: this will not be easy, because metrification begins at the top, where research funding and the remaining block grants also come from.

Apparently, F.J. Foakes Jackson once said to a new academic at Cambridge: ‘It’s no use trying to be clever—we are all clever here; just try to be kind—a little kind’ (the exact citation is hard to locate). Restoring cultures of conviviality, respect and cooperation can increase the power of collective resistance and resilience at a small scale. All students and staff would benefit. We need academics that can ‘take back’ the university, rather than grudgingly accepting the inequalities and the workloads—currently they are a minority.

A university should trust its staff and students. And, academics want more than a pat on the back for their achievements. If they could practice ‘slow’ scholarship (Berg and Seeber 2016; Mountz et al. 2015), meet practical and ethical responsibilities, and support academic and professional colleagues more, then we would feel more confident about the future of Australian university life. For this we need less bureaucratic oversight from people who are not qualified, experienced or able to foster work cultures of support and collegiality. Again, this is a sweeping statement because it conceals vast differences across the sector. But Australia needs less New Public Management, and more ‘confidence governance’, as Sweden has recognised (Myklebust 2017).

Most embarrassingly, Connell (2015, 24) points out that in Australia,

[t]he universities are now full of fake accountability. At the same time, they have turned to public-relations techniques to attract potential students and donors and burnish the organization’s image. The corporate university now projects to the world a glossy fantasy of broad lawns, relaxed students, happy staff, spacious buildings, and eternal Australian sunshine. The cultural rationale of universities as bearers of truth, of rigorous thought, is becoming deeply compromised.

This phantasmagorical image conceals a troubling and sometimes unpleasant underside, as well as many decent people struggling hard to keep the Wolf from the door. And that really hurts.


ARC—Australian Research Council. 2017a. “Discovery Projects Selection Report for Funding Commencing in 2017.”

ARC—Australian Research Council. 2017b. “Excellence in Research for Australia.”

Batterbury, S.P.J. 2008. “Tenure or Permanent Contracts in North American Higher Education? A Critical Assessment. Policy Futures in Education 6 (3): 286-297.

Berg, M., and B. Seeber. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bessant, J. 2015. “Smoking Guns: Reflections on Truth and Politics in the University.” In Through a Glass Darkly: The Social Sciences Look at the Neoliberal University, edited by M. Thornton, 229-258. Canberra: ANU Press.

Bode, K., and L. Dale. 2012. “‘Bullshit’? An Australian Perspective. Or, What can an Organisational Change Impact Statement Tell Us about Higher Education in Australia”. Australian Humanities Review 53: 1-15.

Campbell M., and P. Morrissey, eds. 2015.  The People’s Tribunal: An Inquiry into the ‘Business Improvement Program’ at the University of Melbourne. Melbourne: Discipline.

Connell, R. 2013. Neoliberalism and Higher Education: the Australian Case. Universities in Crisis—Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA).

Connell, R. 2015. “Australian Universities Under Neoliberal Management: The Deepening Crisis.” International Higher Education 81: 23-25.

Dow, Coral, and Carol Kempner. 2010. “Meeting the Need for Higher Level Skills Through Tertiary Education Reform.”

Fioritti, Nathan, and Michelle See-Tho. 2014. “Inside the Business Improvement Program.” UMSU/Farrago, July 23.

Halffman, W., and H. Radder. 2015. The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University. Minerva 53(3): 165-187.

Lorenz, C. 2015.  “The Metrification of ‘Quality’ and the Fall of the Academic Profession.” Oxford Magazine Hilary week, Trinity term: 7-11.

Martin, B. 2011. “ERA: Adverse Consequences.” Australian Universities’ Review 53 (2): 99-102.

Mountz, A., A. Bonds, B. Mansfield, J. Loyd, J. Hyndman, M. Walton-Roberts, R. Basu, R. Whitson, R. Hawkins, T. Hamilton, and W. Curran. 2015. “For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14 (4): 1235-1259.

Myklebust, Jan Petter. 2017. “In Search of a New Form of University Governance.” University World News (450), July 6.

OECD. 2017. “OECD Better Life Index: Australia.”

Parker, Stephen. 2014. “Higher Education Changes a ‘Fraud on the Electorate’.” The Conversation, December 2.

SAGE—Science in Australia Gender Equity. 2017. “Athena SWAN Principles.”

Sharrock, Geoff. 2013. “Book Review: The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On.” Review of The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On, by Simon Marginson, Gwilym Croucher, Andrew Norton, and Julie Wells. The Conversation, October 23.

Stark, Philip. 2013. “What Exactly Do Student Evaluations Measure?” Berkeley Blog, October 21.

Watts, R. 2016. “The Idea of ‘Marketising’ the University: Against Magical Thinking.” In Public Universities, Managerialism and the Value of Higher Education, edited by R. Watts, 147-179. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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6. Report from Bosnia and Herzegovina

On Wolves, Sheep and Shepherds: A Bosnian Comedy of Errors
Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić-Thomas[6]

There is a saying that the sheep spends all its life in fear of the wolf, only to be, in the end, eaten by the shepherd. The foundational leitmotif in the Academic Manifesto illustrates the current stage of management hunger in the corporate-academic complex. However, in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it raises issues of the post-communist transition to a neoliberal university, and its ambition to safeguard its ‘immature children’ on the path towards the ideal of modern education.  Still, who is the Shepherd, and who the Wolf, is a matter far from clear in the Bosnian (and we would argue, in the wider post-Yugoslav, and maybe even post-communist) case.

Of the two of us, Andrea has directly experienced something similar to the university system that the Manifesto describes and addresses. She both studied and taught literature in the United Kingdom (the original European testing ground for the managerial approach to universities), and experienced both the delights of having easy access to world-class teaching and research, and the frustrations of being made to justify the existence of the unprofitable humanities in the universities increasingly driven to function according to the neoliberal logic. Having returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2007, she was stunned by the almost surreal freedoms enjoyed by university lecturers in Bosnia, to teach however they like, to publish whatever and wherever they want, and to expect an almost automatic social status on the basis of having an academic title in front of their name. These freedoms, however, come from an unresolved, multi-layered chaos of a post-communist transition in search of a solution and from an almost deafening cacophony of clashing academic practices, tendencies and ideologies in search of a common tune. In this chaotic situation, the Manifesto provided a balm of calm and clarity. If we now have a space in which our future can be shaped, then it is better to look hard at what all the possible futures have to offer.

There are arguably four contradictory yet coexistent systems of academic ideology and practice embedded in the functioning of our university (the University of Sarajevo): its socialist foundations and legacy; the post-1992 nationalist ideology; the current burning desire to ‘catch up with the world’ and adapt to the ‘Bologna process’ (the pan-European project of convergence of degree structures, course credits and ensuring the ease of mobility of students and staff—which in the local interpretation is reduced to a ballooning bureaucracy and turned into the standardisation mania, and so has caused an equally passionate backlash amongst many of the teaching staff; see EUA 2017; EHEA 2017); and finally, a vague longing for the ‘ivory tower’ (of which there is very little authentic local experience, but which functions as the obvious contrast to the pains of the ‘Bologna process’).

Even though a couple of the Faculties of the University of Sarajevo were founded before and during World War II (Agriculture and Forestry, in 1940, and Medicine, in 1944), the University itself was founded in 1949. Our own Faculty of Philosophy (which initially taught not just the humanities, but social and natural sciences as well) was founded in 1950, making it one of the oldest and probably most representative members of the University’s initial purpose, which was to provide training for socially meaningful professions.7 The University of Sarajevo, as well as the three additional universities founded in mid-1970s in Bosnia (in Banja Luka, Tuzla and Mostar) were supposed to offer free education (be it in law, medicine, engineering or in teaching in secondary and primary schools) to talented individuals for the advancement of the whole of society, with the full set of moral and political demands that this entailed.8 This legacy is still evident in the fact that our Faculty, as well as the Faculty for the Natural Sciences and Mathematics, or the Art and Music Academies, offer degree programmes which include a set of courses in both theoretical and practical pedagogy, and thus enable their graduates to become teachers of the subject they studied without any additional training. In some cases, the pedagogy component is optional, but in many (and this is particularly the case in our Faculty) the only way to study, say, Bosnian Literature, is also to study to become a schoolteacher.

To this first operational level is added the post-war ideological framework. For the last 20-25 years, systemic nationalism, which provides the basic background noise if not the music sheet for most of what is being done in the social sciences and the humanities, has taken over the socialist educational institutions (along with everything else). Just as the socialist student was provided with a set of skills to become a socially useful worker, the post-socialist student of transitional Bosnia is being driven through a procedurally almost identical, and yet ideologically modified, educational system, in order to be made into a national subject and the cog in the nationalist machine (a ‘worker’ he or she is less likely to become in the economically moribund country kept afloat by international loans and held together by widespread corruption). Added to this is the proliferation of both state-owned and private new universities, all of which are increasingly driven to pursue student numbers, and compete with each other on the higher education market.

The third layer, the one which calls for modernisation and the adoption of international standards, and claims to wish to drag us from a backward past into the bright and globalist future, is the layer where the comedy of errors really starts in earnest. That layer is the one where nationalist (traditionalist, conservative, pre-modern) ideology shows itself as the perfect partner of transitional post-socialist neoliberal practice. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in the wider region, the Wolf is painted as the snarling, utopian, delusional, red flag-carrying beast, with its teeth sank into academic freedoms, whilst today’s neoliberal salvation is seen as the Shepherd who saved us with his commodification agenda, and will successfully shelter us from the ills of the past if only we would submit to standardisations, measurements, and quality control procedures of a purely administrative kind.

Our Shepherd rarely has any real investment in the best of what those international standards entail (such as peer scrutiny, robust debate, and constant questioning of received wisdom). It is more interested in replicating the cosmetic effects, following somebody else’s rules in evident bad faith, pontificating on international standards and the need for quality control, while serving up nationalist propaganda wrapped up in a semblance of scholarly discourse. It also shows an almost complete disregard for local academic traditions (discarded along with the rest of the socialist legacy), whilst at the same time claiming that it represents a return to national traditions, which were slaughtered by the socialist Wolf. Yes, our little comedy of errors really is that much fun.

Added to this is the fourth layer: the instrumentalisation of the belief in the sanctity of academic autonomy, and a longing for an imaginary (and illusory) ‘ivory tower’ of the past. This longing, with its airy proclamations of academic autonomy, and its accompanying dizzying mix of intellectual loftiness and academic irresponsibility, dilettantism and sublimity, mostly serves as a screen and an alibi for substandard teaching and research, as well as for corruption and clientelism.

When we presented the Academic Manifesto at a round table on the future of public universities organised by the University of Sarajevo, we focused our talk on the fact that competitiveness in our surroundings looks more like a caricature of salvation, since we do not even have operational administrative management to get close to a proper rearrangement.9 Our universities might demand that we only publish in indexed journals (as the University of Tuzla imposed on their staff last summer), but for many of us in the humanities and social sciences in Bosnia, local journals that are indexed simply do not exist within our own academic community, and our (once, in the days of the socialist Wolf, thriving) academic presses and journals barely survive from one publication to the next, with no long-term investment and no hope of any sustainable future. We have colleagues who despair at the thought of the future where they will no longer have any incentive to publish in local journals (such as they are), as much as many of us despair of the current chaos in which each of us has barely any real exposure to proper peer scrutiny (as opposed to either ideological rubbishing or superficial matey sycophantic support, both of which are available in abundance).

It is clear that it cannot go on like this forever, and that at some point we must decide which of all of this is going to be our future. For the two of us (and, it seems, for a fair number of our younger colleagues), we find that being children of Yugoslav socialism is nothing to be ashamed of, and that maybe the traditions of solidarity and cooperation, along with the perfectly solid scholarly legacy inherited from those days, may provide a home-grown basis from which to build a vision of public university for Bosnia’s future. For us, the Academic Manifesto was a reminder (and a warning to our colleagues who are in thrall to the neoliberal Wolf dressed as Shepherd) that we might just as well embrace our position on the margins of the global academic community, give up the self-colonisation project on which our universities are on the cusp of embarking, use this moment of chaotic freedom to build on the strengths our University’s foundation provides, and avoid the mistakes made by those who could afford them much more easily than we could. At least, that is what we are trying to argue. Wish us well, since, slowly but surely, we are being forced to liberate ourselves from the Wolf by being served up as dinner at the Shepherd’s Academic Inn.


EUA—European University Association. 2017. “European Research Area and the Bologna Process.” Accessed May 8 2017.

EHEA—European Higher Education Area. 2017 “How does the Bologna Process work?” Accessed May 8 2017.

Halffman, Willem and Hans Radder. 2015. “Akademski Manifest: Od Okupiranog Do Javnog Univerziteta.” [In Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.] Translated by Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. Translated by Mario Hibert and Andrea Lešić. Pregled: 173-203.

University of Sarajevo. 2017. “History of University.” Accessed May 8 2017.

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7. Report from Hungary

Beside the Wolf There is Also a Ravenous Giant Octopus Eating Away Academic Freedom in Hungary
Anna Wessely[10]

The Network of University Lecturers in Hungary (OHA) held a meeting in Budapest on 21 February 2017 to discuss the relevance for Hungary of the claims of the Academic Manifesto. This report summarises the main points of that discussion regarding three central questions.

1. What are the most significant similarities and dissimilarities with the situation in your country?

The situations are deceptively similar on the surface, on the level of day-to-day operations, but there are significant dissimilarities underneath, concerning the constantly changing legal context in which Hungarian universities are encouraged or permitted to exist. The Wolf’s strategy and rhetoric as well as the Wolf’s instruments will be used in an opportunistic and clearly selective manner if the government or the Ministry of Human Resources (sic!) want to justify specific organisational and funding arrangements, all directed at strengthening state control—financial, administrative, political—over universities.

We can see interference with, and restriction of the scope of, the autonomy of universities at all levels.

• A new law on higher education in 2012 curtailed the powers of the Rector (and, as a consequence, of all lower-level boards, administrative units, department heads, etc.) of a university by creating the position of the government-appointed Chancellor who has to countersign all decisions by the Rector if they are to take effect.

• A new administrative body was inserted into the organisation of the universities to warrant constant government control. It is the so-called Consistory with a secure pro-government majority, charged with overseeing, approving or vetoing decisions by the Senate of a university.

Legislation seems to bind only the universities, not the state administration. The extent of support, funding from the national budget for teaching and research, access to European funding, permission to take part in international projects, launching new educational and training programs, appointing full professors, setting the number of students to be admitted to study on all levels, setting the requirements for various degrees and university-issued certificates, etc., are all dependent on government approval that depends, in turn, on the loyalty to the government of the chief office holders at the university in question.

Circumventing or disregarding the decisions of the Academic Accreditation Board by legislation or singular administrative regulation, the government of Hungary succeeded in destroying the autonomy of the institutions of higher education even in academic matters. The exercise of their nominal autonomy and self-government tends to depend on the changing objectives of the national government and the equally volatile power relations at the various levels of public administration organisations.

The present government of Hungary (in office since 2010) proudly defines itself as an ‘illiberal democracy’. It strives to centralise all resources and get every institution and social process under its control. Private institutions of higher education are, just like all NGOs, no less threatened, except if they happen to enjoy the particular favour of the prime minister or the leading political parties. The mechanisms this government has put in motion and its mixed tactics of combining or alternating false accusations, derogatory labels and legalistic arguments with more or less covert coercion and benumbing propaganda prompted political analysts to speak of a mafia state and compare its functioning to the greed and deadly embrace of a huge predator: ‘The Hungarian Octopus’ (Magyar and Vásárhelyi 2017; Magyar 2016). Its most recent prey are the free churches, the NGOs and the Central European University (CEU).

The mixed tactics in the case of the CEU mean that the state does not prohibit or dissolve that university, but seeks to destroy the conditions of its functioning by pushing through Parliament a bill proposing certain modifications to the Higher Education Law, which happen to concern a single institution only, the Central European University. It does not matter if the legislative changes in the bill that was formulated, debated, and passed with a majority vote within three days, will turn out to be unconstitutional. By the time the courts in Hungary and, perhaps, even in Strasbourg, will have decided that the ‘lex CEU’ is unconstitutional and in conflict with European law and the EU accession documents, the government of Hungary will have caused CEU so much harm on the basis of the new law that it will find it difficult to survive. The Rector’s Office at CEU summarised the legislative changes and their expected impact on CEU as follows:

Summary of the Legislative Changes and Their Impact on CEU

Central European University is a higher education institution with a dual legal identity operating on a single campus in Budapest. CEU is chartered in the State of New York, where all its degree programs are registered. In the US, CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. CEU is also established as a Hungarian university by the Hungarian Parliament under the name Közép-európai Egyetem (‘KEE’) and it is accredited by the Hungarian Accreditation Committee.

The dual identity of CEU/KEE enables the University to comply with both Hungarian and U.S. laws and award both Hungarian and U.S.-accredited degrees. CEU does not have operations in the US. This is a common model. CEU is one of many American-accredited international universities that do not operate any academic programs within the U.S., but have international level education brought to the doorsteps of local students. The amendments to the Hungarian national higher education law would require CEU to offer programs in the state of New York. Forcing CEU to do so would have no educational benefit and would incur needless financial and human resource costs.

The section of the amendment that most clearly illustrates discrimination against CEU is the provision that prevents Hungarian-accredited universities (in this case, KEE) from delivering programs or issuing degrees from universities from non-European OECD member states on behalf of CEU. Existing legislation allows for university programs and degrees from OECD countries (including the U.S.) to function through joint Hungarian entities, as CEU/KEE currently does. Hungary itself has been a member of OECD since 1996, and as such, should not discriminate against other OECD countries.

Another clear example of discrimination in the proposed amendment, is the elimination of a good-faith waiver that currently allows academic staff from third countries to work at the KEE entity without requiring a work permit. The change would create additional and unnecessary barriers to hiring and recruitment. The Hungarian government may deny such permits based on political or narrow bureaucratic considerations. Given that CEU relies particularly much on professors from outside of the EU, the new regulation would place the university in a disadvantageous position, if not simply make its operation impossible.

The proposed amendment also forbids institutions from having the same or similar names. This would require CEU’s two legal entities—which are jointly delivering programs—either to change the names they have used for decades or to discontinue operation in Hungary.

Lastly, the amendment would require a binding international agreement between Hungary and the US both on federal and state level supporting CEU’s operation as a foreign university in Hungary. Further, the law was amended within 24 hours before it was passed, requiring a binding international agreement to be completed within six months of the publication of the law and less than nine months to register programs in the foreign higher education institution’s country of origin. This is punitive and does not allow sufficient time for higher education institutions to comply with the newly adopted provisions.’ (Ignatieff, 7 April 2017)

This summary was published three weeks ago. Since then there have been massive street demonstrations, teach-ins, protests etc., by academic institutions, scientists, writers in Hungary and abroad. Yesterday (27 April) the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on Hungary to suspend parliamentary debate on Fidesz’s NGO law and halt implementation of Lex CEU (Novak 2017). And the story has not come to its end yet.

2. How do the assessments made in the Manifesto relate to the situation in Hungary?

From the perspective of the situation in Hungary, the assessment of the on-going processes of change, given in the Manifesto, is fully justified. As indicated in the title of this paper, the Wolf has been joined by the Octopus in our country. This means that even if direct political interference is in the forefront of interest now, the Wolf keeps working in all our schools of higher education, demanding and churning out regulations, reports, spreadsheets, etc. If we are persistent or lucky and get rid of the Octopus, the Wolf is here to stay. Not because we, professors or students, would miss his services or feel lost without his guidance, but because Hungary’s membership in the European Higher Education Area entails a similarity in the main trends of change in the whole of Europe. The next Hungarian government may and, hopefully also will, be liberal, democratic and transparent, but still it could not and would not fight the Wolf.

3. What possibilities are there, in Hungary, to change the situation for the better?

Nobody has ever opted for making the university an ‘ivory tower’, its alleged inhabitants felt never really comfortable. Anyway, the ivory tower is a combative slogan used by the opponents of academic freedom rather than anybody’s wish or lived experience. The public university as a knowledge commons is an attractive but risky idea in an age of commercially controlled, print or electronic, media that monopolise the transmission of information on topical issues. As long as the universities are under political control, strategies to change their situation and social role have to confront the government. This is what our small organisation, the Network of University Lecturers, tries to do, availing itself of the various means of political protest. Unfortunately, these actions are insufficient in a country where all major media outlets are under direct or indirect government control. From this perspective, university reform politics seems secondary and a much easier task. When we finally get there, however, we will find how difficult it is: workers of (all) universities are seldom willing to unite.


Ignatieff, M. 2017. “‘Lex CEU’ Now in Force, is Contested in Hungary, US, EU.” E-mail message to supporters of CEU by Michael Ignatieff, CEU President and Rector. April 13, 2017.

Magyar, B. 2016. Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Magyar, B., and J. Vásárhelyi, eds. 2017. Twenty-Five Sides of a Post-Communist Mafia State. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Novak, B. 2017. “Council of Europe Calls on Hungary to Suspend Debate on NGO Law, Rescind Lex CEU.” Budapest Beacon, 28, April 2017.

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8. Report from Slovakia

Striving for Academic Authenticity: A Slovak Position in the Context of the Academic Manifesto
Jozef Hvorecký, Emil Višňovský, and Matúš Porubjak[11]

The text of the Academic Manifesto (Halffman and Radder 2015) exactly captures not only the Dutch situation. A similar plague is devastating academic culture around the World. Naturally, there are also national specifics brought up by the factors rooted in the history. An example is tertiary education in Slovakia—which is in fact very young and, consequently, immature. The oldest still existing university was established in 1919, the second one in 1940. In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution, there were only twelve institutions of tertiary education, many of them rather small. Despite a much larger demand, the proportion of university-educated population was only slightly more than 10%.

The figures prove that the foundations of the Slovak system of tertiary education have been laid mostly during the Communist regime. Basically it represented a variation of the traditional Humboldtian model (as a heritage of the past Czechoslovakia) combined with the Soviet model. As to the former, its key idea of the unity of research and teaching was basically observed, including even some portions of academic freedom for some, though not for all. As to the latter, it controlled not only the proportion of students belonging to the ‘working class’ (including their possibility to be admitted), but also the content of all study programmes (with extended political pressure on the humanities). The academics learned that their obedience to authorities was the best way to survive or get promoted.

After the revolution in 1989, there was a chance for the revitalization of the system. The result cannot be considered a success mainly due to three reasons.

1. During the Communist regime, the salaries in all positions were more or less equal. However, the newly raising private sector started offering much bigger earnings to its qualified personnel. Many (primarily young) academics quickly left their universities to private businesses. This gap is still notable.

2. The remaining staff consisted either of enthusiasts devoted to education (and ready to continue their academic career irrespective of money), or of those who could not find better paid positions elsewhere. As the enthusiasts usually formed a minority, the academics with a passive and formal attitude to their education and research started to dominate many departments.

3. There was also an attempt to increase the quality of universities. It was primarily organised by researchers from mathematics, and natural and technical sciences, because these fields were less suppressed during the past. Unfortunately, they started applying their own quality criteria to all remaining fields. As scientometrics describes quality in these types of research rather well, it has been considered as the best and generally applicable tool.

The development in the 1990s and its first fruits are well identified in Bakoš (2011). The later developments have only strengthened these initial trends. The senior generation, which used to obey the authorities, continues to select their followers among those ready to obey, too. The salaries at universities are still much lower compared to the business world. Young potential academics are running out of the system—partially abroad, partially to businesses. The scientometric criteria have come to distort the system exactly in the way described in the Academic Manifesto. The road to this undesired state was different, but the current status quo is more or less the same: ‘academics cannot be trusted, and so have to be tested and monitored, under the permanent threat of reorganization, termination and dismissal’ (Halffman and Radder 2015, 166).

The ‘multi-headed Wolf of management’ has a slightly different face compared to the one in the Manifesto. A substantial portion of decision power is still centralized and remains in the hands of the Ministry of Education. Unfortunately, ‘a mercenary army of professional administrators, armed with spreadsheets’ does not consist of clerks only. The Accreditation Commission serves as its prime ally (Porubjak 2015). Its initial positive effort to improve the quality of universities through intensified research has resulted in the carbon-copy of the series of subsequent quality criteria: ‘the number of publications, then international publications, after which only English-language publications counted, thereafter articles in high-impact journals …’ (Halffman and Radder 2015, 167). At this very moment, the Accreditation Commission not only enables this kind of pressure but also opposes attempts to discuss changes in its criteria. One has to admit that two thirds of the members of the Accreditation Commission are academics from Slovak universities. A similar approach has been followed by an independent civic auditing organization named the Academic Ranking and Rating Agency (ARRA). It has tried to assess the quality of Slovak higher education institutions for more than ten years. Its assessment criteria are equally formal, insufficiently transparent and in some aspects misleading, as shown in Sýkora (2015).

If there is a difference compared to the Dutch situation, then it lies in the darker side of academic work. As the initial constellation of the post-communist educational system was worse compared to traditional democratic countries, there probably are more cases of violations of academic integrity (e.g. of plagiarism) and a lower desire to solve such problems. Its outcomes and ways-out are analysed in Hvorecký (2015).

No matter how paradoxical it may seem, the current academic system and the situation in Slovakia is a very powerful result of both: the former Soviet/Humboldtian model and the post-communist/neoliberal model. The two have found their ideological brother in each other. In post-communist countries, the bureaucratic-managerial Wolves have found perhaps the best possible ground for their neoliberal mission supported by the general ‘cultural turn’ toward the Mammon. Boyadjieva and Ilieva-Trichkova (2015) and Sabic (2015) show that the same situation can be found in other post-communist countries. In practical consequences, it simply means: what cannot be measured, does not exist, and what can be measured, has to be converted into pecuniary value. As a result, a new generation of junior academics have been raised in the environment that has adopted these unauthentic academic values and practices. In their minds and activities, these approaches are now considered ‘right’ and worthy to follow. The younger generation has adopted the idea of the academy as a machine, a factory, a business or an agency whose mission is to produce articles that, at the end of the day, bring money. Everything—knowledge, education, publications, citations, applications, etc.—must be measured by and/or converted into money (Višňovský 2014). These pseudo-academics and pseudo-academic managers do not talk science, wisdom, meaning, insight, understanding, values, etc. They just accept measures, inputs, outputs, performance, excellence, accreditation, evaluation, audit, and the like.

Nonetheless, the application of the majority of methods for change, proposed by Halffman and Radder, might lead to a disaster. In the near future, massive protests or demonstrations at universities are not probable. The community has learned to obey. The disobedient ones have left by their own decision, due to the unbreathable atmosphere, or ‘were left out’.

Thus, the change can come only through ‘education to academic democracy’. Its main aim must be to teach the community that academic freedom and integrity are keys to a better academy. It will require long and patient stepwise work. And an inevitable international communication among academics who, against all odds, still do not wish to give up on their determination in what they consider the meaning of their lives and work: the joy of inquiry and thinking. The current crisis of academia is not the ‘apogee’ of the crisis of humanity—at least not in comparison to the corruption of global politics. However, the ways out of it might hopefully show the way out beyond its one-time ‘ivory tower’ walls. The global role of academia is to work hard to stop the current stupefaction of humanity and to turn itself into a ‘gleam of light’—in the hope that it still is possible.


Bakoš, O. 2001. Katedra Paupológie [Department of Pauperology]. Bratislava: L.C.A.

Boyadjieva, P., and P. Ilieva-Trichkova. 2015. “Institutional Diversity and Graduate Employability: The Bulgarian Case.” In Diversity and Excellence in Higher Education: Can the Challenges be Reconciled?, edited by R.M.O. Pritchard, M. Klumppand, and U. Teichler, 153-171. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Halffman, Willem, and Hans Radder. 2015. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.”  Minerva 53 (3): 165-187.

Hvorecký, J. 2015. Testament Vedca [Testament of a Researcher]. Bratislava: Premedia.

Porubjak, M. 2015. “Mráz Prichádza Odvšadial” [Freeze Comes from Everywhere]. Ostium 11(3). .

Sabic, N. 2015. “Governance Through Transparency Tools: The Case of Romanian Higher Education Reforms.” In Diversity and Excellence in Higher Education: Can the Challenges be Reconciled?, edited by R.M.O Pritchard, M. Klumpp, and U. Teichler, 217-230. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Sýkora, P. 2015. “Robí si ARRA Srandu z Filozofických Fakúlt?” [“Does ARRA Poke Fun at Faculties of Arts?”]. Accessed March 25 2017.

Višňovský, E., ed. 2014. Univerzita, Spoločnosť, Filozofia: Realita Verzus Hodnoty [University, Society, Philosophy: Reality Versus Values]. Bratislava: Iris.

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9. Report from Finland and Scandinavia

Anxieties and Tensions in the Nordic Model—Finland and Scandinavia
Anita Välikangas[12]

In December 2016, Willem Halffman and Hans Radder called for responses to “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” I promised to describe recent developments in Finland, and to say something about how these developments stand in comparison with the other Nordic countries. At first glance, the task seemed quite straightforward: many items in the Manifesto sounded quite familiar to me. In Finland, we have seen cuts in university funding and a change in the direction of university research to solution-oriented and ‘policy-relevant’ research. New quantitative indicators to measure the impact of university research are constantly being developed. There are pressures to monitor and to increase the employability of university graduates, since a larger proportion of university funding is based on these figures. Rather than being based on the Humboldtian ideal, this new ideal seems to come from employment agencies. Within universities, the typical length of work contracts is quite short, and researchers tend to spend a lot of their time writing (and reading) grant proposals. There are increasingly fewer reasons to publish in national languages: this has had an impact especially in those scientific communities and disciplines that study local phenomena (Koskinen 2016). For these reasons, the Manifesto resonated quite well with my personal experiences, but at the same time, there were also some significant differences.

Compared with many European countries, the higher education system in Finland is still in a quite good shape. Even though the levels of funding for student allowances have decreased significantly in the last few years, there are still no tuition fees for domestic higher-education students. In Finland, as in other Nordic countries, universities receive most of their funding from the central government. Even though universities face pressures to find new sources of funding, few new activities have emerged, at least outside the technical universities. My personal view is that, currently, politicians and people in technology transfer offices like to represent these ventures as something that researchers ‘should’ be interested in doing. In practice, however, most of the researchers from non-applied sciences’ disciplines prefer to undertake normal research, teaching, and general social outreach activities. In this sense, the Manifesto’s estimation that the Nordic countries are still more public than occupied, is true.

Even if Nordic universities are funded from public money and students do not pay hefty tuition fees, it does not mean that the university community would be public in a wider sense. The concept of public, as implied by its Latin origin in populus, implies that it needs to include ‘the people’. Universities are not only schools that need to train young people with suitable, hopefully work-related, skills. Universities are also social communities, and in order to meet their responsibilities properly, they should be able to attract and retain talented researchers. As mentioned previously, university researchers’ work contracts in Finland are quite short, typically for only a few years. Competition is tough at all levels. In the humanities, the typical acceptance rate for starting PhD researcher applications is somewhere between 10 and 20%, and it definitely does not get any easier in later career stages. When the opportunities to undertake research full-time are so limited, many people can only dream of financial stability. A typical scenario is that a person spends a period of several months up to one or two years in a research-related project, and then, in the best-case scenario, in another one. The thing that remains constant is the need to seek new funding and a sense of vulnerability that cannot be erased. This situation is not very helpful for creating good scientific communities or places of learning.

Last year was quite grim for Finnish and Danish higher education institutions. In Finland, the government decided to cut research funding by €600 million over the next four years. In Denmark, the situation was at least as bleak: there were the largest-ever cuts to the education budget in the country’s history in 2016. These cuts totalled to 8.7 billion DKr (€1.17 billion), being a two per cent cut to the total education budget (Bothwell 2016; 2017). Cuts as large as this shake the confidence of people and communities. The University of Helsinki confirmed that it would cut staff numbers by nearly 1,000 by the end of 2017, and more than 500 members of staff lost their jobs at the University of Copenhagen (Grove 2016).

Nordic winters are typically dark. And in order to cope with this darkness, many people have developed a black sense of humour. If there was one positive thing last year, it was that it did not take much effort to find material for these jokes. For me, this occurred at my first visit to the newly-renovated Finnish national library. Renovated before the cuts, the building looked spectacular, but when strolling through the lonely corridors, it seemed that few personnel were around. When looking for items, I found an interesting book. However, when I opened it, it fell apart, and it was in such a dire state that it could not be borrowed. I brought the book to the information desk. The person sitting behind the desk looked like she was the only staff member in the whole building. She looked at the book: ‘Sorry, I cannot do anything about it. The person who was responsible for repairing the books was sacked’, she said. The book itself was on the ideals of universities, a defence of universities written in the 1950s.

However, there have been some successful moments. For instance, at the end of the 2016 negotiations between Finland’s higher education and research institutes and Elsevier and Wiley, a deal was reached that we could have access to their electronic journals for one more year ( 2016). At least so far, we did not need to decide what to do in situations in which we do not have access to these publishers’ journals. But there were also some plainly grim things. Many people found out that they would become unemployed, and almost all people were afraid of this. The layoffs were executed poorly. Why would any sound person feel loyal to an institution that treats them so badly?

So far, it remains unknown what will happen next in the story. Many people have decided not to wait for it. There are signs of a severe brain drain from Finland, signalling a catastrophe for Finnish research (Bothwell 2017). Typical destinations have been Sweden, Norway, Germany and the UK. Personally, I know several people who have either already moved or are planning to move. International mobility is typically a good thing, but here the unfortunate thing is that nobody is coming in to replace them, as there are few vacancies to fill. I would not be surprised if it later turns out that the cuts have resulted in increasing favouritism within academia. These aspects, as well, mean that there are fewer opportunities for people from underprivileged groups to find their place in the academy.

In matters concerning the future, my crystal ball is not capable of providing a 100% accurate prediction. I would not be very surprised, however, if we will next witness the introduction of firmer new public management-oriented strategies, and a firmer separation between power and execution. In Sweden, Mats Ericson, chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF), was concerned about the de-professionalisation of teaching and research, and about pressures to increase external funding at Swedish universities (Ericson 2016).

As far as I know, a comprehensive account that would tell us which areas of research have been most badly affected by the financial cuts in Denmark and Finland does not exist. So far, I can only make an educated guess, and estimate that it is likely that the cuts have affected smaller disciplines and projects, and left those areas that were in line with ‘universities’ strategic priorities’ in a better position. In Finnish universities, a large proportion of the cuts were directed at support staff, a substantial number of whom have been made redundant or their work contracts have otherwise been discontinued.

Previously, at my own university, support staff worked in individual departments, and they were often people with knowledge and research training from the disciplines they were supporting. Now they have all been moved to a central location. As a result, many practical things, such as having information on webpages, booking classrooms, and offering students information on what courses are available, now require considerable effort from research and teaching staff. Previously, support staff and researchers met in coffee rooms and during lunch breaks. Now, they engage mostly through task-related communication. When support staff are separated from the research staff, or when people working on grants are not given desks close to their department, it is perhaps no wonder that the universities include an increasing number of people who do not perceive themselves as being an integral part of the university. For management, this is a good thing: isolated individuals can be managed more easily than groups can. With efficient management techniques, it does not take many years to destroy the ideal of collegiality.

At first glance, the idea of reacting to the Academic Manifesto from a Nordic perspective seemed quite easy: there are so many similarities. However, it is difficult to write about the developments across the whole Nordic area. Universities and university managements are currently changing at so many levels. There are changes within individual disciplines, at the faculty and university levels, and there are differences between countries. Changes affect many people, but it is quite difficult for people at different levels to communicate with each other and to oppose this development. In Finland, budget cuts have had some impacts that have distorted the university community and are diminishing the ideal of the collegial university. ‘Everyone has more of a stake in being left alone to be excellent than in intervening in the administrative process’, as summarised by Bill Readings (1997, 33). We are left alone, as isolated units. It is not easy to beat this process, but it is a task worth trying. I believe it would require active support for those university communities, in which the common element is something other than constant competition and strict divisions between groups of people.


Bothwell, E. 2016. “Nordic Higher Education in Decline? The Region’s Reputation for Excellence Could be Threatened by Funding Cuts and Restructuring.” Times Higher Education, September 15, 2016.

Bothwell, E. 2017. “Finland Funding Cuts a ‘Catastrophe’ for Research: Scholars Fear Reputation of Country’s Higher Education Sector will be Damaged as Evidence of Brain Drain Mounts.” Times Higher Education, January 17, 2017.

Ericson, M. 2016. “Academic Freedom Increasingly Restricted.” Accessed April 10 2017.

Grove, J. 2016. “University of Copenhagen to Cut More than 500 Jobs.” Times Higher Education, 11 February 2016. Accessed April 10, 2017.

Koskinen, I. 2016. “Objektiivisuus humanistisissa tieteissä” [Objectivity in humanities]. Niin et Näin 4: 35-42.

Readings, B. 1997. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2016. “The Cost of Scientific Publications Must Not Get Out of Hand. Accessed April 10 2017.

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10. Report from the United Kingdom

Activism over Acrimony: Not Getting Better but Getting Beyond the UK’s Research Excellence Framework
Richard Watermeyer[13]

The unavoidability of academics ‘submitting’—both deferentially and opportunistically—to a culture of excellence in UK universities is more than already confirmed by what feels like the most protracted if paradoxically lightning of transitions between the UK’s last national research performance evaluation, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, and its future successor, REF2021. Vice-chancellors, pro-vice chancellors, deans of faculty, heads of department, directors of research, impact officers and the various other administrative personnel populating UK universities find themselves busy messaging, at what is just short of four years from the likely point of institutional submission,[14] that all academics ‘eligible’ for inclusion in REF2021—which on the advisement of the recent Stern Review of REF2014 (2016) includes all ‘research active’ staff—should be concentrating their focus on getting their REF publications and impact case studies ready. The REF is, aside from its more junior and less prominent sibling, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)—the only game in town. And what a game.

For those not in the know, the REF is the system by which publically funded research conducted by researchers working in UK universities is evaluated by disciplinary expert panels of academic and user assessors. It is the yardstick by which researchers and the institutions they are affiliated to are considered persons and places of research excellence and those, therefore, also deserving of a slice, some larger than others depending on the measure of their performance, of the pie of Government ‘Quality Related’ (QR) funding; estimated to be worth somewhere in the region of £2 billion per annum to the UK’s higher education sector. The REF, therefore, counts for a lot in the binary and co-informing contexts of 1) universities’ financial sustainability and 2) institutional reputation, esteem and marketability. Its value to UK universities is in many ways, therefore, priceless. So much so that ‘for research, see REF’.

In such context, it is perhaps unsurprising that all manner of tactics, tricks and levers of competitive advantage have been reported as committed by universities in ensuring that the research they submit to the REF is the most competitive, and that consequently, is likely to court the most favourable response from REF panellists and most generous of QR returns. In the milieu of REF2014 various game-playing was committed by universities; the most prominent of which perhaps being that of hyper-selectivity by institutions in the choice of academic staff they chose to submit—the figures for which are staggering, at least in the context of those who were excluded. Of a potential 145,000 academic researchers eligible for inclusion in REF2014, only 50,000 were evaluated. 95,000 academic researchers were, it seems, not fit-to-be counted in the context of their potential excellence. Instead, a policy by universities of cherry-picking the best was preferred.

To my mind, this says one of two things. Firstly, that two thirds of the academic researchers based in the UK are in the estimation of their institutions not up to much. Secondly, the notion of excellence articulated in the REF is even more fatuous than first thought—with first-thinking predicated on an a priori sense of the meaninglessness of the term ‘excellence’. Crudely put then, and however one values a notion of excellence, REF2014 was only a partial and highly selective measure of the performance of UK academic researchers or a vastly expensive15, self-fulfilling (or safe-bet) exercise involving the confirmation of those deemed excellent by their institutions as excellent by REF panellists. Consequently, where the REF in such terms is attacked for being a limited show of the strengths of UK research and concomitantly for its treatment in marginalising and disenfranchising vast swathes of the UK’s academic community, the central recommendation of the Stern review of universal submission appears at first sight a genuine effort to lessen if not eradicate the deleterious effects suffered by the academic ‘rank and file’ of an aggressive and egregious system of performance management and auditability.

A recommendation for universal submission appears something, if only minor, in the way of an attempt to placate and appease those who perceive in the REF the emasculation of academic autonomy and scientific self-sovereignty and the intensification of government and managerial regulation and control. But it achieves this subtly and in a back-handed way by saying to academics, ‘You all can be involved’. One can’t help but think, however, that such a recommendation operates almost at the level of what the great émigré sociologist Herbert Marcuse (2002) spoke of as ‘repressive desublimation’ or a mirage of participatory democracy—if academics feel involved in something then they will likely just happily go along with it. It’s perhaps not so strange then that so much of what is considered wrong with the REF relates less to how it conflicts with or corrupts an Enlightenment ideal of science or of the Humboldtian university and instead how it denies academics an opportunity to participate in its game.

I have been one among other commentators who has argued strongly for greater inclusivity and equal participation for academics in the REF. But I’m minded now to think that this focus has been a little narrow, a touch reductive and a distraction from the bigger picture of what’s wrong. Perhaps, in fact, I’ve fallen prey to the kinds of quantitative mesmerisation—the sort of which I frequently caution my students and colleagues—that tell only too cogently and conclusively the story of non-participation. Now, however, as I look again, I’m struck that the argument against the REF has become excessively entangled if not hijacked by the theme of its unequal participation.

Whilst there can be no denying that non-participation in REF2014 has been detrimental to the social fabric of UK academia, a sense of academic collegiality, citizenship and community especially, the dominant critique of the REF has perhaps mistakenly advocated for increased participation and, therefore, compliance rather than disengagement. Moreover, the critique, largely one of victimisation, has neither developed nor progressed. Certainly, it has not translated in any meaningful or substantive way into activism. Such has been the focus of observation on what the REF does to academics in ways that challenge or compromise their identity and praxis, that the academic community in the UK has ostensibly lost sight of its capacity to affect positive change. Instead, academics have preferred to privilege the pathologisation of their profession and coterminously become immobilised by the homogeneity—and in large part indirectness—of their (pseudo)disapproval. Indeed, the curse of the REF is something that some academics not only embellish, but perversely appear even to enjoy as a ‘legitimate’ opportunity with which to lament their lot and indulge almost masochistically in a nostalgia of a golden age that never was.

As the object of their disaffection, that they love to hate, the REF also, however, emboldens the reproach of their detractors who detect within their diatribe and mythologies not the cry of injustice but the whine of narcissism. Of course, apologists may explain and defend this almost ritual of academic dissatisfaction, on the basis of academics’ escalating precariousness in the era of higher education’s neoliberalization. Where universities have surrendered their status and role as sanctuaries of critical pedagogy and have allowed, seemingly with little resistance, the de-professionalisation and de-politicisation of their academic community, academics have had to confront the impossible challenge of reconciling ever-greater demands of accountability with ever-diminishing autonomy. The co-emergence of their compliance and complaint is perhaps, therefore, whilst profoundly arrestive to an ideal of academic endeavour, entirely inevitable.

An excessive recent focus on issues of participation in the REF must, therefore, be reconsidered, indeed halted. It is such single-mindedness that has perhaps blunted and/or distorted the edge of critical commentary and unwittingly served to normalize and even legitimize the REF as the locus of control in the lives of UK academics. It has also perhaps consolidated and exacerbated the narcissism that has tended to plague what A.H. Halsey (1995) called the ‘donnish dominion’ and the perception of those looking-in that has bred mistrust and justified the implementation of such new public management technologies designed to instil order among academics as an alleged herd of cats. Hence, we find academics’ REF ‘submission’ as ambivalent and dichotomous. It is volunteered yet with an affected disdain. The REF ultimately perhaps reveals a trend, a penchant even among academics for wanting to be counted rather than doing what counts.

The virtue of the REF as an opportunity for academics to perform accountability is rightly contested. It is a grossly imperfect system that fosters a multitude of undesirable behaviours that also cause to neglect the purpose and role of the university as a genuinely public institution. However, academics ought not to gorge themselves on a fixation with its imperfections; rather they might engage with accountability unto themselves. If the REF is what ascribes academic researchers in the UK their identity, they might look in its mirror for a reflection of themselves as impetus for change. Where they are then to see what they don’t like, only active and direct transgression of the rules of the game may produce an identity other than that ostensibly foisted upon them. Easier said then done, no doubt. But something needing to be done, no less.


Halsey, A.H. 1995. Decline of Donnish Dominion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, H. 2002. One-Dimensional Man. Oxford and New York: Routledge.

Stern, N. 2016. “Building on Success and Learning from Experience: An Independent Review of the Research Excellence Framework.”

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11. Report from Belgium and Flanders

The Academic Manifesto: The Situation in Flanders
Koen Bogaert, Valerie De Craene, Anton Froeyman, Karen Stroobants, and Sigrid Vertommen [16]

In general, we would say that, despite some different accents or aspects, the situation described in The Academic Manifesto applies just as much to Flanders as it does to the Netherlands. Since the instalment of the Bologna Agreement (2008), a political agreement meant to create a common, standardized European higher-education space, the Flemish research landscape has changed dramatically. Indeed, as the Academic Manifesto mentions, the rationale here was that universities should not be trusted. The share of the (competitive) second and third money stream became increasingly larger, while the first stream (direct public funding for universities) was re-organized into a competitive system, where universities had to ‘fight’ each other for funding.[17] The weapons with which this fight was to be held were quantitative output parameters, such as the number of ECTS-credits taken, the number of PhD-degrees issued, the number of publications in Web of Science journals, the number of citations by Web of Science journals, etc. Since then, universities are in a continuous struggle to get more money for themselves, and (of course) less money for the other universities.  This rationale was then copied by universities into an internal allocation model, where different faculties have to ‘fight’ each other for money, and many faculties in their turn took over these criteria to deal with funding issues of their different departments.

Hence, this financial logic has pervaded all of academia: hiring decisions are based almost solely on how much money you can bring in (in the form of grants, PhD scholarships, publications, citations, and the like), which strongly determines the types of knowledge that are produced: cutting edge research or research where the outcome is unclear is avoided, while easily publishable research can prevail, even if the quality is mediocre, or the ideas unoriginal.  The kind of knowledge that is produced at universities is not (or no longer) the kind of knowledge that seems most interesting for researchers, or that is most beneficial to society, but rather the kind of knowledge that serves best the interests of academic policy makers and financiers. Generally speaking, the idea is widespread that things like academic research, education or public service are nothing but means to achieve a greater good, which is to get more money for your department/faculty/university. Activities that do not bring in money (such as lectures or articles for the general public, collaboration with NGOs or museums) are seen as a waste of time. This situation is made worse because universities also tend to spend more and more money on advertisement, business administration, communication and real estate projects instead of education or research. In this sense, again, we agree with the statements in the Academic Manifesto: Flemish academia is based on the idea that academics cannot be trusted, that they should be monitored closely by means of quantitative indicators, and that they should be under a continuous threat of losing their job if one wants them to achieve anything at all.

One thing that needs to be noted is the specific personnel structure of Flemish universities. Since the introduction of the Dehousse-tax exemption for PhD students (in 1993) the number of PhDs has risen spectacularly, from less than 3,000 in 1993 to around 10,000 in 2015. In a way, universities have been using the tax exemption for PhD students for the same reason multinational companies have shipped their production bases to low-wage countries: it’s a way to hire many more employees without having to spend extra money. This situation is made worse by the fact that universities get a bonus (of around 50,000 euro) for every completed PhD. Of course, this creates an incentive to hire as many PhD students as possible. This has two negative consequences.

The first is that the quality, and therefore the value, of a PhD degree is dropping steadily, since universities do not have any incentive not to let a PhD student graduate. The second is that there are lots of opportunities to do a PhD in Flanders, but very little career opportunities for PhD holders within academia. Policy makers reply to this that a PhD should provide you with extra skills for the labour market. While this sounds nice in theory, the concrete practice of the PhD trajectory is very different. Firstly, professors have (due to the rise in student numbers, the number of PhD students and the dramatic increase of time spent on grant proposal writing) less and less time to actually teach their PhD students. Secondly, universities, departments, and faculties only receive money for academic achievements in the narrow sense (publications, citations and PhD degrees). Hence, anything that does not lead directly to one of these achievements (such as investing in transferable skills, or networking outside academia) is often seen as a waste of time.

Meanwhile, the number of professors in 2017 is virtually the same as it was in 1993. Because the numbers of PhD students, master students and bachelor students have risen spectacularly, in combination with the ever increasing demand to write grant applications and do other administrative work, professors suffer from an enormous workload, and are under an abnormally high stress.

One important difference with the Netherlands is that all Flemish universities are run (largely) by academics, or, to be more precise, former academics, who went from being a professor into a career in university administration. Nevertheless, this has not stopped the proliferation of the new public management ideology, as it became clear quite quickly that these academic policy makers are susceptible to the same ways of thinking in terms of output, quantification and efficiency as ‘real’ managers are.

Another important difference is the engagement of the students in the protests against the neoliberal new public management university. In places such as the UK and the Netherlands, students form the driving force and the bulk of the (wo)manpower behind the protests. In Flanders, however, students and the official student bodies (for example the VVS, the Flemish Society of Students) are remarkably absent: they do protest when they are afflicted on a short-term individual level (for example by higher tuition fees or a compulsory entrance exam), but in most cases (with some notable exceptions, such as the humanities students in Ghent), they seem to be more or less in agreement with the general, official new public management discourse. The reason for this is—paradoxically—that students have since long had a strong and institutionalized voice in debates about higher education. Hence, it seems that being in contact with the establishment for so long has effectively turned them into a part of that establishment.

Last but not least, we need to bring attention to the gender gap at Flemish universities. Despite the fact that the majority of PhD students in Flanders are women, there is still a huge gender gap when it comes to the ‘higher’ academic positions. The percentage of female academics at the highest academic position (hoogleraar) is among the lowest in Europe. Hence, at Flemish universities, old boys’ networks are numerous, and the neoliberal university often goes hand in hand with a macho culture. There has been some awareness of this issue: the ‘women’s strike’ at Ghent University in the spring of 2017 received a lot of attention and we have seen the arrival of the first female rectors since long. Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go.

The Assessments in the Manifesto

We strongly agree with the general message of the Academic Manifesto: there is something very wrong with 21th-century academia, and the Wolves of management, efficiency, accountability and quantification are the most important culprits.

However, we are somewhat hesitant to share the Manifesto’s expectations of a change in formal decision structures. We understand that, from the point of view of the Netherlands, this seems like a good solution. However, in theory, Flemish universities have a kind of semi-democratic structure: the rector and vice-rector (who both have to be full professors) and the members of the board of directors, are elected by university staff and students by means of a kind of weighted democracy (in which the votes of full professors matter by far the most). This system, however, has by no means been able to stop or fight the many-headed Wolf of management. In practice, elected academics always seem to turn into accomplices of the Wolf as soon as they take a manager’s seat. And even if they don’t, there are still non-elected management phantoms in the background and in the corridors of administrations, who often succeed in taking the actual decision-making away from the elected policy makers.

Nevertheless, we agree with all recommendations made in the Manifesto. There is one recommendation, however, we would very much like to add: a recommendation on the precariousness of researcher’s job situations. The main reason why researchers and teachers still support the system is because they need to in order to keep their jobs, and compete with colleagues in equally precarious situations. Hence, we would very much like to introduce a compulsory minimal percentage of tenured staff in the academic community. This ratio may differ from field to field, depending on the chances of PhD holders on the labour market (which are very high in chemistry for example, but low in the humanities).

Action, and Possibilities to Change the Situation for the Better

In Flanders, the Bologna reforms and the managerial universities that sprung from it have been under continuous criticism since their coming into existence in the second half of the 2000s. Action groups such as the Slow Science Movement and the Actiegroep Hoger Onderwijs (‘Higher Education Action Group’) have helped bring the issue to the fore. Up until now, however, nothing has changed, despite many opinion pieces, articles, books and research on the matter. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that at some universities in Flanders, new rectors have been chosen with programmes that show signs of a willingness to name, and deal with, the problems that haunt the university. However, it still remains to be seen whether these ideas and promises will be put into practice.

At this point, the most important thing to do is to monitor this new generation of academic policy makers: will they put their money where their mouth is? If not, there is indeed, as the Manifesto states, a need for a different kind of action. A strike would definitely be a very good idea, and would definitely have an influence. However, it would not be easy to organize, since it might be hard to mobilize a sufficient amount of individual researchers, partly because of the individualistic mind-set of many researchers, and partly because of the fear of repercussions by the university board. Another possible option seems to be a combination of ‘sabotage’ and ‘refusal’, for example by means of an ‘administrative publication strike’. As said, the Flemish government allocates public funding partly based on publications in ISI, which it counts by searching people’s affiliation. If academics stop mentioning their institutional affiliation on their papers, they become invisible, and cannot be counted any longer. For each paper not counted, a university loses thousands of euros. This would give university boards the much needed financial incentive to strive for betterment. The biggest problem with this kind of action, next to the obvious danger of repercussions by the university board, would be that people could be afraid that their own department might lose money.

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12. Report from Spain

Complutense University of Madrid and the Academic Manifesto: Common Traits of a Global Crisis in Higher Education
Eva Aladro Vico[18]

The Academic Manifesto (published in April 2015) arrived at the Complutense University just at the beginning of a huge Re-structuring Process in which this centennial university was announced to close 9 of its 26 Faculties, some of them as legendary as the Faculty of Philosophy, where Ortega y Gasset, the famous Spanish thinker, had his cátedra, his chair, in 1930.

One of the professors at the Geological Sciences Faculty, one of the faculties about to close and to be assimilated by another one, decided to share the Academic Manifesto with colleagues, in the ‘Platform against the Restructuring Process at the UCM’. As we read it, we decided to translate the paper into Spanish in order to be accessible to all of Complutense University.

The process of a restructuration at the University Complutense is in fact an administrative and organisational earthquake that intends to cut the costs of secretarial staff and infrastructural spending, in this huge centre of Spanish public education. It will also cut the recruitment of new professors and it will entirely transform the articulated structure of UCM, divided into Faculties and Departments, into a much more gigantic and megalomaniac design. One of the ‘ideas’ was to merge the big Faculty of Medicine, and three other Faculties (Dentistry, Optical Sciences and Nursery) into a huge ‘Health Faculty’, producing a Centre of more than 10,000 students.

The Plan was announced as an academic re-organisation that wanted to rationalise and increase efficiency and excellence through the suppression of the Departmental articulation of the Faculties. It arrived just in the middle of an atmosphere of a competitive, impoverished and managerial conception of academic work, which preceded the announcement. The Academic Manifesto described exactly what we had suffered and were about to suffer in the process.

The Director or ‘Rector’ of Complutense University, a supposedly left-wing sympathiser, connected immediately, once he was elected a year ago, with the right-wing government of the Madrid local community, a government which was developing a big politics of cuts and privatising the public education system at all levels in the Madrid community. The Rector developed a whole strategy to manufacture consent about the re-structuring plans. He announced the ‘urgent’ Plan, proceeded to control mass media about it, and is now trying to loosen the pressure, because the Claustro, the main chamber of democratic decision in Complutense University, can veto the Plan and stop it definitively.

In fact, the academic opposition to the re-structuring and merging ideas was immediately stirred by some professors and directors of Departments and Faculties, who developed an electronic ‘Platform to the Reorganisation of Complutense University’. They arranged meetings and manifestos, they signed articles in the main newspapers and media, and they started a strategy of mobilising the university community, students included, sending by mail and by social media the comments and alternative plans to the UCM government.

The Platform against the Re-structuration in Complutense University used the Academic Manifesto as one of the critical pieces to inform and convince everybody in the UCM community of the general movement against the public university in the whole area of Europe.

The circumstances described in the article were so identical to the Spanish ones that all the community was shocked and surprised.  We could recognise the ‘Wolf’, the competitive jails, the rankings misuse, the ‘excellence’ marketing chatter, the ‘disloyalty’ charges against the rebels, etc.

One of the main syndicates of workers and professors sent all the UCM workers the Spanish translation of the Academic Manifesto, which was read by nearly all the university staff, including the office and managerial workers, who commented by mail their impressions and reactions. The University Complutense is an academic community of more than 20,000 workers (the biggest university in Spain).

The situation by now—some six months on—has slightly changed for the better. From the initial idea of suppressing nine Faculties, they now only try to close four of them. Many pressures and negotiations between Rectorate and the different Centres (Faculties and Departments) are producing a new style in the Plan. Many of the Faculties that were about to close will merge only organisationally and will preserve their academic structure.

The battle now is still against the demolition of the Department structure, which protects the academic careers, the teaching organisation, the specialisation and research in small groups. As a piece to display the manoeuvres and the strategies of the Rectorate, the Manifesto was really essential. It helped, with other pieces of academic studies, to create an opinion atmosphere against the process and to open a real opposition to the Plan.

The Academic Manifesto suited the Spanish university situation in all respects. Now that the crisis has beaten the entire Welfare State deeply in Spain, weakening public education, the public health-care system and other public services, the Spanish university is in a very weak position and even some left-wing political leaders are against its survival as a quality institution.

The new consciousness and the critical position of professors and students against the process is getting bigger and bigger. Students—who started to protest and occupied the Faculties in our process, and now are waiting for what will happen—are each time more aware of the dangers of losing a high quality university in their public system. The fight against the tendency is very clear and open. That is why some governors and managers try to reformulate the process, pressing for achieving or creating an artificial consent.

The democratic and autonomous structure of chambers of government in Complutense University still protects the possibility of stopping mergers and restructuration. Complutense University has a Claustro of hundreds of representatives who must accept the Plan, and they are not convinced. The Academic Manifesto has been very important as a tool to stir the critical positions, sharing with them information. The last word of the Claustro is really decisive in UCM.

As in Spain the political trends are now changing from a right hegemony to a more divided and collaborative political balance, with pacts and alliances, the protests will probably allow us to redirect the reorganisation processes and stop them where they are not yet implemented. That will be surely the case in Complutense University. The political uncertainty will give an oxygen balloon to our old university, which has now developed a much more active and critical stance among its professors and workers than the one it had some two years ago.

It seems essential to wake up the critical debate and to recover the critical function that the university always had in European social communities. The last decades of economic bubble and the impact of the crisis left the Spanish university in a very lost and weak condition. It seems that we are reaching times of reconstituting the essence of the university as an organ of critical education and research. These are the common traits of a big crisis in higher global education that we must fight, or we shall perish as developed countries.

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13. Report from France

Problems of the French Universities
Christophe Charle [19]

The current problems in French higher education are related to two complex factors. On the one hand, there are the long-term imbalances inherited from a history of successive reforms, which have tried to correct things in principle, but without ever really going to the root of the problem, as social, political and ideological forces have resisted the consideration of too radical policies. The repeated crises that have confronted certain governments since 1968 are testimony to these obstructions. On the other hand, reform attempts have targeted the segments that were easiest to reform (research, non-university institutions) and have used the internal contradictions among universities (conflicts between disciplines, rivalries between regions and between Paris and the provinces) to introduce changes desired by the government, but these attempts were never really discussed by the academic community in order to avoid crises and head-on confrontations with it. This is the strategy adopted in particular by conservative majorities that were keen to bring international university competition to France and to protect its elite sector, whether it concerns social elites or elites by intellectual recognition (the policies of excellence).

Since 2002, during the decade of right-wing political dominance and the five years of François Hollande, political choices have been limited to a sprinkling of appointments and external funding that has been insufficient to cover the increased needs resulting from the growing numbers of students asking for better training and professional prospects. In addition, universities have been reorganised with the objective to rise in the international rankings, in which very few French universities held prominent places. The problems inherited from the past and aggravated by these choices, have only become more accentuated, with the pauperisation of the smaller universities and the widening of the gaps between disciplines and between institutions.

This policy is the policy of ‘excellence’, the new international rallying call that is never really defined (excellence of what, for whom?). It typically does not question the privileges of the ‘great school’ sector (grandes écoles) and accentuates social, financial and career inequalities between the selective and non-selective sectors. We can identify four recurrent problems in French higher education.

Unequal Financing

This is the misallocation of resources that contradicts the principle of democratisation that has been advertised since the 1990s: those who already have, receive even more. The discourse of broken rungs on the social ladder is confirmed by the study failure rates and unemployment rates between different degree programmes, but no consequences are drawn from this to reboot the system. The failing social mobility is precisely the consequence of the structural inequalities maintained by the ‘policies of excellence’.

Premature Specialisation

This is the premature choice to specialise in the name of ‘professionalization’, advocated as a remedy for unemployment, even while current societies demand more and more ‘flexibility’, polyvalence, professional mobility during lifetime. While in other countries universities assume an important role in permanent education or the readjustment of older workers who fall victim to careers truncated by unemployment, they do not fulfil this role very well in France—except for the most qualified managerial staff who benefit from additional training paid by their employers (and in any case this mostly occurs through the sector of the écoles).

The Mirage of International Awards

The obsession with international rankings (such as the Shanghai index) that are, by their methodologies, ill-adapted to realistically measure the efficacy of a university system originates in a misconceived analogy with sports rankings. The university rankings are centred on international academic ‘reputations’ or on a few standardised disciplines, such as the natural sciences, and hence privilege research work that is but a minor fraction of the work done in most mass universities, which dominate the French academic landscape today. Pedagogical innovation, a university’s adaptation to its local environment or the capacity to integrate new groups and new issues are ignored, as these rankings use fixed academic indicators rooted in the past. However, these are the very qualities that show the true dynamism of an institution, not its conformity to an old-fashioned ideal dominated by criteria that are alien to education.

Loss of Independence

This obsession has been sustained by governments from left to right and cloaked in various reorganisation policies, which have created ungovernable bureaucratic entities, such as PRES (Poles of Research and Higher Education) or Comue (Communities of Universities and Institutes). This has aggravated inequalities between universities in their ability to acquire external resources, leading to financial deficits or administrative subjection. Control has become concentrated in small and exclusive groups, which has practically abolished the principle of autonomous education and pedagogical choice. Priorities are fixed in light of what ‘sells’ internationally or in the rankings, not in function of real needs or what lecturers and students actually require.

In sum, all that was granted to universities after 1968 or after 1984 (the two previous laws on higher education) is about to be abolished. The current reforms benefit but a minority of institutions, of academics and of students. French governments refuse to evaluate inadequate policies, already established abroad, which have demonstrated their limitations and lack of pertinence to solve French academic problems.

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14. Report from the Netherlands

The Struggle for the Public University in the Netherlands
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder[20]

Much has happened since we published the first (Dutch) version of the Academic Manifesto in the philosophy journal Krisis (Halffman and Radder 2013; for the English version, see Halffman and Radder 2015). Since then, there has been a remarkable wave of resistance among academic staff and students in the Netherlands: several protest groups arose, which published a flood of critical analyses, organised numerous debates, and engaged in many political actions. As a result of all this critical activity, some minor improvements have been made, but unfortunately many of our objections to Management’s colonisation of the university remain acutely relevant today. We briefly review the various forms of protest and reform initiatives of the past years and assess the changes of the main devices and policies deployed by the ‘Wolf’ of Management.

Resistance and Reform Action

Critical Movements

In the course of 2013, two critical movements arose: the Science in Transition group and the Platform for the Reform of Dutch Universities. The focus of the first is on the excesses of the current research culture, especially in the life and natural sciences (Science in Transition 2017). The group has organised a series of workshops and conferences, aimed primarily at academics and science policy organisations. Its main claim was that science had become too focused on producing research articles, at the expense of social relevance, but it did not question the fundamental features of the Wolf’s management. However, its tone of reasonability, its relations to the science policy establishment and a well-resourced website did draw the attention of many. The second initiative (in which both of us are involved) critically addresses a broader spectrum of issues concerning the research, education, organisation, administration and public role of Dutch universities (Platform H.NU 2017). A variety of activities were undertaken. One of these was to offer a petition for radical reforms of the universities to the Dutch Parliament early 2014. This petition was endorsed by seventeen relevant organisations, including several unions, university councils and professional associations. This more confrontational and political strategy raised attention, but its main effect was indirect: keeping pressure on those attempting change from within the system.

The Unions

One of the smaller unions, the Scientists’ Union (VAWO), has always been keen on supporting the broader work conditions of academics. However, the larger unions still had to make a shift from a primary emphasis on traditional labour issues (wages, pensions, employment) to a more systematic critique of the overall structures and cultures of current academia. At the moment, the focus of the unions is on the problems of precarious labour and work pressure, but these problems are now seen as embedded in broader issues of the system of research funding, managerial bureaucracy and administrative hierarchy. The unions have obtained some minor concessions through labour negotations, such as a concession from academic employers to a modest reduction in precarious labour.

Student and Staff Protests

At the same time, student activism was booming. Several student actions and an occupation took place at VU University Amsterdam. They were followed by a larger and longer occupation of the Maagdenhuis, the administrative centre of the University of Amsterdam, early 2015. In the wake of these occupations, the students’ protest organisation The New University was formed as well as the reform group Rethink-UvA (2017), primarily consisting of faculty of this university. Furthermore, significant actions, both by students and faculty, took place in other universities, especially in Groningen, Maastricht and Utrecht. All these critical movements found significant response among faculty, staff and students, as was for instance shown in the two ‘Nights of the University’, the first held in Amsterdam in 2014, the second in Groningen in 2015. More generally, the many events generated a lot of media attention, locally, nationally, and even internationally. These movements raised a major additional issue that we had overseen in the Manifesto, to our shame: the arrival of ethnic, gender and cultural diversity as a political issue at Dutch universities, especially in the more diverse Western part of the country.

Government and Political Parties

Meanwhile, the Government consisted of a coalition between the right-wing and neoliberal party VVD and the ‘new left’ social-democratic party PvdA. The former was the larger one, but the Minister of Education, Culture and Science was Jet Bussemaker, a social democrat. Generally speaking, science and university policy is not a popular subject among politicians and the dominance of the neoliberal ideology makes things worse. For instance, the only issue that came up, occasionally, during the last election campaigns in the spring of 2017, was the system of student loans that had recently replaced a bursary system. Although initially several political parties acknowledged the problems of the current university and science system, this consensus soon waned. The only parties with a consistent interest in, and constructive views of, the problems were the liberal democrats (D66) and the socialists (SP). MPs from these parties participated frequently in meetings and panels, criticizing work pressure and commodification and emphasizing the importance of academic self-governance.

Policy Advice

Expert advisory organisations, research organisations and academics have produced several reports on the future of research and higher education, most of which simply ignored the fundamental criticism and discontent. Among the exceptions was a report of the Rathenau Institute sketching different priorities for higher education and research (Van der Meulen, Pont, Faasse, Deuten, and Belder 2015). Even though this report did underline the possibility of alternatives in the heart of Dutch science policy circles, it did not provide an incisive analysis of the fundamental features of the current management regime. Another exception that also drew attention among research managers was the Leiden Manifesto, a brief but powerful statement on the meaningless and meaningful use of research metrics (Hicks, Wouters, Waltman, de Rijcke, and Rafols 2015). While not denying the value of some current output measurement, it did offer a vision of how this important aspect of the current regime could be reformed and made more reasonable.

Regime Change?

Under the pressure of protest and the perspective of reform, small changes have been made to the rule of the Wolf in the Netherlands, of which we can only discuss the most prominent here. The Leiden Manifesto is at least being noticed by some academic leaders in the Netherlands and in some places we see certain modifications of the indicator fetishism in the area of research.21 The Utrecht Medical Faculty, a quite significant research unit in the Dutch research landscape and run by a key member of the Science in Transition group, has initiated new staff assessment procedures that will rely less on purely quantitative indicators of academic pseudo-achievement, but pay more attention to social relevance.

The Dutch Standard Evaluation Protocol, which is generally used for the periodic audit of research units, now prescribes peer assessment of the best publications’ quality, and has skipped assessment in terms of mere quantity of publications. It remains to be seen how audit committees will apply the new rules—there is a risk that the process will start to resemble the English REF system (the Research Excellence Framework; see Watermeyer and Olssen 2016), along with its transfer market for top scorers.

Another relevant development is the articulation of ‘counter-measures’ for the humanities: a diverse set of more flexible indicators that can be used by humanities departments. These criteria for ‘Quality and Relevance in the Humanities’ ( 2017) are meant to be included in the Standard Evaluation Protocol. Even though this does not remove the dangers of indicator fetishism completely, it does at least allow the humanities to escape the imposition of natural science indicators, which are meaningless and often even destructive for these disciplines.

However, the idea that permanent competition of all against all is the royal road to efficiency and excellence is still thriving. The competition for students among universities is as fierce as it was, and has even been expanded by attempts to attract significantly more foreign students. Equally fierce is the competition for research money and research positions, with decreasing success rates in the competition for research grants (Rathenau Instituut 2017).

The related problem of the disproportionally large percentage of temporary teaching and research contracts is also far from solved. In addition, there is the plan to end the civil-service status for academic staff, which entails less job protection and undermines what was left of academic independence.

Under the motto that management of a university is essentially the same as managing any other organisation, some administrators were catapulted into universities from banking (Engelen, Fernandez, and Hendrikse 2014), or from other institutions completely alien to academia. Some of them have not fared well and have clashed hard with academic constituencies, especially at VU University Amsterdam and at the University of Amsterdam, even forcing some of them out of office. There seems to be some recognition that maybe there is something peculiar about academic work and that—just maybe—academics should be more involved in how universities are run. In this spirit, Minister Bussemaker has increased the say that student and faculty councils have in university politics. Even if their overall role is still primarily ‘advisory’, they now have at least a say in decisions on the main features of the university, faculty and department budgets.

Finally, not much seems to have changed concerning the promise of economic salvation and the broader issue of commodification (cf. Radder 2010). In spite of significant objections, the so-called Top Sector policy will be continued. That is to say that a substantial part of the budget of NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (550 million euros for the two years of 2016 and 2017, which is roughly 35% of its yearly budget for research grants), will still be earmarked for research collaboration between publicly funded academics and private, commercial enterprises. Even in the debate on the Dutch Science Agenda, officially advertised as a form of citizen science, the rhetoric of economic salvation is present everywhere (De Graaf, Rinnooy Kan, and Molenaar 2017).

Activism: What Works?

In the last section of the Manifesto, we listed eleven strategies for change. Looking back at the experiences of the past four years in the Netherlands, a combination of the following strategies seems to have worked best (in as far as they have achieved anything at all): inclusion of the unions, which also provides opportunities for legal action; mass demonstrations (in the many large-scale debates and events) and contra-occupations (in which the students have played a very significant role); contra-indicators, such as the new Standard Evaluation Protocol and the new assessment criteria for the humanities; finally, parliamentary and political action, in the form of attempts to engage political parties and government in the cause for a public university. In general terms, a combination of pressure (from unions, protesting students and academics, political parties, media attention) with the development of concrete alternatives for university managers has generated minor reforms.

Assessment: Towards a Public University?

In the Manifesto, we articulated a number of principles for a public university. Unfortunately, apart from the promise to reduce quantitative productivity as an assessment criterion for research, not much progress has been made in the direction of the concrete measures we suggested to establish a more public university. Management has had to withdraw in some places, but overall, the modifications to the devices of the Wolf have remained marginal. Even if current policy promises come true, there will be a little bit less blind indicator fetishism, some more attention for the peculiarities of the humanities, a few per cent less casual labour, a little bit of ground regained for academic democracy, and a little more attention for social issues next to economic research priorities—in the most optimistic of assessments.

Nevertheless, something has shifted. When we wrote the Manifesto, we argued that the Wolf was so powerful, it could simply brush away all criticism as irrelevant, out-dated, or naïve. Protest could be ignored: it was not even necessary to reason with the opposition. This has changed. The Minister of Education visited the occupiers at the University of Amsterdam. Even in the lofty cloud of academic policy makers, there is now talk of social significance beyond economic relevance. Although the National Research Agenda has devolved from an ill-conceived citizen consultation into a venue for lobbying, at least there is the recognition that public deliberation on scientific and scholarly research could be meaningful and not just a matter for investment bankers (Halffman 2017).

In sum, some small progress has been made. Cracks have appeared and dissent has acquired legitimacy, but the tensions that sparked this dissent are still there. The huge wave of activism of 2015 has waned, but the resistance is still significant and much remains to be done.


De Graaf, B., A. Rinnooy Kan, and H. Molenaar, eds. 2017. The Dutch National Research Agenda in perspective: A Reflection on Research and Science Policy in Practice. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Engelen, E., R. Fernandez, and R. Hendrikse. 2014. “How Finance Penetrates its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University.” Antipode 46 (4): 1072-1091.

Halffman, W. 2017. “De Nationale Wetenschapsagenda: Leuk Geprobeerd.”

Halffman, W. and H. Radder. 2013. “Het Academisch Manifest: Van een Bezette Naar een Publieke Universiteit.” Krisis: Tijdschrift voor Actuele Filosofie (3): 2-18.

Halffman, W. and H. Radder. 2015. “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.” Minerva 53 (2): 165-187.

Hicks, D., P. Wouters, L. Waltman, S. de Rijcke, and I. Rafols. 2015. “The Leiden Manifesto for Research Metrics.” Nature 520 (7548): 429-431.

Platform H.NU. 2017. “Platform Hervorming Nederlandse Universiteiten.” Accessed July 6 2017. 2017. “Quality and Relevance in the Humanities.”

Radder, H., ed. 2010. The Commodification of Academic Research: Science and the Modern University. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rathenau Instituut. 2017. “Factsheet: aanvraagdruk bij NWO.”

Rethink-UvA. 2017. “UvA Staff for a New University.” Accessed July 6 2017.

Science in Transition. 2017. “Science in Transition—English.” Accessed July 6 2017.

Van der Meulen, B., P.M. Pont, P. Faasse, J. Deuten, and R. Belder. 2015. Keuzes Voor de Toekomst van de Nederlandse Wetenschap: Analyse van Beleidsopties bij Vier Scenario’s. Den Haag: Rathenau Instituut.

Watermeyer, R. and M. Olssen. 2016. “‘Excellence’ and Exclusion: The Individual Costs of Institutional Competitiveness.” Minerva 54 (2): 201-218.

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The Productivist University Goes Global (and So Does Its Resistance)
Willem Halffman and Hans Radder

The model of the productivist university has spread over the globe like wildfire. It organises academic work for maximum ‘output’ at the lowest possible cost, in the spirit of a corporation—even if, mostly and for the time being, still in public ownership. The model is supported and sold by a powerful discourse that promises accountability of researchers and their expenses through rigorous and impartial measurement; improved quality through fierce competition between researchers and their institutes; enhanced ‘efficiency’ in research and higher-education resource allocation; the fostering of ‘excellence’ or ‘top’ research and schooling; economic salvation through a never-ending stream of ‘innovations’; all led by professional managers who have earned their spurs in tougher worlds than leafy university campuses. The model finds its roots in the New Public Management of the 1980s, which advocated running public services like businesses and has allowed corporations to take over public transport, utilities, inspectorates, regulatory bodies, education, health care, and sometimes even police functions and prisons.

The productivist university model is pushed by a variety of believers. There are those with a blanket trust in rugged competition, the universal benefits of markets and the wonders of free enterprise, also on campus. Further to the right of the political spectrum, there are those who see this form of management as a convenient tool to get unruly academics back under state control, safely chained to their production mills. Then there are the ‘realistic’ factions who believe this is the only way to save public universities, to safeguard affordable higher education and research, faced by the massification of higher education and the need to escape the policies of permanent austerity. And then there are the well-intending scores of university administrators, academics-become-managers and policy makers, who have been made to believe that there is no alternative: this is how universities are managed; this is the professional standard. They explain the details to each other at professional conferences and professional training workshops and make sure the model spreads to countries in ‘need of modernisation’, such as aspiring EU candidates or global laggards.

The havoc caused by the productivist university is all around us. In the shadow of its win-win rhetoric lie the hidden costs not expressed in key performance indicators and the unintended, but no less destructive, ‘side-effects’. For those below the pinnacles of performance and recognition, academic employment has become precarious and stressful. Lecturers are expected to invest massively in courses they may not ever teach a second time, because the dynamics of production has already progressed to a ‘higher-quality’ curriculum. In spite of this, they are primarily assessed by their research ‘performance’, often in terms of reified and distorting indicators. Blunt evaluation systems reward researchers and institutes that have found ways to game the system through salami publishing, text recycling, citation rings, or other ways to boost proxy indicators. Academic self-rule through representative boards and councils has to make way for ‘more efficient’ professional managers, taking control over academic work and creating more hierarchical relations—especially as ‘increased autonomy’ of the university comes wrapped in the regimentation of ‘responsibilising’ performance indicators. Meanwhile, management seems obsessed with buildings, hoping one day to develop the real estate portfolio of US Ivy League schools, aggravating the logic of commodification that has penetrated university politics. PR and marketing specialists hope to tap into the international student market, bringing in ‘fresh talent’ and especially fresh scholarship money, while organising a brain drain from countries most in need of that talent. To draw in students, resources are reallocated from actual teaching and student support, to advertising and ‘holiday camp’ facilities. Growth is imperative, as is the belief in the benefits of scale, in ever-larger (but less convivial) research institutes, campuses and classrooms (see Batterbury and Byrne for the case of Australia[22]). In the global pseudo-market of research and education ‘output’, making local cultural and societal contributions is not, or hardly, rewarded. Regularly publishing in newspapers, magazines and non-English academic journals becomes a hobby or a sign of being an academic loser. Societal relevance has become a code word for the acquisition of funding, be it corporate or otherwise.

When we denounced this model in our Academic Manifesto as an occupation of our dear universities by an alien force, the ‘Wolf of management’, we knew the productivist university model had blown over to the Netherlands from the Anglo-American world. But little did we expect our angry Manifesto to resonate so far and wide. We received sympathetic mail from all corners of the world, including countries we presumed far less tainted by the madness of maximising management. We asked our respondents to tell us their stories, to explain what they saw happening in their countries and received thirteen accounts, which we complemented in this collection by our own description of recent events in the Netherlands. These accounts are not systematic and quantitative hypothesis-testing country studies. They are reports both prompted by personal experience and backed by empirical studies and cogent arguments. They tell of colonisation, of how the productivist model creeps in; but also of resistance and protest, sometimes resulting in partial victories. Below are the lessons we draw from these accounts, although ours is but one perspective on a wealth of contributions from widely differing contexts.

Productivism Contextualized

Many authors in this collection agree with Michel Lacroix that the analysis of the Academic Manifesto, recapitulated above in terms of a productivist university (following the term used by Dagnino and Barbosa de Oliveira), triggers a very strong ‘worryingly familiar’ feeling. At the same time, they point to significant contextual variations in the productivist model. As a result of conditions specific to national systems, geo-political regions, or even a specific university, the toolbox of productivism is applied selectively and adapted to local settings. In some places, such as Spain or Belgium (see Aladro Vico; Bogaert, De Craene, Froeyman, Stroobants and Vertommen), a relatively strong academic representation remains in place in the form of elected councils or elected deans, providing some leverage for resistance. However, even if academics are formally in control, the toolbox of productivism still spreads, supporting our uncomfortable observation that, at least partly, we are doing this to ourselves.

Of particular interest is the role of the productivist model in the post-communist context of Eastern Europe. Here, the productivist university is presented as the modern, professional model, shaking up clientelism, driving out free-loaders, while at the same time sneaking in the commodification of knowledge at the expense of local academic culture: see the accounts from Bosnia-Herzegovina (Hibert and Lešić-Thomas), Hungary (Wessely) and Slovakia (Hvorecký, Višňovský and Porubjak). In Hungary specifically, productivism is allied to a strongly authoritarian state that is using the discourse of managerialism to assert its power over liberal (and hence threatening) academics. In our communication with Eastern European academics—not explicitly in these accounts—we were struck by their perception of EU institutions as imposing the productivist model, either under the banner of facilitating student exchange (‘Bologna’) or simply as the paradigm of up-to-date university governance.

However, the idea that productivism is identical to good governance, the ‘right way to do things’ and worth emulating from countries at the top of the global science league, also spreads without such formal pressure. Both from Brazil and Spain (Dagnino and Barbosa de Oliveira; Aladro Vico) come reports of how tools and models are copied as alleged success recipes, but stripped of the stories covering the disadvantages, as if there are no downsides. In these circumstances, accounts of the dark side of productivism from seemingly successful countries such as the Netherlands can apparently help counter the managers’ hurrah.

National legislation and policies are a clear mediating factor in all cases, including the extreme government interference in Japanese universities (see Katsumori), the infamous UK Research Excellence Framework (see Watermeyer), the peculiar position of elite public institutions in France (see Charle) and the intrusive administrative reform attempts in Québec (see Lacroix). The massification of higher education has made university degrees attainable beyond the upper and higher middle classes. At the same time, in the face of an inability of national governments to match this growth in the budget, it has been an important source of tension for which productivist recipes are presented as a solution. Overall, this drives higher education towards (semi-)privatisation through raised fees and increased corporate funding, providing excuses for further public divestment (see Brown describing this logic for the US). These features also point to a certain weakness of our analysis in the Academic Manifesto. Although we briefly acknowledged in a footnote the significance of ‘wide-ranging political and socio-cultural developments’, our primary metaphor was the Wolf of management. Because a notion of the ‘managerial’ university might tend to ignore, or at least underestimate, the importance of wider factors, such as neoliberalist government policy, legislation and worldviews, we now prefer the more comprehensive notion of the productivist university.

Quite specific also is the position of English-speaking countries, which have a particular strategic advantage in the international (graduate) student ‘market’. Among these countries, Australia has attempted to turn the massification of higher education to its benefit, by attracting students from South-East Asia. Under the pressure of austerity politics, the foreign students are heralded as a way to preserve and even boost the position of Australian universities, a manoeuvre facilitated by a move to a more productivist university (see Batterbury and Byrne). Although the English-speaking countries have, in this respect, a strategic advantage, similar processes have occurred in the Netherlands, as we mentioned in our contribution to this collection. Thus, the University of Groningen proudly announces they will be the first ‘mainland European’ university to open a branch campus in China, in collaboration with China Agricultural University, Beijing, and alongside the Dutch dairy company Friesland Campina (University of Groningen 2017). They see China as an ‘enormous growth market for students’ and hope to lure to Groningen a significant number of the 450,000 Chinese students who go to study abroad and will then, of course, pay tuition fees that are  much higher than the Dutch fees (depending on the degree programme, they may be between four and sixteen times higher).

Besides these contextual features, similar elements keep returning when the productivist university goes global. As reorganisations are triggered by budget cuts, economic crises and austerity policies, or even by populist election victories, policy makers look for alternatives and find a model that is believed to work in some remote scientific Shangri-La, at the top of the Shanghai ranking. The country reports include several examples of persistent austerity policies that have hollowed out academic institutions and collegiality, such as in Denmark and Finland (see Välikangas), but probably nowhere as dramatic as in Brazil (see Dagnino and Barbosa de Oliveira). When the state lets down its universities, private capital seems the only way out, along with adventures in financialisation.

How to Resist the Productivist University

Modified by local specificities, accounts of the introduction of the productivist university, either partial or in full deplorable glory, have come to us from many places. Often, they come from academics relieved to find that others share their outrage; that they are not alone in their attempts to resist. Just as the specificities of the productivist university are mediated by local conditions, so are the forms of resistance. Ideally, resistance to the productivist university has three general aims. First, the creation and maintenance of solidarity among students, faculty and support staff. This includes the defence or formation of institutionally embedded democratic structures that guarantee all involved a voice and a vote in significant matters of their concern. Second, in-depth analysis and criticism of the current predicament of the university, complemented by the development of well-considered, concrete alternatives. Third, a variety of activities (primarily, debate and action) aimed at the realization of these alternatives.

In the Manifesto, we identified a long list of examples from labour movements to assess possible action forms against productivism. Which patterns of resistance can be found in our fourteen country reports? We briefly review seven different forms of resistance (or the reasons for their absence).

Democratic Intervention

The accounts from Spain and Belgium show that democratic university and faculty councils and elected deans may not prevent the introduction of productivism. Yet, the case of Spain also demonstrates that they may form crucial platforms from which to resist its most pernicious effects. For this reason, the small extension of the democratic rights of students and staff that resulted from the recent protests in the Netherlands constituted at least a step in the right direction.

Inversely, attempts to remove the institutions or deliberative platforms of academic democracy are a prime tactic to pave the way for productivism, as illustrated by the accounts from Japan and Hungary. Like these accounts, the Slovakian report emphasizes the value of academic democracy and argues for a return of personal integrity and academic freedom. The Bosnian report advocates a revival of some elements of the older Yugoslav socialist tradition, especially the virtues of solidarity and cooperation. In all these reports, opportunities for substantial change are seen to be few or even absent. Of the reasons for this, two stand out: an authoritarian, illiberal national government and an academic culture of passivity, obedience and conformism. The account from the United Kingdom argues that even well-meaning attempts to make the current system of research evaluation more inclusive, in fact conform and contribute to an intrinsically bad way of assessing research achievements.


The most remarkable pattern among the successful strategies to defend the university against productivism in the accounts we collected is the importance of unions, organizing academics, support staff and students. Brazil, Québec, Spain, the United States, Australia, the Netherlands: they all report how unionisation has been vital to counteract the devices of the Wolf. Unions provide a collective bargaining position over work conditions, can investigate and gather evidence, or organise up mass mobilisation for protest. Therefore, there is an important empirical question: how many university employees and how many students are member of a union? In the Netherlands, this is only a small fraction and we are afraid that the situation in most of the other countries is not much better. Still, these accounts suggest that unions are a key factor in successful resistance.

Demonstrations and Critical Action

The aims of demonstrations and critical, public actions by inhabitants of the university may vary. Sometimes it is to raise awareness of a range of problems, both among students, academics, the wider public, and policy-makers and politicians. They may also aim to put pressure on managers or policy makers to solve a particular problem in an appropriate way. Or they may try to enforce basic changes in higher-education politics and laws. The role and impact of these forms of resistance appear to differ significantly in the countries represented in our collection. The United States reports ‘many promising examples of effective advocacy for the values and institutions of public higher education’, especially student activism, resulting in increased public awareness of the current state of higher education in the US. The Netherlands has also seen a big wave of resistance, starting in 2013, culminating in 2015, and continuing now with lower amplitude. Some small, yet significant modifications to productivism have been achieved by providing alternative management strategies, such as the reforms in the new academic career model in development at the Utrecht Medical Centre.

In contrast, mobilising students and academics seems to be more difficult in Australia, due to the dominance of a widespread neoliberal worldview and politics. Also in the cases of Canada, Finland and Slovakia the individualising tactics of the Wolf, which increase competition rather than solidarity, seems to be quite successful. In Hungary, the first and strongest challenge is to defeat the ‘Octopus’, the anti-democratic and anti-intellectual national government, with its hugely destructive tentacles. However, thus far, the impact of demonstrations and critical actions has been small, while legal action is considered but is not seen as very promising.

Strikes and Collective Refusal

A few actual strikes have been reported: from Brazil, Canada and Belgium. We feel that, in the face of deteriorating working conditions, this form of resistance could be exploited more, especially by teaming up with the unions. In the Academic Manifesto, we also surmised the possibility of administrative civil disobedience, with sabotage strategies against petty administrative control measures. From Québec now comes a successful example of this strategy, as meaningless paperwork was withdrawn after a joint disobedience act to systematically report ‘nothing to declare’. Our Belgian colleagues propose collective action against output funding: the strong relation between the number of publications in journals indexed by the commercial company Thomson Reuters (recently sold and rebranded as Clarivate Analytics by investment bankers) and the public funds allocated to a university. If academics would stop mentioning their institutional affiliation in their publications and presentations, institutional output counting would be subverted without endangering individual careers. Such acts of non-cooperation are a powerful reminder that many of the productivist instruments are implemented with our assistance. At the same time, they remind us of the fact that these forms of resistance can only succeed if there exists a substantial measure of solidarity: many, or even most of the people involved should be prepared to participate.


The only reported contra-occupations took place in Spain and in the Netherlands. Yet, from other sources we hear that every so often they do occur in Brazil as well. It is primarily the younger generation of students who play an indispensable role in these strongly physical events. The Spanish and Dutch occupations have been quite successful in raising the awareness (of academics, politicians and the wider public) concerning the predicament of the universities, but they have not (yet) led to solutions to the big, fundamental problems.


Brain drain is a common form of exit: leaving your country because the situation elsewhere is perceived to be more promising. Another form of exit may happen even more frequently: frustrated or resigned young academics who decide to leave academia after their n-th brief and temporary teaching contract and/or their n-th rejected application for research money. Forms of exit have been mentioned in the reports from Finland, Slovakia and Australia, but they surely occur in many other countries as well. However, even if individuals may have good reasons for both forms of exit, individual resignation does not constitute an effective form of resistance, as we already stated in the Academic Manifesto.

Contra-Indicators and the Power of Humour

The only examples of contra-indicators come from the Netherlands, in the form of alternatives to the h-factor and specific assessment criteria for the humanities. In the Manifesto, we also advocated the development of more playful counter-measures. No doubt, the many forms of in-depth argument, serious debate and ‘hard’ action reviewed thus far, are necessary for effecting significant change. But will they also be sufficient for mobilising the silent majority? And will they be sufficient for keeping alive our own motivation in the face of (unavoidable) barriers and disappointments? Perhaps not. For these purposes, more playful actions may be equally important, showing that the emperor wears no clothes.

Last year, for instance, the Platform for the Reform of Dutch Universities organized a ranking-the-slogans contest (Platform H.NU 2016a). We collected all PR slogans of the Dutch universities on our website with a button to vote for the worst of them. At the same time, we approached newspapers and university magazines to make the action widely known. Finally, we calculated the scores, published the results of the contest and delivered the prizes at the governing boards of the two ‘winning’ universities.[23] We also offered a ‘random slogan generator’, based on an arbitrary selection of slogan clichés, to provide university management with a free alternative to expensive marketing bureaus (Platform H.NU 2016b).

The more serious, underlying aim of this playful action is, of course, a strong critique of the university as an ordinary commercial enterprise. Its particular target is the forceful and costly promotion of universities through extensive marketing and PR departments and branding campaigns. Ideally, this action should be accompanied by quantitative analyses of how much public money is being wasted in this way. The reports show that PR and marketing is seen to be a crucial task of universities in many countries. For this reason, similar playful actions could be appropriate and effective in other countries. They may make an indispensable contribution to raising public awareness and keeping up our own spirits.


As the productivist university goes global, people in academic institutions are beginning to realise that their struggles are not just against the mischief of a local phenomenon. Productivist recipes have spread fast, but the stories and analyses of their downsides are also catching up quickly. Our objective was to spread not just the analysis of what is wrong, but also of what can be done about it. The accounts from fourteen countries offer an overview of successful forms of action. Unions seem to play a crucial role, in many of the reports, but we think there is much in them that may assist the struggles you are facing in your own academic environment.

Which further steps could be made? More country accounts would be helpful: more reports on resistance strategies followed and tactics tested. It would be particularly interesting to get more stories from South-East Asia, a rich and fast-growing culture of research and higher education that has remained beyond our scope so far. The Middle East and African countries would also be interesting, for example covering the extensive political action at South African universities in recent years. Perhaps a next step could be to develop more systematic comparisons, but for now a geographic expansion of our coverage seems to be most useful.

Another major task will be to develop an outline of a radical alternative for the future, the features of a university that is profoundly public, proudly academic, but also financially sustainable. This is no mean feat, but as the next series of reorganisations comes around, you too may find yourself in need of a more inspiring vision than that of the productivist university.


Platform H.NU. 2016a. “Rijksuniversiteit Groningen Heeft Domste Universitaire Reclameleus.” Accessed July 10 2017.

Platform H.NU. 2016b. “University Slogan Generator.” Accessed July 10 2017.

University of Groningen. 2017. “University of Groningen to Start First Dutch Branch Campus in China.” Accessed July 10 2017.

[1] Michel Lacroix is Professor in Literary Studies at the Département d’études littéraires, Université du Québec à Montréal. His current research focuses on literary and scholarly periodicals, the sociology of literary groups, and transatlantic intellectual networks. He is also a union officer at UQAM.

[2] Mark B. Brown is Professor in the Department of Government at California State University, Sacramento. He is the author of Science in Democracy: Expertise, Institutions, and Representation (MIT Press, 2009), and various publications on the politics of expertise, political representation, bioethics, climate change, and related topics. He teaches courses on modern and contemporary political theory, democratic theory, and the politics of science, technology, and the environment.

[3] Renato Dagnino: Professor in the areas of Innovation Policy Analysis and Public Management at the Department of Science and Technology Policy (State University of Campinas—Unicamp), of which he was one of the organizers in the late 1970s. He has been a visiting professor at several Latin American universities. His most important books are Science and Technology in Brazil: The Decision-Making Process and the Research Community; Neutrality of Science and Technological Determinism; Social Technology: Conceptual and Methodological Contributions; The Defense Industry in the Lula Government and Strategic Public Management.
Marcos Barbosa de Oliveira: BSc in Physics (University of São Paulo (USP), 1970); PhD in History and Philosophy of Science (University of London, 1981). Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, USP, until retirement in 2014. Now assistant lecturer at the Philosophy Graduate Programme (USP). Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA-USP), member of the Philosophy, History and Sociology of Science and Technology research group. Member of Associação Filosófica Scientiae Studia. Recent publications in English: “On the Commodification of Science: The Programmatic Dimension” and “Technology and Basic Science: The Linear Model of Innovation.”;

[4] Makoto Katsumori is Professor of Philosophy, Faculty of Education and Human Studies, Akita University, Japan.

[5] Simon Batterbury is Professor of Political Ecology, Lancaster University and Principal Fellow, School of Geography, University of Melbourne. He has taught for 24 years in the UK, USA and Australia (including three years in program management). He has edited the free online Journal of Political Ecology since 2003.
Jason Byrne is Associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University, Australia.

[6] Mario Hibert, PhD, since 2006 teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature and Librarianship, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Sarajevo. He holds a doctoral degree in information and communication science, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia; and has a Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democracy from the Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies, University of Sarajevo/University of Bologna. He explores the critical issues of librarianship, networked society, digital culture and information ethics.
Andrea Lešić-Thomas, PhD, has studied (Belgrade and London), taught (School of Slavonic and East European Studies and Queen Mary, both University of London, and currently Philosophy Faculty, University of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina) and written on comparative literature (Russian, French and South Slav literatures) and literary theory (in particular structuralism, narratology, and Bakhtin, as well as memory studies). She currently teaches literary theory at the University of Sarajevo, and conducts research on memory studies, cognitive poetics, love stories, and vampires. She is the author of the book Bahtin, Bart, strukturalizam: književnost kao spoznaja i mogućnost slobode. Beograd: Službeni Glasnik, 2011.

7 The official website of the University of Sarajevo, however, on the page detailing the history of the University, seems to imply that the institution draws its legacy from the founding of the Gazi Husrev-Bey’s Library in the 16th Century, as well as in the founding of various Seminaries (even though theology Faculties—Islamic, Catholic and Orthodox—have become the official members of the University only in the last few years) and of the National Museum in the 19th Century. This muddling of chronology is itself a sign of the muddled state of affairs (University of Sarajevo 2017).

8 Andrea’s father’s early career is a good example of this; a few years after World War II, he was amongst the crop of talented pupils who were, by government decree, picked out of grammar schools and enrolled in secondary schools which trained primary school teachers; upon graduation, aged 18, he was allocated to the primary school in the small town of Kreševo; two years later, a school inspector decided he was wasted in the small town and its primary school, and decreed him more suited to university study and an academic career; so, again by decree, he was amongst the first students of the Faculty of Philosophy where both Mario and Andrea now teach. This kind of detailed social engineering was not sustained for very long, but did remain as background logic to why people attended university in the first place.

9 Our translation of the Academic Manifesto was published in Pregled (Halffman and Radder 2015), the main academic publication for the social sciences of our university, in an issue which serves as the proceedings of a round table entitled ‘The Role and Place of Public Universities in Bosnia-Herzegovina’. The round table itself represented all sorts of views (from elderly academics defending the Humboldtian university to PhD students arguing that customer/student surveys show that customers/students are most satisfied if their institution has a plan for strategic development, above the quality of teaching and access to good libraries or laboratories, above even the good price of beer in the student cafeteria); it has been, as far as we are aware, completely ineffectual in terms of any policy impact, beneficial or malevolent, and at the time mostly served as a ritualistic airing of views.

[10] Anna Wessely, PhD, is art historian and sociologist. She is University Lecturer at Eötvös Loránd University and at the Fine Arts University in Budapest, President of the Hungarian Sociological Association, and Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal BUKSZ (Budapest Review of Books).

[11] Jozef Hvorecký, PhD, is Professor of Information Science at the High School of Management/City University of Seattle located in Trenčín, Slovakia, and an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Liverpool, UK.
Emil Višňovský, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Matúš Porubjak, PhD, is Associate Professor of philosophy at University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, Slovakia.

[12] Anita Välikangas is Doctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on the connection between scientific research and policy making at the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences (TINT).

[13] Richard Watermeyer is a Reader in Education at the University of Bath, UK. He is a sociologist of education (knowledge, science and expertise) with general interests in education policy, practice and pedagogy. He is specifically engaged with critical sociologies of higher education and a focus on new conceptualizations of academic praxis and the current and future role of the (public) university, particularly in the context of the marketization, globalization and neoliberalization of higher education.

[14] The formal timetable for REF2021 is still to be agreed.

15 Reported figures put the total cost of REF2014 at somewhere in the region of £240 million.

[16] Koen Bogaert is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium.
Valerie De Craene is a PhD student at the division of Geography and Tourism at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Leuven University, Belgium.
Anton Froeyman is a former academic (and now a free-lance academic consultant), who until 2016 worked as a Post-Doc at the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science at the Faculty of Arts & Humanities in Ghent University, Belgium.
Karen Stroobants is a Post-Doctoral researcher at the Centre for Protein Misfolding Diseases at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and a former PhD student at the Department of Chemistry at Leuven University.
Sigrid Vertommen is a Teaching Assistant at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium.

[17] The money universities receive is denoted by means of different ‘streams’. The first stream consists of direct donations from the government to the universities. The second stream consists of bottom-up competitive funding for individual researchers (i.e. grants), the third stream is formed by money coming from top-down projects (from the government or the industry), and the fourth stream (which in Flanders is by far the smallest) consists of donations to the university by individuals (wealthy alumni, for example).

[18] Eva Aladro Vico is Director of the Department of Journalism III, Faculty of Information Sciences, at Complutense University Madrid; professor in Information and Communication Theory; Coordinator of the academic journal CIC Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación (Latindex, IBSS, WPCA, SA, Ebsco, Ulrich’s, DOAJ); Director of the research group Communicative Structures and Interactions Between the Different Levels of Interpersonal Communication, and autor of several academic articles and books, including̔ The 10 Laws of Information Theory (2015) and Digital Language: A Generative Grammar (2017). She is also a writer, a blogger and cultural activist.

[19] Christophe Charle, born in 1951, studies in Sorbonne and the École normale supérieure (Ulm); Senior Researcher at the CNRS (1978-1991); Professor of Modern History in Lyons and at Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne University since 1993; Director of the Institut d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 2000-2013; silver medal of the CNRS (2001); Senior member of the Institut universitaire de France (2003-2013). President of the Association de réflexion sur les enseignements supérieurs et la recherche (ARESER) ( Recent books: Histoire des Universités with J. Verger. Paris: PUF, 2012; Homo Historicus, Paris: A. Colin, 2013; La Dérégulation Culturelle, Essai D’histoire des Cultures en Europe au XIXe Siècle, Paris: PUF, 2015; editor of Histoire de la Vie Intellectuelle en France (XIXe-XXIe Siècle) with L. Jeanpierre, Paris: Seuil, 2016, 2 volumes.
This report translated from the French by Willem Halffman.

[20] Willem Halffman is Associate Professor at the Institute of Science, Innovation and Society of Radboud University, Nijmegen.
Hans Radder is Professor (Emeritus) at the Department of Philosophy, VU University Amsterdam.

21 In the area of teaching, micromanaging academics through the use of digitalized, quantitative systems is still rampant, and in some places even increasing.

[22] Mere names refer to the country reports in this collection.

[23] More than 3,200 people voted. Proud winner was the University of Groningen (Born leaders reach for infinity); the University of Amsterdam (We are U) scored an honourable second place, while VU University Amsterdam ended fourth with its profound Looking further.

Author Information:Erik Baker and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University,,

Baker, Erik and Naomi Oreskes. “It’s No Game: Post-Truth and the Obligations of Science Studies.”[1] Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 1-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Walt Stoneburner, via flickr

In late April, 2017, the voice of a once-eminent institution of American democracy issued a public statement that embodied the evacuation of norms of truth and mutual understanding from American political discourse that since the 2016 presidential election has come to be known as “post-truth.” We aren’t talking about Donald Trump, whose habitual disregard of factual knowledge is troubling, to be sure, and whose advisor, Kellyanne Conway, made “alternative facts” part of the lexicon. Rather, we’re referring to the justification issued by New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet in defense of his decision to hire columnist Bret Stephens, a self-styled “climate agnostic,” and his spreading talking points of the fossil fuel industry-funded campaign to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change and the integrity of climate scientists.[2] The notion of truth made no appearance in Bennet’s statement. “If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all the time,” he explained, “we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.”[3] The intellectual merits of Stephens’ position are evidently not the point. What counts is only the ability to grease the gears of the “free exchange of ideas.”

Bennet’s defense exemplifies the ideology of the “marketplace of ideas,” particularly in its recent, neoliberal incarnation. Since the 1970s, it has become commonplace throughout much of Europe and America to evince suspicion of attempts to build public consensus about facts or values, regardless of motivation, and to maintain that the role of public-sphere institutions—including newspapers and universities—is simply to place as many private opinions as possible into competition (“free exchange”) with one another.[4] If it is meaningful to talk about a “post-truth” moment, this ideological development is surely among its salient facets. After all, “truth” has not become any more or less problematic as an evaluative concept in private life, with its countless everyday claims about the world. Only public truth claims, especially those with potential to form a basis for collective action, now seem newly troublesome. To the extent that the rise of “post-truth” holds out lessons for science studies, it is not because the discipline has singlehandedly swung a wrecking ball through conventional epistemic wisdom (as some practitioners would perhaps like to imagine[5]), but because the broader rise of marketplace-of-ideas thinking has infected even some of its most subversive-minded work.

Science as Game

In this commentary, we address and critique a concept commonly employed in theoretical science studies that is relevant to the contemporary situation: science as game. While we appreciate both the theoretical and empirical considerations that gave rise to this framework, we suggest that characterizing science as a game is epistemically and politically problematic. Like the notion of a broader marketplace of ideas, it denies the public character of factual knowledge about a commonly accessible world. More importantly, it trivializes the significance of the attempt to obtain information about that world that is as right as possible at a given place and time, and can be used to address and redress significant social issues. The result is the worst of both worlds, permitting neither criticism of scientific claims with any real teeth, nor the possibility of collective action built on public knowledge.[6] To break this stalemate, science studies must become more comfortable using concepts like truth, facts, and reality outside of the scare quotes to which they are currently relegated, and accepting that the evaluation of knowledge claims must necessarily entail normative judgments.[7]

Philosophical talk of “games” leads directly to thoughts of Wittgenstein, and to the scholar most responsible for introducing Wittgenstein to science studies, David Bloor. While we have great respect for Bloor’s work, we suggest that it carries uncomfortable similarities between the concept of science as a game in science studies and the neoliberal worldview. In his 1997 Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, Bloor argues for an analogy between his interpretation of the later Wittgenstein’s theory of meaning (central to Bloor’s influential writing on science) and the theory of prices of the neoliberal pioneer Ludwig von Mises. “The notion of the ‘real meaning’ of a concept or a sign deserves the same scorn as economists reserve for the outdated and unscientific notion of the ‘real’ or ‘just’ price of a commodity,” Bloor writes. “The only real price is the price paid in the course of real transactions as they proceed von Fall zu Fall. There is no standard outside these transactions.”[8] This analogy is the core of the marketplace of ideas concept, as it would later be developed by followers of von Mises, particularly Friedrich von Hayek. Just as there is no external standard of value in the world of commodities, there is no external standard of truth, such as conformity to an empirically accessible reality, in the world of science.[9] It is “scientism” (a term that von Hayek popularized) to invoke support for scientific knowledge claims outside of the transactions of the marketplace of ideas. Just as, for von Hayek and von Mises, the notion of economic justice falls in the face of the wisdom of the marketplace, so too does the notion of truth, at least as a regulative ideal to which any individual or finite group of people can sensibly aspire.

Contra Bloor (and von Hayek), we believe that it is imperative to think outside the sphere of market-like interactions in assessing both commodity prices and conclusions about scientific concepts. The prices of everything from healthcare and housing to food, education and even labor are hot-button political and social issues precisely because they affect people’s lives, sometimes dramatically, and because markets do not, in fact, always values these goods and services appropriately. Markets can be distorted and manipulated. People may lack the information necessary to judge value (something Adam Smith himself worried about). Prices may be inflated (or deflated) for reasons that bear little relation to what people value. And, most obviously in the case of environmental issues, the true cost of economic activity may not be reflected in market prices, because pollution, health costs, and other adverse effects are externalized. There is a reason why Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, has called climate change the “greatest market failure ever seen.”[10] Markets can and do fail. Prices do not always reflect value. Perhaps most important, markets refuse justice and fairness as categories of analysis. As Thomas Piketty has recently emphasized, capitalism typically leads to great inequalities of wealth, and this can only be critiqued by invoking normative standards beyond the values of the marketplace.[11]

External normative standards are indispensable in a world where the outcome of the interactions within scientific communities matter immensely to people outside those communities. This requirement functions both in the defense of science, where appropriate, and the critique of it.[12] The history of scientific racism and sexism, for example, speaks to the inappropriateness of public deference to all scientific claims, and the necessity of principled critique.[13] Yet, the indispensability of scientific knowledge to political action in contemporary societies also demands the development of standards that justify public acceptance of certain scientific claims as definitive enough to ground collective projects, such as the existence of a community-wide consensus or multiple independent lines of evidence for the same conclusion.[14] (Indeed, we regard the suggestion of standards for the organization of scientific communities by Helen Longino as one of the most important contributions of the field of social epistemology.[15])

Although we reject any general equivalency between markets and scientific communities, we agree they are indeed alike in one key way: they both need regulation. As Jürgen Habermas once wrote in critique of Wittgenstein, “language games only work because they presuppose idealizations that transcend any particular language game; as a necessary condition of possibly reaching understanding, these idealizations give rise to the perspective of an agreement that is open to criticism on the basis of validity claims.”[16] Collective problem-solving requires that these sorts of external standards be brought to bear. The example of climate change illustrates our disagreement with Bloor (and von Mises) on both counts in one fell swoop. Though neither of us is a working economist, we nonetheless maintain that it is rational—on higher-order grounds external to the social “game” of the particular disciplines—for governments to impose a price on carbon (i.e., a carbon tax or emissions trading system), in part because we accept that the natural science consensus on climate change accurately describes the physical world we inhabit, and the social scientific consensus that a carbon pricing system could help remedy the market failure that is climate change.[17]

Quietism and Critique

We don’t want to unfairly single out Bloor. The science-as-game view—and its uncomfortable resonances with marketplace-of-ideas ideology—crops up in the work of many prominent science studies scholars, even some who have quarreled publicly with Bloor and the strong programme. Bruno Latour, for example, one of Bloor’s sharpest critics, draws Hayekian conclusions from different methodological premises. While Bloor invokes social forces to explain the outcome of scientific games,[18] Latour rejects the very idea of social forces. Rather, he claims, as Margaret Thatcher famously insisted, that “there is no such thing as ‘the social’ or ‘a society.’”[19] But whereas Thatcher at least acknowledged the existence of family, for Latour there are only monadic actants, competing “agonistically” with each other until order spontaneously emerges from the chaos, just as in a game of Go (an illustration of which graces the cover of his seminal first book Laboratory Life, with Steve Woolgar).[20] Social structures, evaluative norms, even “publics,” in his more recent work, are all chimeras, devoid of real meaning until this networked process has come to fulfillment. If that view might seem to make collective action for wide-reaching social change difficult to conceive, Latour agrees: “Seen as networks, … the modern world … permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, miniscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs.”[21] Rather than planning political projects with any real vision or bite—or concluding that a particular status-quo might be problematic, much less illegitimate—one should simply be patient, play the never-ending networked game, and see what happens.[22] But a choice for quietism is a choice nonetheless—“we are condemned to act,” as Immanuel Wallerstein once put it—one that supports and sustains the status quo.[23] Moreover, a sense of humility or fallibility by no means requires us to exaggerate the inevitability of the status quo or yield to the power of inertia.[24]

Latour has at least come clean about his rejection of any aspiration to “critique.”[25] But others who haven’t thrown in the towel have still been led into a similar morass by their commitment to a marketlike or playful view of science. The problem is that, if normative judgments external to the game are illegitimate, analysts are barred from making any arguments for or against particular views or practices. Only criticism of their premature exclusion from the marketplace is permitted. This standpoint interprets Bloor’s famous call for symmetry not so much as a methodological principle in intellectual analysis, but as a demand for the abandonment of all forms of epistemic and normative judgment, leading to the bizarre sight of scholars championing a widely-criticized “scientific” or intellectual cause while coyly refusing to endorse its conclusions themselves. Thus we find Bruno Latour praising the anti-environmentalist Breakthrough Institute while maintaining that he “disagrees with them all the time;” Sheila Jasanoff defending the use of made-to-order “litigation science” in courtrooms on the grounds of a scrupulous “impartiality” that rejects scholarly assessments of intellectual integrity or empirical adequacy in favor of letting “the parties themselves do more of the work of demarcation;” and Steve Fuller defending creationists’ insistence that their views should be taught in American science classrooms while remaining ostensibly “neutral” on the scientific question at issue.[26]

Fuller’s defense of creationism, in particular, shows the way that calls for “impartiality” are often in reality de facto side-taking: Fuller takes rhetorical tropes directly out of the creationist playbook, including his tendentious and anachronistic labelling of modern evolutionary biologists as “Darwinists.” Moreover, despite his explicit endorsement of the game view of science, Fuller refuses to accept defeat for the intelligent design project, either within the putative game of science, or in the American court system, which has repeatedly found the teaching of creationism to be unconstitutional. Moreover, Fuller’s insistence that creationism somehow has still not received a “fair run for its money” reveals that even he cannot avoid importing external standards (in this case fairness) to evaluate scientific results! After all, who ever said that science was fair?

In short, science studies scholars’ ascetic refusal of standards of good and bad science in favor of emergent judgments immanent to the “games” they analyze has vitiated critical analysis in favor of a weakened proceduralism that has struggled to resist the recent advance of neoliberal and conservative causes in the sciences. It has led to a situation where creationism is defended as an equally legitimate form of science, where the claims of think tanks that promulgate disinformation are equated with the claims of academic scientific research institutions, and corporations that have knowingly suppressed information pertinent to public health and safety are viewed as morally and epistemically equivalent to the plaintiffs who are fighting them. As for Fuller, leaving the question of standards unexamined and/ or implicit, and relying instead on the rhetoric of the “game,” enables him to avoid the challenge of defending a demonstrably indefensible position on its actual merits.

Where the Chips Fall

In diverse cases, key evaluative terms—legitimacy, disinformation, precedent, evidence, adequacy, reproducibility, natural (vis-à-vis supernatural), and yes, truth—have been so relativized and drained of meaning that it starts to seem like a category error even to attempt to refute equivalency claims. One might argue that this is alright: as scholars, we let the chips fall where they may. The problem, however, is that they do not fall evenly. The winner of this particular “game” is almost always status quo power: the conservative billionaires, fossil fuel companies, lead and benzene and tobacco manufacturers and others who have bankrolled think tanks and “litigation science” at the cost of biodiversity, human health and even human lives.[27] Scientists paid by the lead industry to defend their toxic product are not just innocently trying to have their day in court; they are trying to evade legal responsibility for the damage done by their products. The fossil fuel industry is not trying to advance our understanding of the climate system; they are trying to block political action that would decrease societal dependence on their products. But there is no way to make—much less defend—such claims without a robust concept of evidence.

Conversely, the communities, already victimized by decades of poverty and racial discrimination, who rely on reliable science in their fight for their children’s safety are not unjustly trying to short-circuit a process of “demarcation” better left to the adversarial court system.[28] It is a sad irony that STS, which often sees itself as championing the subaltern, has now in many cases become the intellectual defender of those who would crush the aspirations of ordinary people.

Abandoning the game view of science won’t require science studies scholars to reinvent the wheel, much less re-embrace Comtean triumphalism. On the contrary, there are a wide variety of perspectives from the history of epistemology, philosophy of science, and feminist, anti-racist, and anti-colonialist theory that permit critique that can be both epistemic and moral. One obvious source, championed by intellectual historians such as James Kloppenberg and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Jürgen Habermas, is the early American pragmatism of John Dewey and William James, a politically constructive alternative to both naïve foundationalism and the textualist rejection of the concept of truth found in the work of more recent “neo-pragmatists” like Richard Rorty.[29] Nancy Cartwright, Thomas Uebel, and John O’Neill have similarly reminded us of the intellectual and political potential in the (widely misinterpreted, when not ignored) “left Vienna Circle” philosophy of Otto Neurath.[30]

In a slightly different vein, Charles Mills, inspired in part by the social science of W.E.B. Du Bois, has insisted on the importance of a “veritistic” epistemological stance in characterizing the ignorance produced by white supremacy.[31] Alison Wylie has emphasized the extent to which many feminist critics of science “are by no means prepared to concede that their accounts are just equal but different alternatives to those they challenge,” but in fact often claim that “research informed by a feminist angle of vision … is simply better in quite conventional terms.”[32] Steven Epstein’s work on AIDS activism demonstrates that social movements issuing dramatic challenges to biomedical and scientific establishments can make good use of unabashed claims to genuine knowledge and “lay” expertise. Epstein’s work also serves as a reminder that moral neutrality is not the only, much less the best, route to rigorous scholarship.[33] Science studies scholars could also benefit from looking outside their immediate disciplinary surroundings to debates about poststructuralism in the analysis of (post)colonialism initiated by scholars like Benita Parry and Masao Miyoshi, as well as the emerging literature in philosophy and sociology about the relationship of the work of Michel Foucault to neoliberalism.[34]

For our own part, we have been critically exploring the implications of the institutional and financial organization of science during the Cold War and the recent neoliberal intensification of privatization in American society.[35] We think that this work suggests a further descriptive inadequacy in the science-as-game view, in addition to the normative inadequacies we have already described. In particular, it drives home the extent to which the structure of science is not constant. From the longitudinal perspective available to history, as opposed to sociological or ethnographic snapshot, it is possible to resolve the powerful societal forces—government, industry, and so on—driving changes in the way science operates, and to understand the way those scientific changes relate to broader political-economic imperatives and transformations. Rather than throwing up one’s hands and insisting that incommensurable particularity is all there is, science studies scholars might instead take a theoretical position that will allow us to characterize and respond to the dramatic transformations of academic work that are happening right now, and from which the humanities are by no means exempt.[36]

Academics must not treat themselves as isolated from broader patterns of social change, or worse, deny that change is a meaningful concept outside of the domain of microcosmic fluctuations in social arrangements. Powerful reactionary forces can reshape society and science (and reshape society through science) in accordance with their values; progressive movements in and outside of science have the potential to do the same. We are concerned that the “game” view of science traps us instead inside a Parmenidean field of homogenous particularity, an endless succession of games that may be full of enough sound and fury to interest scholars but still signify nothing overall.

Far from rendering science studies Whiggish or simply otiose, we believe that a willingness to discriminate, outside of scare quotes, between knowledge and ignorance or truth and falsity is vital for a scholarly agenda that respects one of the insights that scholars like Jasanoff have repeatedly and compellingly championed: in contemporary democratic polities, science matters. In a world where physicists state that genetic inferiority is the cause of poverty among black Americans, where lead paint manufacturers insist that their product does no harm to infants and children, and actresses encourage parents not to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases, an inability to discriminate between information and disinformation—between sense and nonsense (as the logical positivists so memorably put it)—is not simply an intellectual failure. It is a political and moral failure as well.

The Brundtland Commission famously defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Like the approach we are advocating here, this definition treats the empirical and the normative as enfolded in one another. It sees them not as constructions that emerge stochastically in the fullness of time, but as questions that urgently demand robust answers in the present. One reason science matters so much in the present moment is its role in determining which activities are sustainable, and which are not. But if scientists are to make such judgments, then we, as science studies scholars, must be able to judge the scientists—positively as well as critically. Lives are at stake. We are not here merely to stand on the sidelines insisting that all we can do is ensure that all voices are heard, no matter how silly, stupid, or nefarious.

[1] We would like to thank Robert Proctor, Mott Greene, and Karim Bschir for reading drafts and providing helpful feedback on this piece.

[2] For an analysis of Stephens’ column, see Robert Proctor and Steve Lyons, “Soft Climate Denial at The New York Times,” Scientific American, May 8, 2017; for the history of the campaign to cast doubt on climate change science, see Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010); for information on the funding of this campaign, see in particular Robert J. Bruelle, “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” Climatic Change 122 (4), 681–694, 2013.

[3] Accessible at

[4] For the recency of the concept, see Stanley Ingber, “The Marketplace of Ideas: A Legitimizing Myth,” Duke Law Journal, February 1984. The significance of the epistemological valorization of the marketplace of ideas to the broader neoliberal project has been increasingly well-understood by historians of neoliberalism; it is an emphasis, for instance, to the approach taken by the contributors to Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin (Harvard, 2009), especially Mirowski’s “Postface.”

[5] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 (Winter 2004).

[6] See for instance John Ziman, Public Knowledge: An Essay Concerning the Social Dimension of Science (Cambridge University Press, 1968); as well as the many more recent perspectives we hold up below as exemplary of alternative approaches.

[7] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. “Perspectives on global warming: A Book Symposium with Steven Yearley, David Mercer, and Andy Pitman.” Metascience vol. 21, pp. 531-559, 2012.

[8] David Bloor, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions (Routledge, 1997), pp. 76-77.

[9] As suggested by Helen Longino in The Future of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001) as an alternative to the more vexed notion of “correspondence,” wrought with metaphysical difficulties Longino hopes to skirt. In Austrian economics, this rejection of the search for empirical, factual knowledge initially took the form, in von Mises’ thought, of the ostensibly purely deductive reasoning he called “praxaeology,” which was supposed to analytically uncover the imminent principles governing the economic game. Von Hayek went further, arguing that economics at its most rigorous merely theoretically explicates the limits of positive knowledge about empirical social realities. See, for instance, Friedrich von Hayek, “On Coping with Ignorance,” Ludwig von Mises Lecture, 1978.

[10] Nicholas H. Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[11] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard/Belknap, 2013). In addition to critiquing market outcomes, philosophers have also invoked concepts of justice and fairness to challenge the extension of markets to new domains; see for example Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013) and Harvey Cox, The Market as God (Harvard University Press, 2016). This is also a theme in the Papal Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, Laudato Si.

[12] For more on this point, see Naomi Oreskes, “Systematicity is Necessary but Not Sufficient: On the Problem of Facsimile Science,” in press, Synthèse.

[13] See among others Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1990); Londa Schiebinger, Has Feminism Changed Science? (Harvard University Press, 1999); Sandra Harding, Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues (University of Illinois Press, 2006); Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (Routledge, 1989); Evelynn Hammonds and Rebecca Herzig, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics (MIT Press, 2008).

[14] Naomi Oreskes, “Trust in Science?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values, Princeton University, November 30, 2016; Naomi Oreskes, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” in Joseph F. C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman, eds., Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren (MIT Press, 2007), pp. 65-99.

[15] Helen Longino, Science as Social Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1990), and The Future of Knowledge (Princeton University Press, 2001).

[16] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1984), p. 199.

[17] See, for instance, Naomi Oreskes, “Without government, the market will not solve climate change: Why a meaningful carbon tax may be our only hope,” Scientific American (December 22, 2015), Naomi Oreskes and Jeremy Jones, “Want to protect the climate? Time for carbon pricing,” Boston Globe (May 3, 2017).

[18] Along with a purportedly empirical component that, as Latour has compellingly argued, is “canceled out” out of the final analysis because of its common presence to both parties in a dispute. See Bruno Latour, “For Bloor and Beyond: a Reply to David Bloor’s Anti-Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 30 (1), pp.113-129, March 1998.

[19] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5; this theme is an emphasis of his entire oeuvre. On Thatcher, see and James Meek, Private Island (Verso, 2014).

[20] Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Routledge, 1979/1986); Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Harvard University Press, 1987). In Laboratory Life this emergence of order from chaos is explicitly analyzed as the outcome of a kind of free market in scientific “credit.” Spontaneous order is one of the foundational themes of Hayekian thought, and the game of Go is an often-employed analogy there as well. See, for instance, Peter Boettke, “The Theory of Spontaneous Order and Cultural Evolution in the Social Theory of F.A. Hayek,” Cultural Dynamics, vol. 3 (1), pp. 61-83, 1990; Gustav von Hertzen, The Spirit of the Game (CE Fritzes AB, 1993), especially chapter 4.

[21] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 47-48; for his revision of the notion of the public, see for example Latour’s Politics of Nature (Harvard University Press, 2004). For a more in-depth discussion of Latour vis-à-vis neoliberalism, see Philip Mirowski, “What Is Science Critique? Part 1: Lessig, Latour,” keynote address to Workshop on the Changing Political Economy of Research and Innovation, UCSD, March 2015.

[22] Our criticism here is not merely hypothetical. Latour’s long-time collaborator Michel Callon and the legal scholar David S. Caudill, for example, have both used Latourian actor-network theory to argue that critics of the privatization of science such as Philip Mirowski are mistaken and analysts should embrace, or at least concede the inevitability of, “hybrid” science that responds strongly to commercial interests. See Michel Callon, “From Science as an Economic Activity to Socioeconomics of Scientific Research,” in Philip Mirowski and Esther-Mirjam Sent, eds. Science Bought and Sold (University of Chicago Press, 2002); and David S. Caudill, “Law, Science, and the Economy: One Domain?” UC Irvine Law Review vol. 5 (393), pp. 393-412, 2015.

[23] Immanuel Wallerstein, The Essential Wallerstein (The New Press, 2000), p. 432.

[24] Naomi Oreskes, “On the ‘reality’ and reality of anthropogenic climate change,” Climatic Change vol. 119, pp. 559-560, 2013, especially p. 560 n. 4. Many philosophers have made this point. Hilary Putnam, for example, has argued that fallibilism actually demands a critical attitude, one that seeks to modify beliefs for which there is sufficient evidence to believe that they are mistaken, while also remaining willing to make genuine knowledge claims on the basis of admittedly less-than-perfect evidence. See his Realism with a Human Face (Harvard University Press, 1990), and Pragmatism: An Open Question (Oxford, 1995) in particular.

[25] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry vol. 30 (Winter 2004).

[26] “Bruno Latour: Modernity is a Politically Dangerous Goal,” November 2014 interview with Latour by Patricia Junge, Colombina Schaeffer and Leonardo Valenzuela of Verdeseo; Zoë Corbyn, “Steve Fuller : Designer trouble,” The Guardian (January 31, 2006); Sheila Jasanoff, “Representation and Re-Presentation in Litigation Science,” Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1), pp. 123–129, January 2008. Fuller also has a professional relationship with the Breakthrough Institute, but the Institute seems somewhat fonder, in their publicity materials, of their connection with Latour.

[27] Even creationism, it’s worth remembering, is a big-money movement. The Discovery Institute, perhaps the most prominent “intelligent design” advocacy organization, is bankrolled largely by wealthy Republican donors, and was co-founded by notorious Reaganite supply-side economics guru and telecom deregulation champion George Gilder. See Jodi Wilgoren, “Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive,” New York Times, August 21, 2005. Similarly, so-called grassroots anti-tax organizations often had links to the tobacco industry. See The corporate exploitation of ambiguity about the contours of disinformation can, of course, also take more anodyne forms, as in manipulative use of phrases like “natural flavoring” on food packaging. We thank Mott Greene for this example.

[28] David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (University of California Press, 2013). See also Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (University of California Press, 2nd edition 2013); and Stanton Glantz, ed., The Cigarette Papers (University of California Press, 1998).

[29] See James Kloppenburg, “Pragmatism: An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking?,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 83 (1), pp. 100-138, June 1996, which argues that Rorty misrepresents in many ways the core insights of the early pragmatists. See also Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action (Beacon Press, vol. 1 1984, vol. 2 1987); Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981); see also William Rehg’s development of Habermas’s ideas on science in Cogent Science in Context: The Science Wars, Argumentation Theory, and Habermas (MIT Press, 2009).

[30] Nancy Cartwright, Jordi Cat, Lola Fleck, and Thomas Uebel, Otto Neurath: Philosophy between Science and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Thomas Uebel, “Political philosophy of science in logical empiricism: the left Vienna Circle,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 36, pp. 754-773, 2005; John O’Neill, “Unified science as political philosophy: positivism, pluralism and liberalism,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 34, pp. 575-596, 2003.

[31] Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Stanford University Press, 2008); see also his recent Black Rights/White Wrongs (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[32] Alison Wylie, Thinking from Things: Essays in the Philosophy of Archaeology (University of California Press, 2002), p. 190. Helen Longino (Science as Social Knowledge, 1999) and Sarah Richardson (Sex Itself, University of Chicago Press, 2013), have made similar arguments about research in endocrinology and genetics.

[33] Steven Epstein, Impure Science (University of California Press, 1996); see especially pp. 13-14.

[34] See for instance Benita Parry, Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique (Routledge, 2004); Masao Miyoshi, “Ivory Tower in Escrow,” boundary 2, vol. 27 (1), pp. 7-50, Spring 2000. On Foucault, see recently Daniel Zamora and Michael C. Behrent, eds., Foucault and Neoliberalism (Polity Press, 2016); but note also the seeds of this critique in earlier works such as Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (MIT Press, 1984) and Nancy Fraser, “Michel Foucault: A ‘Young Conservative’?”, Ethics vol 96 (1), pp. 165-184, 1985, and “Foucault on Modern Power: Empirical Insights and Normative Confusions,” Praxis International, vol. 3, pp. 272-287, 1981.

[35] Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, eds., Science and Technology in the Global Cold War (MIT Press, 2015); Naomi Oreskes, Science on a Mission: American Oceanography in the Cold War (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming); Erik Baker, “The Ultimate Think Tank: Money and Science at the Santa Fe Institute,” manuscript in preparation.

[36] See, for instance, Philip Mirowski, Science-Mart (Harvard University Press, 2010); Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (MIT Press, 2015); Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Books, 2014); Sophia McClennen, “Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Intellectual Engagement,” Works and Days, vols. 26-27, 2008-2009.

Author Information: Lee Basham, South Texas College/University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley,

Basham, Lee. “Border Wall Post Truth: Case Study.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 40-49.

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Image credit: Anne McCormack, via flickr

“The more you show concern, the closer he’ll go to the edge … Some things are just too awful to publicize.”—Don Dilillio, White Noise

“History is hard to follow. Luckily, they killed Kennedy. Leaves bread crumbs if we stray.”—Alfonso Uribe

Dogs don’t look Up. The higher tossed the bone, the less likely they are to see it. Lost in a horizontal universe, they run tight circles, wondering, “where is it?”. On its way down it hits them on the head. Civilized primates are surely different. Our steep information hierarchies are different. Or in the high castles of information a few above look upon many circling below.

Far South Texas, a bone’s throw (or gun shot) from the US/Mexican border, enjoys post truth as a storied and comfortable tradition. So stable, we might question the addendum “post”. Here truth is ephemeral. Like rain, it appears rarely. When it does it collects in pools, grows strange stuff, gets smelly and then dries up.

Are we suddenly flung into a post-truth world? The sophists lost that one, the Stalinists, too. But history’s lessons, like a grade 2 curriculum, never end. They remain the same. Hope springs eternal. Adam Riggio, in “Subverting Reality”, takes a personal approach, emphasizing trust before truth, even providing a theory of true punk music; if form then content. All else is appropriation. Meet fake punk. While I’m not sure about that, I’m sympathetic. Perhaps form does not formulate in the end, which is why we should be suspicious of any form-allegiance. Including representational democracy. But his is an understandable approach. Like Riggio, I’ll take a personal line.

In letter to the editor style: I reside in McAllen, Texas. It is in the Rio Grande Valley. Locals call this the “RGV” or “956”.[1] Table chat I’ve shared in the wealthy parlors of Austin and San Antonio insists we are not really part of Texas, “They’re all Mexican”. But the map indicates we are. Because we are on the North side of the river.

A few miles South of town we have a long stretch of the Mexico/US Border. The Wall. It looks like minimalist conceptual art from the 1960s. Donald Judd comes to mind, Donald Trump, too.[2] Professional photographers adore it, prostrate before it. They fly in just to see and click. The border wall is by nature post-trust and so, post-truth. This Post Truth is a concrete condition. Literally. Made of concrete and steel, I’ve climbed it. Took me 1.5 minutes (a bit slower than average; wear tennis shoes, not boots). Recently, epistemologists have explored this scenario. Suspicion is natural to social primate life, not shocking, misplaced or shameful: The battle is not for trust, but realistic, strategic distrust.

Post Truth Life

We are Texas and proud we are. We proudly supply Washington DC with its cocaine, providing the capital the highest quality, best prices, in vast quantities. Our product is legend, a truly international undertaking, spanning 13 countries. This is our number one economic achievement. We proudly provide the largest, most vibrant, corporate retail experience to be found anywhere between San Antonio and the Federal District of Mexico. Our shopping is legend, a truly international undertaking, filling the parking lots with cars from the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, DF, alongside Canadian vehicles from Ontario, Alberta Quebec and others.[3] We are Texas and proud we are. This is our number one economic achievement. As one might imagine, such a list goes on. The local banks reflect our achievement. Billions of dollars beyond the productive abilities of our local legal economy are on deposit. Almost every penny in the banks is owned to the success of our local legal economy. But what I take to be our greatest achievement, which all this and more rests upon, is the borderland mind. In the parlance of the moment, it is deliciously post-trust and post-truth. If this isn’t social epistemology, what is?

I have lived on the border for more than a decade. My wife, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, and her family, have lived here since she was 14, and for several years before that just a few blocks South of the river’s South side. While most academics are Anglo imports and cling to the same, I didn’t make that mistake. Her family and my friends provide an intimate understanding.

Conspiracy theory is the way of life here, much of it well informed. Though truth is rare enough, its seasons are established and understood. The winds that sweep from Mexico into the North whip up some remarkable and telling conspiracy theories. As does the wind from Washington. Escobares, one of the oldest cities in the US, is a short drive West of McAllen. The Church is built of petrified wood. On the Border even the US census is post-truth and seen as such; not just in population count (understandably, it misses half the people),

At the 2010 census the city of Escobares had a population of 1,188. The racial composition of the population was 98.3% white (7.2% non-Hispanic white), 1.6% from some other race and 0.1% from two or more races.

Yet, 92.8% of the population was Hispanic or Latino with 92.3% identifying as being ethnically Mexican.[4]

Escobares is a white town? McAllen has a nearly identical US census profile. Derisive laughter on local radio and in front yard parties follows.

The Wall of Conspiracy

The Wall is patchy, has gaps. Erected by President Obama, many miles here, many miles there, ropes dangle everywhere to help travelers across it. Little kid’s shoes, kicked off as they climb, litter its base. Sometimes the kids fall. The Wall is not monolithic.  Nor opinion. Surprisingly, in an almost entirely Hispanic community, completing The Wall is both opposed and supported by many. Often the same people. This is not insanity, it is time honored strategy. Brings to mind the old movies where people hang two-sided picture frames with opposing photos, and flip the frame according to what a glance out the window informs them about their arriving guests. The photos mean nothing, the flipping, everything. Fireside conversations become remarkable. The anti-wall protests of local politicians are viewed in a familiar post-truth, fading race-war narrative: They have to say that. Both Democrats and Republicans copy cat this story line and then deny any allegiance to it at Rotary club meetings before racially well-mixed and approving audiences. Legal trade is good, the rest is a mess. Why a wall? None of them would do any lucrative illegal business. They pray before their meetings. But Northern cities in Mexico promote ineffective boycotts of McAllen’s retail miracle because of The Wall. They fear it hurts them financially. Odd. The McAllen Mayor responds by stringing a broad, mixed language banner across main street, declaring, “Bienvenidos to McAllen, Always Amigos”. The Wall issue dissolves.

Charades require political tension, sincere or contrived, perhaps a tactic of negotiation.

Why local support for The Wall? Too many headless bodies, too many severed heads. People are sick of the untouchable prostitution trap houses north and east of town. Fenced in, barbed wired, cinder-block buildings with armed guards, stocked with poached immigrant girls and boys, a parking lot full of Ford F150 trucks. The kidnappings of immigrants, the torture chambers and videos when the money never arrives. The ones that by shear luck avoid such fates are relegated to back country depots and “abandoned” houses. Often they are abandoned, forced to burglarize and rob to eat and continue their trek north.

People are also tired of the border’s relentless yet ironically impotent police state. One cannot drive the 57 miles from McAllen Texas to Rio Grande City without passing 20 or more roadside State Troopers in their cartel-black SUVs. Don’t bother to count the border patrol SUVs: They are more numerous. The State Troopers, euphemistically agents of “The Department of Public Safety (DPS)”, fill our now crowded jails with locals, on every imaginable infraction, no matter how trivial. After asking me where I lived, at the end of a convenience store line conversation, one told me, white on white, “Then ya know, people here are bad.” [5] These are not local Sheriffs, born and raised here, who understand people and who is and isn’t a problem. DPS is relentless, setting impromptu road blocks throughout our cities, tossing poor people in “county” for not having car insurance and the money to pay for it on the spot. Whole Facebook pages are devoted to avoiding the road-blocks in 956. Down at McAllen’s airport entire multi-story, brand new hotels are now filled with foreign agents of the state. The whole monster-mash, everyday is Halloween scène down on the border could be chronicled for pages.

All of this is perceived by a hardworking, fun-loving, family-driven community as an ill wind from the South, drawn by the bait-and-switch vacuum of an uncaring, all-consuming “great white north”, and a Washingtonian two-face. Right they are. With The Wall, perhaps these police-state parasites will leave. The slave traps will wither by the rule of no supply. Rich white and agringado activists up North be damned; who for their own, disconnected reasons, demand it never end.[6] To quote a close relative, “Nombre! They don’t live here!”.

People see The Wall as a conspiracy to placate the xenophobes up North, not protect anyone. Keep the cheap labor coming but assert, “We did something to stop it.”. People see The Wall as protection for those who otherwise would cross and fall into the many traps set for them by the coyotes, they also see The Wall as protection for themselves. They see The Wall as a conspiracy supported by the drug cartels and the Mexican government the cartels control (its official protests not withstanding) to simplify the business model, driving the local cells and resident smuggling entrepreneurs out of business. Using operatives in ICE and the Border patrol is more efficient: Cut out the middle women and men. People lament the damage this will do to our local economy and in some cases, personal income. People praise this. People see those who in the North who oppose The Wall as political fodder used by those who could not care less about them, but want to pretend they do without having a clue, or even trying to. People believe The Wall is a conspiracy, not just to keep Hispanics out, which they often despise depending on country (“OTMs”, Other than Mexicans) but to keep Americans in. As I quickly learned, though few border-landers verbally self-identify as “Mexicans” (that takes a trip across the river), they view a dangerous Mexico as safe-haven if things “go south” here in the United States. If a theoretical, grave political or economic crisis occurs, or just a particularly unpleasant but very real legal entanglement, escape to Mexico is their first resort.

People ask, after the finished wall, added concertina wire and all, what if they close the bridges? When they need to run, they want to be able. People see The Wall as an attempt to destroy the Mexican economy, forcing them into the proposed North American Union, where Canada has submitted in principle, and the only hold-outs are the resolute patriots of the Republic of Mexico, “Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States”.[7] Washington will never be its capital. A noble sentiment. More pedestrian conspiracy theories circulate about campaign contributions from international construction corporations and their local minions. Workers on both sides of the river hope the fix is in; it means jobs for everyone. Recall the Israeli government hired eager Palestinians to build their wall; but that’s another post truth reality. Revealingly, the Israeli example has been promoted in the American press as a model with the notorious phrase, “best practices”. Such is the politics of promised lands.

What is Post Truth?

Post truth is, first, access to a shared, community truth, is now lost. But that would only entail agnosticism. Post truth is more. It is also, second, seemingly contradictory claims now have equal legitimacy in the government, media and with the citizenry. No one looks up. This is an unlikely construct. Like choosing wallpaper, but this time for the mind, what a citizen believes, political, economic or otherwise, is entirely a matter of personal taste. And there is no accounting for taste. No epistemic grounds for ordinary controversy, but insidiously a double-truth theory laid upon the collective consciousness of democratic society. Collective madness. Hence: A post truth world. It’s a catastrophe. Or is it? Look up at the above.  What is epistemically interesting is that most of the conspiratorial stances above do enjoy some significant evidence and are mutually consistent. Hence simultaneously believed by the same persons. Enter real “post truth”, and a larger diagnosis of our information hierarchy. It is not reliable. Instead we look to each other.

Five Suggestions about Post Truth

Post truth is about epistemology, social and otherwise, but only at one or more steps removed. On the ground it is entirely pragmatic. Post truth is not to be confused with mere state propaganda. That is another, much more narrow notion. Post truth, as before defined, is ancient and ubiquitous. The 21st century is no different.

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1. The first, a bit tiresome to repeat, is found in several epistemic critiques of the pathologizing approach to conspiracy theory: We should not conflate suspicions with beliefs. There is nothing cognitively anomalous about post truth states of consciousness when read this way.[8] Suspicion is epistemically virtuous. The fears surrounding ambitions of pathology, how ever great, are immediately de-sized in face of this simple distinction. Suspicion is one of the virtues of Eric Blair’s famous character, Winston Smith—at least until he trusts and is captured, tortured and turned.

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2. “Post” implies a time before that has passed. More formally, it might be termed a tense-based situational truth agnosticism.[9] Applied to “trust” and “truth”, on the border, this proposed time before would require reference to the more social and intelligent Pleistocene mammals. Maybe to the first human visitors, ten or more thousand years ago, no doubt in search for water. An attitude of panic towards “post truth” seems misplaced. Nothing can survive laughter. This is a second suggestion. Post truth hysteria is, while initially quite understandable, difficult to take seriously for long. Rage concerning it, even more so.[10]

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3. Linguists point out that “trust” and “truth” are closely related. One births the other. By accident and so inclination, I am an epistemologist of trust, especially its “negative spaces”, to borrow from art-theory. These spaces in our current information hierarchy, where so few control what so many hear, and often believe, are legion. In our society navigating these is elevated to high art, one we should not fear. My third suggestion is that if nothing changes then nothing changes. And my prediction, nothing changes in a post truth world. Because nothing has changed. Or soon will.

Post trust is not the new normal, it is the oldest one. You don’t know people, or societies, until you go about with them. We should be cautious, watchful. As my son would put it, “We should lurk them hard”. A skeptical attitude, an expectation of post truth because of a post trust attitude, is appropriate, an adult attitude. Among billions of humans of all types and classes, we hardly know anyone. And those who protest this, doth protest too much. Such an attitude of truth-privilege, as found among the denizens of the political Avant-gardes and their fellow travelers in our mass media, has always been unearned.[11] One often betrayed. Professional managers of belief I will grant the mainstream media, professional purveyors of truth is quite a stretch, a needless one. But a conceit that has proven lethal.

Consider the 2003 Iraq invasion. We were told at the time, by both current and prior presidents, it was an invasion for feminism.[12] The media, including the New York Times, chimed in approval. Normalizing this invasion was this media’s crowning achievement of the 21st century’s first decade. One might think they got off on the wrong foot, but that would entirely depend on what the right foot is. I argue for a more functional outlook. Their function is basic societal stability, congruence with official narratives when these are fundamental ones, not truth; an establishment of normality in virtually anything. Truth has its place at their table only among the trivial, not basic stability. Consider the US civil rights movement. Here the political Avant-gardes and mass media had an effect we view as laudable. Yet this did not threaten the established political or capitalist order. It ushered old participants into greater integration within it and to new levels of participation on its behalf. Mr. Obama, for instance.

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4. Mainstream media and Avant-garde political pronouncements are unreliable in proportion to the importance to the purveyors that we accept them. I don’t mean this as revelatory, rather in the manner of reminder. The opportunities for manipulation loom especially large when popular cultures are involved, and the way we identify with these are transitioned to apathy or atrocities. Or both, simultaneously. This transcends political dichotomies like “right” and “left”. Both, because of their simplicity are easy marks. The proper study is, perhaps, is that of “faction”. A war for feminism? A war to extend democracy? A war for Arab prosperity and against child poverty? A war for American energy independence? A war for the world: Pax Americana? But the ploy worked, both popularly and within academia. It’s being re-wrought today. In the popular and academic hysteria following 9/11, Michael Walzer, champion of Just War Theory, wrote,

Old ideas may not fit the current reality; the war against terrorism to take the most current example, requires international cooperation that is radically undeveloped in theory as it is in practice. We should welcome military officers into the theoretical argument. They will make it a better argument than it would be if no one but professors took interest.[13]

Walzer asks to take his place among the generals. Walzer goes on to argue for the importance of aerial bombing while trying not to blow rather younger children to smithereens. Walzer’s justification? Protecting US soldiers. If any of this strikes us as new or news, we live in what I like to call the united states of amnesia.  He claims current bombing technology overwhelmingly protects the innocent. An interesting post truth formula. Who then are the guilty soldiers and functionaries, and how could they be? Denounce the stray bomb fragments, then embrace the counsel of professional conspirators of death in our moral considerations. This is suspect, politically, morally and epistemically. It is also feminism. That’s a post truth world. Long before a real estate agent joined the pantheon of US presidents.

The rebellion of conspiracy theory helps here. Conspiracy theory is typically, and properly, about suspicion, not belief. Certainty, even if just psychological, “truth”, is not an option in a responsible citizen. A vehement lament and protest against post-truth is inadequate if it ignores the importance of suspicion. But nothing like suspicion post-trusts and so post-truths. To borrow a lyric from Cohen, “that’s where the light comes in”. And we post-any-century-primates have good reason for suspicion. True, the opening years of the 21st century hit a home-run here, it wasn’t the first or last. If anything is transcendently true, that’s it.

If this functional, suspicious understanding becomes our baseline epistemology (as it is where I live), we might worry catastrophe will ensue. Like leaving a baby alone in a room with a hungry dog. But what actually happens is the dog patiently awaits, ignoring the obvious. Good dog. People and dogs share much. With humans what actually ensues is table talk, memes on the internet, and winks and rolling eyes across the TV room. Formally known as the “living room”, this post-living room space is not grade school and we are not attentive, intimidated students. We’re artists of negative spaces and we usually negotiate them with aplomb. Unless we really think mass media reliability is what post truth is post to. Then, I suppose, catastrophe does ensue: Only a brief emotional one, similar to losing one’s religion, one’s political piety. Cass Sunstien provides,

“Our main policy claim here is…a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive Infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups.”[14]

Let’s conspire against citizens who worry you might be conspiring against them. Is there anything new here?

Riggio on Post Truth

Like Riggio, I view the existence of political truth as beyond evident. In the face of rhetoric concerning a “post truth” contagion, Riggio counters there is instead a battle for public trust. He’s right. He’s channeling, in fact, Brian Keeley’s classic public trust approach to alternative thought.[15] As with our confidence in science, mainstream media functions the same. But Riggio seems to think it is a new one, and one worth fighting and “winning”. Now what would be winning? As we finally fall asleep at night, we might appreciate this. But not in daylight. There’s no battle for public trust there. Most don’t, but say we do. And that’s a good thing.

Public trust has long ago headed down the yellow brick road with Dorothy in search of a wizard. Lies and compromise are recognized, from all quarters, as our long-term norm. Dorothy’s surprise and the wizard’s protests when he is revealed should hardly surprise. This is the road of the golden calf, representational democracy.

The closer you get to Washington DC, Paris, Beijing, London or the democratic republic of Moscow, the more obvious this perception and reality is. It’s celebrated in transatlantic, transnational airplane conversations that last for hours. It’s palpable before the edifices of any of these capitals’ secular monuments. As palpable before the non-secular: Like standing a few blocks before the Vatican, a previous political model, we can’t really deny it. These edifices now, as they were before, are saturated in farce.[16] Adam Riggio’s impassioned political piece, with his hands on the cold marble, reminds us that being too close to the temple can blind us to its real shape, strength and impressive age. Riggio writes,

[Mainstream media’s behavior] harms their reputation as sources of trustworthy knowledge about the world. Their knowledge of their real inadequacy can be seen in their steps to repair their knowledge production processes. These efforts are not a submission to the propagandistic demands of the Trump Presidency, but an attempt to rebuild real research capacities after the internet era’s disastrous collapse of the traditional newspaper industry.[17]

I see this as idealized media primitivism, “If only we could go back”. It’s absolutely admirable. But was print media ever supposed to be trusted? Print media set the stage for the invasion of Cuba and Mexico. It suppressed the deadly effects of nuclear testing in in the 1950s and 60s and then promulgated apologetics for the same. Between 1963 and 1967 the Vietnam War was, “the good guys shooting the Reds”.[18]  It played a similar role in Central American intervention, as well as the first and second “gulf” wars, fought deep in the desert. Mainstream media has long been superb at helping start wars, but way late to the anti-war party and poor in slowing or ending the same wars they supported. A post truth world hypothesis predicts this. An interesting point, one more interesting the more intense the consequences are. The more seemingly significant a political event—such as bizarre politics or senseless wars—the more normal it is initially portrayed by mainstream media. Eventually damage control follows. Public trust? Not likely. Certainly not well placed.

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5. So a final, fifth suggestion: Our paleo post-truth vision taps on our shoulders: The “new normal” political panic concerning a “post truth” world we find in political conversation and in mass media is an ahistorical and ephemeral protest. Our strange amnesia concerning our wars, the conduct of such and their strange results should be evidence enough. Communist Vietnam, with its victory in 1975, was by 1980 a capitalist country par excellence. An old point, going back to Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. “I remember the good ole days when we had newspapers” seems an unlikely thesis.

Recall Eastern Europe. While giving a talk on conspiracy theories and media in Romania, one that might be characterized as a post truth position on media reliability in times of extreme crisis, the audience found the remarks welcome but fairly obvious. They doubted we of the West really had a free mainstream media in contrast, but they enjoyed the idea, the way we might enjoy a guest’s puppy; he’s cute. The truth can be toxic in many social and political settings. Good arguments indicate mass media hierarchies react accordingly everywhere. Far from being tempted to promulgate such truths, like afore mentioned hungry dog and baby, they leave toxic investigation alone. Why look? Why bite?


Politicization of knowledge is dubious. “Post Truth” is a political term of abuse, one that will quickly pass; a bear trap that springs on any and all. Just before the first World War, in 1912, Bertrand Russell pointed out that the truth “must be strange” about the most ordinary things, like tables or chairs.[19] Are politics, mass media power, any less strange? Now we all stand, down by the river, awaiting the evening’s usual transactions and gunfire.

We live in the united states of amnesia. In the rush of cotemporary civilization, memories are short, attention fractured and concentration quickly perishes. We just move on. The awesome spectacle of seemingly omnipotent governments and ideologically unified corporate global mass media along with a population driven by consumption and hedonism, might create a sense of futility where subversive narratives are concerned. But then in new form the subversive narratives are reborn and powerfully spread. The growing intensity of this cycle should give us pause. Perhaps the answer does not lie in seeking new, remedial, intellectually sophisticated ways to ignore it, but in addressing our information desert, our scarcity of real epistemic access to the information hierarchy hovering above us. And discovering ways this can be reversed in a world of unprecedented connectivity, so epistemic rationality can play a decisive role.[20]

For some this truth about post truth and its vicious ironies creates a scary place. Here on the edge of the United States, people have learned to live through that edge and embrace it. But in cozy heartlands in the US, Canada and Europe, most prefer to die in the comfort of our TV rooms so we don’t die “out there”, as Cormac McCarthy puts it, “…in all that darkness and all that cold”. But when the long reality of a post trust, post truth world is forcibly brought to their attention by real estate developers, some react, like Dorothy, with rage and despair. This is a mistake.

Social epistemology should embrace a socially borne epistemic skepticism. This is not an airborne toxic event, it is fresh air. Social epistemology might not be about explaining what we know so much as explaining what we don’t and the value of this negative space, its inescapability and benefits: The truth about post trust and truth. Post truth is everywhere, not just here on the border. We can’t land in Washington DC at Ronald Regan international airport and escape it. Welcome to the post-truth border, bienvenidos al frontera, where we all live and always have. Certainty is an enemy of the wise. If thought a virtue, representational democracy is the cure.

This returns us to dogs. Dog-like, though we be, primates can certainly learn to look up in intense interest. At the stars, for instance. I oppose The Wall. And can climb it. We don’t know until we go. The border is just beyond your cellar door. Do you live in Boston? There you are. Once you open up, look up. Don’t circle about in tight illusions. Embrace bright, buzzing, booming confusion.[21] You don’t know my real name.

[1] Local area code.

[2] Chilvers, Ian & Glaves-Smith, John eds., Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[3] The latter are the so called “Winter Texans”. Fleeing the North’s ice and snow, but unwilling to cross the border and venture farther South into Mexico (except for one military controlled, dusty tourist town immediately across the river, wonderfully named “Nuevo Progreso”), they make their home here through fall, winter and spring.

[4] United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on 2013-09-11. Retrieved 2008-01-31.

[5] DPS officers are not all this way. Many are quite compassionate, and increasingly confused by their massive presence here.

[6] “Agingado”; “becoming a gringo”.

[7] President Porfirio Diaz, “Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.”.

[8] See Basham, Lee and Matthew R. X. Dentith. “Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 10 (2016): 12-19, and subsequent remarks, Dieguez, Sebastian, Gérald Bronner, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, Nicolas Gauvrit, Anthony Lantian & Pascal Wagner-Egger. “’They’ Respond: Comments on Basham et al.’s ‘Social Science’s Conspiracy-Theory Panic: Now They Want to Cure Everyone’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 12 (2016): 20-39. Basham, Lee. “Pathologizing Open Societies: A Reply to the Le Monde Social Scientists.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 59-68.

[9] While a realist about truth, a situational truth agnosticism does not entail warrant/justification agnosticism. We don’t need to know if something is true to know it is probably true, given our best evidence, or probably not true.

[10] The political fate of Bernie Sanders comes to mind. A fine candidate, and my preferred, he was forced to recant at the Democratic Party Convention in 2016. One recalls the Hindenburg.

[11] The usual US suspects include CNN (“Combat News Network” in 2003-10 and more recently, “Clinton News Network”), NBC (“National Bombing Communications”) and FOX (a bit harder to parody due to the “x”, even though Mr. O’Reilly offered his services).

[12] George W. Bush and William J. Clinton.

[13] Walzer, Michael. “International Justice, War Crimes, and Terrorism: The U.S. Record.” Social Research, 69, no. 4 (winter 2002): 936.

[14] Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”, University of Chicago Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series Paper No. 199 and University of Chicago Law School Law & Economics Research Paper Series Paper No. 387, 2008, 19, reprinted in the Journal of Political Philosophy, 2009.

[15] Keeley, Brian. “Of Conspiracy Theories”, Journal of Philosophy, 96, no. 3 (1999): 109-26. Keeley’s is a classic, but the Public Trust Approach (PTA) he advocates appears to fail on several levels. See the several critiques by Lee Basham, David Coady, Charles Pigden and Matthew R.X. Dentith.

[16] Not only farce, but a fair share.

[17] Riggio, Adam. “Subverting Reality: We Are Not ‘Post-Truth,’ But in a Battle for Public Trust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 71.

[18] See Hallin, Daniel C. The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[19] Russell, Bertrand, The Problems of Philosophy, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1912. Russell continues, “In the following pages I have confined myself in the main to those problems of philosophy in regard to which I thought it possible to say something positive and constructive, since merely negative criticism seemed out of place.”

[20] A paraphrase from, “Conspiracy and Rationality” in Beyond Rationality, Contemporary Issues.Rom Harré and Carl Jenson, eds. Cambridge Scholars, Newcastle (2011): 84-85.

[21] James, William. The Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1890, page 462.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas,

Frodeman, Robert. “Socratics and Anti-Socratics: The Status of Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 42-44.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image credit: J.D. Falk, via flickr

Do we, academically trained and credentialed philosophers, understand what philosophy is? It’s a disquieting question, or would be, if it could be taken seriously. But who can take it seriously? Academic philosophers are the inheritors of more than 100 years of painstaking, peer-reviewed work—to say nothing of centuries of thinking before that. Through these efforts, philosophy has become an area of expertise on a par with other disciplines. The question, then, is silly—or insulting: of course philosophers know their stuff!

But shouldn’t we feel a bit uneasy by this juxtaposition of ‘philosophers’ and ‘know’? We tell our introductory classes that ‘philosopher’ literally means to be a friend or lover of wisdom, rather than to be the actual possessor of it. And that Socrates, the patron saint of philosophy, only claimed to possess ‘Socratic wisdom’—he only knew that he knew nothing. Have we then abandoned our allegiance to Socrates? Or did we never take him seriously? Would philosophers be more candid quoting Hegel, when he noted in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit that his goal was to “lay aside the title ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowing”? But wouldn’t that mean that philosophers were not really philosophers, but rather sophists?

Two Types of Sophists

The Greeks knew two types of sophists. There were the philosophical sophists, who had skeptical beliefs about the possibilities of knowledge. Protagoras, the most famous of these, claimed that experience is inescapably subjective: the same wind blows both hot and cold depending on the person’s experience. But also, and more simply, sophists were people in the know, or as we say today, experts: people able to instruct young men in skills such as horsemanship, warfare, or public speaking. There are some philosophers today who would place themselves into the first category—for instance, standpoint epistemologists, who sometimes make similar claims in terms of race, class, and gender—but it seems that nearly all philosophers place themselves in the latter category. Philosophers today are experts. Not in philosophy overall, of course, that’s too large of a domain; but in one or another subfield, ethics or logic or the philosophy of language.

It is the subdividing of philosophy that allows philosophers to make claims of expertise. This point was brought home recently in the dustup surrounding Rebecca Tuvel’s Hypatia article “In Defense of Transracialism.” Tuvel’s piece prompted the creation of an Open Letter, which collected more than 800 signatories by the time it was closed. The Letter called on Hypatia to retract publication of her essay. These critics did not merely disagree with her argument; they denied her right to speak on the topic at all. The Letter notes that Tuvel “fails to seek out and sufficiently engage with scholarly work by those who are most vulnerable to the intersection of racial and gender oppressions….”

Tuvel’s article and subsequent publishing of the Open Letter have elicited an extended series of commentaries (including no less than two op-eds in the New York Times). The exact criteria for those who wished to censure Tuvel has varied. Some thought her transgression consisted in the insufficient citing of the literature in the field, while others claimed that her identity was not sufficiently grounded in personal experience of racial and/or gender oppression. In both cases, however, criticism turned on assumptions of expertise. Notably, Tuvel also makes claims of expertise, on her departmental website, as being a specialist in both feminism and the philosophy of race, although she has mostly stayed out of the subsequent back and forth.

My concern, then, is not with pros and cons of Tuvel’s essay. It is rather with the background assumption of expertise that all parties seem to share. I admit that I am not an expert in these areas; but my claim is more fundamental than that. I do not view myself as an expert in any area of philosophy, at least as the term is now used. I have been introduced on occasion as an expert in the philosophy of interdisciplinarity, but this usually prompts me to note that I am only an expert in the impossibility of expertise. Widespread claims to the contrary, interdisciplinarity is perhaps the last thing that someone can be an expert in. At least, the claim cannot be that someone knows the literature of the subject, since the point of interdisciplinarity, if it is something more than another route to academic success, is more political than epistemic in nature.

A Change in Philosophy?

The attitudes revealed by L’Affaire Tuvel (and examples can be multiplied at will[1]) suggests that we are looking at something more than simply another shift in the philosophical tides. There has always been a Hegelian or Cartesian element within philosophy, where philosophers have made claims of possessing apodictic knowledge. There has also always been a Socratic (or to pick a more recent example, Heideggerian) cohort who have emphasized the interrogative nature of philosophy. Heidegger constantly stresses the need to live within the question, whether the question concerns being or technology. He notes as well that his answers, such as they are, are true only approximately and for the most part—zunächst und zumeist. In this he follows Aristotle, who in the Ethics 1.3 pointed out that some areas of inquiry are simply not susceptible to either precision or certainty of knowledge. To my mind, this is the condition of philosophy.

Grant, then, that there have always been two camps on the possibility of expertise in philosophy. But I suggest that the balance between these two positions has shifted, as philosophy has become a creature of the university. The modern research university has its own institutional philosophy: it treats all knowledge democratically, as consisting of regional domains on a common plane. There is no hierarchy of the disciplines, no higher or lower knowledge, no more general or specific knowledge. Researchers in philosophy and the humanities see themselves as fellow specialists, rather than as intellectuals of a markedly different type than those in the natural and social sciences.

Today these assumptions are so deeply embedded that no one bothers to note them at all. Few seriously propose that philosophers might have a role to play other than being an expert, or that our job might be to provoke rather than to answer. I, however, want to raise that very possibility. And operating under the assumption that naming the two positions might help rally troops to their respective standards, let the two camps be designated as the Socratics and the Anti-Socratics.

Part of the attraction that Science and Technology Studies (STS) has held for me has been its undisciplined nature, and the faint hope that it could take over the Socratic role that philosophy has largely abandoned. Of course, the debate between the Socratics and Anti-Socratics rages in STS as well, framed in terms of Low and High Church STS, those who resist STS becoming a discipline and those who see it as part of the necessary maturation of the field. I admit to feeling the attractions of High Church STS, and philosophy: expertise has its prerogatives, chief among them the security of speaking to other ‘experts’ rather than taking on the dangerous task of working in the wider world. But I think I will throw my lot in with the Socratics for a while longer.


Aristotle. The Nichomachean Ethics.  Oxford University Press, 2009.

Brubakermay, Rogers. “The Uproar Over ‘Transracialism’.”  New York Times. May 18, 2017.

Frodeman, Robert and Adam Briggle.Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Fuller, Steve and James H. Collier. Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: A New Beginning for Science and Technology Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2004.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Preface to the “Phenomenology of Spirit”. Translated by Yirmiyahu Yovel. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “A Defense of ‘Transracial’ Identity Roils Philosophy World.” New York Times. May 19, 2017.

Tuvel, Rebecca. “In Defense of Transracialism.” Hypatia 29 March 2017. doi: 10.1111/hypa.12327

[1] See, for instance,

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Independent Researcher, Ottawa Blockchain Group,

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Who Would Live in a Blockchain Society? The Rise of Cryptographically-Enabled Ledger Communities.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 27-41.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Image credit: Shutterstock

It has math. It has its computer science. It has its cryptography. It has its economics. It has its political and social philosophy. It was this community that I was immediately drawn into.—Vitalik Buterin, Founder of Ethereum (Zug, Toronto, Moscow)

That was a memorable day for me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day. —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861

Section 1: Introduction to Blockchainn

In Blockchain Sociology, you are the sociologist. Even if you didn’t take a ‘degree’ in sociology or perhaps even ever take a course in it, you are a sociologist at least in so far as you are part of society, and indeed, of several or many societies. Being part of different societies, you observe them, hold views and opinions about them, collect data about them, shed your own information and actions (recorded by some empirical data collection devices) about them and to them and generally participate in them. In so far as you are that kind of sociologist, you are qualified to be reading this paper, which focuses pop-sociologically on blockchain technology[1] (BC tech) and its potentially major coming impact on societies near and around you and in which you are already a member without needing any sociologist to validate that fact.

This is an exploratory paper on BC that will need to be updated as BC tech develops. BC is an unknown phenomenon still for many people; partly fantasy and partly a soon-to-be new reality. In short, a ‘blockchain’ is simply a chronologically arranged online (internet-based) digital chain of ‘blocks’. [2] A ‘blockchain society’ is thus a kind of semi-fictional representation that harks potentially <15 years into the future, when BC tech will be widely integrated globally and locally into human-social life. In this near-future, I imagine a scenario where ‘machines’ or cybernetic organisms (read: killer robots) haven’t taken over people or led to ‘post-humanity’ (Terminator, Bostrom, Kurzweil, et al.) or ‘trans-humanity’ (Fuller). Rather ‘social machines’ (e.g. BC tech) are used to aid specifically human (homo sapiens sapiens) development.

It is already expected that people will make more and more frequent use of ‘social machines’ (Berners-Lee 1999) where the administration (automation and calculation, etc.) is done by computers, while the creative work and relationships are driven by (still-human) people.[3] This was the vision of one of the main persons who ‘invented’ the internet (protocols) and helped organise and encourage people globally to build it and use it. We thus look in this paper to the impact that this new BC tech can have on societies and their economies through development based on the rise of social machines. Part I focuses on BC basics, as a general introduction to the topic. Part II will focus more on the implications of living in BC societies and how our economies can prepare for the massive restructuring that the technology promises to deliver across a range of education, business, media, governmental and non-governmental sectors.

Figure 1. Humanising the Digital (source unknown)

Section 2: Blockchain Basics

Here we take an early look at what BC societies will become and focus in particular on ‘ledger communities’ (LCs). These LCs establish the basis on which transaction infrastructures may be built using algorithm-guided transaction protocols. Technical details are left out of this paper. It is speculative and probing in character; a fertile ground for ‘social epistemologists’ to explore beyond mere academic philosophy.

The paper underemphasises the cryptography involved, does not even touch on the important asymmetric cryptographic features of BC and simply assumes[4] for the time being that the cryptography enables various levels of anonymity that will allow new LCs to form with at least a basic level of identity safety. Between the lines I hint at concerns coming from a sociologist about what is almost inevitably to happen to societies due to BC tech, while reflecting on current global power structures, repeated social experimental failures of the past and the complex human space-time scales that may eventually be involved with developing BC tech. So it is a half-academic, half-public understanding approach to BC that is prompted by simply being fascinated by BC tech and what it is going to do to the human world as we now know it.

BC tech brings with it an entirely new set of preconditions and possibilities for participation and membership in societies and communities. The technology has immediate social impact when it is implemented because it is pragmatically based on ‘transactions’ that can be chronologically organised, structured and recorded that deal with buying, selling, trading or sharing of assets and values.[5] The value placed on any and all of these digital transactions serves quite ‘naturally’ to develop into a ‘virtual economy’ (Castronova 2006) on local and/or global scales. BC tech thus offers a new kind of societal pattern to which schools, universities, companies, associations, organisations, government ministries, non-government and other community groups may participate, willingly for the betterment of the broader niches within societies that they represent.

Will your future BCs and mine be made “of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers,” in all of the new varieties of human relationships and ‘societies’ that will develop along with them? Let us not be fearful of the unknown, but rather prepare to meet it with both our minds and hearts working ahead of time. In short, this paper with McLuhanite focus is inspired by what the ‘effects’ of BC tech will be when applied across a wide range of social and economic phenomena.[6]

Figure 2. Humanity in the Blockchain (source unknown)

Section 3: Whose Ledgers Do You Share In Today? Whose Will You Share In Tomorrow?

Let us assume that for many people this is an early reading on the topic of BC. Those already familiar with BC tech can skip to section 5. The following definition of BC by Professor Jeremy Clark offers a good start: BC is “a place [ledger] for storing data that is maintained by a network of nodes without anyone in charge.”[7] As can be seen immediately, the significant social implications[8] involve who will be in charge of what and who must ‘take orders’ from those in charge in any given LC. Is order-giving all digitally automated and if so, what might this mean for training in leadership and followership?

On the business side and in the science-technology world of ‘visioneering’ (Cabrera, Davis and Orozco, 2016) ideas, we can easily find a wide variety of definitions of BC,[9] some who call it a “second generation of the internet,”[10] question if it is “the most important IT invention of our age,” hype it into a ‘single source of shared truth,’ or suggest: “We can always trust the blockchain.”[11] Such statements are bound to bring a sound of alarm to sociologists’ attention. In this case economic sociologists are in urgent need for analysis and policy considerations as we prepare to live in BC societies and economies.[12]

It was a few weeks ago (April 2017) during a call with a sociologist friend, when I shared with her my view on the importance of BC tech for sociology. I said that BC is likely to bring about the single biggest revolution in the history of the field. It was as astonishing to have those words come out of my mouth as it was for her to hear them.[13] Nevertheless, I stand by this assertion even without daring many predictions about what this incoming ‘neo-sociology’ will be like. Simply put, BCs are going to significantly impact the way people almost everywhere on Earth live, act and behave in so-called ‘smart communities,’ and thus also how scholars and scientists are able to study the societies and economies in which we live.

Let us turn away from any type of promotional hype to the qualified reflexivity of the academic tongue, which according to Clark, reminds us that “[b]lockchains themselves aren’t a game changer.” Likewise, as HyperLedger executive director Brian Behlendorf cautions, “[t]here are over-inflating expectations [regarding BC] right now,” though along with others[14] he does view it as potentially ‘game-changing’.[15] So what is the promise of BC and BC tech and how it can be applied to people and societies and used globally?

Figure 3. Varieties of Ledgers (source unknown)

Section 4: Distributed Ledger for Consensus

First, let’s start with what we know fairly clearly about BC tech.[16] BC tech makes use of a digital ‘distributed ledger’ (DL) system. This is a collective (communal) bookkeeping or accounting system recording and copying a history of transaction events in each BC. The specific kinds of transaction that may be suitable for such distributed ledgers in on-line and mobile communities are still open to much discussion and debate.[17] The data from BC transactions is codified for application in the various algorithms run by the social machine and cryptographised to enable various levels of user anonymity and thus greater freedom of participation. Nevertheless, issues of transparency and access to any given LC’s recorded history and membership are still unresolved and will inevitably continue to challenge the conversations arising over BC tech. In short, BC tech offers a ‘cryptographically secured DL’[18] that provides people in voluntary LCs a new way of engaging in value-oriented relationships with the aim of making more efficient and equitable exchanges of value.

The DL serves as a kind of organised but decentralised electronic data storage which is arranged as an informational bulletin board accessible to all members of the LC. Users of a BC tech service volunteer to join a LC, wherein all participants share ‘one book’ with distributed access across the system. This is intended to create a kind of ‘immutable’ social history that cannot be corrupted by after-the-fact editing of events because it always leaves a noticeable trail that can be tracked to source of the corruption (see image below for why one can’t cheat BC tech). The DL system thus aims to provide a so-called ‘golden record’ of ‘end-to-end’ (E2E) verifiability, wherein validation of transactions is accepted as completed and irreversible by all members of a LC.

In common parlance, if you don’t want everyone to know everything about you and your possessions; but you want the people that you choose to know enough, in confidence, and to know if they are willing to share, trade or sell ‘in-kind’ knowledge, experience, ideas, votes or ratings with you, then BC tech will be made to deliver this. The technology is meant to lead you to and to facilitate transactions based on shared values and aims in a LC. Nevertheless, you must have the creative personal interest and volunteer to join that LC in the first place.

The LC’s transactions (e.g. purchase, sale, trade, bid, negotiation, auction, vote, authorisation, recommendation, special pass, etc.) are completed and verified by the participant themselves and by any other participants in the transaction. A transaction is completed via a ‘digital signature’ that each person receives with their membership registration and uses to verify their participation in any and all transactions. Participants in a LC receive ‘signing keys’ for transactions, which includes both public and private verification options. The history of these total transactions in a LC comprises a transactional database that confirms the values shared and distributed among participants.

The BC tech uses a time stamp validation that records the time, date and participants in all transactions in the LC. This enables participants in a LC to move various types of digital value (synthetic assets) using a peer-to-peer (P2P) network. The architecture of the P2P network is built around ‘consensus algorithms’ that facilitate the transactions in a LC linked to whatever ‘real life’ institutions, assets and values are involved, including all of the associated services already used by participants in a de-centralised network. The ‘service centre’ in such a network becomes an oxymoron, while service agents will still populate any LC with good service to its members in mind.

The notion that a ‘consensus’ can be reached in a community based on algorithms (i.e. mechanistically) is one of the most contentious issues in a BC society and also one of the most fascinating as it could lead to many new social and economic (niche) communities and configurations. If one doesn’t agree to the rules and regulations of a particular LC, then they simply will not (and even cannot!) join it and thus cannot be forced into accepting any consensus from that community, at least in principle. Instead, competing BCs may temporarily arise based on different sets of rules and regulations to which individuals and groups of people will be able to join and want to join, indeed, will feel compelled to join because many they know will join for mutual benefit. Thus, the spectre of globally widespread BCs must eventually gain the attention of any serious BC sociologist.

Section 5: Sustainable Development, Markets, Morals & Distributions

The largest area of application for BCs is what has become known as ‘sustainable development.’ BCs serve sustainable development goals by providing an opportunity to automate proportional distribution of value contribution (i.e. human, natural, financial, cultural and other ‘resources’) to ‘projects’ built upon transactions that are guided and thus in a sense ‘morally’ conditioned based on the well-being of the LC. Any ‘asset’ or with ‘value’ can be bought, sold, traded or shared publically counts as the domain of BC tech to tackle with higher efficiency, justice and equitability in transactions than pre-BC systems. BC tech thus redefines what a ‘market economy’ means with higher sustainability and improved proportionality at its core because of its new system for measuring, owning and allotting value in social economics, in a way that value can be redistributed quickly within a system. As one of the primary ideologies governing public and private policy now in Canada (where the author is writing from) and also globally is that of ‘sustainable development’ (contrast: ‘millennial evolution’) it has become engrained in the notion of BC sociology and economics from the start.

Thus BC tech in one sense offers a turn of focus away from N. Machiavelli’s view of the ‘state,’ or what we now call ‘nation-state’ toward a new kind of community attitude or ‘social epistemology,’ specifically voiced within a LC, which differs radically from the outdated notions of ‘communism’ from the 20th century that dwindle though continue to the current day. On the level of political economy, BC provides an alternative notion to Machiavellian (western autocratic) individualism by definition in enabling a more ‘trusting’ attitude in communal or group situations and that highlight value transactions in those communities. Thus the new level of BC ‘community morality’ will become a kind of boundary wall for inclusion in or exclusion from a LC, wherein by the will of the each BCs voluntary rules the policy arises simply that ‘dictators are not allowed.’ This move pushes actively into addressing a sociological void against strong-arm ‘hard power’ tactics in negotiations and politics, without necessarily diminishing the creative freedom and moral credibility of active individuals in a LC.

When a BC is built, established and fuelled with members it then must guarantee at least a minimal level of anonymity (as volunteered when joining the LC and agreeing to the rules and regulations of the Genesis Block – Part II) to enable continued participation. The flip-side is that BC requires maximum transparency according to the preferences and automations that people choose in their respective LCs. Thus, the architecture of any BC and the rules and regulations hard coded into the Genesis Block are of crucial significance to the success or failure of any LC. Likewise, if the moderation and service provision for a LC is not maintained appropriately, then it will not generate ‘stick’ or lead to growth, but rather lack of commitment and decline in usage. Thus in part we can answer the questions stated above in Section 3.

Section 6: Blockchain Applications

I hesitate to open this topic much because it is currently filled with both speculation and also practical experimentation. We are witnessing the emergence of BC tech on a global scale and the applications grow on an almost daily basis, so I see little point in categorising them now. The Blockchain Research Institute in Toronto is currently gathering the largest index of BC ‘use cases’ scheduled for completion by autumn 2018. The Delft University of Technology has a BC laboratory,[19] as do many other major universities. Governments have been experimenting with and discussing BC tech as well as a variety of new tech identifiers in business and finance (see references).

FinTech has largely focussed on developing cybercurrencies (Bitcoin, Ripple, etc.), for a variety of practical reasons, e.g. to limit ‘double-spending’ or more closely monitor debt repayment cases. Another aim of some proponents of BC in FinTech comes from the effort on behalf of citizen-consumers to eliminate overseers in financial transactions and thus to create a new kind of money ‘distribution.’ With new companies like Revolut and PayPal already working in the transfer of funds, BC tech looks to expand the reach of automated financial transactions throughout society as social machines start to replace unneeded human interventions in the system. Examples areas where work is already being done to integrate BCs include private stock trading, letters of credit, crowd funding, interbank loans, grants and many more.

The extremely high social value of ‘smart contracts’ (Szabo, Ethereum, more below) will combine with increased exposure to public voting in governance, social organisation and sustainable development. This may lead to more transparent government accountability and a fundamentally different way of determining public service election results and sustainable development policy implementation. Some optimism has been expressed that BC tech will lead to reduced voter fraud, yet the solutions posed also come along with increased mass hacking concerns. The BC feature of multi-party live or delayed computation enables real-time voting updates on bulletin boards [20] and also tentative voting (taking the social temperature first), which allows a person to change their vote before an election (e.g. based on expected or adjusted chance-to-win). Little more needs to be said to provoke interest and controversy; once BC tech and democracy are mentioned in the same sentence, fireworks often ensure.

BC tech has so many potential impacts in areas such as bargaining, auctions and estates, vehicle safety records, legal cost-sharing, real estate, mortgages, securities, lotteries, etc., that it is somewhat daunting to conceive how all of this is going to come about slowly, let alone within the next decade as some proponents are suggesting. BC tech can thus be seen in its early formulations like mathematical Nash equilibrium on humanistic socio-economic steroids.

Figure 4. Traditional and Blockchain Networks (source unknown)

Section 7: Why? So What? Who Cares?

The reorganisation of society that this technology has the potential to enable and indeed, in some ways to require, is simply beyond significant; BC is the massive shift that people have been waiting for since the internet came and even before it. The wide-ranging implications[21] of BC tech should not be discussed, however, without considerable caution to how it will influence the notion of ‘neo-liberal democracy’ as the reigning dominant ideology in the ‘western world.’ Even talk of ‘innovating capitalism’ (Bheemaiah 2017) is bound to raise some peoples’ ire. Especially leftist-leaning political thinkers ought to have started drooling as soon as they heard the word ‘distributed’ because there is a quick path to ‘redistribution’ wherever it substitutes for ‘competition’ in the social economics literature. Yet rightist-leaning political thinkers have equally as much to drool about as it empowers people to ‘become their own currency’ and in that sense to ‘live entrepreneurially’ through voluntary participation in LCs.

When one ramps up their concern with the political economy of BC societies, they realise eventually that by using cryptography, the new cryptocurrencies undermine the future possibility for governments to control the money supply of their citizens. By creating an alternative to fiat money, cryptocurrencies may change the world by themselves, even without BC tech. Yet it is the BC tech that facilitates the ‘virtual economies’ to grow in a sustainable way. BC tech thus makes it possible for cryptocurrencies to arrive and flourish as actual, widely used currencies, which is what LCs are seeking in the use of their own community-based cryptocurrency. This feature alone suggests the possibility of changing power structure in societies away from central banks and financiers towards decentralised voluntary communities of value. The sociological implications of this are not surprisingly incredibly difficult to predict and indeed requires some kind of ‘new sociological imagination’ (Fuller 2006) beyond what is currently available.

There seems to be still something significant missing in the BC ecosystem, however, rather than something crucial broken that can be fixed. Optimism in the BC ecosystem now rides on a big wave and people want to know more about how to get involved in BC tech as builders, facilitators, investors, coders, surveyors, etc. What has been missing so far in most BC journalism and even most of the academic/scholarly contributions is broader exploration into the application and relevance of BC tech to societies, their laws, economies and cultures. We may nevertheless start to investigate the growth of BC societies by tracing the rise of codified transaction infrastructures that thus create a new ‘web’ of LCs.

The proliferation of LCs will create the first example of societies based widely on ‘smart contracts,’ which have become a symbol of justice-seeking, anti-exploitative, democratic economic transactions that are automatically enforced by LC rules and regulations. Already in the mid-1990s, Nick Szabo defined ‘smart contracts’ as, “a computerized transaction protocol that executes the terms of a contract” (1994; see Tapscott and Tapscott, 2016). He calls a smart contract “a set of promises, specified in digital form, including protocols within which the parties perform on these promises.” (Szabo 1996) One of the applications of such contracts is to establish an ownership history of an asset so that potential new buyers of that asset can see its production genesis and value history. Another is to assist in supply chain management in order to improve efficiency and traceability and thus to reduce delays and errors. By distributing data from voluntary transactions across the system the social machines improves the efficiency of the human-driven system in a non-centralised way.

The over-inflated view of a need for constant decentralisation is often linked to promises of lower costs for ‘consumers’ due to the elimination of many artificial and unnecessary 3rd party (middleman) fees. This includes the siphoning of company funds into private hands, sometimes illegally, at the cost of the industry or community, which will be aimed for elimination in LCs. Instead of ‘middlemen,’ BC tech necessitates a whole lot more ‘middle people,’ in the sense of ‘mediators’ and ‘introducers’ who are not necessarily salespersons. The position of a professional ‘BC introducer’ seems to be a functional economic role in the era of BC tech and LCs, while a % of transaction costs facilitated by the LC will determine the salaries and risks of its new financial facilitators.

BC tech will also soon be brought to the forefront of global news when Palantir’s work on ‘Investigative Case Management’ (aka. surveillance) for the USA’s Homeland Security in the United States has reached the completed first stage in autumn 2017. When that happens, a lot of people are going to start caring about BC as it is being applied on a hot-button political issue in the USA. Technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel has been integrating BC into current surveillance methods and practises, which promises to fundamentally reshape the USA’s immigration and deportation programs. (More on this to come in Blockchain Sociology: Part II.)

Section 8: Preliminary Conclusion and Invitation

Why would a sociologist or social epistemologist take interest in BC tech? The answer in short is because those fields need experiments to validate their often highly theoretical and abstract ideas, i.e. to put them to the test. Digitally recorded transactions in a ‘blockchain’ can provide a broader domain for research and experimentation than anything that has been offered in the history of those fields due to the current power of computing. It is a basic question of which sociologists and social epistemologists are going to be early adopters of the technology and which will be laggards, there really isn’t any question of ‘if’ anymore with regard to eventual adoption in this case, it is simply a question of ‘when’.

We see such a shift already with the massive growth of the video game industry, that the habits and choices of players can be studied throughout the course of their time ‘plugged in.’ The same will be the case with LCs because people will be attracted to participate in them as they feed already present interests in the participants and thus provide an incentive to engage with like-minded or similarly inclined people. We thus have a potentially prolific new technological resource, the early phase of a ‘social machine’ that we can use for potential research and development in the BC idea. Our challenge in SSH is how to humanise this technology, so that we would not lose from humanity more than we gain by it (Postman’s dictum).

A major feature of BC tech is trust; if you feel you can trust a community (on-line or off-line), that it holds your best interests and personhood in mind on any given topic or activity, then it tends to be easier to ‘deal’ with them, including engaging with others in transactions of value. BC tech enables this in a new quasi-manufactured way through pre-agreed smart contracts that provide higher accountability, transparency and anonymity. Based on voluntary value transactions that are automated using agreement algorithms, BC tech has been suggested as a way to produce ‘upfront compliancy,’ which can protect parties from various risks involving other members in the LC. These include agreement violations wherein BC tech can pinpoint the source of a broken contract or shady deal from within a chain of otherwise difficult to trace transactions. In short, in agreeing to join a LC, one agrees to abide by the rules, which must come with in-house punishment for (attempted) violators or offenders; this is the cost of automated convenience that serves our decision-making capacities.

Figure 5. Why You Can’t Cheat at Bitcoin (source unknown)

Already with the new US government regime we are seeing a debate over the ‘unmasking’ of citizens by politicians and national or international ‘intelligence’ agencies. And soon we will witness a major overhaul in migration and policing matters related to immigrants with the help of BC tech. We cannot therefore endorse BC as simply roses without thorns, which is a large factor that figures into writing this short paper on BC tech and sociology. While anonymising citizens for their own protection could benefit some citizens who feel isolated, marginalised or disempowered in the current social systems they live in, it could also potentially become a weapon of control over members within LCs or over entire LCs themselves, if the wrong Genesis Block framework is patterned into the coding. It could thus lead to dehumanising people who for whatever variety of reasons aren’t able to choose their own preferred pattern of anonymity due to internal or external LC pressures, and who thus become ‘orphans’ in the new BC society.

Is BC like what tech entrepreneur and BC proponent Alex Tapscott suggests, “something that could change basically every industry in the world”?[22] The government of Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development funded the research for the Tapscott’s recent 2017 BC Corridor report. They are currently raising the flag for major transformation in the short-term based on BC tech and are moving to back-up and stabilise this claim with research and development projects, calling for research into use cases and the drawing up of white papers. This leads me to believe BC is on the cutting-edge of public-private partnerships, flexibly scalable networks and sustainable developments as we learn about the impact of BC tech on society, economics and culture as the 21st century moves forward.


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Iansiti, Marco and Karim R, Lakhani. “The Truth about Blockchain.” Harvard Business Review, January–February (2017): 118–127.

Knight, Will “The Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Shaking Up Much More Than Money.” MIT Technology Review, 2017.

Koven, Jackie Burns “Block the Vote: Could Blockchain Technology Cybersecure Elections?” 2016.

Lehdonvirta, Vili and Edward Castronova. Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis. MIT Press, 2014.

Lamport, Leslie, Robert Shostak and Marshall Pease “The Byzantine Generals Problem.”  ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems 4, no. 3 (1982): 382–401.

Nagpal, Rohas.  “2020 AD – Planet Earth on a Blockchain.” 2017.

Nakamoto, Satoshi. “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” ABC, 2009.

Naughton, John. “Is Blockchain the Most Important IT Invention of our Age?” 2016.

O’Byrne, W. Ian “What is Blockchain?” 2016.

Orcutt, Mike. “Why Bitcoin Could Be Much More Than a Currency.” 2015.

Pilkington, Marc “Blockchain Technology: Principles and Applications.” In Research Handbook on Digital Transformations, edited by F. Xavier Olleros and Majlinda Zhegu, 225-253. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2016.

Reijers, Wessel and Mark Coeckelbergh. “The Blockchain as a Narrative Technology: Investigating the Social Ontology and Normative Configurations of Cryptocurrencies.” Philosophy & Technology (2016): 1-28.

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Smart Paul R. and Nigel R. Shadbolt. “Social Machines.” ePrints Soton: University of Southampton (2014):

Stagars, Manuel “Blockchain and Us.” 2017.

Swan, Melanie. Blockchain: Blueprint for a New Economy. Sebastopol: CA: O’Reilly, 2015.

Szabo, Nick. “Smart Contracts: Building Blocks for Digital Markets.” 1996.

Tapscott, Alex. “Blockchain is a Disruption We Simply Have to Embrace.” The Globe and Mail, May 9, 2016. embrace/article29936789/

Tapscott, Don and Alex Tapscott. “Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business and the World.” New York: Penguin, 2016.

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[1] First launched under brand ‘Bitcoin’ by unknown person ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ 03-01-2009.


[3] Berners-Lee writes of “interconnected groups of people acting as if they shared a larger intuitive brain,” defining social machines on the internet as “processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration.” (1999) Smart et al. provide an updated version: “Social Machines are Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realisation of system level processes” (2013).

[4] A rather big assumption that deals with security, identity, justice, and other controversial issues.

[5] “If the Internet was the first native digital format for information, then blockchain is the first native digital format for value—a new medium for money. It acts as ledger of accounts, database, notary, sentry and clearing house, all by consensus. And it holds the potential to make financial markets radically more efficient, secure, inclusive and transparent.”—Alex Tapscott

[6] “Blockchain is a foundational technology: It has the potential to create new foundations for our economic and social systems” (Iansiti and Lakhani, 2017).

[7] Jeremy Clark, Concordia University, MIT talk, 2016.

[8] “[Blockchain] is a very important, new technology that could have implications for the way in which transactions are handled throughout the financial system.”—Janet Yellin (USA Federal Reserve Chairwoman).

[9] “A blockchain is a write-only database dispersed over a network of interconnected computers that uses cryptography (the computerized encoding and decoding of information) to create a tamperproof public record of transactions. Blockchain technology is transparent, secure and decentralised, meaning no central actor can alter the public record. In addition, financial transactions carried out on blockchains are cheaper and faster than those performed by traditional financial institutions.”—Government of Canada (“Blockchain Technology Brief,” 2016, page 1) / “A blockchain is a peer-to-peer distributed ledger forged by consensus, combined with a system for “smart contracts” and other assistive technologies. Together these can be used to build a new generation of transactional applications that establishes trust, accountability and transparency at their core, while streamlining business processes and legal constraints” ( “A blockchain is a decentralised, online record-keeping system, or ledger, maintained by a network of computers that verify and record transactions using established cryptographic techniques.”—Mike Orcutt (“Congress Takes Blockchain 101.” “A blockchain is a type of distributed ledger, comprised of unchangable, digitally recorded data in packages called blocks (rather like collating them on to a single sheet of paper). Each block is then ‘chained’ to the next block, using a cryptographic signature. This allows block chains to be used like a ledger, which can be shared and accessed by anyone with the appropriate permissions.” ( / Blockchain is “a magic computer that anyone can upload programs to and leave the programs to self-execute, where the current and all previous states of every program are always publicly visible, and which carries a Blockchain Technology: Principles and Applications very strong cryptoeconomically secured guarantee that programs running on the chain will continue to execute in exactly the way that the blockchain protocol specifies.”—Vitalik Buterin (Visions, Part 1: The Value of Blockchain Technology. Ethereum Blog.

[10] Don & Alex Tapscott 2017, page 4.


[12] Most of the literature so far focuses on BC economies and I am not aware of any papers so far written about BC societies.

[13] As soon as I mentioned that Peter Thiel’s Palantir is building a BC for the USA’s Department of Homeland Security (more on this in Part II), she realised the seriousness of the endeavour.

[14] “Blockchain [technology] has the potential to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”— Ross Mauri, IBM, quoted in Jessie Willms, “Don Tapscott Announces International Blockchain Research Institute”, Bitcoin Magazine, March 17, 2017.

[15] “There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, and there’s way too much hype,” [Brian Behlendorf] said. “But it’s a real opportunity to change the rules of the game.” Brian Behlendorf quoted in Will Knight, “The Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Shaking Up Much More Than Money.” MIT Technology Review, 2017.

[16] “The term ‘blockchain technology’ means distributed ledger technology that uses a consensus of replicated, shared, and synchronized digital data that is geo-graphically spread across multiple digital systems.” (


[18] HT: Vytautas Kaseta (Private conversation, Vilnius, March 2017).


[20] “All cryptographic voting systems use a ‘bulletin board:’ an append-only broadcast channel (sometimes anonymous) … Blockchains are the best bulletin boards we have ever seen, better than purpose-build ones (esp. on equivocation).”—Jeremy Clark (“Blockchain based Voting: Potential and Limitations,” MIT talk, 2016).

[21] “Anything that would benefit from having information stored in an unchangeable database that is not owned or controlled by any single entity and yet is accessible from anywhere at any time.”—Mike Orcutt (


Author Information: Ben Ross, University of North Texas,

Ross, Ben. “Between Poison and Remedy: Transhumanism as Pharmakon.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 23-26.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image credit: Jennifer Boyer, via flickr

As a Millennial, I have the luxury of being able to ask in all seriousness, “Will I be the first generation safe from death by old age?” While the prospects of answering in the affirmative may be dim, they are not preposterous. The idea that such a question can even be asked with sincerity, however, testifies to transhumanism’s reach into the cultural imagination.

But what is transhumanism? Until now, we have failed to answer in the appropriate way, remaining content to describe its possible technological manifestations or trace its historical development. Therefore, I would like to propose an ontology of transhumanism. When philosophers speak of ontologies, they are asking a basic question about the being of a thing—what is its essence? I suggest that transhumanism is best understood as a pharmakon.

Transhumanism as a Pharmakon

Derrida points out in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” that while pharmakon can be translated as “drug,” it means both “remedy” and “poison.” It is an ambiguous in-between, containing opposite definitions that can both be true depending on the context. As Michael Rinella notes, hemlock, most famous for being the poison that killed Socrates, when taken in smaller doses induces “delirium and excitement on the one hand,” yet it can be “a powerful sedative on the other” (160). Rinella also goes on to say that there are more than two meanings to the term. While the word was used to denote a drug, Plato “used pharmakon to mean a host of other things, such as pictorial color, painter’s pigment, cosmetic application, perfume, magical talisman, and recreational intoxicant.” Nevertheless, Rinella makes the crucial remark that “One pharmakon might be prescribed as a remedy for another pharmakon, in an attempt to restore to its previous state an identity effaced when intoxicant turned toxic” (237-238). It is precisely this “two-in-one” aspect of the application of a pharmakon that reveals it to be the essence of transhumanism; it can be both poison and remedy.

To further this analysis, consider “super longevity,” which is the subset of transhumanism concerned with avoiding death. As Harari writes in Homo Deus, “Modern science and modern culture…don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery…for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve.” After all, he declares, “Humans always die due to some technical glitch” (22). These technical glitches, i.e. when one’s heart ceases to pump blood, are the bane of researchers like Aubrey de Grey, and fixing them forms the focus of his “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.” There is nothing in de Grey’s approach to suggest that there is any human technical problem that does not potentially have a human technical solution. Grey’s techno-optimism represents the “remedy-aspect” of transhumanism as a view in which any problems—even those caused by technology—can be solved by technology.

As a “remedy,” transhumanism is based on a faith in technological progress, despite such progress being uneven, with beneficial effects that are not immediately apparent. For example, even if de Grey’s research does not result in the “cure” for death, his insight into anti-aging techniques and the resulting applications still have the potential to improve a person’s quality of life. This reflects Max More’s definition of transhumanism as “The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities” (3).

Importantly, More’s definition emphasizes transcendent enhancement, and it is this desire to be “upgraded” which distinguishes transhumanism. An illustration of the emergence of the upgrade mentality can be seen in the history of plastic surgery. Harari writes that while modern plastic surgery was born during the First World War as a treatment to repair facial injuries, upon the war’s end, surgeons found that the same techniques could be applied not to damaged noses, but to “ugly” ones, and “though plastic surgery continued to help the sick and wounded…it devoted increasing attention to upgrading the healthy” (52). Through its secondary use as an elective surgery of enhancement rather than exclusively as a technique for healing, one can see an example of the evolution of transhumanist philosophy out of medical philosophy—if the technology exists to change one’s face (and they have they money for it), a person should be morphologically free to take advantage of the enhancing capabilities of such a procedure.

However, to take a view of a person only as “waiting to be upgraded” marks the genesis of the “poison-aspect” of transhumanism as a pharmakon. One need not look farther than Martin Heidegger to find an account of this danger. In his 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger suggests that the threat of technology is ge-stell, or “enframing,” the way in which technology reveals the world to us primarily as a stock of resources to be manipulated. For him, the “threat” is not a technical problem for which there is a technical solution, but rather it is an ontological condition from which we can be saved—a condition which prevents us from seeing the world in any other way. Transhumanism in its “poison mode,” then, is the technological understanding of being—a singular way of viewing the world as a resource waiting to be enhanced. And what is problematic is that this way of revealing the world comes to dominate all others. In other words, the technological understanding of being comes to be the understanding of being.

However, a careful reading of Heidegger’s essay suggests that it is not a techno-pessimist’s manifesto. Technology has pearls concealed within its perils. Heidegger suggests as much when he quotes Hölderlin, “But where danger is, grows the saving power also” (333). Heidegger is asking the reader to avoid either/or dichotomous thinking about the essence of technology as something that is either dangerous or helpful, and instead to see it as a two-in-one. He goes to great lengths to point out that the “saving power” of technology, which is to say, of transhumanism, is that its essence is ambiguous—it is a pharmakon. Thus, the self-same instrumentalization that threatens to narrow our understanding of being also has the power to save us and force a consideration of new ways of being, and most importantly for Heidegger, new meanings of being.

Curing Death?

A transhumanist, and therefore pharmacological, take on Heidegger’s admonishment might be something as follows: In the future it is possible that a “cure” for death will threaten what we now know as death as a source of meaning in society—especially as it relates to a Christian heaven in which one yearns to spend an eternity, sans mortal coil. While the arrival of a death-cure will prove to be “poison” for a traditional understanding of Christianity, that same techno-humanistic artifact will simultaneously function as a “remedy,” spurring a Nietzschean transvaluation of values—that is, such a “cure” will arrive as a technological Zarathustra, forcing a confrontation with meaning, bringing news that “the human being is something that must be overcome” and urging us to ask anew, “what have you done to overcome him?” At the very least, as Steve Fuller recently pointed out in an interview, “transhumanism just puts more options on the table for what death looks like. For example, one might choose to die with or without the prospect of future resurrection. One might also just upload one’s mind into a computer, which would be its own special kind of resurrection.” For those sympathetic to Leon Kass’ brand of repugnance, such suggestions are poison, and yet for a transhumanist such suggestions are a remedy to the glitch called death and the ways in which we relate to our finitude.

A more mundane example of the simultaneous danger and saving power of technology might be the much-hyped Google Glass—or in more transhuman terms, having Google Glass implanted into one’s eye sockets. While this procedure may conceal other ways of understanding the spaces and people surrounding the wearer other than through the medium of the lenses, the lenses simultaneously have the power to reveal entirely new layers of information about the world and connect the wearer to the environment and to others in new ways.

With these examples it is perhaps becoming clear that by re-casting the essence of transhumanism as a pharmakon instead of an either/or dichotomy of purely techno-optimistic panacea or purely techno-pessimistic miasma, a more inclusive picture of transhumanist ontology emerges. Transhumanism can be both—cause and cure, danger and savior, threat and opportunity. Max More’s analysis, too, has a pharmacological flavor in that transhumanism, though committed to improving the human condition, has no illusions that, “The same powerful technologies that can transform human nature for the better could also be used in ways that, intentionally or unintentionally, cause direct damage or more subtly undermine our lives” (4).

Perhaps, then, More might agree that as a pharmakon, transhumanism is a Schrödinger’s cat always in a state of superposition—both alive and dead in the box. In the Copenhagen interpretation, a system stops being in a superposition of states and becomes either one or the other when an observation takes place. Transhumanism, too, is observer-dependent. For Ray Kurzweil, looking in the box, the cat is always alive with the techno-optimistic possibility of download into silicon and the singularity is near. For Ted Kaczynski, the cat is always dead, and it is worth killing in order to prevent its resurrection. Therefore, what the foregoing analysis suggests is that transhumanism is a drug—it is both remedy and poison—with the power to cure or the power to kill depending on who takes it. If the essence of transhumanism is elusive, it is precisely because it is a pharmakon cutting across categories ordinarily seen as mutually exclusive, forcing an ontological quest to conceptualize the in-between.


Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” In Dissemination, translated by Barbara Johnson, 63-171. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Fuller, Steve. “Twelve Questions on Transhumanism’s Place in the Western Philosophical Tradition.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 19 April 2017.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. HarperCollins, 2017.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writings, edited by David Farrell Krell. Harper & Row, 1977.

More, Max. “The Philosophy of Transhumanism,” In The Transhumanist Reader, edited by Max More and Natasha Vita-More, 3-17. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

Author Information: Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham,

Cruickshank, Justin. “Meritocracy and Reification.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 5 (2017): 4-19.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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Image credit: russell davies, via flickr


My article ‘Anti-Authority: Comparing Popper and Rorty on the Dialogic Development of Beliefs and Practice’ rejected the notion that Popper was a dogmatic liberal technocrat who fetishized the epistemic authority of science and the epistemic and ethical authority of free markets. Instead, it stressed how Popper sought to develop the recognition of fallibilism into a philosophy of dialogue where criticism replaced appeals to any form of dialogue-stopping source of epistemic and ethical authority. The debate that followed in the SERRC, and the book based on this (Democratic Problem-Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology), ranged over a number of issues. These included: the way prevailing traditions or paradigms heavily mediate the reception of ideas; whether public intellectuals were needed to improve public dialogue; the neoliberal turn in higher education; and the way neoconservatism is used to construct public imaginaries that present certain groups as ‘enemies within’.

Throughout these discussions Ioana and I / I argued against elitist and hierarchical positions that sought to delimit what was discussed or who had the right to impose the terms of reference for discussion, based on an appeal to some form of epistemic-institutional source of knowledge. Horizontalist dialogue between different group tackling problems caused by neoliberalism and prejudice was advocated in place of vertical instruction where an expert or political elite set the terms of reference or monologically dispensed ideas for others, presumed to be passive and ignorant, to accept. Our main interlocutor, Raphael Sassower, put more emphasis on appeals to epistemic-institutional sources of authority, with it being argued, for instance, that public intellectuals were of use in shaping how lay agents engaged with the state.

One issue implicitly raised by this was that of whether a meritocracy, if realised, would make liberal capitalism legitimate, by removing the prejudice and structural disadvantage that many groups face. I argue that attempts to use this concept to legitimise liberal capitalism end up reifying all agents, no matter what their place in the status-class hierarchy. This reification undermines the development of a more dialogic democracy where people seek to work with others to gain control over the state and elites. In place of both well-meaning and more cynical—neoliberal—appeals to meritocracy rewarding educational-intellectual performance with a well-paid job, it is argued that the focus needs to be on critical pedagogy which can develop a more dialogic education and democracy. Such an approach would avoid reification and the legitimisation of existing hierarchies by rejecting their claims to epistemic and ethical authority.

Education, Economics and Punishment

Protestors responding to Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the extent of surveillance carried out by the NSA (National Security Agency) held placards saying that Orwell’s ‘1984’ was a warning and not an instruction manual. Decades earlier the socialist, social reformer and Labour MP Michael Young witnessed a change in language akin to seeing the phrase ‘double plus good’ come into popular use to appraise government policies.

Young supported many successful educational reforms. These included the reduction in ‘grammar schools’, which are state schools that select pupils, and the removal in most counties of the ‘11-plus’, which was the intelligence test used to select a small number of pupils for grammar schools. While children at grammar schools studied A levels and were expected to go to university, the rest were expected to leave school at 16 for unskilled jobs or, if they were lucky, apprenticeships. For critics of the 11-plus and grammar schools, the test’s objectivity was at best moot and its consequence was to reinforce not just an economic hierarchy but an affective-symbolic status hierarchy too. The majority who did not go to grammar school and university were constructed as ‘failures’ who deserved to be in subordinate positions to those constructed as ‘naturally’ superior.

Given the very small number of working class pupils who passed the 11-plus the consequence of this was to legitimise the existing class hierarchy by presenting the middle class and upper class as naturally superior. Interestingly, following the drive to create a mass higher education system in the UK, it has become evident that pupils from ‘public schools’ (that is, fee paying schools) often fare worse at university than working class pupils with the same or similar A level grades, because the latter got the grades with fewer resources spent on them. Such working class pupils would have attended ‘comprehensive’ (non-selective) state schools (Preston 2014).

Young also helped establish the Open University (OU), which allowed mature students to study for a degree. Many of students of the OU, who successfully graduated, had failed their 11-plus, and the OU attracted academics regarded as famous intellectuals, such as Stuart Hall, to design courses and deliver some of lectures, which were broadcast on BBC2 (a state-owned TV channel dedicated to ‘high cultural’ and education programming). Unfortunately though, recent studies have confirmed that class bias exists in job selection.

Graduate job applicants are judged in terms of their accent and mannerism, with ‘posh’ behaviours being taken as a proxy for intelligence or at least a signal that the applicant will be easier to work with than someone lacking the same ‘cultural capital’ (Weaver 2015). Furthermore, rich parents are able to fund their student-offspring’s unpaid internships in corporations and government in expensive cities, creating networking opportunities and a way to build experience for the CV, with this ‘social capital’ being impossible for students who do not come from rich backgrounds (Britton, Dearden, Shephard and Vignoles 2016). People may respond to this by calling for an increased ‘meritocracy’ but Young, who coined the term ‘meritocracy’, was opposed to the idea of legitimising a new hierarchy.

As a warning about a society that wished to eschew egalitarianism, he wrote ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033’ (1994 [1958]). This was a satirical vision of a dystopian future where class hierarchy based on a small number of extremely rich individuals having power because of inherited wealth and privilege had been replaced by a hierarchy based on ‘merit’ defined as intellectual ability plus effort. Young coined the term ‘meritocracy’ to define the latter type of society. While this is now considered an honorific term, Young used his neologism in a pejorative way. Obviously Young saw the existing class hierarchy based on privilege as illegitimate, but for him replacing it with a meritocracy was unacceptable because such a society would end up with a rigid and absolute hierarchy between those seen as the deserving powerful and rich and those seen as the undeserving mass with no power and money. A meritocracy would be ruthless and inhuman for segregating people and defining many as biologically inadequate and of lower worth in every sense than others.

In his book the narrator describes how with no intelligent leaders the lower classes will remain at worst sullen or rebellious in a directionless way which the police ‘with their new weapons’ will be able to repress efficiently. Those not in the elite are spoken of in a dehumanised way as chattel which reflects the way the old class privileged elite saw the working and middle classes, having been socialised at private school and Oxbridge into the view that the upper class were entitled to rule. At the end of the book the publisher inserts a footnote to say the narrator has been killed at Peterloo. Young then saw the defining concept of his dystopian vision become used by all mainstream politicians and commentators to assess policies and the normative aspirations that were meant to inform them. He was particularly incensed by the way New Labour under Tony Blair endorsed the principle of meritocracy.

In 2001 Young wrote an article for the Guardian entitled ‘Down with Meritocracy’ where he lambasted those who had been selected through meritocratic education, as he saw it, arguing that they were ‘insufferably smug’ and so self-assured that ‘there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves’ (Young 2001). He hoped for New Labour to use progressive taxation to tackle the greed and power of the new meritocratic elite but realised that would mark a big change away from New Labour’s pro-capitalist values.

Against Young, I hold that while progressive policies narrowed the income gap in the post-war years, class privilege and widening income inequality has defined UK capitalism since the rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s. In graduate recruitment the top jobs are allocated not on grades—or ‘merit’—alone but on class background and internship experience that can only be attained from a rich background, and the amount of wealth accrued by those in the top 1% is increasing, while others have a reducing share of national wealth (Harvey 2005). Indeed, middle class jobs are now becoming precarious with a lot of people in both the middle and working class being forced to become self-employed and pay for their own training, have no sick pay and holiday pay, and be entirely responsible for their pension, etc. This is presented as liberating employees but is a sign of the current weakness of deunionised labour to resist the imposition of insecurity following a recession (Friedman 2014).

After Young’s death, the university fee was tripled to £9000 (in 2012) and the government’s accountants estimate that around half of these loans will not be repaid in full (McGettigan 2013). The changes to higher education did not end there and the current Conservative government hoped to ‘liberalise’ the ‘market’ in higher education, in England, by encouraging the extensive start-up of for-profit providers, through deregulation, despite the problems this created in the US, which the Harkin Report catalogued. Resistance from the House of Lords and a desire to push the legislation through Parliament before it is prorogued for the hastily called General Election in May—widely seen as a vote on the Conservative vision of Brexit—led to compromise, with new providers still needing to be validated by existing providers.

The Conservatives also set up a new audit regime to measure teaching ‘excellence’, called the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ (TEF). This will measure teaching quality in part by using employment data and data from the National Student Survey (NSS), completed by all third-year undergraduates, despite the NSS being specifically not designed to be used in a comparative way, with NSS data not furnishing meaningful deviations from the mean (Cheng and Marsh 2010; HEFCE 2001). A high TEF score would then be used to permit universities to raise the tuition fee in line with inflation (for discussion of these proposed changes see: Cruickshank 2016, 2017; Holmwood 2015a, 2015b).

The Lords argued that the fee increases had to be decoupled from TEF scoring. In a compromise, the fee can rise with inflation every year, for institutions who will take part in the TEF, with no link to a TEF score, until 2020, at which point full-inflation rises will be connected to TEF scoring. One possible consequence of linking scores to fee increases is that grade inflation will continue and that recruitment will be biased towards students from more privileged backgrounds, in Russell Group universities and middle ranking universities, with such students being seen as more likely to be employment ‘successes’, thanks to class privilege.

Such moves mark an intensified attempt definitively to redefine students as customers. For the Conservatives, and those in Labour who supported the Browne Review that led to the tripling of the fee, and the Liberal Democrats who were in coalition with the Conservatives, education and especially higher education, are to be defined in terms of customers making ‘investments’ in their ‘human capital’, to gain market advantage over other students competing for jobs. Education was not to be see in terms of being good in itself and good for fostering the development of critical and informed public.

For many politicians, students were not to see education as a ‘public good’ (with a well-informed critical public benefitting democracy) but a ‘positional good’ in market competition (Holmwood 2011). Brown (2015) argues that under neoliberalism a market rationality becomes ubiquitous with domains outside market competition being defined as analogous to competitive market relations. Here though education is redefined as being an actual commodity for instrumental use in competitive market relations between customers of human capital seeking advantage over each other. All of this is quite overt in the government’s Green Paper and White Paper on changing higher education. In these documents, it is made clear that customers are expected—and ‘enabled’, by the changes proposed—to make the correct investment in their human capital.

Customers will have TEF data and government controlled price signals to go on when it comes to judging the usefulness of a human capital investment and they will be further enabled by having a greater range of providers to choose from, with for-profits offering lower priced vocational training degrees, assumed to be more attractive to potential customers in ‘hard to reach’ disadvantaged communities. The government documents also make it clear that the customer is to be of use to the economy and to not be a burden by being underemployed and failing to pay back all their student loan (for discussions of these issues see: Collini 2012, 2017; Cruickshank 2016; the debates between Cruickshank and Chis, and Sassower, in Cruickshank and Sassower 2017; Holmwood 2011; Holmwood, Hickey, Cohen and Wallis 2016).

Obviously, there is a tension with such arguments. On the one hand, the market is seen to be a way to realise a meritocracy, with customers investing in the right human capital to succeed in a zero-sum competition with fellow customers. On the other hand, the market is not so much just a means to realise meritocracy for the benefit of competitive individuals, but is instead an end in itself that individuals need to support with correct investment choices. The consequence of this is that if individuals are unemployed or underemployed, it is due to a personal failure to make the right investment choice. Moreover, if the individual is unemployed or underemployed it is not just deemed a matter of personal failure but a matter of their supposed fecklessness harming all by undermining economic productivity. Failure to make the right human capital investment is deemed a moral failure by the customer who eschewed the information provided by the audit regime to pursue a whim, with this costing the economy as a whole.

As part of this narrative, the Conservatives clearly state that the economy needs more ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates, and thus less humanities or social science graduates. To be an unemployed or underemployed sociology or philosophy graduate is thus, with the Conservatives’ view, to be a feckless consumer. Despite the emphasis on objectivity in STEM subjects, it is ironic to note that the Conservative’s case about a lack of STEM graduates undermining economic performances rests on a problematic use of tiny literature and ignores the fact that the subject with the highest unemployment rate is computer science (Cruickshank 2016). It is also worth noting that many MPs and leading figures in journalism and broadcasting studied PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at Oxford having attending expensive elite public schools.

An increasingly punitive approach, which from an economic point of view is dysfunctional, is now being pursued against individuals deemed to have failed in their moral duty to serve the economy. Contrary to the liberal fear of dogmatism stemming from normative commitments to ends, the Conservatives (and many in Labour too), hold that the end justifies the means, and so the end of protecting the economy—which is an end in itself—is taken to justify means that undermine the economy. If the Party want 2 + 2 = 5 it will obtain.

William Davies, in a recent article in the New Left Review, explored how the latest phase of neoliberalism engages in increasingly severe punishments for being unemployed. For Davies (2016), what he terms ‘neoliberalism 3.0’ (following earlier phases of establishing and then normalising neoliberalism), is defined by its vengeance against those deemed to have failed. Policies such as ‘sanctioning’ welfare claimants (that is, removing benefit payments for a period of weeks or months) for trivial problems, such as arriving 5 minutes late to an interview with a welfare bureaucrat, even if the lateness was not their fault, do nothing to increase economic productivity but are relentlessly pursued. Such policies prevent people from entering the labour market, because the removal of benefits creates severe stress and requires time to access foodbanks and appeals processes, in place of job hunting and being well enough to attend job-interviews. Nonetheless, sanctions are continually being imposed as extremely punitive punishments to make life far worse for those already experiencing hardship. As Davies puts it:

In contrast to the offence against socialism [in the 1980s], the ‘enemies’ targeted now are largely disempowered and internal to the neoliberal system itself. In some instances, such as those crippled by poverty, debt and collapsing social-safety nets, they have already been largely destroyed as an autonomous political force. Yet somehow this increases the urge to punish them further (2016, 132).

Conservative rhetoric sought to demonise those receiving benefits, defining them as the ‘shirkers’ who get housing and money given to them by the welfare state as a reward for fecklessness, which punished the ‘hard working strivers’ who ‘got up early to see the curtains still closed in the house of the shirker claimants’ who they supported with their taxes. Working people were encouraged to feel nothing but resentment and hate towards the unemployed by the Conservatives.

Let’s explore two tensions in contemporary neoliberalism. First, there is the tension between technocracy and affect. On the one hand, neoliberals seek to reduce normative political questions about reforms to ‘value-neutral’ / technocratic questions about regulating objective market forces. Critics are quick to point out that neoliberalism is itself a normative position, with a value driven commitment to corporate capitalism being facilitated by state policies and spending, contrary to the anti-interventionist / free market rhetoric (see for instance: Davies 2014; Van Horn and Mirowski 2009). One example of this is the rise of private prisons in the US. Here in the UK, the state has been tendering out NHS services to corporations and the Conservatives hoped to reconstruct the market in higher education to facilitate for-profits. All of which means that neoliberalism is another form of interventionism (Cruickshank 2016). Furthermore, any notion of market forces ever being objective sui generis forces is erroneous given that they always already presume a legal and political framework, and certain sets of social expectations about contractual relations and the importance of work to define selfhood in modernity, etc. On the other hand, the claim about the need for politics to be reduced to the technocratic administration of objective market forces sits alongside the state constructing imaginaries that are meant to generate emotional and even visceral appeal.

Individuals are encouraged not only to resent and hate those classed as moral failures who failed to serve the economy, but to recognise their moral responsibility to serve the economy and be happy. Individuals need to be happy so as to be ever more efficient at work. Happiness is meant to increase despite the increase in job insecurity with the rise in temporary contracts and the use of self-employed contractors replacing salaried staff (for discussion see for instance: the debates in Cruickshank and Sassower 2017; Davies 2014, 2015, 2016). An affective hierarchy is sought whereby ‘winners’ for the moment despise ‘losers’ and feel happy to fulfil their moral duty as winners to serve the economy, while also feeling ever more insecurity which cannot be allowed to turn into anxiety and depression, for that may result in a winner becoming a despised loser. People are to be broken up into discrete bits, with insecurity boxed off from happiness.

Second, the political statements and policies from the Conservatives are contradictory, with the economy being a meritocratic means to serve individuals, an end in itself, and an end that is to be protected by attacking ‘failures’ in a way that undermines the economy. From a technocratic point of view, the punitive policies are problematic and contradict the notion of objectively managing ‘market forces’. However, neoliberalism is not just normative, rather than value-neutral, but affective too. This means that markets are not expressions of ‘human nature’ but are engineered with the view that they ought to serve corporate interests and that people need to be affectively engineered to fit such markets. Such affective engineering means gearing up their emotions to make them want to be happy-efficient means for corporate profit making (as more productive employees), and making them reduce worth to financial worth, with losers seen as less-human / non-human / ‘worthless’ objects of hate.

Orwell was right to hold that controlling language helps control thought. More than this though, demonising language and punitive policies can combine to control thought. Control here can be manufactured by not only seeking to preclude criticism of the state’s treatment of people, by setting the terms of reference in an argot of morally correct winners and people who choose moral-economic failure, but also by removing any affective motivation to see those demonised as people in need of ethical-political defence from punitive policies. Preventing some people from entering the labour market may undermine the espoused focus on pure market efficiency but it will not damage corporate profit making, which always has a ready supply of labour, and does allow for more effective corporate plutocracy through affective divide and rule.

The normative end of serving the corporate economy is served by creating affective hierarchies to preclude unity and make people fearfully seek happiness. One way of thinking about this is to see it in terms of a cost—benefit analysis, where the small cost of undermining the employment potential of those seeking work is outweighed by the benefit of undermining protest by presenting the losers in the game rigged for corporate victory as objects of hate beyond dialogue and recognition as fellow democratic subjects.

People would seem to have to live in a state of severe double-think, embracing the moral injunction to be happy to serve the economy whilst hating those moral and economic failures who failed to serve the economy, in a condition of increasing precarity in the labour market. Such a condition has to entail quite a high degree of cognitive dissonance. All of this is rendered feasible by a process of reification. People defined by politicians and the right-wing press as voiceless moral failures who failed to serve the economy become demonised objects, with their existence as subjects that have complex histories in difficult times being occluded, while government policies reduce welfare and serve corporate profit-making. The process of reification does not stop there.

Other workers come to be perceived as threatening objects, in a ceaseless competition. And, thanks to social media, now complemented by the drive to require happiness to be efficient at work, other employees / colleagues and even friends are seen as threatening objects reduced to their expressions of happiness: lives are reduced to discrete representations of happiness via uploaded photos on ‘Facebook’ and their ‘likes’, and the presentation of the happy-efficient self, using technology to self-quantify exercise to maximise happiness and efficiency, etc. Ultimately those deemed to be winners become reified too for they are not ends in themselves but defined as of worth solely as a means for the economy to prosper.

As a cog in a machine they have value and just as a broken cog is worthless junk because it has no value in itself, so too people that cease to be deemed of use to the economy are deemed worthless. This reification can enable the fragmented self to continue in a less than secure environment and to accept Conservative policy as an affective whole even if it has practical contradictions, for the reified self would take the statements and policies of the Conservatives at face value, rather than seek out contradictions. The only way to avoid being demonised is to be validated as a happy and efficient employee, defining oneself purely as a means, and not questioning the source of validation. The state becomes an ethical authority, rolling back the self and making the private self contingent on public politics and the corporate interests behind this. In all of this the economy too becomes reified, with the human relations and exploitation involved being occluded, as the economy becomes an ethical object, which the state serves, gaining its ethical authority from serving this object of veneration.

While liberals reject the charge from Marxists and anarchists that the state serves the economy, neoliberalism, especially in its 3.0 punitive form, does come to present the state as deriving its legitimacy from ethically serving the economy, although in this form, the actual economic relations between corporations and politics is obscured. Accepting the ethical authority of the state means the reified winner can self-perceive not as a subject with affective bonds and socio-economic similarities to other subjects, but as an object cut off from other threatening objects or objects to despise, with happiness and worth gained from its conformity to the demands of the economy.

Naturalising Hierarchy

Recently (10th April 2017) BBC Radio 4 broadcast a documentary called ‘The Rise and the Fall of the Meritocracy’ which sought to assess the contemporary relevance of Michael Young’s book. The programme was written and hosted by Toby Young—Michael Young’s son—who writes for the ‘Spectator’ (which he also co-edits), the ‘Telegraph’ and the ‘Daily Mail’, all of which are right-wing publications. Before exploring Toby Young’s argument, it is useful to situate his approach to meritocracy by sketching out how liberalism has sought to justify the existence of chronic poverty alongside capitalism creating enormous wealth for a few.

For liberals, liberalism is legitimate because it affords equality of opportunity. The existence of chronic poverty and unemployment throughout the history of liberal capitalism therefore raises a difficult issue for liberals. For if prejudice precludes people getting jobs, or if the economy systematically fails to produce sufficient job opportunities, then the legitimacy of liberalism is heavily compromised or negated. Nineteenth century liberals dealt with this by holding that there was a biologically defective underclass given to sloth, crime, addiction and sexual irresponsibility, and unable to face the discipline of work. While philanthropy was to be extended to the ‘respectable working class’ who would work hard, the ‘unrespectable working class’ (the underclass), were to be denied charity and also even subject to sterilisation (indeed, sterilisation policies continued well into the twentieth century). Why a legitimate system for distributing wealth meant that the ‘respectable working class’ needed charity in addition to work was an issue left unaddressed.

For later neoliberal politicians and commentators, from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, the answer to the question as to why chronic poverty existed was that a deviant underclass subculture had been created by the welfare state, which socialised children into welfare dependency. Here a supposed lack of discipline in the home, caused by a lack of a working father and children being raised by a mother on welfare, was taken to lead to educational and then employment failure, the pursuit of immediate gratification with drugs, alcohol and sex, and crime to pay for the drugs and alcohol. Concepts of the underclass are used to reinforce patriarchy as well as the class structure. In the UK, the Conservatives argued that the state and especially the welfare state, had to be ‘rolled back’ to undermine the development of a ‘something for nothing culture’ whereby people wanted welfare in place or working.

Charles Murray is the main ideologue for the neoliberal policy of removing the welfare state. Murray argued in Losing Ground (1984) that people in the US used to work their way up from very low paid jobs to jobs with better incomes until well-meaning policies made it more economically worthwhile to claim benefits in place of work. Murray used a thought-experiment to discuss this and his claims about the real value of welfare increasing are disputed (Wilson 1990). For Murray, those choosing welfare over work were just as rational as other individuals, because they were just responding to external economic stimuli. Although Murray does not explicitly discuss rational choice theory (RCT), his position is a form of RCT and as critics of RCT hold, it is determinist, which would remove any normative component from the theory, contrary to his intentions. People are seen, in effect, as automata that react to positive and negative reinforcement stimuli, with the former being those that enable the most efficient way to realise ‘utility’, or material self-interest.

Murray’s definition of the initial choice for welfare over work as being as rational as other individuals’ behaviours was though disingenuous because Murray wanted to put the blame on reformers for not understanding how humans were motivated, so as to then argue that reformers had created an underclass that was welfare-dependent, criminal and intrinsically less able that other people. Do-gooder reformers failed to understand human nature, for Murray. One group he despised were called normal so as to strengthen his critique of another group he despised. In his highly controversial book ‘The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life’ (1994), co-authored with Herrnstein, the argument was made that innate intelligence rather than parental social class or environmental factors were the best predictor for economic success or failure. Murray and Herrnstein also argued that ‘racial’ differences were to be accounted for in terms of differences in intelligence with the authors also trying to avoid controversy by putting in the caveat that environmental factors may play a role as well. Murray also came to the UK and wrote in ‘The Emerging British Underclass’ (1990) about a deviant sub-culture in the UK socialising children into welfare dependency and crime, in place of any tacit reference to RCT.

Unsurprisingly sociologists have rejected the concept of the underclass in general and Murray’s arguments in particular. For most sociologists, the concept of an underclass is an ideological and not a social scientific concept, because there is no empirical basis to hold that the cause of poverty is a deviant sub-culture caused by welfare dependency. This concept homogenises people into a category that has been developed specifically to demonise them. Against the view that chronic unemployment and poverty are a result of welfare dependency, it is often argued that the deindustrialisation that started in the 1980s which created major structural unemployment is the main cause of contemporary chromic poverty (see MacDonald and Marsh 2005 for a good discussion of these issues).

Toby Young began his programme by presenting the votes for Trump and Brexit as populist revolt against elites. Michael Sandel was then interviewed, and he spoke of the ‘meritocratic hubris’, whereby the rich and powerful smugly present themselves as deserving winners and the rest, implicitly at least, as losers. For Young, the recent populist revolt was to be seen as similar to that envisioned by his father, with the masses reacting to the meritocratic hubris of the economic elite. Presenting the vote for Brexit in such a way is problematic though because seeing these events as a populist reaction to elites by those resenting their implicit or explicit classification as losers, misses the point that many who voted for Brexit were not struggling financially but were older, more affluent voters in the south of England—traditional ‘Tory voters’ in Conservative safe seats (Hennig and Dorling 2016).

Such voters were responding to hierarchies but were not seeking to challenge the existing hierarchy but reinforce it, by ‘taking back control’ of UK borders by keeping immigrants and migrants out. Prior to the referendum for Brexit, the Conservatives had done much to inscribe a neoconservative imaginary that presented Muslims as an internal threat and immigrants, migrants and refugees as an external threat. The Conservatives had been aided in this by the right-wing tabloids, especially the Daily Mail, which Toby Young writes for. It is odd that someone discussing rule by a cognitive elite defines a populist reaction against elites in terms of more wealthy voters influenced by a paper he writes for supporting a policy many in the Conservative party championed.

Again, we can speak of reification, for while those politicians supporting the vote for Brexit, and the tabloid press, presented people from outside the UK as threatening objects, the ‘left-liberal’ media reacted by presenting immigrants and migrants as objects of use for the economy, or as refugee objects of pity. The terms of reference on all sides of the debate set up a dualism between a national subject within the national borders and external objects beyond those borders, with the main debates then being whether those objects were a threat or not, or of use or not. And of course, as a narrative device in the programme, those deemed losers in a competitive, meritocratic, society were reduced to being threatening objects. Economic losers became demonised as a potentially threatening enemy within, following Conservative rhetoric in the 1980s about the victims of deindustrialisation in the north of England being enemies within (for discussion of this see Bruff 2014; Cruickshank and Sassower 2017; Hall 1983). The question posed by the programme became how can we justify the unequal outcomes of a meritocracy and deal the threat of violence from the losers, defined as an homogenous mass of people lacking ability and intelligence? All of which was an unacknowledged return to Thatcher’s ‘authoritarian populism’ that demonised the northern industrial unionised working class who needed to be defeated to move to a post-industrial deunionised low pay service sector neoliberalism (Hall 1983). Against these, Thatcher sought to mobilise support from those, including those in the southern working class, who identified as ‘middle class’, aided in this by the selling off of social housing to tenants, and selling of the nationalised industries with people encouraged to buy shares. Divide and rule with the winners despising the losers was the name of the game as Thatcher began the process of creating a welfare state for the rich, through tax policy and undermining benefits.

After using Sandel to pose the problem of populist revolt, Young then interviewed Peter Saunders (a controversial right wing sociologist who had argued that private property ownership was ‘natural’), Charles Murray, Rebecca Allen (an economics academic currently running an education think-tank called ‘Education Datalab’), Oliver James (a psychologist) and Robert Plomin (a geneticist and expert on intelligence). With the token exception of James, all of these people supported the idea that socio-economic success was about half due to nature, meaning inherited intelligence from intelligent and rich parents, and half due to nurture, with the latter being connected to the former, due to successful parents creating the most conducive environment for the children to succeed. After interviewing Allen, Saunders and Murray, none of whom are scientists, Young interviewed James, who criticised the lack of scientific evidence to show that intelligence was inherited, before returning to Allen, and then moving on to Plomin in an attempt to use scientific authority epistemically to underwrite and guarantee the claims of Saunders, Murray and Allen.

The case was made that a meritocracy had allowed for class mobility, but now most of the intelligent people were in the higher positions in society, and so the lack of social mobility more recently was not due to failures in equality of opportunity, but a lack of intrinsic ability in those remaining in the working class and lower middle class. Young then considered whether technology could be used by parents to enhance their offspring’s intelligence to make them more successful than their parents, with the (threatening objects) of ordinary people demanding the state provide this for them for free. Whether the future would be stable or not was left open, thus inviting the conclusion from those who supported his ideas that the state needed to be a strong law and order state, to tackle threats from a potential genetically inferior ‘enemy within’.

While Toby Young sees himself as a laissez-faire liberal, his position on meritocracy and class mobility is really post-liberal, in the sense that the core liberal principle of equality of opportunity becomes redundant, given that the hierarchy of wealth ends up reflecting a hierarchy in nature (the most innately intelligent at top) and a hierarchy in nurture based on nature (with the cognitive elite creating the best environment for the child to develop).

One question raised by this, is do the more intelligent deserve more money? For Sayer (2005), the answer is no because they benefit by realising their ability in meaningful work. For Allen, the answer was yes. She was clear, contrary to Conservative rhetoric about ‘strivers’, that successful people had not ‘worked harder’ than others (a claim hard to support anyway, given the pressures on many working people), but that their natural ability made them entitled to rewards. A meritocracy could thus exist without meaningful class mobility where those at the ‘top’ deserved economic fortunes and power not for being ‘strivers’ but for being naturally superior, with the question then becoming, how to deal with the losers defined by their lack. Yet all of this rested on a non sequitur, which is surprising given Allen’s claim to be cognitively superior to the majority of people. If it were the case that some were significantly more intelligent than others, with this being passed to their children, then there is no logical motivation to conclude that such people morally and legally deserve large houses, private education, expensive cars, pensions to make retirement more comfortable than most, etc., while others starve after being sanctioned because a bus broke down. To say ‘I have above average intelligence’ does not logically entail the conclusion ‘therefore I deserve more material rewards’.

One could try to argue that the more intelligent need a motivation to apply their intelligence but this trades on a theory of human nature as acquisitive, which is speculative and contingent on the rise of capitalism. It also overlooks the problem that given the choice of meaningful work or meaningless routine work for 40-50 years on the same pay many, I suspect, would opt for the former. We also need to question the use of science here. Popper (1959, 1963) argued that science is fallible and induction entails logical problems, so seeking to establish a claim to scientific certainty by talking of current scientific studies supporting a view (a position which James contests), is in itself erroneous.

Popper rejected all appeals to epistemic authority holding that there were no institutional sources of authority and no inner sources of authority such as the ‘authority of the senses’ for empiricism. Theories could be corroborated but never justified or verified, and all theories needed to be open to critical dialogue, so that they could be changed. If a self-defining elite defined a theory which they based their claim to superiority on as certain, and defined others as cognitively inferior and thus not worth entering dialogue with, science, politics and ethics would all go into major decline for Popper. We would have a post-liberal closed society.

A naturalised hierarchy would justify a plutocratic meritocracy with no class mobility and define the majority as useless and threatening objects, in place of an affective hierarchy where a plutocracy operates with people being told to define themselves as happy winners, unless they are unemployed. The former could well prompt discord but it would be probable, I imagine, that another affective hierarchy would be mobilised, which focused on nationalism rather than class. People could be told to accept their natural superiors and hate the threatening objects from different countries. One of the tabloids Toby Young writes for put a lot of effort into demonising migrants and continually demanding a xenophobic nationalism from its readers.

Critical Pedagogy contra Meritocracy

Calls for more of a meritocracy to make society ‘fairer’ are popular in politics and the press but misguided for two reasons. First, the concept of meritocracy is used to legitimise liberalism, when the reality is one of the rich getting richer with the notion of equality of opportunity being out of kilter with reality in capitalism (Harvey 2005). Second, appeals to meritocracy are used to either support an affective hierarchy, or to support a naturalised hierarchy. With the former, people are reified to see themselves as happy successful objects. On the one hand, their worth is to be derived by them and others from their ability to serve the economy as an end in itself. On the other hand, the economy is presented as a means to serve individuals, with meritocratic competition rewarding the most able. Those with merit are to see themselves as winners and to despise losers as losers and as people letting the economy down. The tension is obscured by the state, presenting itself as drawing its ethical authority from serving the national economy, which focuses on individual reward for winners, with national economic gain being a by-product of this, and collective punishment for losers, with stigmatising language and punitive and sadistic policies. Winners though lose their individuality to become objects of use to the national economy, with this requiring them to obey the injunction to be happy to be of greater use to the national economy, and losers lose their individuality to become despised objects of hate, to be punished irrespective of their individual complex histories. With the turn to a naturalised hierarchy, nationalism would be intensified, with the likely construction of a xenophobic nationalism.

This is not to support an early Frankfurt School pessimism, as espoused by Adorno and Horkheimer, for the process of reification is not totalising. People are protesting because of hardship and unfairness to others, in the UK and in the US against Trump, for instance. What I will argue here is that critical pedagogy offers a way out of the meritocratic morass. Freire’s (1993) work on critical pedagogy applies to all forms of education, from schools, colleges and universities to political education. Freire saw education as intrinsically political, not just in terms of the content, but in terms of the structure too. He famously rejected what he termed the ‘banking approach’ to education, which was where an authority figure deposited discrete pieces of information in passive learners. The consequence of such an approach was to reinscribe existing hierarchies based on claims to authority. Freire argues that:

the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students [… and] the teacher is the Subject of the learning process while the students are the mere objects. […] The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed (1993, 54).

The banking approach thus entails reification with learners being defined as—and self-defining as—passive objects. These objects are only of value when accepting and serving subjects, who have agency and authority. This didactic hierarchy then serves to legitimise the existing social and political hierarchies, because it trains people to define themselves as passive objects whose only worth is defined in relation to serving authority. As Freire puts it:

More and more the oppressors are using science and technology as unquestionably powerful instruments for their purpose: the maintenance of the oppressive order through manipulation and repression. The oppressed, as objects, as ‘things’, have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them (1993, 42).

The outcome of the banking approach to education is that people’s minds become ‘colonised’ by the oppressors.

Here we can say that attempts to realise meritocracy, where some people from the working class are allowed to move into middle class positions, will entail the banking conception with private and state education being based on pupils accepting the authority of the teacher because of their institutional position. The rise in audit culture as a government controlled proxy for market signals with neoliberal interventionism, where the state constructs and controls the market (Cruickshank 2016; Mirowski 2011; Van Horn and Mirowski 2009), exacerbated this problem. For this means that teachers had to teach to the test, ensuring pupils remember and regurgitate factoids that are then forgotten. Education does not encourage a love of learning and a way to develop oneself but turns pupils into industrial objects processing words to get a number on a piece of paper. Seeking a meritocracy in such circumstance would just entail colonised objects moving on to assume positions in the middle classes where they remain colonised and where they act to help colonise those below them, issuing orders for people perceived as objects below them.

Citing Fromm, Freire argues that the oppressor consciousness can only understand itself through possession and it needs to possess other people as objects to not ‘lose contact with the world’ (1993, 40). In this, those colonised and rewarded as conforming objects, through ‘meritocracy’, which selects a small number of working class children for middle class jobs, can see others as objects that confirm their status as superior, without realising the whole process dehumanises them. They will feel rewarded as objects unaware of their own reification by feeling affirmed through, if not the possession of others, then at least the control of others as objects.

Against this, Freire argues that people cannot liberate themselves or be liberated by a new leader seeking authority over them, but can be liberated through working with others, to gain subjecthood through a sense of collective agency. Such agency would have to be dialogic, with people learning together and no-one acting as a new coloniser. The banking approach has to be avoided by radicals for its use makes them oppressors.

While schools are characterised by the banking approach to education there is still some scope, despite neoliberal audit culture, for critical dialogic engagement in universities, especially when students and academics work with political groups outside the university, and of course, there is scope for dialogic engagement between groups of lay agents experiencing socio-economic problems. With this approach to learning all people are treated as subjects and not objects so the problem of reification is removed. The structure of education—and pseudo-dialogue—which reduces people to objects by making them passive things acted upon by an elite claiming authority, is rejected for its intrinsically oppressive nature. A horizontal approach to learning, where dialogic subjects learn from and with other dialogic subjects can begin a move to challenge neoliberalism, the power of corporations and the state serving them.

Defining education and employment in terms of meritocratic selection serves to hide the way liberal capitalism entails the rich getting richer and having control over institutional politics. It also, as importantly, undermines radically critical dialogue by not only ‘blaming the victim’ as regards poverty, but defining all as objects, which can preclude the possibility of recognising others as dialogic subjects. The recent call for a naturalised post-liberal hierarchy suggests that the concentration of resources and opportunities in the hands of a few may make such meritocratic legitimising difficult to sustain, with this opening up a possible turn to authoritarianism. Appeals for a meritocracy and the reification entailed by this need replacing by an approach that can foster dialogue between subjects, which requires the rejection of dialogue-stopping appeals to sources of authority that ultimately entail reification.


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