Karel Williams – More means what? The salaried intelligentsia and undemocracy

First a disclaimer, I’ve become a huge fan of Prof. Karel Williams (CRESC).  He gave a keynote at the 8th Critical Management Studies conference.  In what I can only guess is Karel just being Karel, he pointed out that he doesn’t like the 8th meeting of a group because the 8th meeting leads to the 28th meeting and more of the same rather than when groups emerge, disrupt, achieve something and then disband with the individuals going off to cause more mischief.

In a controversial ‘Op Ed’ address that he assured was equally self-recrimination and flagellation than an attack on the audience, Karel’s talk ‘More means what? The salaried intelligentsia and undemocracy’ explored knowledge work around the neoliberalisation of the United Kingdom, engendering the creation of a ‘lack of knowledge society’.  A key concern was that despite the huge growth in the salaried intelligentsia (journalists, academics, and ‘suited helpers’) we seem to know less about, for example, the economy or how to control or change it.

Karel explained how the explosion in business journalism and the rise of the sinister ‘suited helpers’ of capitalism have helped spawn, nurture and defend the entrenched domination of neoliberalism. An interesting part of the talk, for this Blog however, was the huge expansion of academia and the university. There are now roughly 120,000 academics in teaching and research or research roles, with 16,000 in business or social science departments.  That number is in comparison to 25,000 GPs and 11,000 consultants working in hospitals.  Just prior to the financial crises, Karel noted, Britain was on track to fulfil that classic marker of civilization of having a social science researcher in every GP practice.

The issue is that the business model of universities, like that of the media’s, has broken with states now incapable of funding higher education, at a cost of £140 per household or £232 million for academia to do 2 days of research per week.  A side point to this is that universities are still building, with cranes on every campus, with no recognition that the times have changed.  The more important issue is the lack of value for money this represents in terms of the social contribution academia makes, with “academics in little spaces writing for peers in splintered disciplines.”

The lack of impact of which Karel spoke is not that of the REF or the financial contribution to society that funding councils defend but rather the public role of the university.  How despite all the money spent on academia we live in a “lack of knowledge [not a knowledge] society.” Instead of erudition and enlightened debate our society discusses matters in terms of, as Stephen Colbert noted of America, ‘truthiness’,

Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don’t mean the argument over who came up with the word… It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It’s certainty. People love the President because he’s certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don’t seem to exist. It’s the fact that he’s certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?… Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Despite the presence of truthiness in the UK (for example the often-heard view that the banking sector pays 50% of the tax in the UK, when in fact it pays 50% of corporation tax which is only 13% of total tax income and less than the money it took to bail out the industry), “the contestable is not contested” for a variety of reasons we are all familiar with.  (One reason was that academics eek out 8,000 word instalments of research for publication with a frugality that grandmother Williams would have been ever so proud of.) Yet for the vast majority of academics, all 25,000 in the social sciences, combating truthiness and its pernicious effects in society are not a real concern or focus.

As ever with these things, the critique crackled and sparkled but there were less clearly defined steps for the big old, what next?  The challenge is how we in academia will respond to this crisis?  It is important to note that Karel is sceptical that the changes will be made, he jokingly referenced a mentor’s comment from years before that “you have to understand that academia is a petit-bourgeois profession that’s full of individualists.”  More seriously, rather than articulating alternative forms of social order, academics have merely become authors of their own futures and rise up the professional pay scales. Furthermore he explained that typically academics have a distributive mind set where the only concern is to ensure that they keep getting their cut of the pie, even if the pie gets smaller and fewer people get pudding.

The first step is to go from defending the public university (e.g., Collini, Holmwood, Bailey and Freedman – the trade magazine views of the university) to reforming the university after, a circuit analysis underscores the necessity of reform.  A key issue in this process is to determine, where to locate socially necessary knowledge and expertise, and how to pay for it?  It is also crucial to understand the social purpose of the university and its potential contribution to society as defined by C. Wright Mills as ‘the public discussion of alternative decisions’ or by Wendy Brown as to explore and apply a ‘counter rationality’. This public-spirited call for academics to engage in democracy was underscored by the implicit threat that the engine of the higher-education model is spluttering and survival will require adaptation.  Karel suggested that universities ensure that they resource non-standard things, outputs for non-academic organisations and working pro bono for NGOs etc.  Although there was no template for what to do, Karle stated, there is “Something profoundly wrong with an academic professional not working for non-academic audiences or engaging with corporations or civil society”. So, go out there, “There’s always a conversation you can go and disrupt.”

James Duggan

PS: If you would like to read more about this check out ‘BUSINESS ELITES AND UNDEMOCRACY IN BRITAIN

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