Student loans, privatised higher education and the “sub-prime” model.

In Uncategorized on November 8, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

Browne in his more 'natural' environment

In a previous post I sought to outline some of the ways in which the Browne Report and the CSR changed the face and the very ideas and values of university education. The focus was on neo-liberalism, university function (and form) What follows here are some more thoughts about this, but all filtered through the lens of an analysis of capital. Based in part, on David Harvey’s Enigma of Capital and an attempt to locate these changes in the neo-liberal model, and more acutely to deliberate on how we arrived at this point. Any critical analysis of such enormous social, cultural (and of course, educational shift: Browne Review) must consider the wider context, ideas and powers driving it. For me, it seems obvious that asking students to pay up to £9,000 per year in tuition – and cutting funds for university teaching in Arts, Humanities and Social sciences – can be firmly located within a crude brutally iniquitous system that socialises losses and privatises profits.

Firstly, for context: It is fairly well established and accepted that capital seeks to grow by a compound 3% per annum. In order to do so it tries to “secure new outlets for revalorisation” (Harvey). The 2007/8 crisis (& previous crises) stem, at least in part, from its periodic inability to achieve said growth. Capital always seeks new markets in order to ensure this compound 3% growth. Now, in developed countries such as UK and US, new markets are in some ways harder to come by, hence the raft of public utility privatisations over the last 30 years; and the emergence of the PFI where private capital enters previously public environments such as hospitals. However, recession notwithstanding, there exists still a market based economy. A fairly recent phenomenon is that private corporation(s) cut costs by outsourcing ‘production’ overseas, thus restoring some profits to capital. However, this outsourcing can, if pushed so far create a crisis in ‘effective demand’. Put simply: when jobs in local economy disappear overseas and profits ‘offshore’, there is less money to spend in said local economy (demand). Over the last 30 years or so wider availability of private ‘credit’ was the attempt to overcome capitalism’s effective demand problem. “Don’t worry about falling wages…spend on credit, and base this spending and credit availability on ever increasing house prices” This effectively created an unsustainable “property bubble”. People were borrowing more and more in order to “get a foot on the property ladder”. Upshot = many of us are now ‘financialised’.

“Capitalism survives by purging itself of debt and loading the costs of adjustment on the weak and the poor.”

It is in this environment that the Browne report into Higher Education funding was crafted. In the Tory ‘Big Society’ the private finance capital system of provision is the means through which university education is to be funded (sic). It’s a model of socialised risk and privatised profit. Effectively a new ‘market’ in higher education emerges, based on privatising – or outsourcing – most costs onto individual students via loans. The compound 3% growth ‘problem’ is partly solved by the creation of a new ‘market’ (in Harvey’s term: “new outlets for revalorisation”) to exploit. My understanding of it is that government will underwrite the loans (socialise the risk) but they will be administered by private corporations; repayments will be payable at commercial interest rates – with “excess” profits going to private finance providers. Am I the only one that sees this as remarkably similar, at least in some respects, to the fashion for providing sub-prime mortgages to impoverished home-buyers: “Even though you’re not in a position to afford to do so, borrow large sums based on future earnings/price rises”; Further entrenching the power of finance capital who reap the rewards in repayments…and if payments are deferred/defaulted, then the govt will socialise the loss. So the loans have multiple effects.1) They ensure that students are fully enmeshed in and beholden to the financialised system; 2) Upon graduation students will then pay up to 9% of their annual salary back in loan repayments; 3) At the ‘supply side’ universities, in a desperate bid to maintain market/consumer based “legitimacy”, instead of providing spaces in which alternative and creative ideas are debated, themselves become marketeers and mere ‘service providers’ – a very different model and idea of what university education is, and is for. This is a consumption based model that has no place in public service and education of our citizens. The neo-liberal ‘financialised’ model is an attempt to effectively ‘colonise’ a publicly funded, vibrant area of activity that, in some cases is precisely that which critically interrogates the “market is best” *logic*.

The problem is, I do not know what can be done about it other than attend: #demo2010Who’s with me?



Transformation narrative and the representation of class and obesity

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

One of the best things about my job is talking to students about contemporary issues, themes, ideas and, in the case of ‘our’ subject, how said ideas, issues and themes are then circulted and disseminated in and by media. I had an idea about reality television, class, dominance, dominant orthodoxy and the transformation narrative texts that figure on our television screens. At this point, I need to make clear that I am not the only academic to have such ideas, see for instance the work of my own wonderful colleagues Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn: further,Gareth Palmer; Laurie Ouellette & James Hay ; Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray and of course not forgetting the extraordinary Bev Skeggs. … and countless others. Anyway, partly because at a time when govt is dispensing with all public spending for university teaching for “non essential” academic disciplines, it’s important to remind ourselves and others just how important the research/teaching/teaching/research “feedback loop” can be. Research really can (should) directly impact on undergraduate teaching but sometimes overlooked, undergraduate teaching and the discussions lectures and seminars provoke, should also feedback and help research develop. Something like the following is a rough approximation, but nevertheless still a fairly good example of precisely how academic research can work:

1) Have ideas about particular topics; 2) Read other academic writers in the field; 3) Read the philosophical background and develop the critical ‘model; 4) Undertake analysis of data (often textual analysis in my case) locate data within, and read through the developed critical model; 5) Write lecture and present to students; 6) Discuss ideas in seminar; 7) Hone the ideas based on further reading, exploration and important feedback from students; 8. Write up lecture into more formal academic document for publication….and hopefully, given time, space, necessary intellectual rigour and luck, the ideas then become established in the field.

Admittedly that’s not necessarily an exhaustive nor comprehensive list or approach, and there are different ways of working but I try and apply this model loosely to my work at university. Based on this ‘method’ I then wrote a lecture that was part of a series for one of my undergraduate modules. Prompted by a few friendly discussions with my students, and then some additional chats with friends over the last few months, I then developed the lecture into an academic article. The article in question *should* be published next year – hopefully in the journal: Media, Culture and Society…I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here are some snippets and thoughts.

We begin with yet another methodoligcal rationale for the field of media and cultural studies itself.
Those popular cultural forms not considered overtly political in nature are nevertheless frequently those in which normative assumptions are most readily reproduced. The critical discursive approach to popular cultural forms, seeks to examine popular contemporary texts and genres in order to discern how ‘‘relations of power and domination are ‘encoded’’’ (Kellner, 2003, p. 12) and ‘‘social practices are produced, circulated, enacted . . . and given meaning and significance’’ (Giroux, 2000). Reality television texts need to be apprehended as embodiments of power relations with a significant impact on social order, the social formation and self identity. (Shudson, H: 2006)

Based on this key component of cultural analysis, I constantly remind myself and my studentst that (one of) the task(s) of critical thinking scholars, academics, students and journalists – those with a degree of cultural and social capital – is to always ask: “what are the dominant explanatory formats; or the dominant narrative and discourse? Then further; OK what is the plausible story I/we can write about [insert event, theme, issue] that is not any of the above, or at least not wholly in the realm of the dominant narrative” Based on the increasing number of Channel 4; BBC 3; LivingTV transformation narrative shows that ‘concern’ themselves with obesity, I began to question exactly why obesity is now considered “endemic” and why it recieves the attention it does on our screens, and more importantly: the nature of this attention and coverage. There is a symbiotic relationship between (some) tabloid journalism, dominant themes and narratives in contemporary culture, and reality television. Based on assumptions and lazy stereotypes there appears to be a growing (no pun intended) problem and growing number of lazy fat, workless, scrounging, ill-educated obese people in the UK. Now firstly, one doesn’t need to *completely* absolve these people for their own condition, but to singularly attach blame to the individual is a failure of imagination; a failure to see beyond the dominant narrative(s); and an internalisation of normative values. One could argue that it is also a failure to make links between historical precedents and contemporary conditions. Historically speaking for instance, the bourgeoisie regarded being fat as being healthy. The contemporary narratives and precedents at the very least need to be partly seen and located within the conditions of the neo-liberal economy: economies of scale and over production/supply – Buy one get one free offers in supermarkets (why never buy ONE at half price?); similarly a fast food “culture” etc. There is not the space (nor do I necessarily possess the requisite skill or knowledge) to develop these points individually here, but I maintain that it is surely a failure of imagination and a failure of political critique to see obesity purely in terms of personal failure without taking these things into account. Culturally, “Fattism” as an issue as we know it emerged when a substantial part of the proletariat and the oppressed became fat. So we have a contemporary bourgeoisie making snippy comments about ‘trailer trash’ watching TV and eating hamburgers. Some of the “make-over” shows we have today normalise obesity as a sign of failure and an outward reflection of one’s character, “If the body fails to adequately express [the correct] identity, then it must be changed.” [Foucault] It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to see the potential ‘classed’ nature of this fattist *critique*. To return us to the task and method of those involved with and interested in the critical interrogation regarding the cultural (re)production of normative “common sense” values, to singularly attach all responsibility (or blame) is a fundamental dereliction of intellectual duty and a failure of critical scholarship.

Anyway, this post, although sketching out the approach was only really concerned with an initial lecture. I will post again later on a similar topic, but this time one that had received ‘seminar feedback’ from previous years – a sort of workshopping; then 1) Altered to take account of some feedback, 2) Altered so that its concern was more contemporary and current. Not about obesity, but on the representation of class in different reality TV texts. “Fairy Jobmother” and “My Family’s Crazy Gap Year”…

*The approach can also be applied when presenting papers at conference, which I have also done, but I was interested here, in the interractions and feedback one gets from undergraduates*

**I cannot publish the actual article yet, as even though the work/words are mine, it would be subject to copyright.**


“Wake up and smell the deficit denial”

In Uncategorized on October 22, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

Phillip Hammond
Of late, I’ve noticed the phrase “deficit deniers” being used by the Tory govt. This is another in a long line of subtle discursive tricks. This one is particularly powerful for a number of reasons. Firstly, it associates the desire to provide an alternative narrative – in the ongoing ‘debate’ regarding UK debt – with that of appeasement. Phillip Hammond played that card last night on Question Time. Secondly, it places those that attempt to mobilise these [any] alternatives firmly in a position whereby in the first instance, denial has to be disavowed before any further debate can take place. In vernacular, conversational analysis terms, one is “on the back foot” so to speak, immediately. It’s a neat trick of association, connotation and disruption.
*this is not to say that alternatives cannot be voiced, Caroline Lucas did so last night on the very same programme, but she is something of a rarity and I’d wager that the “you’re in deficit denial” lobby certainly get a larger airing/hearing.

Another repeated piece of chicanery is that “cutting the public sector” has been conflated with “Cutting the deficit” Again, a subtle trick – although of course has been the desire and dominant theme of all neo-liberal, conservative ideologues since the days of Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman – but it seems like it’s working a treat, cutting deficit and cutting public sector are now, to all intents and purposes the same thing. So we end up with vox-pops on evening news bulletins with members of the public saying “Yeah, we know the cuts are coming”; “I don’t know much about politics but I know we’ve been living beyond our means” and such like – the tortured metaphor of the good housekeeping/ good housewife invoked by George Osborne, an analogy so lame it can be dismissed and critically interrogated by an undergraduate economics student, is allowed to stand (almost) unchallenged. This is not to say that these are the only narratives – “it’s all the fault of the banks” is occasionally allowed to be heard. However, this locates blame on a (bad) practice as opposed to shedding light on a barely regulated, neo-liberal system of economic and social organisation, that tends to subordinate human need to capital interests. It’s a version of “a few bad apples” as opposed to a bad cart. Incidentally, this style of “capitalist realism” is brilliantly mapped out by the excellent Mark Fisher here: and his book is available here:

In some ways we can trace this recent debate back to the election campaign – it of course goes back farther but we’ll restrict it, in this instance to this year. During the election campaign, most, though not all politicians sought to narrow the debate. Crucially, the other key players in political communication – media organisations and the journalists therein, whether through political expediency, ideological agreement, or just plain inability to critique, allowed this discursive narrowing to take place. The upshot is that we are now in the position whereby the ruling coalition (class) are able to say “look at the mess left by the last administration” ad infinitum; and “look the cuts are essential, they’re not our fault”. With regards the first point, it’s wearing rather thin and thankfully, people in the public sphere are now beginning to tire of this narrative and explicitly stating so. With regards the second point though “look, the cuts are essential/necessary” it’s a bit more of a struggle to propose an alternative narrative and it’s a further demonstration of discourse in action. What it demonstrates is that the elite political class have managed to impose upon events their own (partial, class interest, capital based) frame through which to view the political debate. I recently wrote about political and economics journalists habits of reproducing dominant themes as “common sense” here:

So, we return to the discursive shaping of events by news and current affairs journalism. In the current economic conditions, it is a partial failure of political communication reporting, broadcasting and journalism that this crisis of capital can so easily be represented and reported as “public sector profligacy”. Perceptions of what constitutes fairness are being effectively (stage) ‘managed’ by rhetorical flourishes and discursive tricks that frame the debate(s) too tightly. In this environment, we cannot allow those that stand to gain the most set the terms of the debate….what to do, how to counter it?


Higher Education, austerity and “the market”

In Uncategorized on October 18, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

So then, Cable, Clegg, Cameron, Osborne and Willetts now all seem to be relishing “the cuts” in various fits of macho posturing. To begin with let’s just have a quick look at their educational CV’s. They were, all of them, the recipients of free university education and four of the five studied various forms of arts, humanities or social science subjects.

David Willetts studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (at Oxford)
George Osborne studied Modern History (at Oxford)
Nick Clegg studied Social Anthropology (at Cambridge…)
David Cameron studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (at Oxford)

Odd that they do not consider these “non essential, non core” subjects worthy of public funding, at least with regards teaching them – the research in these subjects will still receive some public funding, though at a much reduced %. By implication, this approach also makes certain ill founded assumptions about the divide between research and teaching. The bedrock and foundation of university study was always that research feeds into and directly relates to teaching.

What is being proposed is the privatisation of arts, humanities and social science study in the university sector. This matters a great deal. What I intend to do here is to trace a link between the proposals for AHSS in universities and the general neo-liberal trend in wider society … I can’t remember, is there any such thing as society or not?

There are a couple of narratives that have taken hold of late. The first is “the appalling mess Labour left us in”. The very idea that it was labour (alone) that got us into the mess in the first place is quite a compelling story especially for those of a conservative or a (C)onservative disposition. New Labour were certainly catastrophic, and you’ll not catch me defending them, but they pretty much continued the neo-liberal ideology that has dominated political discourse since the mid 70’s. One doesn’t need to look too far to see that barely regulated financial services, capital and currency speculation, all manner of stock market gambling and increased privatisation of public services – precisely the style of social organisation spelled out by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Von Hayek and the Chigaco School of economics – is at least in part at the root of this. So the idea that it’s all Labour’s fault is so stupifyingly idiotic that it’s barely worthy of comment, though comment we must precisely because it’s the mantra of the ruling coalition.

To analyse the extent to which it is not “all the fault of labour” and by way of explaining the neo-liberal orthodoxy allow me to map out one or two (probably well worn, but no less important) examples: Services that people *need* and that basically underpin social infrastructure have no place in, nor should be subject to the whims of the oh so euphemistically titled “market” (with all its associations of honest guv market traders selling you an apple with a wink and a smile). Essential services – such as having your bins emptied each week – is a classic case. In a bid to display how much money can be saved, services are “outsourced” to private companies. Serco; Sodhexo et al come in, take council tax payers money to undertake a service that was previously supplied by the council. Serco (for instance) claim they can do it cheaper – which they almost always do – but at various other social costs. Services decrease in quantity and quality – collections every other week instead of each week – and staff are fired in a series of ‘efficiency saving exercises’, meaning of course an increase in unemployment in the community with the commensurate increase in benefit payments. The “outsourcing” produces very few benefits or beneficiaries other than for the private corporation whose share price rockets, and whose profits go up precisely because they receive the funds but then are free to sack/underpay staff and reduce the service. The upshot is always at the expense of service users/people that pay for said service via council tax. Local community job losses; Local community suffer a loss of service. I use this as an example, but, crucially, it is precisely a model of neo-liberal capitalism whereby everything is privatised (incl university education). Nobody benefits other than shareholders and owners of companies. It’s exactly the same with PFI and here The example provided in the link is interesting and important. In it, Monbiot outlines that PFI schemes in the NHS are essentially a licence to print money for private corporations. Precisely because of the need “to be seen to save money” governments and local service governments (councils) have to remove certain capital expenditure programs from their books. For a full explanation I urge you to read more here: Of course these measures do not actually save money at all, it only seems like it saves money in the short term, by transferring the building costs to private companies. Often what is left is a 30 year lease that the taxpayers have to pay in order to rent the hospital infrastructure and building back from the company. The companies often recoup the building costs within a matter of months or years effectively meaning that they then sit back and watch the profits roll in for 25 years or so.

This is the current environment and it’s a fully marketised economy whereby everything is transferred onto the shoulders of individuals. “Want an education? Pay for it at a market rate” Despite the fact that education is a public good, a socially, culturally informed citizenship should be a valuable and valued goal…but according to the dominant theme, which is *precisely* based on the above model of neo-liberal “market knows best/everything” those that receive the education are the only beneficiaries. This is a preoposterous assertion, it requires quite a leap of faith, but tragically, it’s playing well in the shires and not difficult to see why and how. We’ve had over 30 years of this individualised market approach, so essentially an entire generation raised on these values. The very idea of a social contract, or a public fund to which everyone contributes in order to pay for essential services that maintain social infrastructure is frowned upon and deemed unrealistic/idealistic.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument that many/some state/govt services are poor, or poorly run, or waste money. In theory at least we have certain democratic rights which we do not have when it comes to private companies. So, the aim is to ensure (somehow) that they work better NOT to transfer it all to the private sector whose only goal is the accumulation of profit and have no such democratic infrastructure that calls them to account – the market approach, i:e if they’re not good enough, then people won’t use the service therefore they’ll suffer in that way is the only recourse….but essential services do not work that way, we don’t have the choice, and the poor certainly do not. Even if our democracy (such as it can be called this in the first place) is a poor imitation, and our ability to hold services to account is problematic, to wholly discard them in favour of a marketised approach seems a little “baby and bathwater” to me. Strive to make them better, make them more accountable; make them serve interests of society….Instead of that we have “nah, sod it, we’ll transfer it all to private companies, in a sort of “brave new world” style market utopia”. This is an appalling way to carry on, but I fear that’s exactly where we’re going.

Primary, secondary, tertiary, Further and higher Education
All Health services incl dentistry
Criminal Justice – Police, courts etc
Utilities – water, gas electricity etc
Social services
Local council services
+ sundry other essential services underpin and support a social infrastructure and should all be funded via progressive taxation. Markets don’t care for social infrastructure – if you can pay a market rate, fine. If you can’t, tough shit. That’s not a world I want to be a part of.
….but part of it we all are.

It’s within this environment that the Government are able to cut funding for universities by a staggering 79% and to cut all funding for teaching Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. This is not to say that the logic of the market is now immovable, but “the market knows best” narrative become more and more established as “common sense”.

The other oft repeated story is that the cuts are essential as opposed to ideological. When dealing with Higher Education cuts there’s been a great deal of research and critique of Browne Review which demonstrates that this is not necessarily the case. Some of the research and critique is here; here; and a great post here; here; here; the NUS were very quick and very thoughtful here; some good work here; Catherine Bennett and Jonathan Freedland writes well here; Sadly, and crucially, most of those posted links and the people that wrote them are not in a position whereby they influence the formation of public policy.

This Government though are somehow able to sell this Browne Review as “progressive” which, were it not so serious would be utterly laughable. So we see the long established market knows best fallacy rearing its head again. Surely, right now, even if not at any other time, the idea that the market can provide everything that society needs can be seen for utter ideological grabage that it is…. But no, apparently the busted model is now about to be recommended wholesale for higher education.

Yesterday – Sunday 17th October 2010 – George Osborne was waxing lyrical about benefit “muggers”. He said he would be focussing his attention of welfare scroungers who are essentially “mugging the country”. But once, just ONCE I’d like to see the same level of zeal and enthusiasm for chasing tax dodgers like Phillip Green (dodged tax to the tune of £300m); Vodafone (owed tax of £6b but settled, with govt approval on £400m); Lord Ashcroft et al. That we never ever see the same enthusiasm for getting this back is surely ideological.

As an aside – According to 2006 ONS figures – Tax payers money wasted on fraudulent benefit claims = £1.2b; Amount of uncollected tax from very rich avoiding/evading (potato/potarto) obligations = £120b – £150b (it’s difficult to calculate, precisely because these people tend to hide money…and compounded by the proposed cuts to the HMRC tax evasion dept)

Anyway, no matter, let’s demonise those that, often through no personal fault, are unfortunate enough to be unemployed. What I find most astonishing is that at precisely the time when welfare might be most needed – massive catastrophic recession – talk of cutting it to the bone is not just short-sighted, I’d say it was bordering on immoral. This recession, which is bordering on a depression, was not caused by “the bloated public sector” repeat ad infintum Daily Mail, Torygraph; Express, Sun et al but by the activities of unregulated finance capital and their subsequent bail-outs to the tune of £850b

What short memories we all have that now apparently it’s the fault of those that work in the public sector. Bail-outs are what’s called the “socialisation of risk and the privatisation of profits” and we’re about to pay the highest price of all time. Oh and enormous profits and enormous bonuses are back in fashion in the financial sector.

Anyway, I maintain that as always, my task – insofar that I imagine myself arrogant enough to have a public sphere profile at all – is to undertake a form of social analysis that insists on linking together seemingly disparate entities and activities. In a paraphrasing of Gramsci …the task of critical thinking academics, journalists and those with a degree of cultural and social capital is to always ask: “what are the dominant explanatory formats; or the dominant narrative and discourse? Then further; OK what is the plausible story I can write about [insert event] that is not any of the above, at least not wholly in the realm of the dominant narrative. So, for instance, when we look at the enormous con that is PFI for instance, we don’t just see that in isolation, but in fact see it as a manifestation and exemplar of the wider issues (of neo-liberal form of social organization that further enriches some individuals at the expense of society in general). That most – if not all – media organizations continue to report and praise being “tough on welfare and benefits” whilst barely even reporting the scandals of PFI; privatization of all services; tax evading billionaires means that to some extent, many journalists must have internalized the logic of neo-liberal economics. This is inextricably linked to higher education, and in particular, higher education teaching and research in Humanities, Arts and Social science subjects: As just mentioned, one of the critical tasks of (some) academics, is to undertake critical and interrogative research. That we can do so is because of the way the research and teaching culture of universities works and is funded. If this model is discarded then I’m not sure what hope there is for critical scholars. Will we have to “sell our ‘brand’” of research and teaching in the “market place” of higher education? The market will dictate what “works”, higher education then ceases to be about education, critical thought and critical interrogation and instead develops its own self fulfilling *logic* or market where students – understandably terrified by mounting debts and thus the need to find employment quickly – require and acquire only that which will provide the skills necessary to gain employment. So, in order to flourish and stay open, departments and the academic staff within them end up researching and teaching that which will recruit the largest number of students; “train” them in particular skills and then send them on their way to uncritically reproduce dominant themes and ideologies – critical scholarship becomes subordinate to the demands of business (capital). In my field: media, cultural studies and increasingly, journalism studies, it’s crucial that we teach students to think beyond the narrow confines of the dominant discourses. Obviously, and I’m extrapolating here, the full effects are unknowable, but one of the strengths of university education is/was precisely that critical scholars are/were paid to think about these things (and just occasionally assist in the formation of public policy); critique things, even those things which had provided his/her salary in the first place; publish, disseminate; teach. That’s the strength of civilized, fully functioning publicly funded research culture in higher education isn’t it? If left to the whims of the market, what hope is there? What alternatives can be narrated, disseminated and imagined? And what space is left in which to imagine them? What future for a society populated by students – and academics – trained only in the skills that are rewarded by the “market place”?


Locating capital(ist) interests within the domestic sphere

In Uncategorized on October 9, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

George Osborne’s list of observers that support the govt cuts reads like a list of neo-liberal interests (which of course it most certainly is). But the interesting…or perhaps disgusting thing about it, is the media coverage it was afforded, *and* the tone of said coverage. So, IMF; The Institute of Directors; Bank of England; CBI; Chamber of Commerce; The Credit Rating Agencies (Yes, the very same people that saw the derivatives markets and currency speculation (that subsequently crashed the world economy) as a “good thing”) et al are, because of the long established discursive “logic” and media narrative, presented as mere rational agents of impartial, neutral observation. Note: “economic health-check”; “IMF gives Osborne the ‘thumbs up’” (both from Stephanie Flanders; BBC News economics reporter); and “demonstrating good housekeeping” (Peston, R; BBC News “business” correspondent). These linguistic tropes are important, and they’re in the service of dominant ideology. Locating them in the logic of the domestic – “good housekeeping”; the medical – “economic health-check” and the informal – “thumbs up” frames them as non partisan, rational and at worst, neutrally interested in “our” wellbeing…as opposed to what they actually are which is a collection of neo-liberal interest groups whose only wish is that the system of socialisation of risk and privatisation of profits is maintained and further strengthened.

Compare this reaction to the hysteria that surrounded “Red Ed’s” (a bad joke, made even more sour given his choice for Shadow Chancellor – Alan Johnson) election as leader of the Labour Party. Most media outlets “raised the spectre” of the unions being “special interest groups” and “threatening to derail the recovery/hold the country to ransom” and “Red Ed being beholden to the unions that put him in power”. This should be astonishing but of course it’s not. There has been, and continues to be a media narrative that reinforces the idea that neo-liberal (never called that, most often referred to in glowing terms such as “brightest business brains” “engine of economy”) social organisation is “the only show in town” – the infamous TINA (There is no Alternative). This logic is internalised by journalists and thus becomes “common sense” in the Gramscian sense. In fact, it’s a great example of hegemony in action.

So we’re left with the frankly ridiculous situation whereby the very people that crashed the world economy and are now beginning to, once again, engorge themselves on increased profits, can, without irony be referred to as neutral observers looking out for and after the economic health and wellbeing of the nation. Simultaneously, those most threatened with absolute catastrophic job losses are referred to as “special interest groups, holding the nation to ransom”. This is a clear example of discourse manufacturing consent.

To add some personal context, all this is being played out whilst I am, for the first time, genuinely terrified about my own sector and my own job. I’ve spent over ten years developing my research, and my research profile and now, on an ideological whim, the goal posts are being moved and my work – along with hundreds, maybe thousands of my colleagues – is not considered worthy of public funding. The Brave (Dave) new world of privatised university education means that if one cannot demonstrate an immediate economic return then your work is of no value.

An historical footnote: Public spending as a percentage of GDP is not even historically high


Newsnight & the neo-liberal agenda

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

Last night (Friday 7th May 2010) on the BBC Flagship news program Newsnight one of the commentators called on to discuss the economy was one Hugh Hendry Now I do not necessarily have anything against this man per se, but in all the post election coverage debate around “strong govt” and the ridiculous (surely transparent) narrative of “national interest” is the ongoing concern regarding the economy. “The markets are jittery” so we’re told, “the markets won’t wait for ever” etc etc. Firstly – let’s be clear about this, when the term the markets are mentioned, it means capital pure and simple. Capital does not have a vote (individual capitalists do) but the personification of “the market” as some sort of rational entity with human quality and capaity is bunk. Let’s remember that it was in fact “the market” (failure) that caused large parts of the crisis in the first place. Why now the need to bend to the demands and logic of the markets is never really explained…it’s just assumed. The possibility that the UK might lose its AAA* rating is another threat constantly evoked. However, this AAA* rating is provided by three credit rating agencies. The very same credit rating agencies that allowed, ney encouraged precisely the sort of leveraged and “creative” (sic) practices that caused the global system to collapse and come (cap in hand) to governments for bail outs in the first place. However, I digress. It turns out though that the market does not need a vote for it can seemingly hold us to ransom anyway. The reason “it” (and I’m aware I too am now assuming it to have agency) can do so, is precisely because mainstream political culture and discourse – perfectly encapsulated by Newsnight, have internalised this logic as common sense. This is best demonstrated by the presence of such people as Hugh Hendry.

This man makes his money via speculative practises. The way this works is as follows (with thanks to David Harvey, Hyman Minski, Marx, Keynes et al for explaining this):

The key to the scam is leverage. I’ll set up an imagined position and go from there.

Assume that you are a hedge fund manager and some rich people give you one billion to invest. You then use this one billion to borrow another 30 billion from the government at a 0.5% interest rate.
For this you buy government bonds that pay 4.25% after one year. If you had not been able to borrow the 30 billion you would only make the 4.25% profit (42 millions) but with the additional borrowed money you now make a profit of 117% (1168 millions). Where did your fantastic profit come from? It came from the government that just gave you more than a billion pounds for nothing.
What did you contribute to society? Nothing. On the contrary, you are a parasite sucking out money from the treasury that could otherwise be used for public services. Have you done something incredible clever? Not at all. Any idiot that has the possibility to borrow large sums of money at zero interest rate can do it. What should be done? Cut off the leverage. Do not provide the parasites with free borrowed money. If these parasites can only invest their own money they would soon be out of business.

Of course the investment banks are mostly to blame for the present financial crisis. And the hedge funds are not to blame for the crisis in Greece, they just profit from it. And make the situation worse for the Greeks

I’m aware that in fact Hedge funds were not the main casue of this crisis, investment banks played the largest part but hedge funds contribute to it and are all part of the same speculative practises.

The point of this post is not to castigate Hugh Hendry – he may be a smug man but he’s merely a representative of this system. No, the point is actually to question why Newsnight – and you can be sure he’ll be popping up on other news broadcasts soon – has him on to “explain” the debt crisis…and laughably, ways to tackle it. His raison d’etre is to make money via currency speculation and in advising people on the best ways to avoid/evade (potato/potarto) their tax obligations. The fact that he and his ilk are called upon to explain things to us, and is respected as an impartial commentator is intensely problematic. Further, it demonstrates that political and economic discourse is now entirely dominated by the “logic of the market” …but it also shows how much work radical and progressive people have still to do. How can “we” intervene and have our voices heard? I have no fully formed answers – but will return to possibilities at another time. In the meantime, please head here for some ways in which we might be able to do something and perhaps take steps towards a more progressive and representative electoral system.

P.S. Sorry for any rather amateur spelling/typos – I’m typing this quickly before heading out to celebrate my birthday.


Deficit = £152bn. Tax avoidance in 2006 alone = between £99 -£150bn. And it’s public services that are the problem?

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

The fact that public service “waste” and public sector cuts have become the dominant theme in this election is testament to the ability of capital to dictate the very terms and frame through which the public at large are encouraged to understand and talk about politics and economics. The right have captured the territory and frames for understanding. The right wing rhetoric now that “our economy is bust” but that it’s the fault of feckless slackers in the public sector is driving me fucking insane. It’s called the “socialisation of risk and the privatisation of profit” and it is the organising principle of a neo-liberal economics…everything sacrificed to capital (profits). I think Osborne – fucking idiot though he is – completely understands that it’s his job to fuck us over and hand profits and services to private companies.

The rhetoric of “cuts cuts cuts” is problematic. Private demand has totally collapsed to the point of being almost non-existent. Most effective way to stimulate demand is public spending. And BTW, public sector spending is not some sort of black hole. It provides services, builds things, generates jobs and tax receipts, stimulates demand in private sector – public sector workers spend their money in shops and on services and leisure – and means taxpayers not paying out benefits. It’s funny how neo-liberal economists believe in the effects of “trickle-down economics” when it’s about providing the territory and environment for the rich to accumulate more and more – apparently this wealth “trickles down” …so the theory goes. Of course it doesn’t really trickle down at all, many rich people hoard their wealth by way of tax avoidance/evasion schemes and increased profits for them. However, even if it does stimulate some demand in the wider economy, their numbers are so small (but their bank balances are not) that the demand is not large enough. So, according to Cameron & Osborne’s wisdom, the “trickle down” effect is apparently in full working order when it comes to private capital despite plenty of evidence that it doesn’t work. But when it refers to public sector spending – where there is evidence that it does work – Cameron and Osborne are shouting….”We must Slash public sector”. This is part ideology and part duty: Osborne and Cameron, internalised the logic of private wealth see it as their duty to transfer public money into private hands.…and boy are they going to do it. That our electoral system allows this despite left of centre parties looking like they might garner over 55% of the vote is in part the fault of our busted electoral system; partly the fault of politicians of all stripes consistently shifting rightwards and courting the opinions of the right; all mainstream political parties have accepted the ‘logic’ of “the market” and as such, will pursue policies that foster growth at the expense of human need; … and finally, our media ecology in the UK tend to favour the ‘logic’ of the market also. This final section  – media being one of the most important factors driving the discursive shift, requires much longer and detailed analysis. A such it will be the focus of a different post.

But for now, #imnotvotingconservative