Last year the BBC’s head of multimedia Mary Hockaday told an audience at the LSE that:
The quote below comes from a New York Times feature by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee on Diedrick Stapel, a Dutch academic found to have made up data:
What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.” He named two psychologists he admired — John Cacioppo and Daniel Gilbert — neither of whom has been accused of fraud. “They give a talk in Berlin, two days later they give the same talk in Amsterdam, then they go to London. They are traveling salesmen selling their story.
(h/t @AnnPettifor for the link, by the way)
Only tiny numbers of scientists resort to outright fraud to make their work more more marketable. But the pressure to secure scarce resources works in much more subtle ways. We shouldn’t imagine that researchers who make up results are the only – or even the most important – problem in science.
(By the way, Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds provides a very good discussion of the pressures that bear down on scientists and other professionals.)
Jason Cowley has written an essay in the Financial Times in which he worries that the contemporary literary-political landscape lacks “a figure with the significance and commitment of George Orwell or HG Wells”.
There’s much to be said about the article. But I just want to highlight one thing. Cowley tells us that Orwell “might best be described as a Tory anarchist”. This is a very strange thing to write. Orwell called himself a “Tory anarchist” up until the mid-thirties, after which he said that he was a “democratic socialist”. And his writing after the Spanish Civil War consistently explores what democratic socialism is, how it relates to particular national conditions, and what would happen if we failed to achieve it. The shift is important.
Orwell the “Tory anarchist” is a figure that one can happily place in the “literary-political landscape”. The phrase itself surprises, is still shiny with paradox. Meanwhile, Stalinism has covered “democratic socialism” with a guano of cant. But Orwell meant something by democratic socialism. The idea was important to him. He took it seriously.
Cowley says that his magazine is “still searching for the contemporary equivalent of George Orwell, let alone Christopher Hitchens, for the writer who works in multiple forms and who seeks in his or her work to unite truth, literature and politics”.
(Let’s leave Christopher Hitchens to one side for the moment. This is meant to be a short post.) Cowley will struggle to find “the contemporary equivalent of George Orwell”, if he doesn’t know who Orwell was.
(Incidentally, I last read The Lion and the Unicorn at school. But looking at it again, I was amused to see that he had written this about the programme of “an English socialist government” -
Nations do not escape from their past merely by making a revolution. An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilization, the peculiar civilization which I discussed earlier in this book. It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy.
Only scoundrels claim that Orwell would have agreed with them, but this does happen to be quite close to what I argue for in Maximum Republic. Hitchens, of course, was a flashy and crowd-pleasing anti-monarchist. Or rather, he was in 1990.)
Too much writing is a minnow that congratulates itself on slipping through the net. The point is to be the catch that swallows the boat.
“Supporters of Anglo-American policies after 9/11 can draw on a model of Enlightenment that has become something like the conventional wisdom among intellectuals and commentators. This Enlightenment is understood above all in the context of a struggle between the rational and the irrational. Enlightenment is identified with reason in the broad sense of empirical inquiry and rational analysis. Its enemies are identified as ‘those forces of religious reaction, conservative prejudice, and fascist irrationalism whose inspiration derived from … the Counter-Enlightenment’.* [...] Enlightenment is normally invoked in the context of a struggle with its external enemies: reason is threatened by faith, science is threatened by superstition, and so on.”
The Threat to Reason (London: Verso, 2007), p.24
On March 25th the House of Commons’ Political and Constitutional Reform Committee published Do We Need A Constitutional Convention for the UK? Though the report acknowledged widespread opposition to the idea – from the government, from the Scottish National Party and from the Conservative party in Wales, as well as from some members of the committee itself – it concluded that a convention was necessary, in order to address the growing strains on the UK’s constitution caused by ‘a huge amount of incremental constitutional change over the past two decades’ (p.17).
As the report puts it, ‘while there is not yet a constitutional crisis in the UK, it is better to identify and analyse potential weaknesses in our constitutional framework before a crisis arises’ (p.17). And while we have serious economic problems, addressing them will require, among other things, constitutional change. After all, ‘having a system of politics and a constitution that are “fit for purpose” is a prerequisite for an inclusive and fully functioning economy’ (p.35).
The committee report focuses to some extent on the so-called English Question, the anomalous position of England as a relatively large political unit governed centrally but surrounded by devolved administrations. The Chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Merrick Cockell, went so far as to call England ‘the last part of the British Empire, still run, as we concede, in a way that might have worked with running India from the India Office’ (p.18).
As it happens a coalition of left-wing groups have recently announced their plan to establish People’s Assemblies Against Austerity. Everyone has their own hopes, wishes and fears for the assemblies. For myself, I hope that people pick up on the idea of a constitutional convention and use the assembly form to discuss the fundamentals of British governance.
The economic problems we face are deeply integrated with the political system. The financial sector is a collection of private businesses that can call on a range of state and state-like agencies to promote its interests. The Bank of England, the Corporation of the City of London and the offshore jurisdictions are part of how the British economy operates and they are obvious objects of interest to a constitutional convention based on very widespread participation. A constitutional convention worth the name will ask whether it makes sense for Britain to operate as an offshore hub, given the corrupting effects it has on our public life and the costs it imposes on the rest of the economy.
The BBC is another institution that has so far escaped the attention of the reforming imagination. But its journalistic failings derive from its nature as a creature of parliamentary opinion. If the executive and most of Parliament are uninterested in seeing an issue debated then the BBC remains silent. Given the centrality of the BBC in our information system its dependence on cues from an out of control political class lends mainstream coverage of public affairs an increasingly hallucinatory quality. When Westminster wants something – from a war in the Middle East to the privatization of the NHS – the BBC falls into line. Needless to say, it cannot describe the economy in ways that deviate from the parliamentary consensus.
The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones AM, told the committee that he was worried that a convention that involved too many people would become unwieldy:
The challenge for the convention is that it is not just the great and the good, which royal commissions tend to be … but also that it is not so big that it becomes unwieldy.
The assemblies offer us a chance to demonstrate that general debate between citizens about the fundamentals of our political settlement can be wide-ranging and nuanced, that there is no need to leave matters in the hands of academics and professional politicians.
This is a project that can unite revolutionaries and reformists. The unreformed City of London is a longstanding affront to the liberal imagination and a reality-based BBC would provide the radical left with many more opportunities to be heard. If we can do more than demonstrate outrage at cuts in public services and begin to develop and publicise a programme for deep reform of the British state and economy, then we will force our politicians to change direction. They will sacrifice austerity to save the fundamentals of British political economy. But it is up to us to put those fundamentals in play.
One final point: an assembly ceases to be a talking shop or a tool of the existing parties when it can discover and share its preferences in the context of the existing political geography. It will make sense for an assembly to back a new party, or to support an existing one, depending on the balance of opinion in a particular constituency. This balance of opinion can be both discovered and changed through the widespread use of assemblies. Politicians can live with a general mood of discontent, with widespread outrage, even. They cannot bear the prospect of being voted out. Therefore the assemblies are best organized with reference to particular constituencies, or to groups of constituencies.
That’s just my take on the assemblies and what they might do. There are other things to say, and I am sure that other people will say them. I write in more detail about deep constitutional reform in Maximum Republic and I also explore the politics of assembly in Common Sense.
On Wednesday Ed Balls appeared on Newsnight to discuss the economy with Gavin Esler. The Shadow Chancellor spent a lot of time not saying how much he will borrow to kick start the economy and Esler spent a lot of time asking him to do so. It was all good, familiar fun. As Balls the Keynesian dodges accusations of profligacy he is well aware that the Maxed Out Credit Card story makes sense to the general public. He is making the case for reflation to an audience that has been kept in near perfect innocence about how the economy actually works.
By chance a few days before the saurian wrestling match on Newsnight Ha-Joon Chang had a piece about the British economy published in the Guardian. In it he argues that the debate between proponents of austerity and stimulus misses the central problem of the UK economy: its inability to generate sufficient export income to pay for its imports. We aren’t producing enough of what the world wants to pay our way. And, as Chang puts it, “without addressing the underlying decay in productive capabilities, Britain cannot fix its ailing economy”. To remedy this, Chang suggests that the country “urgently needs to develop a long-term productive strategy through a broad-based public consultation involving not just the government and private sector firms, but trade unions, educational institutions and research institutes.”
I would go further. In November 2011 I suggested that we begin a national convention organized in each Parliamentary constituency to decide how a £50 billion stimulus package should be spent. Part of that is about identifying new technologies and investing in them. But it is also about developing new, more responsive, and accountable political forms that can articulate a coherent account of what we collectively want and need and are willing to work for.
I am convinced that these new political forms will release energy and ingenuity that the roaring and stamping monsters of Keynes-Hayek condominium trample on. And we have to do something pretty spectacular, otherwise our problems will only get worse. What could be more appealing than a country finally putting away its imperial past and becoming a democracy? There’s no doubt we need to earn foreign currency. But we can earn at least some of it by “becoming a showcase for the achievements of a self-governing people”, as I wrote in 2011.
Tourism, education – and the roaring, dazzling ingenuity of a free people. What’s not to like?