universities

Reflections on the Student Movement in the UK

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/08/2019 - 11:51pm in

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In 2010 the announcement by the Coalition government that university tuition fees would be tripled sparked a wave of student protest. Remaining largely within the confines of the campus, the movement exhausted itself and failed to spread to other sectors. Nine years later, what’s left?

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Private For-Profit University Collapses in London

Last Thursday’s I for 1st August 2019 carried a report by Ewan Somerville on the  collapse of one of the private universities set up in recent decades, GSM, on page 11. The article, titled ‘Private London university GSM collapses’, ran

One of Britain’s largest private universities has collapsed into administration, leaving thousands of students fearing they will not be able to complete their degrees.

GSM London, a for-profit private degree provider with 3,500 students, will close in September after failing to “recruit and retain sufficient numbers of students” to stay afloat. It says 247 jobs are threatened.

The UCU lecturers’ union blamed the “marketisation of education” and warned against an “increase in poorly regulated private providers”.

Jeffrey Fernhout, 23, who has just completed an economics degree at GSM, told the I he received “no warning” about the collapse. “This has left a lot of students angry, frustrated and uncertain about their future,” he said. “But the organisation was very badly managed so this isn’t a shock.”

The Office for Students, the higher education watchdog, said its “priority is to ensure that students are able to complete their studies”. GSM promised to “support as far as possible “those needing to be relocated.

The Department for Education reiterated its stance of not “bail(ing) out failing providers”.

So much for their superiority of market forces and private enterprise. Of course, this isn’t the only university in trouble. Very many are experience financial problems, partly due to cuts in government funding. When I was studying for my Archaeology Ph.D. at Bristol, I was told that the archaeology department was faced with laying off some of its teaching staff because of funding cuts made by the Blair government. Blair, Mandelson and co. funding policy was inadequate to support courses that required expensive technical equipment. I also heard from academic friends this weekend that one university has also been forced to close their conservation course for archives and libraries, despite it being considered the leading course of this type in the country. Again, the reason was the high cost of funding against the small number of students taking the course. It’s a financially simplistic attitude that ignores the fact that archives and libraries need skilled conservators, and that the money spent on such a course is repaid in the continuing upkeep of rare and valuable materials held in institutions up and down the country.

I also think that many other universities, which are similarly experiencing financial problems, also have problems recruiting the necessary number of students. Years ago, way back at the beginning of the century, another academic friend of mine predicted this would happen. He had been looking at the demographic rates, and concluded that the bulge in the number of people in their late teens and early twenties, who would enter Higher Education, had passed. Colleges and polytechnics, which were perfectly good as they were, were encouraged, if not required to expand into universities. I think that as a result, many of them have seriously overstretched themselves. Universities have complained that the initial student fees they were allowed to charge, which were capped at £3,000, were inadequate. Hence the increase to £9,000. And this has led in turn to massive student debt.

Many students now feel that they cannot afford their education, and that includes nurses. A little while ago BBC Bristol produced a documentary reporting that students number on nursing courses had fallen. Interviewing some of those still on the course, they explained that the reason was that they simply could not afford to support themselves and pay the tuition fees. Some of those still on the course explained that they had to work to support themselves. These young people often worked long hours, as well as the time they spent on their academic and practical studies. Those aspiring nurses, who are continuing their studies in this environment, are clearly to be admire for their dedication. But it’s a deplorable way to treat the future skilled medical staff which Britain needs, especially with its aging population.

And the situation has not been helped by the concern of university management and administrators for their own enrichment at the expense of teaching staff. I understand that many of the lecturers at universities are actually poorly paid. Quite a number actually work only part-time, because full-time positions are rare and extremely difficult to get. Meanwhile, we’ve seen a procession of university chancellors awarding themselves salaries in the hundreds of thousands of pounds. This mirrors the way business management has consistently voted massive pay rises for themselves, while cutting investment and freezing pay or even finding ways to deliberately underpay their employees. Like zero hours contracts.

But despite the precariousness of university finances, thanks to Thatcherite educational policies, the government is determined not to give financial support to those failing. Which means that if they go under, tens of thousands of students will have racked up tens of thousands in debt for zilch.

The introduction of market forces and the privatisation of Higher and Further Education is a failure. It’s leaving universities in financial trouble, forcing some lecturers and other non-management staff to accept poor wages and job insecurity, and leaving students with a mountain of debt which many will find impossible to pay off.

It’s another example of the utter failure of Thatcherism, despite its continuing loud promotion by a shrilly intolerant media and political establishment. It’s time to bring it to an end, and get rid of it. All of it, including the parties supporting it – the Brexiteers, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Get them out, and a proper Labour government in.

 

 

 

Banks or Loansharks?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 31/07/2019 - 4:18pm in

To hear banks and their defenders tell it, student loan recipients have a moral obligation to return full payment plus exorbitant interest rates to their lenders. But what about the responsibility of lenders not to overcharge or to issue loans to people too young to understand their implications?

Ramsay’s Groupthink, by Nick Riemer

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/07/2019 - 9:23pm in

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Does anyone want to hear another word about the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation? Since the ANU rejected Ramsay last year, the centre may, as its ‘chief executive’ Simon Haines acknowledges, have been slower than it anticipated in starting collaborations with Australian universities. But the prospect of Ramsay’s millions has so far managed to steamroll academics’—including Indigenous academics’—opposition at Wollongong and Queensland, which are both enrolling Western Civilisation students for 2020. Given the controversy raging over its politics, Ramsay might have been expected, for tactical reasons, to moderate the inflammatory public positions with which Tony Abbott, in particular, had associated it. Nothing of the sort: so far in 2019, Ramsay has escalated its ideological intervention into society by brazenly hosting a parade of right-wing culture warriors in its public lecture series, many of them dutifully amplified by the media. Amid the broadsides of support for Western Civilisation studies in Quadrant and The Australian, the fight is far from over.

***

One thing that hasn’t changed, of course, is the fundamental objection: the Ramsay Centre is still an initiative of the racist Right, designed to divert the course of humanities education for its own political and ideological gain. That goal is built into the concept of ‘Western civilisation’ itself, a term whose political valency in the current context is overwhelmingly reactionary: of the many rubrics under which the intellectual and social histories of Europe could be studied, ‘Western civilisation’ happens to be one that serves as a rallying call for the racist global International currently in the ascendant—the world’s Trumps and Orbáns, its sundry European and Anglo fascist movements, even its Netanyahus. In his talk to Ramsay earlier this year, Greg Sheridan was careful to say that when he spoke admiringly of Western civilisation, he just wasn’t interested in any comparisons, favourable or unfavourable, with China or Islam. Sheridan is pretty much on his own: when Trump describes ‘Western civilisation’ as under threat from terrorism and extremism, he certainly isn’t talking about Western terrorists or extremists; Hungary’s Orbán presents the anti-refugee fence he built on his country’s southern border as a rampart of ‘Western civilisation’; the extremely violent anti-Muslim street-fighting gang the Proud Boys style themselves as ‘Western chauvinists’; in the United Kingdom, a recent YouGov poll found that 60 per cent of Tory voters think Islam is ‘generally a threat to Western civilisation’. In Australia, Islamophobic luminaries of the calibre of Tony Abbott, Mark Latham, Fraser Anning, Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi have all rallied around the Western-civilisation catch cry (for details, see here). Over twenty years after the Keating government promoted the idea that Australia’s future lay with Asia, the local Right feels the need to reassert Australia’s basically Western identity, consolidating our position in a geopolitical bloc pitting the Anglo-American and European nations against both the Islamic world and China. (Simon Haines, it’s worth remembering, is no stranger to geopolitical considerations: in a former life, he worked as an intelligence analyst for the Office of National Assessments in Canberra.)

The case against Ramsay, however, rests on more than just guilt by association. Overtly arguing the supremacy of the West is never something that the Ramsay Centre has to do, but it regularly argues it more subtly and, therefore, effectively—exactly why the entire Right and, sometimes, far Right have leapt to its defence, not just here but also overseas. Ramsay’s critics have repeatedly spelled out the implicit logic: if Western civilisation is so great, it makes sense for governments to continue the militarised intervention against Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory; to brutally prevent mostly Muslim refugees arriving by boat; and to warmonger endlessly in the Middle East, Iran being the latest nation in the crosshairs (‘Iran’s Leaders [are] at War with Western Civilization. Why is the West Putting Up with It?’, the Islamophobic Gatestone Institute in the United States asked last year). Not everyone in the Ramsay project, naturally, is clued in to the centre’s overarching ideological rationale. Faced with the accusation that it serves a sinister political cause, Ramsay has the plausible deniability of saying that all it does is teach Western classics. Among its supporters and, perhaps, even some of its insiders are obtuse naïfs for whom, despite everything, the project of teaching the ‘great books’ of the Western world can only be innocent.

The mere content of the Ramsay curriculum has never been the principal objection to it: what matters more is the social and intellectual capital that Ramsay’s association with universities will bring to its overall mission. One of the most important reasons that universities should have nothing to do with Ramsay is that collaboration would allow Ramsay to claim academic credibility for the propagandising it conducts through its invited-speakers series, its flagship public event and its main vehicle for exerting public influence. So far in 2019, Ramsay’s guest speakers have named ‘school’ and ‘education’ as distinctively Western achievements, told audiences that ‘nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture’ and that it will be hard for ‘Western civilisation to remain recognisably Western civilisation without Christian belief’, and implied that there is nothing distinctively Western about the crimes of European history. Rod Dreher, hosted by Ramsay despite endorsing Germany’s far-right AfD party and writing that ‘everything [the Christchurch gunman] identifies as qualities of a disintegrating Western civilisation is true’, recently told the Sydney audience an instructive anecdote:

On Saturday here in Sydney, I met an immigrant from China, a Christian convert who told me how much he has come to love and appreciate and treasure the sense of justice and mercy, and respect for the individual, that he has discovered in the West. The ideals of Western civilisation came to us through peoples of the Mediterranean and northern Europe, but I believe that anyone who affirms these truths and values is a friend of the West, whatever their ethnic background. It’s very important to recognise that, and state it clearly at a time when some people on the far Right are asserting that Western civilisation is a racial thing. It’s not.

For all the overt disclaimers of racism, in suggesting that justice, mercy and respect for the ‘individual’ are distinctive accomplishments of European societies that other ethnicities have to learn from them, Dreher insinuates that non-Westerners are almost inconceivably lacking in the most basic human qualities. They must, as a result, remain the permanently subaltern beneficiaries of ‘our’ lessons in a better way of being human. The fact that Dreher’s Chinese immigrant has taken on allegedly Western virtues makes him only a ‘friend of the West’, not a member of it: despite his protestations to the contrary, Dreher’s vision remains an ethnically exclusivist one.

The term ‘civilisation’ is inherently political: to describe a community as belonging to a civilisation is a way of validating some—idealised—version of its way of life, typically with reference to an uncivilised, barbaric point of contrast.  Like any sectarian discourse, talk of Western civilisation is also performative: in asserting the existence of a distinct culture for the ‘West’, Ramsay aims at producing a sense of cultural difference in its target audience, with the implicit premise that other cultural traditions are, simply, backward in comparison. This involves an elitist dimension, too: elevating a singular ‘Western civilisation’ into an object of academic enquiry tells people that universities, where ‘civilisation’ can be taught by certified experts, is the true locus of cultural identity. The very idea of culture as fundamentally permeable and hybrid is anathema—‘civilisation’ is, for this point of view, a precious and fragile achievement, typically of elites, and it is threatened, not enriched, when it is brought into contact with difference. The Ramsay Centre’s academic director, Stephen McInerney, has suggested that students’ cultural literacy suffers from not reading texts from the Western canon together: for McInerney, European books belong together, and students’ education is compromised if this does not happen.

When Ramsay talks of Western civilisation, it is really talking about the leading themes of political and economic liberalism—free-market capitalism and its associated norms and institutions. It’s striking, in fact, that ‘market capitalism’ regularly crops up as one of the ‘Western values’ that conservatives see as needing to be studied. Ramsay’s money, after all, was made through private health care, and the Ramsay board is stuffed with business figures. As well as his time as an intelligence analyst, Simon Haines’ impressively varied CV contains spells as a London banker and a three-year term as chairman of the OECD’s Budget Committee. In a context where 58 per cent of people born between 1980 and 1996 think socialism is worth a try, the need for a counter-offensive on the Right must be sorely felt. Outfits like Ramsay oblige.

Confronted with the criticism that its breathless celebration of ‘Western civilisation’ ignores the most basic facts of Europe’s history, Ramsay supporters make a response that is highly characteristic of the contemporary Right. It was perfectly exemplified last month when Ramsay hosted the cultural provocateur Helen Pluckrose, editor of Areo magazine and a perpetrator of the dismal ‘grievance studies’ hoax. It’s useful to analyse what Pluckrose said carefully, since it brings out the subtle ways in which right-wing ideologues reinforce racism, all the while claiming to do the opposite. In her talk, Pluckrose told the audience that

we know that the modern period saw slavery, colonialism, the tyranny of monarchs and the church, war, genocide, famine, racism, sexism and homophobia. So did every other period. Modernity was the one in which we gained the capacity to realise this was wrong. Not all at once and not in a straight line. The progress took hundreds of years, but in terms of human history, it was remarkably fast.

So uncommon to human societies was this, in fact, that the societies that have benefitted from it are referred to as WEIRD societies: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. And we are a new and strange phenomenon. But these are the reason I, an atheist woman from a working-class background, am able to read and develop my own ideas and speak and write them freely. They are also how I travelled across the world in a day to speak to you, having not died in childbirth.

The accomplishments of the modern West, in other words, are distinctive to it, but the numerous crimes of Western societies have nothing, for Pluckrose, to do with the distinctive history of Europe but simply reflect universal human failings. Pluckrose is happy for the West to take all the credit for its achievements but none of the blame for its defects. In its determination to glorify European achievements and excuse European crimes, this is, fundamentally, a supremacist vision.

***

From the start, Ramsay has hardly been distinguished by its ideological originality. So it makes sense that it has decided to attack what the Right widely sees as the prevailing culture of university humanities, which it captures with the usual vague, catch-all labels—‘postmodernism’, ‘postcolonialism’, ‘gender studies’, ‘deconstruction’. At her Ramsay talk, Pluckrose targeted exactly these currents of thought, criticising them for illiberalism and relativism.

For all her desire to discredit them, Pluckrose’s knowledge of the contemporary humanities is unimpressive. Her and Ramsay’s complaint of a monolithic and totalitarian groupthink in universities is caricatural. It never acknowledges that the intellectual tendencies constituting the humanities are diverse and embrace a wide variety of divergent philosophical positions: ‘identity politics’, for instance, does not enjoy the unchallenged hegemony on the intellectual Left that right-wing observers like to claim.

This point is worth exemplifying in greater detail, since it significantly damages the Right’s basic case against contemporary universities. Some scholars, for instance, criticise both Western colonialism and its ongoing destruction of Indigenous people’s lives and the kinds of postmodernism and postcolonialism that intellectual reactionaries also deplore. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, ‘Many indigenous intellectuals actively resist participating in any discussion within the discourses of post-coloniality. This is because post-colonialism is viewed as the convenient invention of Western intellectuals which reinscribes their power to define the world’. In suggesting that a critique of colonialism lines up with philosophical commitment to postcolonial theory, conservatives like Pluckrose are distorting the actual state of affairs. Richard Rorty, one of the major figures in the Anglo-American humanities of the second half of the twentieth century, is another example. Rorty is associated with a fundamentally social vision of knowledge and inquiry—knowledge, he says, is about conversation and social practice—and offers a critique of objectivity and representation that crystallises much of what the contemporary Right objects to. But for anyone who believes the Right’s caricatures, the first sentence of Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America—‘National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement’—must come as a shock, as must the critique of certain strands of postmodernism that comes later.

It’s not really, of course, a surprise that work in the humanities fails to conform to the descriptions of it found in right-wing polemicists’ tirades. Nor is the point just about the academic ‘Left’: supposedly conservative thinkers also uncomfortably complicate the Right’s simplistic vision of intellectual debate. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a philosopher deeply invested in the European philosophical tradition, is a case in point. Gadamer’s stress on the canon of Western thinkers, his reverence for the tradition of canonical European thought, his defence of authority and ‘prejudice’—all these qualities distinguish him as a conservative and suit him admirably to the Ramsay Centre’s purposes. But in Truth and Method, his major work, Gadamer also mounts a strong argument against the possibility of objective understanding and against ‘the fundamental presupposition of the Enlightenment’, a commitment to the ‘methodologically disciplined use of reason’ as a safeguard from error. For Gadamer, human understanding can’t be objective because it is historically conditioned: ‘reason,’ he says, ‘exists for us only in concrete, historical terms’, it ‘remains constantly dependent on the given circumstances in which it operates’. This sounds like exactly the kind of relativism that triggers many on the Right. Yet Gadamer is mostly thought of as a basically ‘conservative’ philosopher. 

No serious assessment of the contemporary humanities could reasonably ignore Rorty, Gadamer or Indigenous critics of colonialism. But all three show that the ideological fronts do not lie where the Right places them. Pluckrose is typical of conservatives in setting up a leftist straw man that she sees as dominating work in Arts faculties, shutting her eyes to the complexities of actually existing thought in the fields concerned. It’s the same conception of the humanities dispensed by talkback-radio bullies and apoplectic contributors to the letters page of The Australian, and a sign of the lack of seriousness of the case. The very idea, implicit in conservatives’ denunciation of ‘leftist groupthink’, that the contemporary humanities are free of debate is absurd: all the humanities disciplines of which I have any knowledge, including my own, Linguistics, are fractious. When the Right calls out the conformism of the contemporary humanities, it is objecting to the mere existence of some—loose—regions of consensus on points that displease it. But if such loose consensus is ‘groupthink’, then the alternative, much more doctrinaire intellectual positions that motivate the Ramsay Centre’s activities, accompanied by the express intention to enforce them in its teaching, are far worse.

***

The Ramsay Centre is just one front of the wider ideological offensive being conducted by the Right on campuses throughout the Anglosphere. Here, it has also manifested in the bizarre new free-speech code for universities recently designed by the former chief justice of Australia, Robert French, commissioned by the federal government as a response to the fantasy of a left-wing takeover of higher education. Another response to the same imagined takeover is the Heterodox Academy, a US-based organisation established to battle orthodoxy and increase ‘viewpoint diversity’ in universities: one of Heterodox’s founders and a strong critic of the ‘campus Left’, Jonathan Haidt, is a Ramsay invited speaker this year. The Heterodox Academy and Ramsay both want to bring more conservative scholars onto campus. Steven Pinker, who gave a keynote address at the Heterodox Academy’s conference this year, characterised universities as ‘festering in intolerance, dogma and repression’, a situation he particularly blamed on the ‘regressive Left’, throwing in some unimaginative red-baiting for good measure. Another Heterodox member is Eric Kaufmann, author of the much-discussed Whiteshift, who argues for lower immigration into Western countries and advocates political accommodation of ‘white interests’. Whiteshift consistently frames antiracism as a ‘taboo’ and hence as something premodern and irrational; ‘like 75-80 per cent of people across eighteen mainly Western countries, I don’t think a white person who wants reduced immigration to help maintain their group’s share of the population is being racist’, Kaufmann writes. At Sydney University, local members of the Heterodox Academy have argued in favour of the Western Civilisation proposal.

In June, the Sydney Morning Herald revealed the existence of a rift between the Ramsay Centre itself and the Ramsay Foundation, the body ultimately in charge of disbursing Ramsay’s money. Appalled by the hullaballoo over the Western Civilisation degree, the foundation has presented the centre with an ultimatum: finalise arrangements with universities, or forget about getting money for any other purposes. This gives Haines a powerful incentive to sign contracts with vice-chancellors. At the time of writing, Ramsay appears to be making overtures to the University of Western Australia; the possibility of collaboration with Sydney remains on the table, the overwhelming and ongoing opposition of staff and students notwithstanding.

Ramsay and its campus supporters have frequently rejected the charges their opponents make against them, but they have never refuted them through detailed argument: in a real sense, the case against Ramsay remains unanswered. In this, as in other respects, the Ramsay episode has given one of the clearest recent illustrations of the irrationality and opportunism of Australia’s underfunded higher-education sector: university administrations’ cavalier disregard of academics’ judgment; the irresponsibility of the fence sitters and those who claim they ‘just don’t see’ Ramsay’s plain-as-day agenda; the double standard of supposedly progressive intellectuals who justify accepting money from the most reactionary sources; the general insulation of academic governance from collegiality, expertise or workplace democracy. This is a bleak picture. In a society where indicators of authoritarianism—loss of press freedom, surveillance, the criminalisation of unions and whistleblowers—are showing red, universities offer scant grounds for optimism.

The views in this article are the author’s own.

Douglas Murphy on the Corporate Elite, Environmental Collapse

In my last post, I reviewed Douglas Murphy’s Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture (London: Verso 2016). This is about the rise and fall of Modernist architecture. This style, whose antecedents can be traced back to the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, and which was strongly influenced by architects and thinkers as widely different as Le Corbusier and Buckminster Fuller, was an attempt to create cheap, available buildings to cater for the needs of the future, as it was predicted in the 1950s and ’60s. This was an optimistic period that looked forward to economic growth, increasing standards of living, beneficial technological innovation, and, crucially, the ability of the state to plan effectively for people’s needs. This was a future that looked forward to a future, which automation would mean that people only worked for three days each week. The rest of the time, people would voluntarily go back into education to develop themselves. As Buckminster Fuller enthusiastically proclaimed that ‘within a century the word “worker” will have no current meaning’.

As automation eliminates physical drudgery, we will spend more time in the future in intellectual activity. The great industry of tomorrow will be the university, and everyone will be going to school’. (p. 27).

Fuller was one of the pioneers of the nascent environmentalist movement, and coined the term ‘spaceship Earth’ to describe the loneliness and fragility of our planet and its ecosystem.

Other influences on Modernist architecture were Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, about the devastating effect pollution, and particularly the insecticide DDT was having on wildlife. and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. Silent Spring’s title referred to the massive decline in America’s bird population caused by crop spraying with the insecticide. Limits to Growth was based on an attempt to use computers to model the performance of the world economy and the effect this would have on the environment. It assumed that resources were only finite and a growing global population. The intention was to test various changes in policy and see what effects this would have in the near to mid-future. The results were extremely ominous. The first run found that

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on the planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probably result will be a rather suddent and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity. (p. 176).

This prediction of collapse was constant in subsequent runs, despite the changes in factors. Sometimes the collapse was sharper. One variation meant that it would be put off for fifty years. Another left some resources still in existence after the collapse for some kind of civilisation to continue. But all the models predicted disaster.

Moreover, technological innovation was unable to prevent the collapse. The authors of the experiment stated that technological optimism was the most common and most dangerous reaction to their findings, because it tended to solve some of the symptoms of the problems while leaving the actually causes untouched. The only real solution was to halt population growth, reduce the consumption of resources, switch capital investment from industry to education, combat pollution, improve agriculture and extend the productive life of capital.

While this is extremely restrictive, nevertheless the authors of the report believed that there was still room for optimism, because it allowed what many would consider the most desirable and satisfying human pursuits – education, art, music, religion, basic scientific research, athletics and social interaction, to continue.The book was highly influential, and discussed by powerful figures like Kurt Waldheim, the UN Secretary General in 1973, and President Giscard d’Estaing of France.  It was also widely criticised. Its critics complained that the model was too simplistic, and the authors themselves acknowledged that the model was rudimentary. It was also asserted that capitalism would find solutions to these problems, and industry would switch to a different, more productive direction. And also humanity would in time find solutions, both social and technological, to the problems.

However, Murphy goes on to comment that despite criticisms and attempts to move industrial society away from its current disastrous direction, the book’s predictions appear to hold true. He writes

Despite the massive emotional and political investment in moving the world away from its destructive course and onto more sustainable paths, none of the great many harbingers of doom from the period managed to shift capitalism off its growth-led and industrially intensive direction. There may be no need to defend the primitive systems of Limits to Growth and its ‘world model’ of 1972, but in recent years it has become a common sight to see the graph of the ‘standard model’ catastrophe with actual data from the subsequent forty years superimposed upon it. When this is done the graphs match almost perfectly, right up to around the present day, which is the point where the collapse is due to begin. (p. 180, my emphasis).

One of the responses to the predictions of environmental collapse was the proposal that special biospheres – enclosed buildings enclosing parts of the natural environment – should be built to protect some areas from destruction. One example of such a project is the Biosphere 2 experiment of the 1990s, in which a group of eight volunteers attempted to live inside such an enclosed artificial ecosystem for three years.

In his conclusion, Murphy points out the difference between the ’60s prediction of the benefits of automation and those of today, writing

Back then, automation was seen almost universally as a rising tide that would set people free from drudgery, but now, the mass automation of intellectual work promised by the algorithms of the technology industry seems much more likely to raise the drawbridge between the wealthy and the masses even further. Instead of people working a few days a week and fulfilling themselves with creative leisure at other times, it appears more likely that people will become more tightly squeezed into the last remaining jobs whose empathy and emotional labour the robots cannot synthesise.

And instead of enclosed cities, in which all citizens can live in harmony with nature, he predicts these will instead become the sole preserve of the rich.

Finally, instead of living in giant structures balancing the energy needs of cities with the natural world around them, it seems more likely that the lack of action on carbon dioxide emissions, combined with rising inequality across human society, will lead instead to the creation of climate enclaves, fortified cities for the super rich, self-sufficient in energy and food yet totally barricaded off from those outside who will be left to fend for themselves – the ultimate in Slotendijk’s bubbles. (p. 221).

When I read the above passage remarking on the apparent accuracy of the predictions in Limits to Growth, I thought of all the figures in big business and right-wing politics telling us that there’s no need to worry and we can carry on polluting and destroying the planet – the Koch brothers, the Republicans in America and Conservatives and Lib Dems over here, the oil and fracking companies, the newspapers pushing climate denial, like the Daily Heil and the Spectator, Nigel Farage and the Brexit party, Mick Hume and the wretched Spiked magazine and all the rest. And my reaction was the same as Charlton Heston’s in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, when he finally finds out that he is not on an alien world, but on an Earth after humanity has virtually destroyed itself in a nuclear war.

I really hope that the predictions are wrong, and that this isn’t the high point of our civilisation and that there won’t be any collapse. I’m sure that there are plenty of good objections to Limits to Growth.

But we still need to combat the environmental crisis, and kick out the corrupt politicians, who are taking the money from polluting industries and allowing the destruction of the Earth’s precious environment and the squandering of its resources. We need an end to Republican, Conservative governments and the political parties that aid, like the two-faced Lib Dems, and the election of genuinely Green, socialist governments under leaders like Jeremy Corbyn.

 

The Rise and Fall of Modern Architecture, Environmentalism and a Humane Planned Environment

Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture, by Douglas Murphy (London: Verso 2016).

This is one of the books I’ve been reading recently, and it’s fascinating. It’s about the rise and fall of Modern architecture, those grey, concrete, Brutalist eyesores that were built from the 1950s onwards. This book shows how they were seen at the time as the architecture of the future, widely praised and admired until opposition against this type of architecture came to head in the 1970s.

Megastructures’ Design and Ideology in the Age of Space Travel and the Car

Murphy shows that this type of architecture drew its inspiration from space travel, as well as underwater exploration. It was optimistic, and came from a time when it was believed that the bureaucratic state could plan and build better communities. In Britain part of its stimulus came from the massive congestion in British towns caused by the growth in motor traffic. With the number of motor vehicle accidents rising, The British government published a report recommending the clearance of the older areas of towns. Pedestrians and motor vehicles were to be kept separate. There were to be submerged roads and motorways, while pedestrians were given raised walkways and under- and overpasses. At the same time, the post-war housing crisis was to be solved. Homes were to be made as cheaply as possible, using the methods of industrial production. Concrete panels and other items were to be prefabricated in factories, and then assembled on site by smaller crews of workers than traditionally used in house-building. The masses were to be housed in new estates, or projects in America, and most notoriously in tower blocks. Architects also drew their inspiration from the American architect and guru, Buckminster Fuller and his massive geodesic domes. A series of world expos from the 1930s onwards across the world portrayed megastructures as the architecture of a brilliant future of space colonisation. Giant metal frames were to be built above the cities themselves. As it was believed that society was going to be more mobile, ‘plug-in’ cities were designed. In Archigram’s design of that name, cranes would move along these frames, building and tearing down new structures as and when they were needed. This idea reached its culmination in architectural designs in which the space-frame was all there was, the interior occupied by nomadic hippies. In Britain, the architect Cedric Price to the logic of structures that could be easily altered and rearranged to logical extreme. His design for a new university campus, the Potteries Thinkbelt, was based in a railway yard, so that trains could haul around the various structural elements and place them in new configurations as required.

The architecture for these projects threatened to be monotonous, so architects attempted to provide for this. The Habitat 67 building designed by the Israeli-Canadian architects, Moshe Safdie, was modular. Each element was a self-contained box. However, these could be added and arranged in a number of different ways to create flats of different dimension, in an overall block of great complexity. A Dutch architect believed that the solution was for the state to provide the frame work for a housing block, with the residents building their own homes to their tastes. Another British architect, designing a housing block in one of the northern cities, tried to solve this by opening an office in the city, where people could drop in and give him their ideas, criticisms and suggestions. The result was a long, concrete block of housing, which nevertheless had some variety. At points there were different designs in the concrete, and woods of different colours were also used in some places.

Geodesic Domes and Space Age Megacities

There were also plans to use geodesic domes to allow the construction of massive cities in places like the arctic. One plan for a town in the Canadian north had it lying under an inflatable dome to protect it from the harsh environment. The town would be located near a harbour, to provide easy communications with the rest of Canada. It would be heated using the water used to cool the nuclear reactor, that would provide it with its power. People would enter and leave it through airlocks, and to cope with the sixth-month long darkness of the arctic winter, a powerful lamp would be mounted on tracks above the dome to provide an artificial sun, and thus simulate daylight in temperate regions. And to cope with the white nights of the arctic summer, the glass panels in the dome would darken to simulate evening and night in temperate climes. The French submarine explorer and broadcaster, Jacques Cousteau, was involved in a plan to build a floating city off Monte Carlo. Buckminster Fuller himself had plans to enclose Manhattan under a massive dome. There were plans for pyramid cities the size of mountains, along with the arcologies of Paul Soleri. These were also mountain-sized, but resembled termite mounds.

Modernism and the Green Movement

The architects of these cities were also deeply influenced by the nascent green movement, and the publication of Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. This predicts the fall of civilisation some time before 2100, due to population exceeding food production, environmental degradation and resource depletion. These environmental concerns were taken up by the hippies, many of whom deliberately chose the dome as the architecture of their communes. They wanted a technological future in which humanity lived in harmony with nature. The communalist movement in the US produced the massive influential Whole Earth Catalogue, which spread its ideals and methods to a wider audience.

Decline and Abandonment

But this modernist vision fell out of favour in the 1970s through a number of factors. The commune movement collapsed, and its members drifted off to join the mainstream, where many became the founders of the IT revolution. The social changes that the megastructures were intended to provide for didn’t occur. There were a series of scandals following disasters at some of these structures, such as the fire at the Summerland holiday resort in the Isle of Man, which killed fifty people. Much of this new housing was shoddily built, using dangerous and substandard materials. In some instances there was corruption between the builders and local politicians. They were also blamed for increased social problems, like crime. At the same time, grass roots activists protested against the destruction of already living, working class communities in the name of progress. There was also widespread scepticism at the ability of the bureaucratic state to plan successful new cities and estates. And for a moment it seemed that the collapse of civilisation predicted by the Club of Rome wasn’t going to happen after the passing of the energy crisis and the oil boom of the 1980s. At the same time, much of the antipathy towards concrete housing blocks in the West was simple Conservative anti-Communism because they resembled those of eastern Europe, where the same views and techniques had been adopted.

These result was that Modernist architecture fell out of favour. Many of the housing estates, tower blocks, town centres and university campuses built in it were demolished or else heavily modified. In its place emerged post-modernism, which consciously drew on the architecture of past age and was itself largely a return to the French style of architecture that existed from the late 19th century to the First World War. This had been abandoned by some progressive and socialist architects because they felt that it had expressed and embodied the capitalist values that had produced that War. Thatcher and the Tories enthusiastically supported this attack on architectural Modernism, and the emphasis that was placed instead on the home represented the return of the Conservative values of family and heritable property.

The only remnants of Modern architecture are now the High-Tech buildings of the modern corporate style, as well as shopping malls, airports, and university campuses, while the environmental domes intended to preserve nature, which are ultimate descended from the Stuttgart Winter Garden, built in 1789, and the Crystal Palace, have survived in the notorious Biosphere experiments in the 1990s, which collapsed due to internal wrangling among other things.

Biodomes and the Corporate Elite

While Murphy is scathing about some of the projects he discusses – he rails against the domed arctic city as trite and resembling something out of 2nd-rate Science Fiction novels – he warns that the problems this style of architecture was designed to solve has not gone away. Although widely criticised, some of the predictions in Limits to Growth are accurate and by rejecting Modernist architecture we may be closing off important solutions to some of these problems. The environmental dome has returned in plans by the new tech companies for their HQs, but they are shorn of the underlying radical ideology. And as the unemployment caused by automation rises and the environment continues to deteriorate, biodomes will only be built for the corporate rich. They will retreat to fortress cities, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

Conclusion: Modernist Planning Still a Valid Approach in Age of Mass Unemployment and Environmental Crisis.

It’s a fascinating book showing the links between architecture, politics, environmentalism and the counterculture. While it acknowledges the defects of this style of architecture, the book also shows clearly how it was rooted in an optimistic view of human progress and the ability of the bureaucratic state to provide suitable housing and institutional buildings to serve its citizens’ needs. And it does a very good job at attacking the Tories’ abandonment of such schemes in the name of the free market. Much of the architecture of this style is, in my opinion, still monumentally ugly, but some of it sounds awesome. Like the domed city of the arctic north. It is a space-age city, and one that could be easily built on the Moon or elsewhere. For all the author’s denunciations of it, I found its design highly inspiring. And I believe him to be right about the intentions of the global elite to hide in their private fortified cities if and when the policies they have demanded and implemented cause the environment and civilisation to collapse.

This is a warning we cannot afford to ignore. We need to get the corporatists and neo-liberals out, and proper Green governments in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Refugees in Higher Education: Debate, Discourse and Practice by Jacqueline Stevenson and Sally Baker

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 30/06/2019 - 7:00pm in

20 June is World Refugee Day. In their new book Refugees in Higher Education: Debate, Discourse and Practice, Jacqueline Stevenson and Sally Baker offer a comprehensive discussion of the policies and practices that seek to ensure refugee students access to higher education, focusing on the UK and Australia. This book challenges the context of global efforts to widen participation in higher education systems for students […]

Do the best academics fly more?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 21/06/2019 - 7:59pm in

Academic flying is often justified on the basis that international conferences and travel are important to the production of new knowledge. As such, travel brings researchers into contact with new ideas, allows them to share and refine their own ideas and therefore improves the quality of their research. However, in this post Seth Wynes argues that beyond a certain level […]

Private Eye’s Ian Hislop Pushes the Anti-Semitism Smears on Have I Got News For You

This is another issue that I couldn’t let pass without comment. On Friday on the Beeb’s satirical news quiz show, Have I Got News For You, Ian Hislop took it upon himself once more to push the establishment smear that anti-Semitism is rife in Labour. The editor of Private Eye was responding to a question about the expulsion of Alistair Campbell, Blair’s former spin doctor, by the party for saying he voted Lib Dem in the elections. As Mike and Martin Odoni have shown on their blogs, Labour has Campbell bang to rights. What he’s done is very much against Labour party regulations. And Martin has further pointed out that there is no hypocrisy on Jeremy Corbyn’s part for his congratulation of George Galloway when he won Bradford West for the Respect Party. He was only doing what other Labour leaders have done before, such as Neil Kinnock when he congratulated John Major on becoming leader of the Tories. There really isn’t any comparison of the two cases. See

https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2019/05/29/reaction-to-alastair-campbells-expulsion-from-labour-demonstrates-how-pathetically-easily-led-centrists-are/

Campbell whined about how there was a difference between his case and those of members accused of anti-Semitism. Mike pointed out that Campbell’s whinge was a case of sour grapes, and there were differences between his and other Labour party members. Like Kerry-Ann Mendoza, the mighty chief of The Canary, had been thrown out of the party for admitting she voted Green before she joined the Labour party. As for those accuse of anti-Semitism, if they are high-up in the Labour party, and aren’t supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, an excuse will be found not to investigate them and exonerate them. If they’re high-profile supporters of Corbyn, any excuse will be found to expel them. As happened to Mike, who didn’t get any right to appeal.

Alastair Campbell expelled from Labour – but he thinks HE has been mistreated

Hislop, however, is ignorant of all of this, and followed Campbell’s line, ranting that no-one had been expelled for anti-Semitism with a sneer at Ken Livingstone. Livingstone, he claimed, was particularly foul because he had said that Hitler was ‘a little bit Zionist’. 

This comes just after the Equalities and Human Rights Commission announced it was investigating Labour for anti-Semitism, and the MP, Peter Willsman, was suspended on anti-Semitism charges. Why? He claimed quite reasonably that the Israeli embassy may be interfering in the internal politics of the Labour Party. It is an entirely reasonable question, given that Shai Masot, the Israeli embassy official guilty of plotting to decide with British civil servants which Tories would serve in May’s cabinet, offered Joan Ryan of Labour Friends of Israel £1 million in funding at a Labour conference. See

The Peter Willsman debate is a parade of ignorance

As for the assertion that Livingstone was somehow lying about Hitler’s support for Zionism, no, it’s historical fact. Mike, Tony Greenstein, myself and many, many other bloggers have made it very clear that this is so, quoting chapter and verse from the relevant sources. As has John Newsinger, a historian at one Bath’s excellent universities, who is a regular contributor to the conspiracy magazine, Lobster. Hitler and the Nazis did indeed initially support the Zionists from the cynical motive of simply wishing to get the Jews out of Germany. It’s called the Ha’avara Agreement, and there’s even a page about it on the website of the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, in Israel.

But history, genuine history, in this case, rather than establishment smears, appears to be utterly foreign to Hislop in this issue.

Just as it is to his magazine, Private Eye. I still read it, and it contains much excellent material, but it has consistently smeared Corbyn and his supporters as anti-Semites. These have included smear pieces from its correspondent ‘Ratbiter’, alias the Groaniad’s Nick Cohen. Like the rest of the lamestream media, it completely accepts the anti-Semitism smear unquestioningly. And it has never, ever interviewed anyone on the receiving end of those smears, like Mike, Martin, Tony, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Cyril Chilson and on and on.

If you’re falsely smeared as an anti-Semite, Ian Hislop and his magazine were support the smear and the smearers, not you.

Which gives the lie to his claim that his magazine is somehow anti-establishment and brings you the stories the other parts of the media won’t touch. Admittedly, this is often true, but on certain issues Hislop, Private Eye and Have I Got News For You solidly toe the establishment line. The anti-Semitism smears about the Labour party is one case. The claim that Putin is the aggressor in the Ukraine and a threat to the freedom of the eastern European states is another.

I’ve been tempted many times to write a letter of complaint to Private Eye about their promotion of the anti-Semitism smears, but I’m afraid it would do no good. They either wouldn’t publish it, or would publish it in a very carefully edited form that would deliberately weaken my argument and allow them to publish a reply that appeared to refute it completely. Or else I’d find that my details had been passed on to the CAA or other Zionist smear merchants and trolls, and I’d be accused in turn of being an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier like Mike. Are Hislop and his crew at Private Eye that nasty? I hope not, but as they are part of the media establishment, and the media establishment is that vicious, I’d rather not find out.

As for Have I Got News For You, Hislop and the Beeb were boasting a few months ago that people trust it more than the ordinary newspapers, especially asylum seekers, who come from countries where the state heavily controls and censors the news. This is dangerous, because the BBC itself is very heavily biased against Labour, and consistently follows the Tory, government line. Which is unsurprising, given the number of Beeb newsroom staff, who left to find jobs working as the Tories’ spin doctors. Have I Got News For You appears to be impartial, but it also follows the government line in pushing certain interpretations of news stories. The fact that the Maidan Revolution in the Ukraine in 2012 was carefully orchestrated by the American State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy, will definitely not be covered, either by the mainstream British news or by Have I Got News For You and Hislop’s mighty organ, Private Eye. And neither will they ever publish the truth behind the anti-Semitism smears.

Hislop once again ignores history to smear Livingstone, the Labour Party, and everyone, who has been false accused of anti-Semitism. And despite the satire, Have I Got News For You is, like much of the Beeb’s news coverage when it comes to Labour, fake news.

Book Review: The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students by Anthony Abraham Jack

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 27/05/2019 - 8:00pm in

In The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, Anthony Abraham Jack seeks to better comprehend the unnoticed heterogeneous experiences of first-generation, low-income students navigating campus life at elite universities in the United States. This is a significant contribution to debates on class and mobility, writes Malik Fercovic, that compels us to think carefully about the responsibilities of elite […]

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