Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

Below is a link to the audio of a brief talk I gave at the Environment and Susatinability Institute at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in November 2014. It covers the topics of history, environmental catastrophe, everyday life, and most importantly, the democratic deficit in decisions regarding the fate of the world around us. The original text of the talk is also included below.

Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall


Sustainable Cornwall

Asking the Right Questions: Disaster and Resilience in Modern Cornwall

I wish to start with some questions, and to emphasize, as a whole, the idea of sustainability as a question, rather than as an answer to a question:

1. What does it mean to say Cornwall should be sustainable?

2. Whose sustainability are we talking about?

3. Should we be seeking to sustain what we have? (Is it really the best we can imagine?)

Why such queries? Because, I have real problems with the idea of sustainability as something we are searching for in the here and now. Something we should be producing by influencing behaviour or attitudes. I think this ‘project’, if it deserves the name, hides as much as it reveals.

From a critical perspective sustainability can be argued to be a conservative ideology. Keeping things as they are (sustaining the natural or the social world) is very much the project of the rich and powerful. From their perspective things are just fine, and we should keep them going very much as they are. Sustainability promises to stave off change, to do just enough to ameliorate social and environmental catastrophe such that our society’s power relations (especially the class relation) remain the same.

For those of us who desire change, who really want a fundamentally different and more just form of society, sustainability is the enemy. For us any demand for sustainability always comes too late, for the catastrophe is already upon us. Whether it is the global catastrophe of climate change, or the personal catastrophe of foodbank poverty, we already inhabit an apocalypse. Future risks and disasters hold no fear; we are already living with disaster.

Indeed, it is this idea that we already inhabit a catastrophe that I would like to explore now by looking at some of our evidence from an oral history of the Torrey Canyon oil disaster in Cornwall, which took place in 1967. This incident (which is both carefully remembered and carefully forgotten) is of interest not simply as an example of an environmental and social disaster close to ‘home’, but also for the way in which those interviewed about it consistently critiqued and undermined common academic and governmental notions of what sustainability is all about. They point to the reality of modern ‘resilience’, that life under capitalism was, and continues to be, a life of uncertainty, insecurity and risk, in which there is no choice but to be ‘resilient’. More than this, they suggest what is really missing in terms of most discussions of sustainability – radical democracy and revolutionary change.

One of the most striking things about people’s memories of the Torrey Canyon going aground was the importance of fear in the experience. Apart from the smell of the oil, fear was a profound and common memory of the disaster. Unsurprising you might think, but this fear was not, in general, grounded in concerns about damage to the natural environment or risks to human health, as would have been perfectly reasonable. Rather it was grounded in economic insecurity, and the fear that the destruction of Cornwall’s beaches might spell the end of the tourist industry on which many families in Cornwall were increasingly reliant by the 1960s. One interviewee, from St Ives remembered going to the shops for a newspaper and the owner shouting that “we’re finished, we’re finished, the summer is gone”. Others recalled ‘panic’, and ‘overwhelming fear’ that the economic basis of local society was about to collapse.

Such fears partly (but only partly) explain the nature of the response to the incident, the large scale (and excessive) use of toxic detergents to disperse the oil. The use of detergents, as anyone who has followed the results of the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or elsewhere, will know was an ecological catastrophe, destroying much of the inshore marine ecology of Cornwall. As there was no extensive baseline ecological research of the shoreline undertaken before 1967, we are still unsure exactly how disastrous this was, or how long-lasting. But many of our interviewees felt the results were profound and permanent.
In short, to save the local tourist economy Cornwall’s coastal ecology was sacrificed on a vast scale. Yet, this deliberate sacrifice was a kind of ‘sustainability’ in action. The key emergency was a social and economic one, and this took priority in terms of the state’s response to the disaster.

Whose sustainability was reproduced in the context of this disaster? That of the local tourist industry for one, but also that of a global oil production and distribution complex. The catastrophic loss of one of the world’s first supertankers led to an international legal effort by the Labour government to recover some of the cost of the clean-up, but the fundamental right of giant corporations such as Barracuda Oil and BP to transport such cargoes at such risk to maritime populations was not, and never has, been challenged.

As such the Torrey Canyon remains a warning of the contradictory consequences of following the dictates of sustainability, without recourse to the democratic question of what one is choosing to sustain. In the end the Cornwall of tourism and large-scale marine transportation was sustained at the expense of local nature, the fishing industry and possibly the health of the local population. This choice was never subject to any democratic right of decision.

And it is important to remember that there was a choice. In France the spill was met with a the use of far less detergent and far more labour to clean oiled oyster beds, which were deliberately protected by the decision to avoid use of dispersants.

Since the Torrey Canyon went aground, we have lived with its consequences. In the short-term much of the oil was dispersed by a combination of the huge human effort to clear the beaches, and natural action. But the material evidences of the disaster remained and were permanent. Our interviewees consistently recalled the way that beaches continued to show the evidence of the disaster through small balls of tar stuck to the bottom of children’s feet. The gutted marine life returned, but slowly, with new and unfamiliar crowds of strangely coloured red seawracks and seaweeds colonising the shoreline.

For others, marine coastal users of various sorts, surf-lifesavers, fishermen and others, there was the memory of all the toxic detergent used to control the impact of the spill and the unknown long-term risks it posed to human and animal well-being. But for many the only available response was to endure. People learned to live with disaster, to forget, even where they remembered, that they lived in an environment permanent transformed by a catastrophe. They were, as they always have to be, resilient, in the face of disaster.

Resilience is the normal, everyday response to catastrophe, the aim to get things back and running as they were. It is a necessary and hopeful response, particularly to those of us who fear for the future of a world that is apparently politically incapable of responding realistically to climate change. Yet, at the same time this resilience poses a political problem. It stood in the way of critical questions being asked about the incident. Why it had taken place? What were its long-term effects?

Most of our interviewees did not respond to the Torrey Canyon by becoming environmental activists or anything like that, though a few did. For many Torrey Canyon was just another, if bigger, marine disaster on Cornwall’s shores, as easily forgotten as it was remembered. One might contrast this to other incidents such as the Exxon Valdez disaster, where local communities in the wake of the catastrophe organised (and continue to organise) for restitution and demanded recognition of the environmental and health impacts of the spill. In Cornwall people were perhaps too resilient, if anything, too willing to go on with life once the immediate fear of economic ruin was past.

Asking Critical Questions
This point is not meant as a criticism of the people of Cornwall. Rather it is a pointer to the ways in which sustainability is as much a political problem as an environmental or social one. Ironically, the Torrey Canyon disaster showed Cornwall to have a very ‘sustainable’ social system. Despite poverty and insecurity, despite an environmental catastrophe of long-lasting consequence, the people of Cornwall got on with living life. Today there are no local movements for environmental justice built around the experience. Some local people found their way into environmental movements, but often cited the later role of organisations such as Surfers Against Sewage, rather than the direct effects of the Torrey Canyon as part of this trajectory.

Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that, hidden deep within our interviews, there were and are still critical questions asked about what sustainability might mean in the context of the Torrey Canyon disaster, but that they are questions that await a proper democratic space in which they might be addressed, or even, for that matter, heard. Take this memory from one of our interviewees.

“To be honest we had never thought about a 100,000 ton tanker running aground. The same with nuclear waste being distributed around the country. It’s just accepted and nothing’s made of it, and you just accept it. We now think, well, moving that amount of oil, is it really a good thing? It’s got to be done, because people need energy, people need heating, warmth, and so on. But there have been a number of ships run aground, oil tankers especially, up in the Orkneys there’s one… Everything’s got to be moved, it’s nice to consider the environment, or you’ve got to consider the environment, but people need heating, people need lighting. But would you prefer to have tankers running around the coast? Or would you prefer wind turbines? Or would you prefer solar panels? I think I’d prefer solar panels to the wind- turbines (laughter)”.

What I love about this response is its intellectual honesty. Its willingness to ask the question that is staring us in the face. What do we want? How do we want to reproduce (or sustain?) our daily lives? Do we want a global oil industry? Or nuclear power? Or windfarms? When you need to consider both the environment and people’s lives what is the right way to go about it?

Yet in the end, as the laughter indicates, we know these questions are a joke. A joke because though we recognise the question, and the problem to be solved, we also recognise that no-one is really going to ask us how to solve it (leave alone allow us the power to decide whether supertankers should be allowed to ply the highseas). That power of decision rests in the hands of transnational global corporations. We know that we have to be resilient, to endure the potentially catastrophic consequences of this condition of things, because we are not offered another choice. We know that there is no democratic mechanism at present capable of allowing people to determine how we make and sustain both people and environment.

Merely asking the right questions doesn’t change these facts, but at least it is a place to start.

On the ‘ridiculous’

There are moments in teaching when students elucidate a point more clearly and precisely than the teacher can. There are moments of self-discovery when everyone in the room is not merely learning, but reorienting their very perspective on the world, asking new questions in new ways. One such moment happened yesterday in my lecture on ‘Capitalism and Climate Change’. The class were discussing Timothy Mitchell’s outstanding political critique of our fossil fuel-based social order, Carbon Democracy. We were working in groups and interrogating our understanding of what Mitchell is trying to say about what is at stake politically in oil-fuelled societies. In effect Mitchell is arguing (I believe) that oil dependent societies came about as a means of undercutting the power of organised labour and of exercising monopoly power in the global market, and that the particular materiality of oil was critical to this project. It is an important argument, if one that I am not wholly convinced by, tainted, as I feel it is, by a certain vulgar materialism.

Nonetheless, there was clearly great interest amongst the group in Mitchell’s perspective. During the discussion three different groups, without prompting, used the same word to describe their understanding of what Mitchell was getting at: ‘ridiculous.’ It is an intriguing word, and the fact that they all used the same term was equally compelling. Something had struck a chord. Something was being seen here for the first time, simultaneously, by a number of people in the group. It was such a curious ‘teachable moment’ that I immediately chose to pursue the theme. Why had they used that word? What did they mean ridiculous? For one group, the notion Mitchell explores that oil companies might undermine their own production in order to push up market prices for their product just made no sense. It was clearly irrational economically and socially; for another, looking at Jevons’ Paradox, the fact that supply and demand might act to turn energy efficiency into the perfect system for the exhaustion of fossil fuels, yet without some kind of conservationist response, was just as perplexing. For others the political effects of using oil to undermine democratic power was disturbing and even counter-intuitive.

It was one of those moments when the assumptions that we have about how the world should be come into open conflict with how it actually is. It was a point where competing rationalities, common sense versus good sense, became apparent. It appeared in a feeling shared by the group in a common point of confusion. I offered some comments on what it might mean to even state that such phenomena were ridiculous when, from the capitalist perspective, they might be perfectly rational, and even beneficial. One student commented that they felt they were being ‘pushed to the left’ by it all, but, as I pointed out, no-one had actually done any pushing at all. The experience was valuable precisely because it was so spontaneous. There was no question of it coming from some pre-existing political agenda of my own; it came from the sense or feeling of my students, who no doubt have a diverse range of political perspectives of their own. Yet this situation had created some kind of a feeling in common. Something can’t be right with a society organised on such irrational lines, can it?

We left the matter there, unreconciled. I felt that we had made such a common leap of self-understanding it was important to leave any question of the conclusions to be drawn for another moment. We had all shared an insight into ourselves, and for the moment that was enough.

Huhne versus History

The great social question of our time, how to respond to climate change, poses us crucial historical questions. Indeed, it might be said that the cisis engendered by anthropogenic climate change is nothing but an historical question. Take Chris Huhne’s recent intervention in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (25 August 2014), for example. His second sentence invokes history (with an absent capital ‘H’). “For the first-time in history”, he claims, “we are growing richer while using less energy”. Let’s leave aside the fact that this claim is probably incorrect, and in any case unlikely to be verifiable, Huhne’s instant resort to historical argument and (lack of) historical evidence tells us something important about the terms of the climate change argument; something that should be taken on board by both historians and public alike.

The second paragraph of Huhne’s article really gets to grips with the historical. From the middle-ages, he argues, “living standards just edged up at a snail’s pace, and we did little damage because forest absorbed carbon from wood burning. The population was small”. Again, leave aside the arguable historical claims here, though it is interesting that Huhne touches on an old socialist-inspired historical debate, now partly forgotten, on the fate of living standards in pre-industrial and industrial Europe. It is intriguing that Huhne commits perhaps one of the more disreputable sins (in the eyes of mainstream historical scholarship at least) of anachronism. Was your average feudal overlord concerned with ‘living standards’? To apply the term to the middle ages sounds bizarre, and its uncanny effect is a warning.

The key lesson of history, is one of constant surprise. Surprise at encountering the strange. Huhne take it as read that the middle ages were concerned with ‘living standards’, but the lesson of the unfamiliar is crucial here. For Huhne’s overall argument, that endless growth of energy usage is now technologically feasible, and with it ever expanding capitalist development and ‘prosperity’, is founded upon precisely leaving out the historical contingency of this mode of thinking about what constitutes wealth. For Huhne, a world in which living standards were of secondary concern, can barely enter into history proper .

After a brief bit of Hobbes on the social condition of England, we enter into history proper with industrialisation and the rise of real GDP, another age-old scene of historical argument among economic historians. We are assured that the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw ‘real progress’ with the rise of male life expectancy. The ‘male’ here stands in for the seething undifferentiated mass of humanity as a whole. Reaching back into the dark depths of my undergraduate years, I recall enormous dispute among historians of medicine regarding the relative importance of nutrition versus public medical provision on the fall in mortality in this period.

All this leads finally to Huhne’s conclusion that prosperity and welfare are directly connected to the scale of energy consumption, and, in the recent past, to fossil fuel consumption.

In order to establish his key foundational claim, that energy use is the base of modern wealth and welfare, Huhne has had stumble through at least three major fields of historical debate. Yet at no time in his argument is history as a scholarly discipline even acknowledged.

As practitioners of a particular form of social critique, historians should be deeply worried by this. That historical claims can be made to found a political claim, in this case the necessity of intensive and extensive energy usage to modern well-being, is hardly a surprise. The fact that historical disciplines, arguments and, most importantly, uncertainties can be more or less excised from such an account is troubling. It points to a key component of modern ideology, the absence of a genuine sense of historical time and of historical ‘otherness’, the idea that things could have been, or will be different.

Yet, of course, Huhne’s article is written not to propose a particular response to climate change, or to debate the science. His argument, that the increasing rate of adoption of new ‘clean’ energy generating technologies is proceeding apace, is precisely intended to propose no change. That we can continue indefinitely with the structure of energy production and use that we have, and, more broadly, with the form of social reproduction with which we (in the global North) are familiar. It is history, of a kind, which allows him to pose and to structure this thought.

Immediate response to his argument from the left predictably, and quite correctly, pointed to the range of empirical mistakes and omissions Huhne made in his understanding of the potential impact of technological change. Andrew Dobson (Guardian, 28 August) provided a succinct demolition of Huhne’s failure to grasp that climate change demands the reduction of global carbon dioxide emissions in absolute, not relative, terms. Yet, Dobson does not acknowledge Huhne’s reliance on a very particular, and very uncertain, understanding of both concrete historical arguments about wealth and welfare, and a particular sense of historical time.

This latter is particularly concerning, and easily missed in focusing on empirical questions. For while Huhne relies on the past as a legitimation of the present, he fails to use it to think any alternative future. Huhne effectively deals in a non-past, he has no sense of the processes of historical change, just a binary opposition between some past, dimly remembered dark age, and our present age of light, wealth and universal well-being. But the difference between past and present is not of this nature, and in this case the nuances of historical thinking, even what we might call the ethics of the historical mindset, matter politically.

We are both more like, and more unlike, our ancestors than we care to admit. Huhne’s article effectively abandons any real sense of the historical as such. He has no conception of the causes of change, no notion of historical conflict or antagonism. He inhabits a mode of thought that truly believes in the progressive character of technology (historians of science take note!). Huhne ultimately inhabits a present without a past in any meaningful sense, without a history that could have been different. Huhne’s article stands as an exemplar of the fundamentally anti-historical mode of thinking that defines genuinely neo-liberal thought, the inability to tolerate any other way of being, in this case any historical ‘other’.

Here, I believe that we encounter the real political meaning of anthropogenic climate change. The discourse of climate change messes with our sense of historical time. It poses, in its most apocalyptic form, an ‘End of History’ scenario. Such an end, constitutes a traumatic encounter for neo-liberals, not simply because it poses the end of capitalism, but because it points to the inadequacy of the non-historical mode of thinking that founds their ideological claims.

History is riven with contingency, unintended consequence, bitter rivalries, the constant barrage of moments in which everything threatens to be radically different. Huhne’s ideas are not dangerous because they suggest to us that all will be well, that technology will rescue neo-liberal capitalism. They are dangerous because they falsely foreclose the contingency of historicity proper, the idea that we can make history beyond the impersonal forces of ‘progress’ and economics.

Anthropogenic climate change has reopened our sense of historical time as a key political battleground in the present.

Why we Still Need a Human History in the Anthropocene

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s engagement with the idea of the concept of the anthropocene has become a key starting point for rethinking the humanities in the era of anthropogenic climate change. His work raises some fundamental questions for the way in which we go about historical research in the present, and, even more profoundly, for the mode in which we think historically at all.

At the heart of Chakrabarty’s 2009 article in Critical Inquiry ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, which has been translated into various languages and circulated widely, is the idea that the emergence of humanity as a geological agent (i.e. as a species with the capacity to transform, and even to destroy, its own conditions of existence) fundamentally undermines the constitutive distinction between human and natural histories. These two forms of historical consciousness (deep time understood through geological research and natural science, and historical time, comprehended through the interpretive textual work of the historian) are, Chakrabarty suggests, now collapsing into one another, with important intellectual and political consequences.

The anthropocene, then, marks the end of the binary distinction between humanist and scientific knowledge that underpinned the Enlightenment rationalist project. Chakrabarty also argues that this collapse queries the distinctive political project of Enlightenment, the pursuit of human freedom (exemplified in the form of historical consciousness that enabled both liberalism and Marxism to function as political projects). In the anthropocene, the natural parameters within which that project was pursued begin to collapse. Human freedom thus threatens to undermine its own conditions of possibility, perhaps suggesting the need to found a radically different kind of politics.

However, Chakrabarty’s anthropocene is not without its own problems, which arise in the course of the article the presumptions and omissions constitutive of his four theses. Let us look at each of these in turn.

Chakrabarty’s first thesis is that anthropogenic climate change spells the end of the “age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history”. It is interesting that he explicitly connects this thesis to anthropogenic climate change rather than the anthropocene in general, which might be argued to include other factors such as the transformation of landscape, growth of population, formation of urban centres and the extinction of species. This move immediately narrows the problem of the anthropocene from a wider historical/geological perspective to the immediate contemporary question of climate change.

This may seem trivial, but, arguably, by making this move Chakrabarty is not at this point addressing the anthropocene all. Each of the factors outlined above might be included in a strictly geological account of the anthropocene, but each also invokes a different temporality. Human intervention in the fate of other species through hunting, farming, genetic modification and/or deliberate extirpation obviously has a long and discontinuous history. By focussing on the immediacy of climate change as crisis, Chakrabarty structures his argument from the perspective of the anthropocene as a transformation occurring now. Obviously, if we have been living in the anthropocene for longer (three of four hundred years perhaps) his conclusions regarding the fate of Enlightenment reason would have to be somewhat different. Chakrabarty’s argument thus rests on a set of constitutive exclusions of certain elements of the totality of the anthropocene idea.

This presentism of Chakrabarty’s anthropocene in the first thesis does further work in his critique of the environment and geography in traditional history. By suggesting that the time of the anthropocene is the time of our present, it is possible for Chakrabarty to argue that environmental and geographical phenomena have generally been viewed as changing only slowly, and therefore operating in a different temporality to that of much human political and social history. Of course, if we were to give the anthropocene itself a deeper history, this would perhaps revise the extent of the challenge it presents to the humanities.

What are we to make of Chakrabarty’s second thesis, that the emergence of humans as a geological force “severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalization”?  Here Chakrabarty investigates the role of freedom in the Enlightenment historical imaginary, and the modern project more generally.  He claims that “most of our freedoms so far have been energy intensive”. Here we enter into a welter of ideas, including the debate over the dating of the anthropocene, none of which really end with any firm conclusions. It does seem however, that at this point in the argument a different temporality is at work that in the first thesis. The beginnings of the industrial epoch now emerge as the deeper history to the anthropocene. The anthropocene, at least in its genesis, no longer acts to disrupt normal historical temporality, but actually becomes commensurable with the history of industrialization and the history of ‘freedom’.

Obviously there is something suggestive about the temporal slippage between the first and second theses. From a radically present-oriented crisis of historicity, we have returned to a radically historicized account of origins, appended to a naturalized account of industrialization as development. It is not clear that the thesis that human freedom and energy intensive industrial development are at all linked by necessity, as opposed to pure contingency. The history of emancipatory struggles before 1750 disappears from this account, as does the history of the MANY defeats of human emancipatory desires in the modern era. Ultimately, it is unclear what kind of history of freedom, if any, Chakrabarty is offering us in this thesis. Did energy intensive industrial organisation really enable the realization of freedom? Or did the achievements of emancipatory struggles (for instance the defeats suffered by the western European feudal order in the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) lay the basis of a social system that would then emerge as energy intensive?

The third thesis that the anthropocene hypothesis “requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans” offers somewhat more clarity, but it is perhaps the least convincing of the four. For the first time we encounter the subject ‘capital’ as an agent in the process of social and ecological transformation. We might wonder why its appearance is so late. But its appearance is of passing kind, the critique of capital appears only to be dismissed as insufficient once the “crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon of the present.” Now Chakrabarty deploys an anthropocene that is neither present, nor past, but future-present, i.e. a ‘known unknown’. That is to say, it is known in its imminent proximity, but unknown in its precise effects.

In fact this thesis is really not a critique of the critique of capital at all. The category of capital is quickly displaced by the non-historical term ‘industrialisation’. Really this thesis is an engagement with the problematic of naturalisation versus historicisation. The proposal to treat humans as an undifferentiated species, or agent, in the Anthropocene is, of course, an assault upon everything that history and historicity stand for, Chakrabarty renders much of this assault as a problem for ‘left historians’, who have always argued that such naturalizing efforts are ideological and suppress the truth of class exploitation beneath an undifferentiated “we”. Yet, this problem also harks back to Herder’s critique of universalising historical logics. It is far from simply a challenge to left historians, it is a challenge to all histories that seek to decentre narratives by displacing the undifferentiated “we” of the human through the practice of historicism. Here there is no need to retreat to a ‘left’ historicism at all; a purely deconstructive reading shows that at stake here are the naturalizing and denaturalizing effects of the discourse of nature itself. Chakrabarty is aware of the treacherous waters being sailed here, but the ultimate conclusion, that we must think simultaneously in two registers, the chronologies of capital and of species history, smacks of an impossible compromise in which there is potentially a great deal to be lost and very little to be gained.

The fourth thesis explores these potential gains, through “probing of the limits of historical understanding” by “cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital.” Here we encounter the most explicitly political of Chakrabarty’s conclusions, and the idea that such a mode of rethinking history might help us to deal with the crisis of global warming. It is notable that at this point the idea that the Anthropocene is again reduced to the question of climate change. This enables Chakrabarty to conclude with his call for a “negative universal history” a history that, by subjecting everyone equally to the risk of global climate apocalypse, constitutes a universal human political subject.

This is certainly a most utopian conclusion, and it is far from supported by the rest of Chakrabarty’s theses. What is curious about this conclusion is the manner in which is posits the emergent human species of the anthropocene as an undifferentiated universal. Throughout his essay Chakrabarty has sailed close to these waters of that antithesis of the historical project, the undifferentiated human “we”, only to row back again furiously. At the end, however, Chakrabarty demonstrates the fullness of his rejection of the Enlightenment project by embracing the idea that between human and natural history one might find, a universal form of human subjectivity, a humanity that would finally reside outside of history.

This is, of course, utterly anthema to Hegelian or Marxian conceptions of totality, where the process of history is precisely driven by the excessive conditions of universality. For Marxists the working-class, the excluded and exploited, are constitutive of capital, but are also the point of potential emancipatory universality, the class that can stand for all others in the historical objective of transcending capitalism and achieving freedom. For Chakrabarty there is no “part of no-part”, no excess. This negative universal is not clearly emancipatory in any sense. Ironically, the anthropocene is seen to generate an organic totality out of rich and poor alike. At the end we perceive our universality in a “shared sense of catastrophe”. We are all paupers now.

So, in the end, Chakrabarty is giving us a fundamentally anti-historical account with distinctly conservative overtones? For all the tacking between the poles of human history and natural history in the end we are left with an organic universal humanity slouched around the catastrophic end of history. Isn’t this exactly the danger of accepting the idea of the anthropocene? What can an undifferentiated universal humanity achieve in this moment of crisis? Who is to do the productive work of defending and reproducing the social world through the crisis of climatic transformation and, we must hope, out the other side? Will the rich be queuing up to divest themselves of their wealth and start shovelling like the rest of us? What kind of political subject could emerge from this universal capable of making the political decisions needed to ensure us a (better) future? If such a subject were to emerge, where should the transformation take place? Must it be global or local in form? How would we negotiate between the rights and needs of the two? A negative universal history offers no answer to these questions, and Chakrabarty does not enlighten us further. In effect he offers us a common without Communism, a universality in which none of the things that really divide us would change at all. Perhaps they would not even be visible to us. In the final analysis, living with this kind of universality might be an even bleaker prospect than living with climatic crisis. It certainly suggests that we should think hard before we conclude that good old-fashioned humanist history has had its day.

News from Somewhere?

I recently attended an event with History and Policy and Friends of the Earth in which a number of historians were invited to offer their comments on the FoE policy review process Big Ideas Change the World. After the event the participants were invited to contribute their own ideas and responses in the form of blog posts. The following is the text of my own reflection. The views expressed are, of course, mine alone.

Tim Cooper


For the historian and critic, the Friends of the Earth paper, Big Ideas Change the World: Mapping a Route from a Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being, makes fascinating reading. The title sets up an opposition between historical failure and future possibility. As Mark Levene has written, in the anthropocene, it is exactly this gap between history and the future which is a potentially productive point of ethical intervention for the historian.

‘Smart optimism’ is the watchword of this document. But a more compelling vision might be that of pragmatic utopianism. In the face of astonishing environmental crises, the authors dare to think in extraordinarily hopeful terms about the future. In so doing they draw upon the resources of hope to be found in history, not least the knowledge that sudden and radical change is not only possible but is, if anything, likely. It is a powerful practical account of why history remains crucial in thinking about the future.

Consider the quiet, but remarkable, radicalism of the claim that global ‘well-being’ should offer the founding principle of social life in the future. This is not simply a claim about fulfilling needs. This is a potentially open-ended, promise. Well-being is, rightly, not delimited to a set of objective economic criteria; it is opened up to being a subjectively open set of social and cultural desires. This is a call for a politics of care that flies in the face of the politics of what Molly Scott Cato has called Austeria.

One is reminded throughout this document of News from Nowhere, William Morris’s compelling vision of a communist England. Framing this document is a vision of how the world will be in 2050. This world of well-being has no material poverty, environmental destruction has been reversed, population stabilised, the fruits of modern production are distributed more equably, and there is good health and health-care for all. Society is still globalised, interconnected and cosmopolitan, but this is no longer the imposed cosmopolitanism of the capitalist market, but a voluntary collaborative cosmopolitanism.

But why is this the world of 2050? How are we to get there? The wonder of News from Nowhere is that Morris brings his utopia into present reality through the dream of his narrator. But in FoE’s route map this utopia remains distant. Perhaps this is one of the profounder weaknesses of time, our timidity in dreaming. Whereas nineteenth-century utopians would unashamedly dare to dream of their tomorrow as already present in their today, we see this as too risky. Our fear of disappointment is palpable.

For most of us 2050 is so far away as to be unimaginable. Ironically, to really radicalise this vision one has to cut out the complex historical process of actually getting there. One must demand this world not for 2050, but for 2014, for tomorrow, for today. One can imagine here a fantastic arts project based around envisioning this world of well-being as the world of today. Not something absent, but something present. That is what political hope is.

And to whom would such a project speak? Who can enact this world of tomorrow today? To whom should this route map be addressed? One must doubt whether it should be ‘policy-makers’. Twenty years of all the policy-making in the world in the field of climate change has enacted one of the most complete failures of politics in the history of modern democracy, perhaps only surpassed by appeasement. The Mauna Loa index of atmospheric carbon dioxide it the historical record of this failure. To ask policy-makers to carry out a revolutionary transformation of our common social life is to suggest they are about to utterly reverse this story of failure.

No! This routemap needs to speak to everyday life. As Alex Loftus argues, it is everyday life which must ultimately be transformed. It is everyday well-being that is at stake. It is to the opponents of incinerators and fracking, the recycling and anti-bin tax campaigners, the wind-farmers and opponents of wind-farms that a political strategy focussed on well-being must address itself. It is in this realm of everyday experience that modern democracy might yet be revolutionised and modern life transformed into a world of well-being.

We are all aware of living with the consequences of the past two-hundred years of capitalist history. We already live in a world living with the effects of climate change. We have a permanent oil crisis that confronts every opponent of fracking or parent on the daily school run. The limits of parliamentary democracy in tacking such existential issues is abundantly clear as politicians dump green levies to subsidise energy monopolists.

If history tells us anything, it is that the change to come is not an issue for 2050, it is here already. The historical moment of transformation is already upon is. It is what we do today, and how people in their real lives are mobilised for change now that is building the future world of well-being. FoE’s future strategy must be a strategy for the transformation of everyday life, or it will be nothing.

‘Historical Storytelling’ at New Left Project

This is the text of a blog post I recently wrote for the website ‘New Left Project’. You can link to the original article here.


Andrew Brown recently published a piece about war and civilization on his Guardian blog, an interpretation of a recent multi-authored paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which mathematically models the relationship between war, space and the evolution of complex societies.

Brown concludes that this paper demonstrates a relationship between war and civilization that renders a leftist politics untenable in an age of (European) peace. In summary, he concludes that the findings of this paper should worry the left, as it suggests social solidarity is dependent upon war fighting and that in the absence of “the Spirit of 45” the left will struggle to articulate a better way.

Superficially this may be an attractive argument. In reality, it is indicative of the sorry state of the relationship between history and politics in the present. As such it should act as a wakeup call to historians to start rethinking the role of history in contemporary politics and ideology. There are two problems that Brown’s piece reveals. The first is related to the original paper itself, and the problem of positivist storytelling and historical representation. The second is Brown’s own re framing of history to support the notion that a leftist politics is only possible as a consequence of war. Together, these say much about the ideological context in which historians work today, and against which they must struggle.

The problem of positivist storytelling

To be fair to the authors of the original article, Brown’s interpretation of their article will no doubt come as a surprise. The original paper sets itself rather more modest objectives than Brown’s conclusions suggest, seeking to demonstrate a causal relation between the evolution of ‘complex’ societies and the diffusion of military technologies and warfare. The context for the study is the Afro-Eurasian landmass between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE and the environmental and ecological conditions of that space. The model that the authors deploy incorporates environmental and geographical variations and was relatively successful in reproducing the historically observed patterns of the spread of what the authors term ‘large-scale societies’. Nowhere does the suggestion appear to suggest that this model predicts or explains the potential for a leftist politics in the present, which, after all, is not the question that these researchers have set themselves. Nor is it at all clear that the authors’ would support the claim made by Brown that “states are costly for their inhabitants”.

Given the careful claims to scientificity in the original study, arguably Brown has done a significant disservice to the paper’s findings. It is clear that his reframing of the paper does not accord with the original intent of the authors themselves. However, it is arguably no accident that Brown draws the political conclusions that he does from it. In part the paper itself opens itself up to appropriation through the nature of its claims to historical veracity, which are consistently counter-pointed to mainstream ‘narrative historiography. Throughout, the paper contains a number of remarks about the superiority of mathematical modelling over other forms of historical representation, which are dropped into the text in an uncritical manner, but which suggest that the authors see their mode of representation as distinct from and even superior to) history as such. For instance, paper draws a distinction between their approach and the “traditional method of inquiry that historians use”; a claim that presumes a unity to historical methodology that is empirically dubious, but nonetheless suggestive. Against this “traditional method” the authors pose the idea that mathematical models could be “unambiguously tested against data”, and also used to test “whether alternative hypotheses are equally good at explaining the observed data”.

This claim to be able to unambiguously test data is both the most problematic part of the paper, and arguably exactly what Brown finds useful in his reframing. Here we have a claim to an understanding of a past historical process that offers absolute positivity of knowledge and the prospect of future experimentation. Of course, this positivist enterprise is largely dependent upon the veracity of ‘observed data’, and of the data selected for eventual inclusion in the process of modelling. Interestingly, in the supporting information to the paper, the authors are rather more careful about the claims they make. They point out that they use one-hundred year time slices in their model which misses the “peak of some substantial polities”. Moreover, the data used also leaves out small politics, such as the Greek city states, something the authors’ acknowledge, but surely an intriguing omission in a model claiming to tell us about the evolution of complex societies.

Perhaps more troubling than these, however, is the manner in which the simulation model is tested against historical ‘data’, which they authors tell us come from ‘historical atlases’. Remarkably, given the care taken elsewhere in the paper these atlases are apparently taken as givens. There is no discussion of the problems that may arise from the tendency of historians, archaeologists and geographers to disagree vehemently over the interpretation of past evidence. There is no discussion of the epistemological status of the historical atlas, the process of its composition, how disputes over the geography of past polities are resolved in their composition, at all. In short, this form of historical representation, whilst visual, is subject to all the same narrative ambiguities that the authors are precisely attempt to insure against.

The paper only partially acknowledges this hermeneutic circle, and far too quickly casts aside the problems of relying on ‘data’ which is the result of the precisely the kinds of historical analysis that is elsewhere suggested to be unscientific. This is a serious problem for a process which the authors claim, in a statement which says much about their rather dismissive view of historical method, avoids “cherry-picking examples that support our ideas”. Ultimately, insights along the lines that history is not “just one damned thing after another”, and that, “there are general mechanisms at play in shaping broad patterns of history”, will likely come as no surprise to most historians, especially those responsible for the composition of historical atlases. It never strikes the authors to ask whether they are actually straining to catch a gnat.

Another question that remains unasked is whether a model demonstrating a link between the evolution of complex social development, techniques of war and the environment, is not actually just reproducing the the analytical assumptions of historians. Why do we believe that there are such things as ‘complex’ societies, for example? Why do we think first of war, rather than peace, as a motive factor in their evolution? What determines the legitimacy of the historical question asked in the first place?

Along with Brown’s easy appropriation of their arguments, these unasked questions are indicative of the real problems with this paper. This is not its use of mathematical models, or even the search for causative explanations of history, but rather the paper’s representational naivety. The key question, especially for a paper that omits Greek city-states in a study of the evolution of complex polities, is precisely that of whether mathematical models, stripped as they must be of much of the complexity of social existence or the ambiguities of hermeneutic practice, can ever offer an adequate mode of representation of historical change.

Unfortunately beyond a few chiding remarks at the inadequacies of traditional historiography, it is apparent that the authors have little interest in the detailed problems of representation which have so underpinned historical debate. They do not even acknowledge their positivist progenitors, or the controversies their work brought into focus. There are no references to the problems of past projects that sought to produce causative explanations of the evolution of human civilization based upon natural laws and environmental conditions such as Buckle’s History of Civilisation in England. But, as Brown’s attempt to appropriate their project for a political argument demonstrates, one cannot insulate history from the problem of representation simply through claims to scientificity.

Media framings of history

Brown’s (ab)use of the findings of this paper, however, is quite extraordinary, drawing conclusions in no way justified by either the object of analysis or the results. For instance, the authors of the original paper offer absolutely no ‘explanation’ of “why Western Europe has welfare states and the US has not”, an historical difference that Brown makes no attempt to empirically verify. Why does Brown make this connection? Similarly, the argument that Bismarck established a welfare state for “war preparation” not only ignores the significant empirical fact of the presence of a strongly organised working-class movement on the development of the German state before 1914, it goes far beyond any of the conclusions of the PNAS paper. Nor is it at all clear, as Brown suggests, that the levels of national ‘solidarity’ experienced during the world wars have any connection to the evolution of complex modern states, which is not a question posed by the paper. Indeed, revisionist histories of both world wars have suggested quite the opposite.

It is also unclear whether Brown’s lesson – that a strong left is impossible without war – doesn’t apply equally, or even more strongly, to a conservative politics for which, of course, the preservation of existing social connectivity and hierarchy is paramount. Similarly, the most rudimentary knowledge of the political left would surely leave one very well aware that internationalism and peace movement have long been core to its historical mission, such that it is hardly ignorant of the great obstacles these pose to the achievement of socialism. Overcoming such obstacles is precisely the heart of its political project. The fact that many reformists have abandoned this left project in no way changes these facts.

Overall, one is left asking why Brown wants to make this paper suggest that war fighting and ‘civilization’ are inherently linked; to the permanent detriment of socialist objectives. This says much about the ideological state of our times, and the ideological abuse of history. Under the influence of neo-liberal ideology we have come to fear the details of history, which constantly expose complexity, unpredictability and the essential openness to possibility of the human experience. The appeal to scientific objectivity, through socio-biology, behaviourism, and the like, has always been partly bound up with the reproduction of the idea that humans are rugged individualists by nature. The idea of reducing solidarity to a few variables in a cost-benefit analysis has arguably become an almost reflexive ideological response in an intellectual culture whose understanding of history and historicity is arguably increasingly impoverished. This political-ideological context does not simply disappear by claiming access to an explanatory model. Arguably such representations simply play into the predominant ideological presuppositions about how we represent the past.

Brown’s article is surely partly influenced by this anti-historical ideological yearning for scientific certainly which the authors of the PNAS paper have set up so neatly in their argumentation. To this he yokes a series of more or less unsupported observations, unrelated to the objectives of the original paper, in the expectation that they will thus acquire some kind of objective historical status. It is an object lesson in how not to use history to think about the present.

The politics of narrative complexity

There is a good reason why historical representation is founded on the recognition of narrative complexity and the irreducibility of complex historical phenomena to straightforward attempts at causative explanation. Radical openness, and dialectical sensitivity, actually helps to resist the political capture of the past. It is a mistake to think that the historian’s ultimate role is to explain the past. Such an attitude is driven by a desire to shut down awkward questions. Rather, the historian works to ensure history remains forever open to the complexity and possibility of being human, to ask questions with history about the present. Both Brown and the authors of the PNAS paper miss the inherent political and ideological character of historical representation. Taking the notion of an experimentally verifiable modelling of past historical processes, they quite ignore the politics of what questions are asked, what data is produced, and how argument is represented. Brown’s article stands as a warning to those seeking to pursue a positivist historical project that they still need to pay attention to the problem of historical representation. Like it or not, if you are doing history, what you have to say and how you say it will ultimately be read politically.

On Public Libraries

By Andrea Bonfanti

In our society, the term public has lost a lot of its potential positive meaning. Public should be of everyone as needed, without the burden of single custody. However, the current system of value is one of obsessive possession rather than actual usefulness. If we were to quote Marx, the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” does not apply anymore because, it seems, people do not need, people want. For this reason, public libraries are often depicted as obsolete buildings with inefficient staff and dusty books. This short essay aims to show that public libraries are in fact beneficial spaces to our contemporary society for two reasons. First, these public institutions represent a counter-space to capitalist production due to the opportunity they offer: sharing goods. Second, public libraries are places for research of personal interests, therefore individual achievement, and for the production of new and common knowledge. In that, they oppose the capitalist ideology, which based on an illusionary principle of individualism (alienation).

Libraries have played a major role in humans’ societies since ancient times. The destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria was felt by its contemporaries as a major loss for the whole of humanity. Later, what is now called “The Renaissance” sparkled when a building-less library, made out of thousands of books and manuscripts, was fled from the Byzantine Empire into Western Europe after the “fall of Constantinople”, in 1453. More recently, Lenin, in a short work titled ‘What can be done for public education’, compared sarcastically the state of American libraries, with millions of books and open access to virtually anyone, to that of Russian libraries or, rather, their quasi-total absence. Libraries then, have always been a point of reference for society.
Public libraries’ role as places of sharable knowledge is of primary importance in opposing to capitalist system of production. In order to survive, capitalism needs a market in a constant state of hunger for new commodities. In this viscous circle, on one side capitalism production fills the market with a huge variety of constant new products while the market, on the other side, sustains capitalism through profit. The maintenance of this market has terrible effects, such as labourers’ exploitation, dramatic climate changes and constant humans’ alienation. Public libraries hit the very core of capitalist production, namely the market, because they stimulate the active principle of sharing goods, knowledge, and consequently of non-production. Individuals use the product for the duration of their need and, once they are done with it, put it back in the circle, for the benefit of others. The market request of a product is then weakened, if not cancelled completely. These institutions’ service to share goods puts on the spot how unnecessary the capitalist production actually is and weakens its frantic race. More than that, libraries also represent a place where individuals can grow personal passions.

Public libraries are places for the growth of individuals and for the sequential production of new and, possibly common, knowledge. The current capitalist ideological system spreads the illusionary idea that capitalist production can provide personal fulfilment through a variety of individualised commodities. In reality however, individuals become but mere consumers of whatever product is offered within a limited range of possible choices. We then find ourselves arbitrarily lost in choices such as in which colour to buy our new cell-phone or tablet. We need to have “our music”, “our mac” and “our kindle” when studying, travelling, living. Surrounded by such an abundance of commodities we do not question, for example, when, why or how that certain product had already become a need for us. Without engaging here with the difference between technology for the common good and capitalist technology, it is nevertheless important to pay attention on how individuals lose their own individuality and the response that public libraries offer. In this respect, these public institutions offer the same product as the market, knowledge, but in a sharable way. Through libraries individuals can research topics of personal interest and conduct private research without the necessity to purchase goods and, therefore, dwelling outside the capitalist ideology of the “must be mine”. Furthermore, public libraries, because they are public and based on the principle of common use, stimulate the free exchange of ideas. They then become forums for discussion and for the production of communal and new knowledge for the improvement of common conditions.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to engage primarily with the importance of public libraries in an anti-capitalist approach to knowledge. These institutions have been a communal good since the ancient times, from ancient Egypt to modern times. In our era, an epoch characterised by capitalist system of production and ideology, public libraries are important more than ever before. They represent a challenge to capitalism because they undermine the market request and consequently, the production itself. They also offer a genuine approach towards learning without the addiction of possession- the “must be mine” ideology. Furthermore, due to their public feature, these institutions stimulate communal discussion and knowledge production.

The Real Politics of Climate Change

In a recent Guardian blog posting, John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli have correctly identified that the global warming ‘debate’ isn’t about science, but about politics. On that point we can agree, but thereafter, almost everything they say precisely fails to expose the status of this political which is at stake in anthropogenic climate change.

Of course the power of climate scepticism cannot be denied. It has been a vigorous force working to prevent action on the restriction of greenhouse gas emissions. Also correct is the observation by Abraham and Nuccitelli, widely supported by research on climate and the media, that ‘denialism’ has mainly been underpinned by ‘free-market’ ideology and its supporting institutions. However, their suggestion that the route towards ‘sustainability’ is through the co-optation of that ideology, with the implementation of a cap-and-trade solution to the control of greenhouse gas emissions is, at best, flawed, and at worst, utopian.

For instance, is the conclusion that, ‘The debate should be about how to best achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions with maximum economic benefit’ really convincing? Even the free-trading ideologue can clearly see that this is an ill-disguised attempt to capture the dominant language of orthodox economics for the political project of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. What this project neglects, however, is the obvious fact that the committed free-trader precisely rejects any notion of a higher, or universal, project in the guidance human actions. What they fear in the climate change ‘debate’ is precisely the emergence of a ground in nature itself, which delimits the possibilities of free human self-realisation. Adam Smith, for instance, imagined markets as enabled by a particular kind of ecology that, once established, could be assumed as a stable, self-regulating basis of exchange. Frederik Albritton Jonnsson has recently wonderfully outlined some of the contraditions stemming from such ideas and their application in his Enlightenment’s Frontier.

The point is that the ‘denialist’ dogma is not simply a contingent ideological obsession. It is a consequence of a traumatic encounter with the real. Line no other threat from ‘nature’, anthropogenic climate change raises the prospect of the collapse of the unspoken environmental assumptions that have sustained the idea that well-being and justice can be guided by the invisible hand. We need to accept the intense reality of this trauma for those who are in denial. Indeed, it may even explain the counter-intuitive observation that denialism has become more popular as the evidence for human induced atmospheric change has hardened.

Rather than responding to this traumatic encounter by fetishitically clinging to it, that is to say by claiming that the market can indeed become the instrument of future atmospheric control, we should work to aid the process of ideological transference. We should embrace ‘denialism’ as a positive symptom of capitalist contradiction, and work to render its meaning more apparent, more self-conscious to its subjects. We must work to show the connections between the crisis in ‘nature’ and the ideological contradictions that this produces. In this, a little knowledge of history may be of enormous importance.

Is it not remarkable, for example, that Abraham and Nuccitelli ignore almost the entire historical context of capitalist development that has led to the current situation? The present of ever rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is seen as an almost accidental circumstance. This has crucial consequences for their willingness to pursue a market solution, and for its limits. There is no analysis, for example, of how the global economy came into being. Nor is there any reflection on why capitalism is so dependent on fossil fuels of the kind offered by Timothy Mitchell’s excellent recent book Carbon Democracy. This is a grave fault given that cap-and-trade is clearly reliant on an institution setting a cap that can act as the foundation to a market. Nor is there any analysis of that most fundamental process of historical capitalism, accumulation: “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets”.

It is not that cap-and-trade cannot work for some abstract reason, it may. Rather, it is that the real, political question ironically, but far from accidentally, remains unacknowledged by Abraham and Nuccitell. That is whether such a cap could ever be sustained against the profound social and political power of capitalist finance and industry. How is any carbon cap to be maintained against the logic of the accumulation of capital? We have seen in the past decade the profound crisis, political, social and economic, that accompanies any slowdown in capitalist growth. Such a crisis is met with all the resources of the capitalist political structure precisely to maintain accumulation. What political structure could work to maintain a cap if it contradicted the requirements of accumulation?

More than this, if one is willing to set a cap on greenhouse emissions, and fight the battles necessary in terms of the struggle against vested interests, then why not simply go ahead and do so? Why not just make the arbitrary judgment that humanity chooses to survive! Why not just impose the cap politically. Why establish a trade in anything? Why establish a market in carbon credits, a market in precisely the matter of our own destruction? It is precisely to avoid the necessity of making a truly political decision, that is, the choice to survive, that Abraham and Nuccitelli retreat to an alliance with the free-marketeers. Ultimately this the real of the politics of climate change. Not whether, but how, we shall frame a properly communist control over the climatic fate of us all.

Do we need an Alternative Education Strategy?

Below is the text of my own submission to the University of Exeter’s ongoing Education Strategy Review. As you will see I am quite critical of both the format of the Review and the context in which it is conducted. In the age of neo-liberalism and climate change it is my belief that the role of the university as a space of critique and the public use of reason must again be fought for by teacher-academics and students alike. I encourage comment and discussion here, and for colleagues and students to contribute their own thoughts to the Review here.



An Alternative Education Strategy for the University of Exeter

Submission to the Exeter Education Strategy Review 2013-19

1. The present format, structure and objectives of the Education Strategy Review, with its pre-defined thematic problematic, is designed to prevent the emergence of really authentic questions regarding the fate of education in the neo-liberal university. It should be opened up to a properly critical discussion of why we teach, and why we learn. That is, to the question of what, if anything, is (still) possible within university?

2. The authentic question for teacher-academics today, the moment of the triumph of the neo-liberal projects of privatization and marketization of education, is: “What is the idea of the university now?”. It is no longer clear that this ‘idea’ is invested in particular bricks and mortar, a place called the ‘university’, which reproduces itself on the basis of the extraction of a rent from the future, taken from debt-bonded students. The university is in permanent crisis. The emergence of the knowledge commons, of open access publication and knowledge production questions its very future viability. This is the proper context for a review of education.

3. The dominant discourse, which represents education at the University of Exeter as an ‘experience’, also limits a priori the manner in which we articulate our pedagogy. Learning is not, and never can be, a process of the production of abstract equivalence. There is no ‘experience’ of education, only the multitude of transformational encounters with ideas. The commodification of experience is, by definition, ‘anti-learning’.

4. The attempt to solidify themes for an Education Strategy around common ‘characteristics’, ‘attributes’ and ‘values’ is an attempt to solidify particular ideological categories as expressive of learning, which are in actuality antagonistic to it. They are an attempt to close down the multitude of possible meanings of learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

5. Where made concrete, i.e. in the document Towards a New Education Strategy these themes are little better than empty signifiers ready to be filled with almost any ideological content. What, for example, is the merit in being a ‘game changer’? Which game is to be changed? Is ‘excellence’ a value in any meaningful sense? Excellence at, or for, what? The absence of a referent for such concepts is the very essence of ideology, and their non-contextual use the very antithesis of critical knowledge.

6. Measurement is not learning. Learning abolishes measurement.

7. We need to move beyond the tired binary of ‘education’ versus ‘research’. In the digital age these boundaries are blurring. We should promote this process. A future education strategy should promote the idea of Student as Producer. It is time to negate a model of learning as a commodity purchased from a factory, what Professor Neary calls the model of the Student as Consumer. Today it is again necessary to rebuild from scratch the idea of the production of knowledge for the common good, and of the student as an agent in producing that knowledge.

8. In an age of social and environmental crisis, the classroom must become a site for the production of real knowledge. That is knowledge that is not just of, but for; knowledge that is disseminated and activated in public for the common good.

9. Against the privileging of individual research in the production of commodity forms of research for the satisfaction of abstract metrics, we as teacher-academics-students should take back the time of pleasure that can be experienced in teaching both in and far beyond the classroom. We must take back our own subjective agency and the creative joy time of our teaching-lives, that is of kairological time, against our submission to metric, chronological, time of the university-machine. We must create a counter-space in which it will be possible to devise our own educational strategy.

Dr Timothy Cooper