Jobs Online (a requiem for the humanities, et cetera)

On a cold autumn morning not unlike any other, splintered glass and chicken bones strewn by a burnt-out bin compete viciously to injure inbred pooches and misanthropic pensioners. A Starling sings from the top of a lamp-post in the latest south London style, imitating a burglar alarm or police siren. Hetty Brown rips through several more blackened and sticky alveoli in another coughing fit and curses loudly a reluctant 99p store lighter concerned only for her faltering health. Felicia Kelly wakes up at her friend Sam’s mum’s house, and checks through her Twitter and Facebook on her phone. She begins to upload and tag the photos from last night in the Sheep, the majority of which were taken in a state of heightened excitement and intoxication. Photos taken from a high and sideways perspective, of friends laughing, of Adam and Josh pilling, of when Jamie fell over in the street. In the morning quietness, in the migraines of hangover and regretted desires, she might well have pondered graver profundities, thought about life perhaps, where things were heading, where she was heading, or just felt like there was perhaps nothing at all. But caught in the consumer interzone between being a teenager and being a sassy mid-20s Independent Woman (with expensive handbag, vibrator, job, flat, a man) or a Yummy Mummy – two categories of older consumer woman increasingly converging – she was none of these. Instead she enjoyed in films and books a repeated performance of the pains and pleasures of unarticulated and becoming of adolescent desire, the rare romance slush read on public transport, with an added dash of sex for the younger reader, be it in chicklit or vampire novels. But she wasn’t thinking about this. Instead, after uploading last night’s photos, adding a tweet about how so hungover she was (you know that girl!), she rolled over and made herself a breakfast of low-carb toast and low-fat marg.

Padraigh Muldoon leaves his young daughters watching Sky TV while he shuffles out to the newsagent to buy milk for their cereal and whisky for the headaches they cause him. On the High Street he makes small conversation with the following people: Stan Muldoon, his younger brother, on the subject of Stan’s recent business venture of finding unused lock-ups to store stolen goods in, and then carrying out this expensive and essential service; Esther and Marticia Green, on the subject of the weather and the X-Factor; Trevor Smith, on the outcome of various small bets on various football fixtures, with an exchange of tips for forthcoming occasions. He stops in the Pawleyne Arms for a short, but stays to watch the Sunday football in the company of old school pals, middle-aged men like himself who had generally married each other’s sisters,  and returns at 5pm with a bottle of Teachers and a packet of haribo.

Thomas Malthus III awakes early. He has slept comfortably following the ingested induction of anti-depressants and strong lager,  and switches on his desktop computer. After examining, prioritising and then deleting a number of unread emails, he scans briefly the latest news on the BBC and the Guardian.  In America there is growing homophobia and a populist lunge towards far right-wing politics, militarism, economic tub-thumping against the Chinese, and said homophobic attitudes. There is an obvious analogue to the politics of the 1930s, in those proud and scorned states with severe unemployment and growing poverty, Malthus detects, however any constructive critique is dissolved in distraction and Americophobia. Malthus drinks several cups of instant coffee. The British Chancellor announces further cuts, this time adding legal aid and the prison system to the pile of deletions, the core prison functions being retained only for Islamic radicals, benefits cheats and paedophiles in line with ConDem policy thinktank, The News of the World. With the Humanities, social welfare, parity of opportunity, public pensions, Royal Mail and affordable transport all being deleted from UK Ltd, Malthus sighs in his typical precious  way that riles everyone who comes across him, and begins rapping his fingers on the desk to the beat of a song played on the X-Factor the previous evening.

Ok reader, we’ll need another foil to advance our argument further. This Malthus character is far too self-absorbed.  Via Jodi Dean’s excellent blog, leading economist Joseph Stiglitz ‘blames the private sector and governments for living in a “dream world” of fiscal recklessness and then reproaches Wall Street and the financial markets for their “shortsightedness” in demanding deficit reduction policies and austerity measures, which have engulfed countries like Greece and Spain. These are making the crisis worse by slowing growth, increasing unemployment and reducing income and tax revenue, he said. Spain “may be entering the kind of death spiral that afflicted Argentina just a decade ago” after it defaulted and “it may only be a matter of time” before it is attacked by speculators. To quote Stiglitz, “the hope that suffused those early months of the crisis is quickly fading. In its place is a new mood of despair: the road to recovery may be even slower than I suggested, and the social tensions may be even greater. Bank officials have walked home with seven-figure bonuses while ordinary citizens face not only protracted unemployment but an unemployment insurance safety net that is not up to the challenges of the Great Recession”.

The UK is making a serious and regrettable mistake in mutilating itself in order to cut the debt. This is Osborne’s political point-scoring in an election where the economy will hardly matter – the depression will continue but with far worse social problems now. This all smacks of the neo-Conservatism of the 1980s, where strong government administering strong unpalatable economic medicine for a sick economy against belligerent unions was the order of the day. This time less unions and less class-consciousness. Perhaps little new. Capitalism does operate in such cycles. But aside from the familiar social problems, dare I say cultural problems? Fred Jameson and David Harvey spotted from the mid-1980s that culture was inherently economic in the Postmodern/Late Capitalist era. With huge cuts to the arts, education and research, this key part of the immaterial economy will seriously stagnate. The artists and  cultural critics will have to find work in coffee shops or corporate PR; the teachers will supervise 320 micro-PhD students on the 436 bus, as John Hutnyk hilariously points out. The City will continue profiting and perhaps in 6-7 years growth will begin growing at pre-2008 levels and the ConDems will say ‘Told You So’ as we struggle on with another Tory government and a discredited Lib Dems out of power. This is familiar fare. My point is myself, me. The project of I. What the fuck do I do?

Higher Education is under double-pronged attack. In a memo leaked to Steve Smith, the Comprehensive Spending Review to be announced next week plans a £3.2bn cut to teaching , cutting the current budget of £3.9bn down to £700 mn, with a £1bn reduction in research budgets from the current £4bn or so in research spending – not so bad, but still significant. This is Osborne, the porcine bumbaclart attacking education and everything else non-Yuppie on the one side. On the other we have Lord Browne, British Petroleum tycoon and ironic saviour of higher education. As Smith points out, we need the cap on tuition fees lifted so that students can pay for the huge shortfall – if not, universities will have to close entire departments to make the necessary savings, something already happening in the Humanities, which I will go on to.  Browne’s Review, published like the slick Corporate PR of a  Starbucks fairtrade brochure or New Labour rolled-up-sleeves-talking-to-the-people snapshots,  makes two important recommendations: firstly, that the current £3250 cap on tuition fees be lifted with universities being able to charge what they want for their courses. Hence Oxbridge could charge well over £10k per term for its sciences or PPE courses, whilst a low-ranking post-1992 university like London Metropolitan charging say the current amount, or less. When I started my degree in 2005, I was lucky enough to be the last generation to pay £1k or so tuition fees, most of which were cut down by grants from my local council. Now, it is £3-4k, which I would not have been able to afford back then, even whilst working part-time. Its second key point is that debts and fees are to be repaid after the student earns over £21k.

This gets commentators like Andrew Rawnsley mistakenly citing the policy as fair, but given that debts are now going to be of American-scale £30k for tuition fees, + £30k at least for 3 years’ living costs, it is a fairly irrelevant detail that you can wait until you earn 21k before paying of a debt that will take at least 10 years of working, not to mention further debts picked up afterwards in periods of unemployment or mortgages. Browne becomes the saviour here in that his plans can at least plug some of the haemorrhage, and whereas Osborne’s Spending cuts will be compulsory, Browne’s report is just a recommendation which comes with a lot of political complications. Even if it doesn’t split the Lib Dems between the Cable-Clegg-Alexander Faustian power-seekers versus the oldguard Kennedy-Hughes-Campbell, it certainly will make them unelectable easy-pickings for Labour, themselves not averse to complete lies compared to manifesto pledges. But Browne’s recommendations are still absolute shite: talk of ‘student investment’ as the number one priority will just return universities into bastions of the wealthy. And against the talk in the Guardian and Mail of a middle-class squeeze, the only tangible detail in the Browne review proposed for poor students are measly grants of only of £3250, which are a drop in the ocean compared to living costs and fees, especially in London. The sheer scale of debt, even if it is deferred, alongside the obvious lack of employment for graduates in any subject, will put off any sensible working-class student. And thirdly, and most importantly, both Browne and Osbourne, like Mandelson in the previous government, want to remove all funding provision for the arts, humanities, and social sciences (inc. social work),  making them unsustainable for most universities. Instead there will be cash for economically-useful and entirely unreflective or politically obedient subjects – engineering, technology, medicine.

I’ll quote Kant here, briefly. In the Conflict of the Faculties (pub. 1798, his last major work), it is the philosophers who are ‘the free teachers of right’ – they are ‘a stumbling-block to the state, whose only wish is to rule’. For Kant, philosophers hold the State in check, but cannot be understood by the people: ‘And yet they do not address themselves in familiar tones to the people (who themselves take little or no notice of them and their writings), but in respectful tones to the state, which is thereby implored to take the rightful needs of the people to heart.’

What Kant aims to show is that philosophy has an intrinsic value not just to the individual, through ethics or aesthetics say, but to the state itself. Philosophers – intellectuals would be a better term for today – are needed to reflect critically on the practices and directions of the ‘faculties’ of medicine, law, and theology – call it Corporate finance in our age. Without critical analysis and recommendations, the absolute rule of Prime Ministers and Chancellors alongside business and media oligarchs blunder their way through economic, social and ecological catastrophes, as is happening at present. The fact that the education review was carried out by a BP tycoon responsible for several counts of corporate manslaughter, or that the Public Pensions Inquiry was carried out by a Blairite millionaire private executive are reason enough that the government is ignoring wise counsel, and being told what it has commissioned to hear from its allies. What would these inquiries look like were they headed by actual experts? Hence the need for philosophers, and hence the attack on the characteristically left-leaning critical tradition of the Humanities.

You see, I went back into higher education after working for a couple of years, in jobs that interested me a lot, and that I worked very passionately in, but that I had never really had the desire to do. I want to teach and write. It’s something I am good at. But to lecture and teach, I’d need a PhD, and I would not be able to get funding realistically to do this without first having a good MA. So I embarked on this, and not getting all the funding I needed – alongside my fiancee starting her PhD – meant I had to start using the savings I had, mostly made up of cheap student loans I’d not spent, and what I’d put on the side from working. I realise now I had slightly naive idealistic notions about work, and after a healthy encounter with the ideas of Lars Svendsen, I see work as something that pays for life, devoid of self-fulfillment. So I went back into Higher Education as a career choice.

But with the cuts in the teaching budget, I imagine I’ll be competing with my lecturers for any kind of lecturing jobs in restructured ‘Critical Traditions and Curating’ departments, where Visual Cultures, History, Anthropology, Media Studies, Sociology and Cultural Studies are crunched into one department, 50%+ redundancies, teaching trendy curating courses to international students whose governments actually pay for their education, and wealthy middle-class British people, whose families pay for it all, and who plan to spend the following year in Cuba or Berlin ‘finding life’.  So there’s going to have to be a change of plan. A change of career perhaps. Check out the next post to find out what the options might be. And I’m not being indulgent, reader! I only write on a Sunday! This has been brewing!

“Our politicians, so far as their influence extends, behave in exactly the same way, and they are just as successful in their prophecies. One must take men as they are, they tell us, and not as the world’s uninformed pedants or good-natured dreamers fancy that they ought to be. But ‘as they are’ ought to be read ‘as we have made them by unjust coercion, by treacherous designs which the government is in a good position to carry out’. For that is why they are intransigent and inclined to rebellion, and why regrettable consequences ensue if discipline is relaxed in the slightest. In this way, the prophecy of the supposedly clever statesman is fulfilled.” [Kant, Conflict of the Faculties].


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