Nov 222011

From the Mail:

Some universities, such as London Metropolitan, have slashed more than 60 per cent of their courses, including philosophy, performing arts and history.

Much as I’m not in favour of direct state funding of university degrees, nor am I remotely in favour of the apparent belief, held by just about everyone in the western world, that the purpose of learning is to make one an economically viable unit.

‘Go to university so you can get a job and… pay taxes, god damn it!’

No, I’m sorry. That is not the purpose of knowledge, learning, or education, as far as I am concerned. It’s important to be ‘economically useful’ solely so that one can support oneself; whether this requires learning is a matter of circumstance.

It is particularly dreadful that the welfare state and the state funding of tertiary education, and the cost that involves to the taxpayer, has resulted in this pathetic narrative about education—learning how to think, process information, and make independent analyses—being reduced to the question of whether or not what you learn helps you get a job.

To the point where universities are axing degrees that accomplish precisely the goals a university degree should accomplish.

When the taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidise ‘economically non-viable units,’ one doesn’t have to be over-concerned with how people enlarge their brains and their understanding of humanity.

I would be interested to know what degree courses London Metropolitan University will be retaining. Presumably, given the jobs possessed by people I know, courses like ‘Working in the Public Sector’ and ‘How to Add No Value in Human Resources’?

But perhaps that’s uncharitable. I do know people doing productive work, who all seem to have degrees in, y’know, philosophy and history.

Or no degree at all—and have become complete humans all on their own, without the subsidy of the state, or the help of London Metropolitan ‘University.’


UPDATE: Okay, so I’m told that wasn’t the clearest post I’ve ever produced.

Here’s my deal.

Knowing various stuff and supporting oneself independently are separate things. State subsidy of knowing stuff, and state subsidy of those who can’t support themselves, have conflated these concepts.

You don’t always need to know some stuff in order to support yourself. Likewise, lots of people who do know some stuff can’t support themselves. (Cf. OccupyLSX.) The two do not need to be linked.

Axing history and philosophy degrees does not mean that university graduates will, therefore, be able to support themselves, even if they are paying £6k more for the privilege of studying. All it means is that a significant contingent of people will no longer know stuff to do with history or philosophy. Whether this assists in their economic viability is neither here nor there; what it does mean is that particular knowledge will be systematically lost.

Now, you can choose to assess the value of that knowledge economically, as everyone seems to be doing currently.

On the other hand, you can say, ‘Hey, people should be able to support themselves. Quite apart from that, at least some people should know some stuff about what it’s meant to be a human being up to this point. But being able to support oneself doesn’t mean one has to be completely focused on being able to support oneself.’

One of the greatest things about our society becoming ever wealthier is the growth of leisure (Cf. just about every blog post by Tim Worstall). Leisure is, essentially, the opportunity to think about what it means to be a human being. If we’ve reached the point where thinking about being a human is so devalued that we’re not even providing the opportunity to people willing to spend their money (i.e. leisure) on it, then we might as well all work ourselves into the grave right now.

Honestly, what good is having wealth and leisure time otherwise?

Disclaimer: I have two degrees in history. And yes, I work and pay taxes. The reason I got my job in the first place was, incidentally, due to blogging. Maybe universities should be offering that as a degree course.

Nov 132011

I have Tim Worstall to thank for raising my blood pressure on this fine Sunday afternoon and distracting me from some work I’m supposed to be doing. His reaming of this article by Naomi Klein in The Nation is brief, but extensive enough to hint that she might be saying some stuff that I particularly hate.

There is a run-of-the-mill Left position, that revolves around general ideas of environment, equality, and government involvement that I can sort of tolerate, even if I don’t agree with it. And then there is the crap spouted by people like Naomi Klein, who seem to view themselves as the best thing since sliced Marx, and in that tradition of philosophising about a new world order. This group also includes Madeleine Bunting.

And if there’s one thing that really gets my goat, it’s assholes holding forth about overturning the current “narrative” and bringing about a completely new social and economic “paradigm.” Especially when it’s actually a really old one.

I’ll declare my interest and say this is partly because the current narrative isn’t so bad (for me), but there’s another facet, and that is the blind outrage I feel when someone talks about junking the collective effect of the individual, diffuse, organic behaviour of billions of people. You can’t get different results without changing the inputs, and the natural way to do this—making a case, hoping it’s reasonable, and watching it become a trend if it is—isn’t good enough for the Kleins and Buntings of this world. There will be no grass-roots, bottom-up behaviour change, even though this is how it has only and ever worked. No, instead we shall have planning. Lots and lots of planning.

And in the service of what, precisely? Why, a new paradigm that overturns capitalism and delivers an earthly paradise of low-carbon equality of wealth. The infuriating thing about this is reading how they propose to do it, and losing one’s temper about the fact that it makes no sense.

Let’s start with Klein’s thesis.

The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence.

That would not be a “new civilisational paradigm” but a very old one: the one humans lived in for many thousands of years, the rhythms of their lives attuned acutely to the natural cycles of growth, rains, harvest, dormancy—or else growth, drought, famine, and death. Many people in the world still actually live this way, and not only does it suck, we in the first world acknowledge that it sucks because we call these people “poor” and try to help them not have to live attuned to the cycles of nature.

This is mainly because, while human intelligence might have its limits, inability to overcome the cycles of nature isn’t one of them.

Not that any of this really matters, because Klein doesn’t want to do this really, and nothing in her “planning” would achieve it, or is even designed to achieve it. Her six-point plan bears no resemblance to anything remotely “natural.”

It’s not even as sensible as my colleague’s ten-point plan for when he becomes dictator of India. That one starts like this:

1. Remove all restrictions on trade.
2. Legalise prostitution.
3. End all licensing laws.
4. Introduce the death penalty.
5. Put all corrupt people to death.
6. etc.

So let’s look at Klein’s plan. With the rhetorical crap stripped out, it goes like this.

1. Create a huge government deficit by building massive green infrastructure.

Yeah, okay. That’s just run-of-the-mill leftism, but we’ll come back to it.

2. Every community in the world to plan how it will stop using fossil fuels.

My favourite part of this is how collective lifestyle imposition is described as “participatory democracy.” I guess it doesn’t occur to Klein that people don’t require participatory democracy when they are free to make their own individual decisions. It’s only when some group is trying to force its shit on everyone else that the twin charade of “engagement” and “consultation” is invoked. Seriously, whenever you hear that you’re about to be consulted or engaged with, abandon all hope, because it means some decision about you has been made without you and you’re now about to be told what it is.

2a. This planning should focus on “collective priorities rather than corporate profitability.”

Somehow this is something to do with making sure those people whose current jobs are entwined with fossil fuels don’t end up left without a job.

This makes no sense. For one thing, there is nothing more capitalist than a job. A job is what you do to earn money (sometimes also known as capital), with which you buy the stuff you need to live. You can’t sweep away capitalism and keep jobs. It just doesn’t work. A job is not some kind of intrinsically good way of keeping oneself from growing bored with leisure. A job is work someone pays you to do. And jobs are not the same thing as work; this is why we don’t call hoovering and dusting “housejobs.”

Let’s also address the problem of “profitability.” You know, the one where “profit” is the positive difference between outgoings and incomings. You know, the one where that difference—that profit—is what the government takes a slice of (“tax”) to get its money to build lots of lovely infrastructure?

2b. Re-introduce labour-intensive agriculture in order to create jobs.

Labour-intensive agriculture is otherwise known as peasant farming, and peasant farming is not a job. It’s work. It’s the work one does not to have money with which to buy food, but to have food to eat. It’s back-breaking work that is harder than a job, less fun than a job, and less rewarding than a job. It is another old paradigm that we’ve actually spent some centuries now trying to get away from. We’re still trying to help third-world subsistence farmers get away from it. Returning to it is a shitty idea, and a really stupid plan for achieving a really stupid thing.

3. Rein in corporations’ ability to supply and burn fossil fuels.

That’s all well and good, but there’s nothing here about what happens to all of the other corporations where there’s no fuel. I work in a web software company. The other day, some builders over the road accidentally cut the power cable, and for two hours, the entire neighbourhood went dark. Our whole company was paralysed—no routers so no internet, no phones. Within ten minutes, the place was like something out of Boccaccio, with employees sitting in dark rooms telling stories about other power cuts they’d endured. Imagine that all over the world, and it’s only a matter of time before hundreds of millions of people start contemplating peasant farming as the only alternative to eating each other.

4. End non-local trade.

Wow, again, we’re back to the fucking Middle Ages. Thank you very much for coming to dinner, Ms Klein. Have a turnip. No, really, that’s all we’ve got. A turnip. We have to source our food locally, you see. Perhaps you would like a bit of the salted rat I’ve been saving up for our meat during the winter? What do you mean, that’s a protected species?

5. End “growth” in the first world.

Hey! You there! Yes, you with a good idea for streamlining this process! Stop it right now.

Either these people do not understand what growth is, or they don’t understand what humans are. Humans are problem-solving creatures. “Growth” is not using more resources to make more profit. “Growth” is solving problems. Often, it is solving the problem of “how do we do this thing with fewer resources?”

Klein obviously doesn’t understand this. To her, use of resources is to be minimised, except when the resource is human labour—use of that is to be maximised.

I mean, am I going crazy in the rare sunshine, or does anyone else see that we’re going backward here? The whole reason we use “stuff” is so that we don’t have to use people, because back when we had no “stuff,” we had things like 30-year lifespans from toiling in the fields, and slaves.

It’s like she’s saying we should use less stuff so that we can use more people, because it’s good for people to be used, because it means that they have work, and it’s good for people to have work, because it means that they’re not being underused.

It’s so recursive that she’s in danger of suggesting that jobs need humans in order to live.

6. Tax people and corporations.

We’re back to the whole “profitability” thing again. Now that we’ve spent some time using participatory democracy to make sure nobody cares about profit, and some more time ensuring that we stop using resources to make things, and still more time ensuring that no one makes money from using or supplying fossil fuels—where is the money, precisely, that the government’s going to take in tax? When everywhere is a co-op or a peasant farm, producing only what people need locally, where is the excess capacity that the government can take in tax?

This is the whole problem with this stupid obsession with the evils of profit. Profit is what the government taxes. Therefore, no profit, no tax. No tax, no government infrastructure projects or green subsidies or anything else the government is supposed to pay for because the private sector won’t do it because there’s no profit in it.


Klein sums up:

There is no joy in being right about something so terrifying. But for progressives, there is responsibility in it, because it means that our ideas—informed by indigenous teachings as well as by the failures of industrial state socialism—are more important than ever. It means that a green-left worldview, which rejects mere reformism and challenges the centrality of profit in our economy, offers humanity’s best hope of overcoming these overlapping crises.

Yeah, okay. There’s nothing in your “plan” that didn’t come straight out of the playbook of 1381, only in 1381, the peasants were revolting because it was such a shitty fucking plan and they didn’t like living under it.

More to the point, it makes no sense. The whole point of this “new paradigm” is to stop climate change and, as an added bonus, improve equality and “participatory democracy.”

But go back to the first premise—climate change should be stopped—and take a moment to ask again why that is so. Climate change is bad because it will destroy our way of life. It will kill a bunch of people outright in floods and storms. It will reduce the land area we have to live on, and reduce how much food we can grow on it. It will make many of the natural resources we depend on unavailable. It will make miserable, cramped subsistence farmers of us all.

And the way we’re supposed to avert this disaster is… to do it to ourselves first? What a pile of complete nonsense.

As Klein herself admits, the dangers of climate change are being used as a pretext to re-order the entirety of human life according to the “progressive” plan of using up excess wealth in order to maximise human work.

That is the most backward, fucked-up, and human-hating plan ever dreamed up. Anyone who backs it has a perception of life on earth so diseased and warped that they’re barely recognisable as human beings themselves.