Friday, 4 December 2015

Librarians and Libertarians

Libraries were once a chief means by which capitalists, particularly the predatory sort like Andrew Carnegie, gave back to society and assuaged their guilt ahead of death. They were a socialised form of indulgence, in the original religious sense of that word. As a philanthropic endowment, libraries were ideologically acceptable to capitalists - long before the invention of "human capital" - because they emphasised individual self-betterment and striving rather than collective endeavour. They were social but not socialist. But libraries are Janus-faced. They look to the past as repositories of ancient wisdom, but they are also a tool for empowerment, both individual and collective (the "no talking" rule was a constraint on the natural desire to share intellectual discoveries as much as the legacy of the monastic order). In their focus on the power of information, libraries manage to be both quintessentially conservative and progressive.

Modern philanthropists are less likely to fund facilities for the self-directed development of others, preferring to impose their views on what constitutes right development, from public health through cultural attitudes to physical infrastructure. Where once they funded libraries, concert halls and public parks, they are now more likely to invest in inoculation (biopolitically emblematic as a physical intervention in other people), digital banking and "financial literacy" (often an introduction to debt), and renewable energy (an encouragement to buy commodities). Sanitation and clean water are perhaps the only areas that have remained consistently attractive to philanthropists, and beneficial to their recipients, over the centuries.

There is also a fashion among modern philanthropists to operate as couples (Bill and Melinda, Mark and Priscilla). This is not so much gender equality (plenty of Victorian philanthropists were rich women, either independently wealthy or the wives of rich men), but the desire to frame philanthropy as a "family" activity and therefore a private matter, beyond the purview of the state, rather than as an extension of work. This is the apotheosis of the work-life balance, but one in which family values tend towards the conservative (e.g. the Gates Foundation defunding of abortion). There is little appetite to emulate the Pope and wash the feet of the poor - to do charitable work (i.e. real labour) in public - beyond perhaps a brief photo-op at a seasonal soup-kitchen or some tree-planting. The idea of charity as sustained penance is alien to most modern philanthropists, not least because it offends the "level playing field" premise of libertarianism.

The news that the Chan-Zuckerberg family has decided to put its billions into a private company, rather than a charitable trust, should therefore come as no surprise. According to the philanthropy-friendly Forbes Magazine, "In addition to funding nonprofits, Zuckerberg pointed out that the LLC structure enables him and Priscilla Chan to invest in private (including for profit) companies as well as engage in policy debates—also known as lobbying". Sceptics of this manoeuvre have focused on whether it is right for an individual to decide where the money - which might otherwise have been beneficially recycled through taxation - should be spent, rather than a democratically elected government. This is a social democrat critique of a libertarian ideal.

But this misses a more fundamental point with regard to research, which increasingly dominates philanthropy as the tech-titans seek to apply their "lessons learnt" to the wider problems of the world. The historic shift in charity away from the alleviation of suffering towards investment is well known ("teach a man to fish" etc), and has been frequently criticised for its ideological bias, but the assumption has been that investment is nonetheless a good thing. However, the allocation of funds to research is always a matter of priorities based on belief (and thus desire) rather than empirical evidence. This is why Silicon Valley is more attracted to cryogenics and space travel than antibiotics. These priorities are also ideological, hence when private philanthropists gravitate towards health, it is as a way of helping others without transferring power: we love a grateful cripple.

The state too has a structural bias in respect of R&D. The three areas it has traditionally prioritised are defence, i.e. the maintenance of the integrity of the state (the prime directive); "pure" research - once philosophy and astrology, now astrophysics and maths - that is posited on the search for an underlying order (i.e. a justification of the status quo); and public health - stimulated by urban growth and thus increasing anxiety about public disorder in the face of a catastrophe, which lives on in the zombie plague trope. It will not have escaped your notice that the UK, with its long-established state infrastructure, has been particularly successful in these three areas, nor that our perennial "failure" to turn pure research into monetisable applied technology reflects a reluctance by the state to provide institutional support to industry outside wartime.

Though primary research, and what Joel Mokyr refers to as "macro inventions", depends to a large degree on the state (or what Marianna Mazzucato has rebranded as the "entrepreneurial state", in an effort to combine liberal and social democratic tropes), the rate of innovation in society depends on the wider institutional support for popular curiosity and entrepreneurship. The chief institutional form is the firm, not because of the nurturing nature of capitalism, but because individual workers gain access to material resources and techniques they could otherwise not afford. It is a little acknowledged truth that most startups originate in theft, i.e. the theft of work-time as much as material theft (from half-inched stationery to "borrowed" software).

One of the downsides of the offshoring of technical skills and the continued contraction of manufacturing is that the physical and social infrastructure of skills transfer - people, places, equipment - is attenuated. Likewise, a problem with the shift towards jobs that depend on "social skills", rather than technical skills or the dexterous use of tools, is that they deny workers access to technologies and techniques. They limit agency and reward conformity. Related to this, the increasing close supervision of workers - i.e. the application of surveillance to the workplace - inhibits independent research. Basically, there isn't enough stealing going on in the British workplace. This is constraining innovation and thus economic growth.

Libraries, along with adult education services, were a central prop in the social support for innovation during the social democratic era. As local authority funding has been cut, more social services have been absorbed into the libraries' remit, which has limited their capacity to support innovation. A library may have been fitted-out with PCs, but these are likely to be used to access council services (due to the closure of frontline facilities elsewhere), to conduct job searches (to meet DWP targets), or to support schoolwork. In terms of priorities (mandated by central government), local government is focused on the indoctrination of the young, the physical maintenance of the working population, and the mopping up of the social problems associated with the non-working.

Local authorities have no responsibility for innovation, so libraries are seen primarily as a benefit for school-kids and workers, or (informally) as a sanctuary for the damaged. Self-directed adult R&D gets squeezed. The slow death of public libraries, and the strangling of adult vocational training, is the flipside of the coin to our cultural lionisation of VC-backed (or independently wealthy) hipster libertarians as the drivers of innovation. Far from closing down libraries, or limiting funding to those that are most library-like (i.e. elite institutions centred on rare books), we should be reinventing libraries as public information and innovation facilities. This doesn't just mean adding more PCs, but building an annex with workbenches, a machine room, a chemistry lab and a mini data centre.

This might appear ambitious, but consider the willingness of local authorities to invest in sport and fitness facilities, despite the fact that private enterprise has never been reluctant to provide comparable, if more expensive, services. Why do we consider adding muscle or reducing fat to be of greater personal value that acquiring knowledge or experimenting with materials? Some of this is down to the state bias towards public health, but part is the neoliberal fixation on the biopolitical: "be the best you can be" is a stricture more easily satisfied through physical self-discipline than intellectual or moral development. We need to spend less investing in the body and more investing in the mind. We need more (and more widely-skilled) librarians, not more philanthropic libertarians.


  1. I'm with you on most of this, but "consider the willingness of local authorities to invest in sport and fitness facilities, despite the fact that private enterprise has never been reluctant to provide comparable, if more expensive, services" seems decidedly dubious to me. Here in Leeds many neighbourhood leisure centres have been closed (most of which were less than 40 years old) and the public outdoor recreation facilities are poor. Football fields in particular are absolutely shocking, and players who turn out of semi-professional teams on a Saturday often play Sunday morning matches on fields with six-inch long grass and no changing rooms. Other than David Lloyd and the currently ubiquitous gyms, private enterprise isn't at all interested in other sporting facilities, which are provided by membership-based sports clubs.

    You have provided some of the reasons for this situation though, which also include a combination of the obsession with physical fitness as a sign of virtue, ambition and control, and the idea that playing sport for fun is a luxury that should be a preserve of the more well-off.

    1. I take your point about recent cutbacks, but that outcome implies an earlier time when local authorities did invest significant sums in sport and fitness. My point is not that they diverted funds from libraries to leisure centres (though there was a bit of that in recent decades), but that investing in a community tech workshop should be no more unimaginable than building an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

    2. Sorry, you did seem to suggest it was something of an either/or situation. Your reference to Olympic-sized swimming pools is significant, as I think one of the trends has been away from community facilities in general towards eye-catching 'world-class' buildings where lucrative events can be staged and the elite can perform. IIRC Manchester closed down at least half-a-dozen local swimming pools to build its Commonwealth Pool in the early 2000s.

      I see no reason why community facilities could not be multi-purpose, indeed my local leisure centre in Leeds (now demolished) featured function rooms and a benefits advice centre in addition to its sporting functions.

      "...each neighbourhood, each town, indeed each block of flats, should set up studios and workshops for free creative work and production; places where people could produce whatever they wished during their free time, thanks to the increasingly sophisticated array of tools they would find at their disposal....The 24-hour week and the fact that income would no longer depend on holding a job would permit people to organise so as to create neighbourhood services (caring for children, helping the old and the sick, teaching each other new skills) on a cooperative or mutual-aid basis, and to install convenient neighbourhood facilities and equipment." (Andre Gorz, 'Farewell to the Working Class', 1980)

      I hope we're not waiting another 35 years for this to become reality!

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction6 December 2015 at 11:35

    Totally agree with Igor here. What we have seen in the neo liberal period is the selling off of playing fields and the erection of fields around these fields and a price tag put on such field. So instead of kids spontaneously playing sport by themselves they now have to sign up to a league, pay the registration fee and then pay for the pitch they once played on free of charge. No more jumpers for goalposts. What we see is the ever decreasing public space and the ever expanding private space. We are not yet at the point where you can't open your front gate without paying a fee but we are getting there!

    If it is true that the mid needs feeding like the body then we should recognise that just as a daily intake saturated fat harms the body then so does a daily intake of the tabloid press destroy the mind. We need labeling on the front of newspapers, this can seriously destroy your brain!

  3. Herbie Causes Extinction6 December 2015 at 11:36

    That should say erection of fences around these fields!