Monday, 25 January 2016

Words Fail Me

Why does free-speech feature so prominently in modern debate, from Charlie Hebdo to "safe spaces" at universities? Though the global spread of democracy and the decline of formal censorship are imperfect measures, I suspect most people would consider there to be fewer restrictions on free expression today than 30 years ago, if only because of the proliferation of modern media, yet we are assured that free speech is under threat everywhere. The murders at the French magazine were not "an attack on free speech", which is a universal principle, but a highly-specific attack on perceived "enemies of Islam" by self-appointed guardians of the faith. Terrorists rarely attack principles: they attack people and property. Similarly, the campus debate over "no platform" concerns competing privileges, not great principles, hence the lack of interest by most people. Some of this prominence is down to the structural bias of traditional print and TV media, but that can't explain it all.

The persistence of the topic looks like a sign of liberal decadence in an era of growing state and commercial surveillance, so it should come as little surprise that the tropes of criticism have a musty air about them. For example, accusing the academic left of being anti-liberal and supportive of religious obscurantism, in the form of campus Islamic societies, is an obvious re-run of the liberal critique of academia in the 19th century in which Islam has substituted for the Church of England and Rome. This is reinforced by nostalgia for a "traditional liberalism" that supposedly never compromised its principles, unlike the weaselly progressive sort of today, and the characterisation of social media as an arena both risky (those horrid trolls) and at risk (the PC brigade). The solution appears to be traditional liberal propriety, which in practice means demanding that corporations act as social referees and individuals cultivate self-restraint.

Why do we associate colleges in particular with free speech? Traditional universities started out as Medieval madrasas: places of religious indoctrination. Their reinvention as a site of free expression is a product of the Enlightenment, but it is important to remember that historically this meant "free enquiry" more than "free speech", i.e. the extension of the curriculum to the new technical and social subjects required by an emerging industrial society. This instrumentalism meant that many subjects excluded topics and expressions antithetical to national and bourgeois interests. For example, the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford is a legacy of an era when the teaching of history was euro-centric, geography was a catalogue of resources for imperial exploitation, and moral philosophy struggled to escape the conceit expressed by Rhodes himself: "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life".

The "right to say anything you please" on campus was a product of the social democratic era, and more specifically the expansion of further education that started in the 1960s. It coincided with the arrival of relativism and cultural theory, i.e. the right to think anything you please. In other words, free-speech on campus is relatively recent and inseparable from a questioning of canonical authority. This would prompt a conservative backlash in the 1980s, exemplified by Roger Scruton's Thinkers of the New Left and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, that would define leftist thought not merely as wrong or misguided but as fraudulent and anti-intellectual, echoing from a rightist perspective Julien Benda's 1927 criticism of the nationalist infection of early 20th century French thought in La Trahison des Clercs. This repurposing of an anti-establishment trope (the free-thinker who sells out) was a feature of the anticommunist era, from George Orwell to Alain Finkielkraut.

Political correctness originates outside academia in the US conservative backlash to civil rights. Though the term had been employed ironically on the left in the 60s and 70s (harking back to the "correct party line" cliché of the 30s and 40s), essentially as a defence of the awkward squad ("I'm not being politically correct"), it was the right that would insist on the existence of an abstract "political correctness" from the 1960s onwards, using it as as way of attacking minorities and anti-establishment groups while ostentatiously claiming victimhood for itself. You couldn't accuse blacks of being "uppity", but you could accuse them of being overly-sensitive or paranoid, and thus "the problem" in a new form. The subsequent spread of unironic PC to the left reflects its success in providing a grammar for neoliberal identity politics that marginalised the older grammar of class.

The conservative academic backlash of the 80s popularised the phrase, but it also did two others things. First, it provided a link via the hate-object of cultural theory to the "cultural Marxism" of the Frankfurt School, suggesting that the communist threat lived on after the fall of the Soviet Union among the deluded left. Second, the impression of sides being taken by academics allowed the right to claim that PC was a "movement", both pervasive and covert, which revived old McCarthyite tropes (ironic, given that the "PC brigade" are also the "new McCarthyites"). By the early-90s the use of the phrase had left the academy and become widespread on the political right and in the media, in part filling the void left by the redundancy of anticommunism. In populist right rhetoric today, political correctness is a "scourge".

The rise of political correctness has parallelled the evolution of "workplace correctness" exemplified by the proliferation of corporate HR policies. While some will insist the latter is a social consequence of the former, the historical evidence points in the other direction. Businesses have long been insistent on managing worker behaviour, both inside and outside the workplace, and have always demanded that the education system prepares labour accordingly. The turn of HR policies towards diversity and sensitivity, like the focus on talent management, is the consequence of changes in the economy: the need to extend markets to previously marginalised groups, the demand for greater "choice" and personalisation in commodities, and the rising cost of higher skills. The disciplinary turn on campus, like the emergence of identity politics, is a wider social phenomenon, not an academic fashion.

Where the two forms of correctness intersect is the modern tech campus, the emblematic workplace of the new economy: "Such offices symbolise not just the future of work in the public mind, but also a new, utopian age with aspirations beyond the workplace. The dream is a place at once comfortable and entrepreneurial, where personal growth aligns with profit growth, and where work looks like play". But despite its utopian and Sci-Fi styling, the tech campus has obvious echoes of universities and company towns, and even of the scientific institutes of the Soviet Union, which points to its essential nostalgia. What is particularly retrograde is its concentration of labour, like an updated New Lanark, which reveals the desire to be isolated from the wider community (and which finds an analog in a reluctance to pay tax), but also reflects a shift in the power-balance from employees to employers.

In the traditional factory setting, the struggle was over time and thus the surplus value of labour. In the knowledge economy, staff are increasingly seen more as a natural resource, like land: "The resources that managers and businesses are trying to extract from workers are in some ways very personal to the worker. Their imagination, their dynamism, their levels of energy – all these sorts of things". The Matrix, in which people are milked of their essence (a variant on our old friend the vampire trope), is the key metaphor. In a knowledge economy, it makes sense to try and capture a eureka moment of inspiration at work, where it can be promptly and securely IP-stamped and absorbed by the corporation, particularly in an age when new business ideas often require minimal capital to start up and the threat of your workers going solo is ever-present.

This explains the stunted growth of teleworking. While mobility and constant contact remain characteristics of the professional and executive classes, working at home (or precariously from a coffee-shop or shared office space) is increasingly a sign of economic marginality rather than a perk. This is not to say that a dispersed workforce isn't coming, but that it will probably do so via the medium of virtual reality. VR could make a company campus infinitely scalable, circumventing physical costs, accessing cheaper digital peons in developing nations, and hindering independent labour organisation. Gamification may be the harbinger of a more profound shift in what we mean by the workplace and a working life. The 24-hour office, and workers willing to commit hours previously lost to commuting and recreation to further labour, is already a reality.

The tech campus is therefore not just a particular architectural form, it also mimics the intense form of labour familiar from college, where education and socialisation are blurred into one. In the neoliberal era, the college has come to occupy a similar cultural role to the gym: one a means of improving the value of the body, the other the value of the mind. It is competitive, but increasingly the competition takes place within the individual rather than within a class or cohort. This creates a sense of atomised identity in which the boundary of a still-forming personality is vulnerable to "micro-aggressions". Being "safe" from offence on campus is like wearing earphones in the gym. This combination of the utilitarian and the sensitive encourages an attitude that is both transactional and solipsistic, so students expect their higher fees to deliver both better teaching and a comfortable environment. Likewise, in the safe space of the tech campus, superior workplace conditions demand superior labour commitment.

The claim of student unions is not "You can't say that" but "You can't say that here", which is the same claim of privilege that you'll hear at the Garrick Club. For all the insistence that they are protecting minority interests, student unions are demanding property rights. They are also treating words as commodities. This is a consequence of the 20th century linguistic turn in philosophy. No longer labels, words were now things in their own right, having their own histories and being subject to competing forces in the definition of their meanings. This relativism allowed neoliberalism to reconcile two conflicting beliefs. Orwell's critique of totalitarian language, and Hayek's elevation of "dispersed knowledge" above the wisdom of central planning, made us suspicious of political rhetoric and the claims of the state: words were dangerous. At the same time, rational preference required us to deny the ability of language to influence choice: words weren't dangerous. We recoiled from the horror of Newspeak while simultaneously dismissing the manipulative power of advertising.

The paradoxical consequence of the Orwellian tradition has not been a search for clarity and truth in political language but a knowing, postmodern separation of words and deeds. This was exemplified in the 1980s both by the fantastic nature of political rhetoric ("Evil empire" etc) and by the vogue for revisionist histories of the French Revolution that blamed rhetorical excess, rather than any material forces, for the eruption of violence. Where classical liberal history saw words and deeds as tightly-coupled, from republican proclamations to parliamentary debates, and liberal society placed a social value on sincere language ("my word is my bond"), neoliberal thinkers have treated language as contingent and distinct from action, revealing them to be influenced by post-structuralism as much as classical liberalism. The aim in this was not to find common ground with cultural theory but to marginalise language. When "choice" (i.e. action) is modelled, it is done using maths.

When you can say anything, you largely end up saying nothing, hence our modern "free speech battles" centre on insults and offence, while words intended to prompt action ("Workers of the World unite!") are neutralised as slogans on commodities. This doesn't mean that meaningful and influential statements are impossible, but that they are drowned out by the cacophony of the banal: the profusion of language as a commodity. When we regret our words ("I mis-spoke", "I was misinterpreted") we accuse them of being inadequate to the task, as if we bought the wrong items, made the wrong choice. Just as words have become commoditised, so the discourse of free-speech has become a commodity. In the West, this has given rise to a heritage sector centred on 19th century tropes, from securalism and religion locking horns in self-important debate to commercially-driven universities being promoted as arenas of challenging thought. It's a growth market.

1 comment:

  1. The article by Anthony (aka Clothes For Chaps) is really quite bizarre. It's bad enough getting wound up by something as trivial as student politics. But he then tries to link free speech to the Rhodes statue through the convenient medium of political correctness. But the point surely is that the statue is nothing about free speech, but about symbolism and priorities - because that's what statues are - symbolic. They make a statement that this thing is important.