Category Archives: How Power Corrupts

The Future of Academic Publishing – Friday 13th

For the final event of the week we were privileged to host a selection of publishers, in conversation with Dr Blaug, on the topic of academic publishing. This was a rare opportunity that brought together readers, writers, and, their publishers to share their experiences, concerns and hopes as publishing struggles to find a comfortable space in the digital age.

For academics, there is a sense that in the process of publishing they are going through the motions of an inefficient and to some extent demoralising – albeit necessary – process. Writing, reviewing and distributing their work has been problematic at every stage. Taking Dr Blaug’s recent book as an example, we discussed how writers and their work can become alienated from their audiences. With high retail prices and sales aimed mostly at institutions, the value of a book and its research process was left wanting.

Frances Pinter from Bloomsbury Academic was clear she believed her role was to provide services to the academic community.Bloomsburyand, we learnt, Palgrave Macmillan were undergoing significant changes in their business models. This, it was discussed, was a necessary change in keeping with the techno-communicative advances of our society. It was here that we found a consensus at the table that there was a need for publishers to come to terms with the crisis of publishing. That without serious consideration for the role of digital media publishing would be unable to support itself.

However, it was also at this stage that the question of crisis brought out new concerns. Publishing academic books has reached a crisis point whereby it is not possible to publish at affordable prices therefore its distribution is limited and its impact can become lost. But what is in crisis here, the service to academia publishing offers, or the business model academic publishing utilises?

We could say that without a sustainable business model there would be no academic publishing. From this position it would seem appropriate for publishing companies to reconsider their approach and distribution. They will need to digitalise their content and allow other means of access. We heard how in the empirical sciences this had been successful. In the social sciences the future was more uncertain.

One problem suggested was that publishing companies, as the esteemed institutions they are, had failed to adjust to cultural changes and were left, like music record labels, struggling to catch up with the pace of change. The music industry seems to have found a way to maintain its role, and the feeling around the table was that publishing would do the same. Development of publishing practices, that maintain their roles as mediators, has its own inherent contradictions that pose problems such as the distinction between services and control.

If publishing groups are to maintain their businesses then they must maintain their control of the distribution of academic work. By this they risk limiting their capacity to make academic work open and accessible, a situation in reverse of the trends in the Information Age. This balance between business and service has not found a solution that suits everybody and the future of academic publishing remains uncertain. How, for example, do publishers maintain a service position while battling to prevent access to academic works that may be obtained on online sites (often pirated) for free? With the doors of information burst open, what role is left for publishers of the printed word?

Tariq Goddard suggested that Zero Books had found their own way out of these problems and antagonisms by reconsidering the writer and the audience. Printing challenging but short works, they aim to reach a wider audience by moving away from traditional categories of readership. Instead, they prefer to inform a debate in a public sphere beyond the academic world. For debate and critical thinking, we heard, are valuable and should be made available. If Zero is to continue their success it may well be because they have abandoned their association with the academic world and instead concentrate on what it is that we value about academia.

The problem of control and open access was not solved by the discussion today. Perhaps it never will be. Clearly there is a problem of balance between production, distribution and economic sustainability for publishing. The tension between publishers, writers and readers remains. But also from the comments made, from speakers and audience, there is both panic and quiet optimism. Academic publishing groups will want to control the world of distribution but this will remain in contest with those who force it to move in new directions. Writers will continue to write and, together with readers, will welcome the wider access that the internet provides, especially in light of falling income figures from book sales. What remains is how the three groups: writers, publishers, and, readers will interact together in the future. Who will side with whom and how will the problem of economic-necessity be reconciled?

‘Power and Hubris’ Tuesday 10th

The opening event of the How Power Corrupts symposium presented Dr Ricardo Blaug in conversation with Lord David Owen. Both have written about the psychological effects of hierarchy on individuals, the titular How Power Corrupts in Blaug’s case and The Hubris Syndrome, and In Sickness and in Power in Lord Owen’s. The latter’s theses present a diagnosable personality disorder – Hubris Syndrome – which affects elites in positions of power. In his books and expanded anecdotally at length at this event, Lord Owen described those he considered to have acquired the personality disorder: Blair, Bush, Thatcher, Chamberlain, Putin and so on. However, using the examples of Blair and Bush, he revealed that he now believes the afflicted can recover from the syndrome once they are removed from power. Bush, he believes, is now recovered, living the quiet life contently without self-aggrandisement on his ranch, Blair, on the other hand is still thoroughly corrupted by power, projecting himself as ‘Middle East Peace Envoy’ when in fact he is just a representative of Western business interests in Israel.

Blaug’s thesis differs from Owen’s in that it does not identify corruption only in elites, but in everyone participating in hierarchical organsations: political government, businesses, schools, families and so on. Elites at the top of a hierarchy are corrupted in a particular way: self-aggrandisement, resentment of subordinates, mission drift etc. (you know the symptoms, look at your boss); but those who are subordinate are corrupted also: learned helplessness, resentment of superiors, apathy and so on. In a society where everything except friendship or purposefully non-hierarchical organisations are structured by hierarchy, corruption by power is endemic. Furthermore, because of the effects of this corruption we do not know how to manage our leaders and suffer inefficient organisations.  This is lethal for democracy, which requires an active and aware citizenry for it to exist at all. Blaug’s conclusion is that we need an awareness of the pathological problems of hierarchy, flatten it where we can, and promote more participatory democracy.

In their conversation Blaug tried to encourage Owen toward his thesis, that is, expanding Owen’s thesis to include not only political elites, but all elites, and further, to identify all participants of hierarchy as corrupt. Owen agreed only to a limited extent, preferring to focus again on distant elites such as bogeymen du jour, bankers and hedge fund managers. Here maybe we reached the limit of the conversation’s ability to truly be critical. Blaug’s book encourages us all to look at ourselves and admit that we are tainted by power in some way; to have expect a man who has spent a half a lifetime in the corridors of power to openly do so was maybe unrealistic.

You might think that a symposium titled ‘How Power Corrupts’ that invites a Lord to speak ought to have the subtitle ‘An Exploration of Irony’, however, Lord Owen demonstrated some degree of self-awareness. A visage of corruption seemed to appear not with the clarity of a mirror’s reflection, however, but as a vague shadow in a distant and opaque pane of glass; an individual protected in elevation from the masses. But this event was not staged as an intervention for the benefit of Lord Owen’s democratic integrity, and despite some passionate questioning by a bitter and defeated AV campaigner the conversation was kept relatively probing and critical but amiable.

The event was a success in that it demonstrated the push and pull between the two theses, and expanded both through the conversation, Lord Owen ceding somewhat to Blaug’s thesis but ultimately advocating a more conservative liberal-democratic solution to the problems of power: more checks and balances, more regulation of the private sector etc. etc. Blaug did not present his more radical solution here, instead he held back and saved it for his keynote on the Thursday. Ultimately, the fact that the whole event seemed restrained in its criticality does challenge the progressiveness of a critical politics engaging with such institutional figures, however congenial. If both sides were to truly be unrestrained in their criticality would they be speaking such different languages as to be unable to have a constructive conversation?

‘Power Dynamics’ Wednesday 11th

TripWires is a collaboration between Index on Censorship, Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression, and Phakama UK, a charity committed to the practice of cultural exchange and the celebration of shared experiences that promotes a non-hierarchical educational philosophy through the medium of the arts that actively encourages trainees to become trainers. This workshop provided that very opportunity with two students of the TripWires programme sharing the skills they have developed during the project with a group of participants at the Free Word Centre.

Whilst Dr Blaug’s book and its focus on day-to-day corruption and power dynamics informed the discussions during the week, the How Power Corrupt project as a whole sought to challenge the censorship imposed by the high price and restrictive culture surrounding academic publishing. This led the Roundhouse Group to invite TripWires to conduct a drama workshop to see if the arts could help us explore the complex issues covered in Dr Blaug’s book and offer another way of approaching the subject matter.

The workshop demanded participants to reflect on their own experiences of power. In groups we created freeze frames, depicting scenes when we had felt powerful or powerless; in pairs we led our partner round the room, giving them a subject matter to discuss and starting and stopping them from speaking at will; group members were asked to adopt what they thought to be the most powerful position in the room; games opened up and shut down space available and asked what the impact of this was on the individual. One exercise used key phrases from Blaug’s book; each member of the workshop was given a phrase and adopted a relevant pose whilst one person tried to discover the rest of the group’s ‘trigger’ which would spark them to say the phrase out loud, resulting at times in a sporadic cacophony. Some of the techniques were subtle whilst others bluntly addressed what it felt like to have your space and speech restricted.

The TripWires workshop sought to explore the emotional and experiential side of power and corruption, setting it apart from the other conference-style events during the week. The immediacy and physicality of the exercises ensured everyone participated, asking the group to reflect on their own personal experiences of power and censorship.  Key themes, phrases and images were brought to the fore by the games and exercises stimulating deeper discussion, asking the group to reflect on the ways in which power acts on you, encroaching on your ability to think, act and move. Lots of the anecdotes shared related back to education, interactions with the law and memories from childhood. The workshop provided an accessible, personal and physical way of exploring the subject matter; underpinning the more abstract, theoretical discussions that went on during the rest of the week with the reminder that the personal is always political.

‘Online Deliberation’ Wednesday 11th

The Online Deliberation discussion featured Tim Hardy, co-developer of the Sukey protest mapping application, Dr Lee Salter, lecturer in Journalism at the University of the West of England, and Dr Ricardo Blaug. Intending to investigate the interrelationships between deliberative public spaces and the internet, the contributors were strikingly unanimous that neither could be understood independently: Dr Salter insisted that ‘we can’t abstract the internet from the social and economic systems in which it is used’. They also agreed that they looked online for practical solutions to the problems facing deliberation.

This aim is evident from the Sukey application, which Mr Hardy described as a response to kettling tactics employed by police with increasing frequency on demonstrations. ‘Historically’, he said, ‘the footsoldier has never had a view of the battle’. Sukey was not written just to provide for a politically-active community of internet users, he argued: instead, it has the possibility to generate ‘swarm consciousness’ which draws on the collective intelligence of protesters. Similarly, Dr Salter described the problems he encountered in helping an east London borough to benefit from public resources. Universities, for example, were unwilling to open up to those living around them when it was not clear how they would benefit as institutions. These colonisation effects – where institutions founded to provide collective goods now operated according to a coldly instrumental rationality – led Dr Salter to turn to the internet.

Tim Hardy’s contribution, however, made clear that the internet has never been a genuinely free space.  Put plainly, he argued that participation online does the work of the surveillance state for it – pointing to how connective technologies such as the social web makes strategic arrests easier. The connection to established political realities is clear: commenting on recent purges of activist pages from Facebook, he said ‘you have no right of access to a shopping mall’.

However, the internet has created a certain paradox. As Dr Salter suggested, the internet was developed to its full potential by corporations, but now it serves to undermine them – creating fatal profitability crises across several industries and even shaking the corporate organisational form to its foundations. Dr Blaug pointed out that in democracies, similarly, what actually educates the masses is the ‘stunning incompetence of elites’. Once the failures of elites become so acute that we come out in the streets as a public, we return with new online resources to the oldest political questions that exist. Chief among these what form of organisation we choose at the moment when any is possible. In such a situation, time-honoured attributes of democracy like collective intelligence can re-emerge – even the straightforward recognition of our ourselves as a plural subject.

‘The Power of Local’ Friday 13th

This roundtable event began with  HPC co-host Chris Meade  describing the Unlibrary, which was inspired by his realisation that when we go to libraries we are often equipped with the largest possible collection of information already – the internet on our laptops. Why do these places still matter? Similarly, when a Crouch End bookshop closed recently the community was scandalised – despite the fact that the community itself could not support the bookshop with sales.

Mr Meade suggested that these contradictory impulses indicated that we need to return to the fundamental ideas behind institutions such as libraries and community bookshops. Libraries are spaces, in his view, for collaboration – which is why the shelves of the unlibrary are filled with profiles of its members. Bookshops, meanwhile, are important spaces for the community of readers that emerges around books, not as objects but as carriers of ideas.

From the audience, Councillor Mike Harris took up this theme when he recounted the difficulties Lewisham Council faced turning over five libraries to the ‘big society’. He argued that people still expect the state to provide such services. Forestalling the conclusion that the inevitable result of such moves is privatisation, panellist Anke Holst argued further that either fighting for government funding or selling out are not the only options.

Instead, a broad if cautious consensus emerged that the decline of such institutions as the public library might allow for new kinds of spaces and collectivities to emerge. Roundhouse member Dora Meade cautioned that uncritically defending older forms might actually re-legitimise them and their dysfunctions. To be sure, the kind of creativity that might find ways of engaging with the corporate sphere constructively, it was argued, might also help us take on stewardship of our collective knowledge when we can no longer afford librarians – or no longer need them.

‘How Power Corrupts’ Keynote Thursday 12th

Political theorists have been grappling with the problematic effects of corruption by power for thousands of years. In his keynote address for How Power Corrupts, Ricardo Blaug drew upon examples from ancient Greece and Rome, as well as interpretations that appear in Livy and Machiavelli to present the hostility toward power that has characterised some of history’s most successful republics. Machiavelli reversed the traditional suspicion towards the masses that typified renaissance political thought. Instead he argued that it is the masses who should direct their suspicion towards the governing elites. Blaug argues that we should follow this idea by reversing the tendency of government to want to control our behaviour through “nudge” psychology. Rather, he argues, it should be us nudging them, telling them how we want them to behave and using the power of organisations and institutions to control their activity.

The knowledge that we require to do this, to act and participate politically, is not scientific. Rather it is a craft that develops overtime and adapts to changing circumstances (Machiavelli is influential here, too). Just as a hammer only becomes a tool when it is used, knowledge of the craft of politics must be acquired through practice. We must learn to participate as a public and to use the power of organisation and institutions to exercise proper control over the democratic processes.

After establishing the problems that corruption by power confronts us with, and the need for effective political action to combat it, Blaug used the second half of his presentation to outline an institutional model of democratic organisation that would help facilitate such action. He focussed first on the role of the assembly, embodying the mass of the population, as an arena for deliberation and engagement in ancient republics. These are administered by a council comprised of members of another assembly, selected by lot and then rotated after an agreed period. The goal of Blaug’s model is to engender a direct and participative connection between the populace and their procedures of governance. Representational models minimise this connection by reducing to an election every five years. In the intervening time, elected representatives drift off into a political arena which is wholly separate from the population in whose name they are governing. By ensuring the administrative council is rooted in the assembly, Blaug claims to avoid this form of disconnection, and through election by lot and rotation, he avoids the trappings of the professionalization of political office.

Certain questions were raised after his presentation. The absence of the labour movement was noted, particularly in terms of its historic capacity to organise and mobilise effectively. It was also questioned just how practical Blaug’s model is in terms of actively encouraging an active and participative engagement among a severely disaffected and apathetic populace. Are we to consider paying citizens to take part in the democratic process? The issue of scale was also addressed. The model that Blaug presented involved a number of smaller councils feeding in, and linked to, a larger population-wide council. The likelihood of the model working on a national scale is limited, Blaug admitted, it is a far more effective proposition if founded on the city-republic model of ancient Athens, Rome, Florence or Geneva.