Thursday, 23 July 2015

Labour! Back to the Future with Morris and Kropotkin!

I've largely kept my own counsel about the Labour Party leadership election. It's proving so divisive, and the arguments are so tediously familiar that it's hardly felt worth joining in. I'm a Labour member despite the attractions of more radical, purer and (sometimes) open-minded alternatives to the left such as the Greens, Plaid and various groupuscules. Mostly I'm in because I don't like vanguard parties: those who would far prefer having another purge of ideologically suspect splinter factions than actually make any effort to attain power. Labour, for all its myriad sins, wants to be elected and actually run the country. Also, the SWP is run by a rapist and his rape apologist friends. If any one of the revolutionary parties actually showed any sign of getting a revolution going, I'd be tempted but I strongly suspect that they're actually just fantasists.

So anyway, that leaves us with Labour and its interminable election. The party which encouraged its MPs to 'lend' left-winger Jeremy Corbyn enough nominations to 'widen the debate' beyond the three centre-to-right Oxbridge wonk candidates and whose higher echelons are now screaming blue murder because people listened to the debate and seem to have decided that they rather like what Mr Corbyn has to say. We're not quite at the stage of Dick Tuck's 'The people have spoken, the bastards', but several rival candidates say they wouldn't serve under Corbyn while the newspapers are full of threats to stage a coup against him if he wins. That implies that New Labour hasn't yet grasped the point of democracy yet.

The New Labour argument is that the people are now very rightwing, and if you don't become equally rightwing, you can't be elected. If you think back to the Blair government, the discourse around the poor, minorities, civil liberties etc. seemed to imply that the Masses are small-minded racists who should be pandered to, while simultaneously providing some social support to make up for the determination to become a fully-fledged neoliberal economy.

There's also the – very real – threat of the press. Politicians need the press because there's no way to communicate with the electorate in an unmediated fashion. Yes, there are social media but the research I've read suggests that it's far less important than we might think. The printed press is overwhelmingly Conservative and the BBC long ago adopted the discourse of the right.

So that's the message from Cooper, Burnham, and Kendall. The market has won, the people hate scroungers and foreigners, the state should shrink and shut up. It's the politics of fear, and of failure: they have abandoned any attempt to formulate a set of principles, and to attempt to persuade the electorate of the virtues of said principles.

And then there's Jeremy Corbyn. I read this short profile and found myself nodding. He attended a polytechnic for higher education, a much more common experience than the elevated world of the others. He grew up in the rural provinces – Wiltshire and Shropshire – and moved to London, so he's seen several sides of life. Like me, he's a socialist and a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and opposed the war in Iraq. He opposed apartheid actively and made links with Sinn Féin in an effort to end the war in Northern Ireland, years before it became fashionable. He supports the Palestinians without being an anti-semite. He's a cycling vegetarian who also takes the train, and he likes his stimulants to be of the Fairtrade variety.

In sum, he's everything that Orwell hated about the left back in the 30s, and that the sharp-suited managers of neoliberalism who run Labour abhor. He's that most tedious of things, a true believer. He has principles which alter not when he alteration finds.

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” (Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier)

A few months ago, I suggested that Labour would win if they returned to the optimistic vision of the pre-Labour socialist movements, particularly William Morris. It's been a bloody awful century or so for Labour: always on the back foot, always struggling to protect those battered by the worst depredations of capitalism and global realpolitik (when it bothered, that is). Labour has been so preoccupied with defensive manoeuvres that it forgot to articulate any positive vision: the big ideas have all been from the right, and Labour has, in government, attempted to ameliorate them round the edges.  But if you look back to the late 19th century when London was a hotbed of leftwing debate from Kropotkin to Marx, Crane, Morris and the Socialist League, you see a left that thought the future belonged to the workers, that a new society was possible. They were confident, optimistic and articulate. That their campaign material was beautiful made the point: a socialist future was a beautiful, fulfilling future which was within reach.

Walter Crane
I can't imagine Morris or Crane designing this, for instance:



I'm being told that a vote for Jeremy Corbyn is a vote to make Labour just another purist sect with no interest in governing; that a vote for any of the others is 'serious', a commitment to seizing the reins of power. What I don't see from them is any indication that they know what to do once they get there: they are neoliberal technocrats. I don't know whether they have any beliefs because all I hear from them is tactics. Do they really think the British people are mostly selfish racists, or is it just a tactic? Either way, they depress me.
Walter Crane

I genuinely believe in most of what Jeremy Corbyn stands for. But more importantly, I think he has a value system and a programme which goes beyond triangulating the results of focus groups. I think he – perhaps naively – believes that his fellow citizens are at heart kind and thoughtful, and that if he articulates a clear vision of a better society, they will vote Labour.

Neither I nor, I suspect, Corbyn, is quite the unreconstructed Dictatorship of the Proletariat socialist he's being painted by his Labour or external opponents. We all know that industrial, economic, social and global upheaval means that a movement based on and only obsessed with skilled manual labour has little future. The miners, millworkers and factory hands are largely gone. Their work has mostly been shipped off to dictatorships so that we don't have to think about it. In its place here is a working life of insecurity and invisibility: for now it's the cleaners and call-centre workers who are exploited, bullied and fired without cause. But soon it will be almost all of us. Our jobs are becoming weightless: we work in isolation, on zero-hour contracts. Not just the immigrant cleaners and traffic wardens but the university lecturers, those who care for our old folk and those who grow our food. Being middle class won't help: virtually every job can be automated (check your job via that link). Our climate sickens and dies, but we get cheap flights and cheap clothes (thanks, Indonesian toddlers).



Trained to be individualists and isolated in the way that the factory workers and miners weren't, we've been stripped of the means to resist, but also stripped of the opportunity to formulate positive alternatives: those obsessed with the promise of Big Tech and the 'sharing economy' might like to recall that Google, Apple, Pixar and Co engage in some very Old Economy behaviour: tax avoidance and ganging up to stop its workforce becoming mobile and demanding a fair share of the profits. It is a new world, and forward-thinking socialists must generate new solutions to new problems, new ways to organise, new conceptions of the state and new arguments formulated in collaboration with the people. I think that Corbyn will, whereas I think the other candidates don't even see them as problems at all. The ultra-poor don't vote, so why bother worrying about them?

I'm voting for Corbyn because I think that a point comes where you have to shake off the fear that drives political calculation and express faith in a set of principles. I think people are sick of the petty differences between essentially indistinguishable parties. I would like to elect a leader who thinks that persuading the electorate is his or her job, rather than to assume that its darker impulses are its overriding values. In the end, I'm a democrat. I think that most people, given the chance, want to be kind, supportive, co-operative, peaceful and fair to each other: tendencies despised and rejected by the current political model. All we need is the political space to express those instincts, and I think a Labour Party led by Mr Corbyn could go some way to creating that space. And if I can't vote according to my principles in an internal party election, when can I?

Friday, 17 July 2015

Call for Moominpapers

Posting this for a friend - wish I'd thought of it! I'm basically the departmental Groke. Here's a scene in which the new university managers meet a Moomin:


And this is my response:


I've loved the Moomins for many years. I had a couple of books as a child, but never saw the comic strips or TV series. As a kid, I knew there was something special about the emotional sophistication of these fat herbivores - going back to them later I realised that Jansson had created a nigh-on perfect set of characters through which to explore anything from fascism (the comic strip in which Moominvalley is invaded by bullying exercise fanatics) to depression (take your pick) but which never lectured or moaned: there's at least as much joy at simple things and egalitarian community values as there is worry. 

Call for papers
Moomin collection

The Moomins, created by Tove Jansson, have delighted and enlightened adults and children for generations, and have been translated into several languages. In all, nine books were published , together with five picture books and a comic strip, between 1945 and 1993. The Moomins have since been the basis for numerous television series, films and even a theme park called Moomin World in Naantali, Finland. 

At the centennial anniversary of their creator’s birth, a new film has been released and more of Jansson’s works are now being translated from Swedish into various other languages, including, finally, her work for older readers. This has put the Moomins back on the map, and created a second ‘Moomin boom’, which is, in itself, worthy of analysis. Her works have often been regarded in terms of potential autobiographical readings – an approach perhaps encouraged by Jansson’s much-famed ‘island’ lifestyle – but the time is ripe for revaluations and reconsiderations. This collection therefore seeks to extend the work already done in the field, and to take into consideration as many of the different variations, and incarnations, of the Moomins as it is possible to cover in a book-length study, it aims to have an open focus, and to begin conversations about The Moomins, their roles, impact and influences as children’s characters, and their status as ambassadors of a greener, more bohemian, lifestyle.

I am seeking contributions of 5000 words and envisage that the collection will comprise entries on the books, comic strips, theatre productions, TV series (Soviet & Japanese) and film, and even the theme park. At present I do not have a publisher for this book but will be approaching Palgrave, Bloomsbury et al once I have some more contributors and potential chapter abstracts to submit. Themes might include (but are not limited to):

Ecological elements
Philosophical aspects
Gender
Narrative structure
Grief and loss
Legacy (commercialisation)


If you would like to contribute, please send an abstract of not more than 500 words by October 30th 2015 to Dr Nicola Allen at: N.allen2@wlv.ac.uk

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Bye Bye Beeb

Too many depressing things are happening at the moment, though there are bright spots (I refereed 57 straight fights at the Much Wenlock Olympian Games fencing the other day and only made one result-changing cock-up; I turned 40 on Tuesday too) and I can't keep up. Attacks on organised labour, on healthcare, on public service broadcasting, on education… It's like the Tories, with a majority of 12, bought a copy of The Shock Doctrine and are using it as a guidebook. If you haven't read it, it traces how the CIA-supported 1973 fascist coup in Chile gave American monetarist economists (known as the Chicago Boys) the opportunity to try out all their ideas in one go, untrammelled by democracy, debate, human rights, concern for the people or any of those outdated ideas. Capital loved the Cold War: it enabled them to link freedom, democracy and capitalism, when they have no natural connection at all. China's the most successful capitalist nation on earth – because its people are neither free nor democratic.

So that's what's happening in the UK (and Greece, obviously). A government is using a tiny mandate to rush through the privatisation of public services and the abolition of the very concept of the public good (here's the excellent open letter on the marketisation of Higher Education). Here's a short piece I've written for a university magazine, with a few additions and subtractions for this different kind of outlet.

Some years ago, the Daily Telegraph ran a click-bait style piece entitled ‘Five of the Worst BBC3 Programmes’. For the sake of posterity, they picked Coming of Age, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Tittybangbang (‘Awful, all-female sketch show'), Danny Dyer: I Believe in UFOs and Little Miss Jocelyn whose crimes seem to include youth, being female and black.



Some, perhaps all of these shows might be your idea of hell, and no doubt readers also tend to shudder at the thought of a night in front of Snog, Marry, Avoid or Dog Borstal though I would point out that all the shouty smugness can often be a diversionary tactic: those sneaky TV-types are smuggling educational stuff in under the cover of crass rubbish. I used to be quite good at spotting weaselly indoctrination in kids' TV and boycotting shows when I was young: give me Ren and Stimpy over Grange Hill any day. You don't have to like everything on TV: you just don't have the right to demand that anything you don't like should be shut down. 

Anyway, fair enough. Being a white middle-class 40 year-old, Radio 1's current disposition makes me want to cut off my ears rather than endure a second’s more ‘banter’ and self-promotion by one of their interchangeable smug DJs playing bland rubbish. I once listened to nothing but Radio 1. John Peel, Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session, Mark and Lard in the afternoon. The commercial stations didn’t play the kind of thing I liked, and I’m allergic to advertising. As I aged, Radio 1 fulfilled its requirement to cater for a younger demographic, but I still had Radio 3. Well, at least Late Junction: the rest of it has been ruined by market forces. Classic FM has destroyed classical music by its strict policy of only every playing snippets of music that has featured on adverts. Nothing unfamiliar, unhappy or untuneful can be tolerated. If it happened in visual art, our galleries would be full of nothing but dogs playing cards and selfies. Classic FM attracts listeners by giving them soothing background muzak and R3 has largely followed suit, at least in the daytime.

I still have Radio 4 (except for the damned Archers) and sometimes 6Music. My tastes in TV changed too: where once I watched little but science fiction, Westerns and smart-arse American cartoons, I’m became addicted to The Wire (BBC2), Newsnight (BBC2) and New Tricks (BBC1). I shout at the TV and radio quite a lot, because I think that the BBC has a markedly conservative tendency at the moment, but as long as the other half of the population is shouting at it because it’s full of lefties, it’s probably getting things about right.

And now theCulture Secretary wants to strip the BBC back to making programmes that ‘the market’ won’t make. The BBC, he declares, should stop making popular and populist shows that ITV or Channel 5 or (and I suspect this is the major point) Sky could do. The Voice has been mentioned, amongst that plethora of talent shows. What it should do, he thinks, is produce the unprofitable shows that are good for us. No doubt he means wall-to-wall Question Time, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise gardening programmes, golf, golf, more golf and property speculation shows designed to make us view the panoply of human life solely in monetary terms. He and his friends want coverage of the stuff they like on the BBC, and want everyone else to shut up or pay Sky. They hate the BBC because they think it's run by communists: as far as I can see, it's run by Daily Mail readers. They also hate it because they resent the popular will being embodied in collective non-commercial provision of public goods. It's an example of a largely successful popular institution which reproaches the market by simply existing. Like the NHS it's got to go, because it implies that there is an alternative to the market.

Essentially, the new government wants a BBC which panders solely to the tastes of rich, white, conservative, southern people, especially men. Women, ethnic minorities, Welsh-speakers, homosexuals and liberals should try their luck in the fabled ‘market’. Children too can get lost. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but children’s TV has largely disappeared from the commercial airwaves: hampered by pesky regulations (soon to be abolished, I presume) about not advertising sugary drinks and foods means that there’s no money in it. What little kids’ TV there is tends to be cheap rubbish designed to sell toys. Only the BBC – thanks to its public service broadcasting requirement – provides high-quality children's programming, often with an educational bent. News, too, is under threat: imagine running a report on aircraft safety, for instance, if you depend on Ryanair adverts, or on hidden sugars when you know that Coca-Cola is one of your major clients?

The attack on the BBC is an attack on the idea of universality. You and I might hate every programme on BBC3, but that’s OK: it’s audience might hate everything we watch. We all pay the licence fee (in theory) and part of the public service ethos is that all our needs are served equally. I pay for Dog Borstal and Dog Borstal fans pay for my University Challenge. Viewers of Dog Borstal and University keep paying, and might even watch the other’s types of show. In the brave new world of subscription-funded broadcasting, those with cash will get the programming they want; the rest may as well go for a walk.

John Whittingdale objects to The Voice because he thinks the BBC shouldn’t make shows replicating what the commercial channels are doing. While the rash of talent shows may be annoying, he perhaps forgets that most TV formats are trialled on licence-funded channels, where ratings are slightly less important than quality. What seems tediously familiar now was once innovative. Take Mad Men, for instance. Made by an American commercial station, only BBC2 took a chance on it in the UK. Once it was a critical hit, Sky swooped in to outbid the BBC for later series: the BBC built the audience up, and Sky took the credit (though not the viewers, interestingly). Whittingdale also forgets that popular hits pay for expensive unpopular but important shows. No Top Gear, Sherlock and Doctor Who, selling round the world, no Newsnight or Desert Island Discs. Nor, I would add, any highly trained directors, producers, engineers, actors, editors and sound recordists: the commercial sector is subsidised by the BBC’s world-class training programme.

Infuriating though it often is, the BBC represents the very best of British culture (despite it being Establishment, Unionist, a capitalist shill and all the other things about it I hate). It believes in equality of representation, universality, and that very old-fashioned concept, ‘public service’. Without a broadcaster committed to serving us all uninfluenced by the profit motive or chasing ratings, we are all poorer. 


The same model is being applied to education, by the way.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Pick out mine eye's with a ballad-maker's pen

On Tuesday night I went to Stafford Castle's Shakespeare Festival to see Much Ado About Nothing, performed en plein air. I didn't really know what to expect: anything from am-dram to the Globe, but my boss and I had free tickets because we'd written the notes on the play for the programme. So I bought a load of other tickets for my friends and off we went. We dined on crisps and beer (the vaunted dining experience was inexplicably closed) and hoped for the best.

The best is what we got. The actors all had strong backgrounds in theatre (and, of course, they've all been in Doctors, Holby City and Casualty, the proving grounds for this generation's thespians) – I'd seen several of them in repertory plays at the New Vic theatre in Stoke. The setting was a bit odd: an English garden just after Armistice Day 1918 - flag bunting, delightful upper-class summer clothes or officers' uniforms. A cash-in on the current commemorative feeding frenzy? If so, it was a cheap and easily forgotten gag: the play soon took over. Perhaps, though, the setting had a deeper purpose beyond entertainment. The play starts with the successful end to a war: not many 'gentlemen' dead and of those few, 'none of any name' says the Messenger: Leonato replies that 'a victory is twice itself when the achiever brings home full numbers'. I doubt that any 1918 productions would have used a contemporary setting simply because those lines jar so much – perhaps this production is silently commenting on the current elite craze for presenting WW1 as (in the words of one of my War Studies colleagues) 'a triumph'.

Much Ado is a weird play. It's a comedy: you can tell because it finished with a couple of marriages, and there are comedy proles, chiefly Dogberry the Constable, played with relish as a stage-Welshman by actual Welshman Phylip Harries. Shy but romantic Claudio enlists his friend Don Pedro to woo posh, hot Hero for him and in the end it all works out fine. But in the two sub-plots, much nastier things are going on. Ageing Benedick (a bachelor soldier who is as they used to say 'not safe in taxis' with young women and always has a handsome young man around) and Beatrice spend most of the play wittily sparring with each other and declaring that marriage will never happen, leading the youngsters to set them up to fall in love with each other, while moustache-twirling villain Don John pays some low-lifes to fake Hero boffing Borachio the night before her wedding, with her betrothed witnessing it all from outside the window. The wedding ceremony starts and Claudio is as vilely misogynistic as it's possible to be ('Give not this rotten orange to your friend…he knows the heat of a luxurious bed; Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty') breaking off the match. Eventually, to prove her virtue, Hero agrees to have her death announced in an effort to punish Claudio and disprove the accusations against her. Even the comedy characters take sides: sad old Benedick tries to challenge Claudio to a duel in defence of Hero's honour and is cruelly rebuffed with scorn. In the final act, the villains are apprehended, Claudio keeps his word to marry Hero's cousin, sight unseen, as recompense for killing Hero (I know, I know): when the veil is removed, it's really Hero, and all's well that ends well (sorry).

As I said, it's a weird play. The first act or so set it up as a comedy of manners - life returning to sweet jests after a war. The older couple of Benedick and Beatrice are set up as the butt of the humour as well as inevitable lovers, the rude mechanicals (and the toffs actually) come up with quite a lot of surprisingly effective knob gags, but the Don John plot, Claudio's rapid descent into misogynistic hatred and the faked death move it rapidly into the territory of Romeo and Juliet and perhaps more saliently, Othello. Don John is Iago - overlooked by his brother perhaps but motivated more by depression and loneliness, he wrecks Hero's reputation and marriage simply because misery loves company:

I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in
his grace, and it better fits my blood to be
disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob
love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to
be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied
but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with
a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I
have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my
mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do
my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and
seek not to alter me.

Shakespeare's plays are scattered with these jealous poisoners: what's truly dark about Much Ado is the way Claudio responds to this slur on Hero's virtue. That women's reputations depend on their virginity is part of the character of the times – but Claudio responds too quickly with heavily sexualised imagery direct from the dark pool of male suspicions about female sexuality:

you are more intemperate in your blood
Than Venus, or those pamper'd animals
That rage in savage sensuality.

Her father's no better: it's a long time before his brother and the friar convince him that further proof is needed. His first thought is of Hero's guilt, and that she'd be better off dead.

Wherefore! Why, doth not every earthly thing
Cry shame upon her? Could she here deny
The story that is printed in her blood?
Do not live, Hero; do not ope thine eyes:
For, did I think thou wouldst not quickly die,
Thought I thy spirits were stronger than thy shames,
Myself would, on the rearward of reproaches,
Strike at thy life. Grieved I, I had but one?
Chid I for that at frugal nature's frame?
O, one too much by thee! Why had I one?
Why ever wast thou lovely in my eyes?
Why had I not with charitable hand
Took up a beggar's issue at my gates,
Who smirch'd thus and mired with infamy,
I might have said 'No part of it is mine;
This shame derives itself from unknown loins'?
But mine and mine I loved and mine I praised
And mine that I was proud on, mine so much
That I myself was to myself not mine,
Valuing of her,--why, she, O, she is fallen
Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
And salt too little which may season give
To her foul-tainted flesh!

In this context, Benedick's resistance to marriage (to anyone, not just Beatrice) comes to seem truly light-hearted compared to what's in the heart of the aristocratic men around Hero.

So what we really have is a tragedy disguised as a comedy: it's pretty uneven, especially in the last couple of acts as the play lurches between Dogberry, the Benedick and Beatrice flirtation and Hero's fake funeral. What does it all mean? I think the lurching between registers is a social critique. Here we have a post-war society which is dangerously immature. The war's been won without any suffering. Love seems to be a pretty game, and other people pawns in it, hence the way all the toffs decide to force Benedick and Beatrice together. But when the crunch comes, it takes just one malignant individual to set family against each other, to bring out the worst in our handsome young hero, to ruin a good woman's reputation. None of these people are equipped to deal with the deeper emotions. Perhaps this is the reason for the post-1918 setting. The Edwardian toffs in their country homes were simply not prepared for the type of war and post-war society into which they were thrust. The endless summer of what seemed to them a Pax Britannica was over, and finding a new place was proving difficult, to say the least.

The unevenness of the play is what brings this out, I think: light comedy only a few lines away from genuine hatred, grief and horror. The ending works, I think, because the characters agree to stick to the old rules of honour and atonement, but it's a real effort. They don't have the emotional or philosophical resources to deal with what spills out of them when the polite surface is disturbed, and their only solution is to perform the old rituals as though good manners conquers all – a response we see in the poetry and theatre of the Restoration too. Does it work? Well, WW1 was followed by WW2 in short order, and some would say the Holocaust casts its shadow over all literature thereafter.

Apologies if I've ruined a lighthearted night out for you! I'd recommend a trip to see this production: the actors are superb, the setting lovely and the play fascinating. Ignore my over-analysis, have an ice-cream and revel in the verbal sparring.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Slight return

Apologies for the break in service folks. It's been a hell of a couple of weeks: exam boards, marking, a funeral over in Ireland, individual casework for the 19 professors faced with redundancy, meetings with management and so on and so on. Last and (in management's eyes, least), I have an hour-long conference paper to write, for delivery in two days' time. In those two days: long, long department meetings and what's set to be a very confrontational meeting of the board of governors. 

Panic is of course setting in. I'm starting to feel like poor old Doctor Faustus, though at least he had some fun before payback time:

O gentlemen, hear me with patience, and tremble not at my speeches! 
Though my heart pant and quiver to remember that I have been a student here these thirty years,
O, would I had never seen Wittenberg, never read book!
God forbade it, indeed; but Faustus hath done it: for
the vain pleasure of four-and-twenty years hath Faustus lost
eternal joy and felicity. I writ them a bill with mine own blood:
the date is expired; this is the time, and he will fetch me.
O Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damn'd perpetually!
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come;
Fair Nature's eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent and save his soul!
O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn'd.

The appropriate music, of course, is Madder Rose's Panic On. Not that I ever need an excuse to play unjustly-forgotten indie.


See you on the other side of Friday…

Friday, 19 June 2015

You're Fired. Enjoy your summer.

Hi all. It's Friday afternoon and it's been a mixed week, to put it politely.

Last weekend was rather glorious: a trip to The Globe for a matinee performance of As You Like It with my students (and ex-students, and their kids) and colleagues. I have to confess to having a heart of stone when it comes to Shakespearian comedy, despite being well aware (before you all write in) that comedy = happy endings in those days. However, this performance was a triumph. It was already ahead of last year's Antony and Cleopatra because lightning and thunder were conspicuously absent. All the coincidences and unconvincing doubling were played up and the knob gags and so on were done like panto, which I thought really worked. The actors from star to bit part were seriously impressive, doing everything from saucy bits to tenderness so well: I could even see a few people wiping away tears as the couples got hitched and Rosalind was reunited with her father (sorry to ruin the ending for you). I definitely wasn't one of them. Not at all.

So that was good: fine theatre, Greek food with friends, catching up with our graduates and then driving home past Walsall Stadium in the rain where – I found out later – Elton John was performing to the more tasteless of some other friends. I wasn't sure whom to feel sorriest for: them for preferring Elton John to – for example – rolling around in shattered glass, or Elton John for going from private jets and global fame to standing in the rain next to a motorway in the shabbiest, tiniest football stadia for miles. It's no dignified way to end a career.

After that, the week nosedived quite significantly. There were high points - presenting a preliminary version of the politicians' novels project to our staff conference and seeing other colleagues' research (one paper on Victorian prisoners was called Pros and Cons: I do love a good pun), and meeting our external examiners, who think we do a marvellous job. If only our management would say the same. Sadly, however, and with some truly wonderful exceptions, it's beginning to feel like there's nothing we can say or do which would persuade them not to treat us as some kind of incomprehensible enemy. There's an awful lot I can't say in public, but it's been one of those weeks in which jobs.ac.uk has been refreshed constantly.

My own worries aside, most of the week was taken up by preparing for and representing my professorial colleagues, 19 of whom have been shortlisted for redundancy. Why 19? Because 20 triggers a range of legal responsibilities which might impede management's (ahem) 'determined' style. It's been a long time since this institution felt or behaved like a collegiate body united by a set of educational values. Instead we get corporate platitudes and a 'leadership' (they love that word, and attend seminars on what it means) which derives its tactics and sense of self-worth from episodes of The Apprentice.



This time some of the professors are in line for the sack and others are up for bonus payments (as are lots of the senior management team, who consume lots of carrots but never catch sight of a stick). I have bored a lot of them with my views on this, and intend to carry on (what's the point of being a governor otherwise?) but I may as well rehearse the arguments here. Why stop at boring those around me when I can do it to The Internet?

In the corporate world, ordinary employees receive a salary for doing their jobs well, and get sacked for not doing them well (or, thanks to the Tories, for pretty much any non-existent infringement). The senior executives get massive salaries but can't be expected to do their jobs well without even more massive bonus payments. These are supposedly performance-linked, which has led to – inter alia – the banking crash. If you're offered a bonus for hitting targets, you're going to suggest short-term ones which are easy to fix rather than ones which are good for the organisation. Nor, if you're a bonus recipient, should you ever mention your sneaking suspicion that success is rarely attributable to individuals.

However, if you temporarily forget that corporate stupidity affects the wider economy and society, you might just about justify this on free-market capitalist grounds. My problem is that academia has been invaded by these corporate blackmailers, in person or in spirit. Fewer and fewer senior educational managers are academics, and those who are have sold out to the discourse of leadership and reward. It's below-inflation pay settlements for the workforce, and retainers and performance bonuses for themselves. These are, of course, in case they take their talent elsewhere. Personally I would invite anyone making such veiled threats to try their luck, but I'm heavily outnumbered on the board and the decisions are made in private sub-committees by people who speak the same language.

What is success in relation to a Higher Education institution? Is it increased recruitment? We could pack them in - but we might not be able to serve their needs successfully. Is is 'student satisfaction'? We have the National Student Survey, invoked in hushed terms at every meeting. We could ace that: just give everyone high grades and replace the library with a corporately-branded coffee area (this is why in the US the American Football coach is more highly-paid than the vice-chancellor). Is it attainment? We can fiddle with the grading algorithm like all the other universities. For every Key Performance Indicator, there's a way to fiddle the result so that someone gets a fat cheque at the end, as though any achievement – meaningful or not – is the result of one go-getting Leader.

So far, so seedily familiar. That boat has sailed. We all expect academic executives to behave (dress, speak) like those they see as their peers in the private sector. Whenever I say anything like this to them you can see the eyes roll as they wonder if I've just arrived from a WEA class circa 1937. But even though I'm not and never expect to be a professor, I want to weep at this extension of corporate amorality from administration to education (and oh yes, my appraisal includes the category 'appearance' but not 'intellect'):



In fact it's worse: the executives find ways to blame everybody for failure, while jealously guarding the rewards of success. With the professors, they're getting both carrot and stick. Nobody here doubts that some the profs may be exhausted, burned out or distracted (some might even just be plain lazy), but the management's decision to arbitrarily select a couple of appraisal points without any critical judgement smacks of contempt. It implies that professors are educational colossi, striding across the pedagogical landscape without any involvement with the rest of the place. It suggests that their achievements are the result of heroic solo labour, and their failures are purely personal. Never mind that the benchmarks are artificial, that research funding is not distributed fairly either here or in the sector as a whole, that other duties other than grant income or REF-able research is valuable and essential. Never mind that giving a Prof all the time needed for those papers requires everyone else to do their teaching and pastoral work, and diverts resources from collective effort to the Heroic model.

No: let's treat them as isolated demigods, masters of their own fates, regardless of local or wider conditions: educational, financial or emotional.

I'm reminded of a cheap TV show from some years back: Pets Win Prizes. This is what bothers me most about the Night of the Long Professorial Knives. Despite the protestations of fair play and impartial criteria, it seems to me that the twin approaches of the sack for some and cash rewards for others is the final power-play by an administration (not just here) that has got above itself. In theory – very much in theory, sadly – the Professors are the academic conscience of a university, particular one that isn't run by the academic staff. Their reputations and body of work enables them to contribute to the fundamental values and direction of the institution, informed by long experience and critical abilities. The title of 'professor' contains within itself a statement that what they do is more than a job: they profess a set of beliefs or values which transcend their formal terms of employment.

All this goes out of the window once the professor is left wondering whether the next phone call is to had her the price of a good holiday or summon her to an exit interview. Who will challenge (constructively or not) anything that happens when their are such serious consequences? You'd have to be hard as nails to resist the tide in this way or – like me – resigned to finding fulfilment in my small but steady academic niche rather than in the warm glow of management's regard. It's not good enough. My colleagues and I are summarily dismissed as union hacks: we would say this, wouldn't we? We no longer have any impact because the academic staff, like all the others, are no longer colleagues of the executive but work for it and should just shut up. This is why some of the executive refers to 'the university' when they mean themselves. I was always under the impression that 'the university' includes students, academics, support staff, the executive and all sorts of other people. The point of having a confident, self-critical and autonomous professoriate is that they can keep a check on the executive's schemes without being dismissed – as I and my UCU colleagues are – of being the 'usual suspects'. They might not always live up to this role, but they never will if they can be fired at will or be handed tips by an avuncular VC.

Last night, I went to Symphony Hall to see Andris Nelsons' last performance as conductor or the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Between the pieces, members of the orchestra spoke movingly of their relationship with him, and afterwards Nelsons gave a lovely speech about them, and the value of music and the arts to society. It was blindingly obvious that to him, the old model of the conductor as some sort of musical Mussolini bending the orchestral peons to his will was completely outdated. Instead, Nelsons built on the existing skills of the orchestra and introduced them to new ways of seeing music, to new repertoires, to new horizons. With collective goodwill, both he and the members of the CBSO part company improved by the experience.

I think it's time university executives shook off the embarrassing management models of Enron and Lehman Brothers. Universities have been around a hell of a lot longer than these corporate monsters, and contain enough collective wisdom to succeed on their own terms. These fads come and go, and we should rise above them. Let's learn from the orchestra, the convent, the commune rather than fall for every airport self-help huckster breezing through.

Last night was a transcendent experience. This morning I sat next to a dignified and professional man as he begged for his job, his livelihood and his personal and professional pride, watched across the table by a man in a suit who kept saying that he didn't have time for this. For all the abstract points I've outlined above, this is what it comes down too: sleek bonus-seeking sharks forcing honest people to justify their existence in the most reductive terms.

Progress, eh? Anyway, I'm off to a funeral, which in this context seems about the right way to end the week.