Friday, April 17, 2009

Recovering the public realm

It was good of Will to think of me and he was dead right to draw my attention to these reflections of k-punk in the aftermath of the G20 protests.
New forms of industrial action need to be instituted against managerialism. For instance, in the case of teachers and lecturers, the tactic of strikes (or even of marking bans) should be abandoned, because they only hurt students and members (at the college where I used to work, one-day strikes were pretty much welcomed by management because they saved on the wage bill whilst causing negligible disruption to the college). What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labour which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without. Instead of the gestural, spectacular politics around (noble) causes like Palestine, it's time that teaching unions got far more immanent, and take the opportunity opened up the crisis - their crisis, our opportunity, as Harvey rightly characterises it - to begin to rid public services of business ontology. (When even businesses can't be run as businesses, why should public services?)
Action against managerialism eh? That sounds like a legitimate excuse not to carry out some of the mind-numbing tasks that form part of the modern educational bureaucracy. More seriously, this is about taking action that hits your enemies. Students are not enemies.

Of course being run on business lines is not always bad. Some businesses are well-run. However the managerialism that has infected the public sector is not based on the best business practice, instead it is an amalgamation of Taylorism, the conventional wisdom of management consultants and pseudo-marketisation. It is the product of bureaucracy, not commerce.

Two things strike me about managerialism. The first is that it affects the conditions under which public sector workers deliver services. It is an ideology of control, a system of domination that subordinates individuals' autonomy. It is anti-democratic. And so we become our own grudging oppressors, complicit in operating a system in which we have little faith so that we can protect something that we actually value.

Secondly, for us in adult education in particular, managerialism has been used as an instrument for the imposition of a specific model of lifelong learning. Today this increasingly means addressing the needs of employers, not employees note, and abandoning a broader, emancipatory notion of learning. And this is where the business model is so inappropriate. Public services' primary purpose is not to make a commercial profit. It is to deliver that service well and at reasonable cost, but above all it is to promote something of social value, a collective need, not just the needs of employers.

Those seeking utilitarian justifications for continuing liberal adult education like to point to the fact that the humanities, for instance, are capable of producing the 'soft skills' that employers need; analytical skills and creativity for instance. However, we have to recognise that they also produce those skills that employers most definitely don't want; articulate assertiveness, the ability to spot bullshit a mile off, a determination not to take crap. In other words, collective needs do not necessarily coincide with those of employers, they may conflict with them and strengthen the hands of their opponents. Don't think that those in power are naive enough not to know this too.

And this is where action gets interesting. Instead of moaning about pay (as I sit here in my second home in Greece I do not feel badly paid) or engaging in ill-informed gesture politics, there is space for action to attempt to re-establish the public realm, underpinned by an essentially egalitarian, humanist ethic that empowers people rather than renders them servile. A lovely thought, but will it happen? Don't bet on it.


Rabelais said...

I'd support a strategic withdrawal from the process of managerialism. In fact, I'm going to put the proposal to my local union branch.

DorsetDipper said...

manufacturing industry left managerialism behind a long while ago.

Its worth having a look at this character who was influential in manufacturing in Japan, and then in the west. Particularly his 14 points. How many public sector organisations are run according to these principles?

Anonymous said...

If managerialism means anything it is box ticking and the abandonment of judgment.

The FSA contibuted to comprehensive economic cock up by box ticking rather than looking at the economic fundamentals of the institutions it regulated.

The chairman of another regulator recently announced that his body's chief object for 2009 was to implement best practice in equality and diversity. Presumably we can all go bankrupt feeling better about one another.

I remember reading twenty years ago that the compliance officer would be the key person in any organisation. I laughed. How stupid I was. Recently I attended a meeting when the head regulator introduced himself as having spent his whole career in regulation. I wanted to laugh out loud, but thought better of it. You don't laugh at the real boss.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?