Solidarity with Da Youf

Two pieces popped up in my twitter feed and I wanted to respond to them (though I did so first on twitter and Facebook). The first one: “An open letter from a millenial: quit telling us we’re not special“. The critique is of parenting styles, which seems to miss the really rich target for disdain, but the attitude is spot on in taking the pulse of young people’s feelings in the (disaffected) west.

The second is better in that the author, Paul Mason (who was one of the few western journalists actually reporting from Greece during the crisis, rather than merely reporting on it from afar) and it sets the target of critique much closer to the mark, I think, beginning by discussing how crucial disaffected and disappointed graduates were to the recent ‘arab spring’:

As the Arab spring exploded around us – and unrest continues from Athens to Quebec – this sociological type has been central. The graduate who has been denied the leisurely, liberal education of their parents’ generation, but instead has been faced, almost since puberty, with a battery of psychometric tests, exhortations to excellence, and life-limiting vocational choices.

When I was at university (Sheffield, 1978-81) I found time to play in a band, picket a steelworks, occupy several buildings, write embarrassingly bad fiction, switch courses and demand the creation of a special dual degree to suit my life’s purpose. “You can do it as long as you don’t tell anybody else it exists,” my professor told me. Tuition was free. There was a grant you could live on as long as you did not stray from drink to class A drugs, and in the holidays I had a factory job that paid nearly as much as my dad’s real factory job did.

It’s embarrassing to say this to a generation where individual tuition has become a privilege; where non-examinable knowledge is perceived as a waste of time; where every thesis and dissertation must begin with a mind-numbing rehash of existing knowledge, written to a formula as rigid as that demanded by the Qing-era Chinese civil service. But here goes: the past was better.

 But Mason concludes with a strange optimistic twist that “All those tests, drills, teach-to-exam lectures, and the relentless vocationality of education, has made this generation highly entrepreneurial.” To which I can only respond with a confused, ‘huh?’ No, I don’t think those things actually did make our generation entrepreneurial – I think that’s just what people do under these sorts of conditions. Got nothing to do? Might as well go make some art.
Look at the incredible Auckland based art collective Young Gifted and Broke – the stuff coming out of there is phenomenal, but it’s because they are phenomenally talented people that late capitalist society hasn’t made/found a place for. So they made their own. Indeed, it does manifest as a kind of part entrepreneurial enterprise, but primarily it’s an social-artistic endeavour, and they just happen to be making money on the side.
Tom Scott, rapper and the public face of HomeBrew lives with his mother, for fucks sake. Calling that type of lifestyle “entrepreneurial” doesn’t begin to do it justice.

Anyway, here’s another thing linked to in Masons piece: the (apparently famous?!) Communiqué from an Absent Future, which is jaw droppingly, vigorously head-noddingly apt:

Like the society to which it has played the faithful servant, the university is bankrupt.  This bankruptcy is not only financial.  It is the index of a more fundamental insolvency, one both political and economic, which has been a long time in the making.  No one knows what the university is for anymore.  We feel this intuitively.  Gone is the old project of creating a cultured and educated citizenry; gone, too, the special advantage the degree-holder once held on the job market.  These are now fantasies, spectral residues that cling to the poorly maintained halls.

There’s a spectre looming over this whole discussion, however, and it has generally gone unacknowledged: Global Capital is (probably) the main driving force behind all these changes. Why could the UK government in the late 70’s afford to pay students “a grant” and “free tuition”? Because the UK still had manufacturing exports, a strong currency, blah blah blah and all the rest of it. What has yet gone unacknowledged in all this, I think, is that the globalisation of capitalism means that no longer can we just think in terms of nations, or even the amorphous “The West” – from the factory worker in Bangalore, to the kid wiping clean iPad screens with chemicals, we’re all implicated in the operation of capitalism, and I strongly suspect we won’t manage solutions on our own anymore.
That might be the most worrying thing in all this – we can’t even make meaningful global changes to avert natural climate catastrophe. How on earth are we going to fix a broken politcal-economic system?

More on transparency

“Transparency is at once the most powerful, dangerous and incomplete political ideal of the 21st century.” – Parag Khanna

This image from the hilarious self-parody that is the ‘Quotable TED‘ gallery on Facebook is worth commenting on. I don’t know anything, anything at all about the rest of Khanna’s talk, but I almost don’t need to (we know what kind of talk TED tends to attract). He’s right though – transparency is a dangerous and powerful ideal, as we’ve seen with the McDonald’s video. Clearly “just enough” transparency can be as illusory as silence.

There’s also a growing awareness in some circles that what can often happen with ‘Transparency’, far from making clearer or clarifying, is actually an obfuscation and distortion. Consider the self-reporting and self-surveillance techniques that Mark Fisher talks about as an integral part of the (neoliberal) modern university bureaucracy: anywhere  targets, goals and metrics are put in place to measure things like education/teaching performance the metrics become and end in themselves. The teaching shifts to “teaching the test” (Cf: The Wire and it’s episodes in Season 4 and 5 recognising this issue in the US public education system) and performing for the sake of the metrics instead of… actual teachin.

To return to the issue of transparency, I think an identical thing happens. When the goal is transparency, transparency itself becomes the goal rather than the product of a higher ethical commitment to honesty (or anything similar).