After the REF dust settled on 2014, what will come next for the higher education sector? Will Davies breaks down audit culture and describes neoliberalism as the ‘disenchantment of politics by economics’ where processes traditionally left in the realm of politics must now be reconfigured in calculative, economically rational terms. When audit becomes married to rapidly shrinking budgets, and the continued use of planned competition to allocate those budgets, it shifts from a technique of discipline to one of control.
Every sector, every profession, which can plausibly lay a claim to the ‘public interest’, is currently resisting austerity in one simple fashion: claiming that by hitting the sector or profession concerned, the real losers will be the public. Ironically the one industry that is now the greatest recipient of public financial beneficence, namely financial services, seems to have lost all sense of the public ever having an interest in the first place. I guess that’s how they achieved such an extraordinary level of political arbitrage in the first place. So more fool the rest of us.
The police are arguing that police cuts will leave the public unsafe. Local government is arguing that bins will go uncollected. The NHS is teetering in certain areas. Nobody likes to look like they’re just performing self-defence. Academics can join in this game up to a point. But at the present juncture, why not also consider the gradual but unceasing psychological injuries that are performed by techniques of audit, when combined with shrinking budgets.
The suicide of Stefan Grimm, who had been given a grant-raising target by his university, followed by the story of Warwick academics put under similar pressure (told that their positions were now indefinitely “at risk” so long as they failed to meet financial income targets, via fiercely competitive grant contests – the technique of delayed adjudication well understood by Kafka), gives a sense of how governance functions in the current climate. In my own field, Copenhagen Business School, traditionally viewed as an oasis of non-instrumentalised, social democratic, critical theorising about economy, recently announced that 80 academic jobs will go, without even any formal criteria for achieving this. And of course I write this only a few hours before the announcement of the next Research Excellence Framework results…
But rather than seek the pity of non-academics for the strains that we now live with, perhaps a more publicly-oriented way of interpreting this is as an example of how neoliberalism and austerity work more generally. It seems to me that this rising level of unhappiness in this sector is, if not the goal of neoliberal governance, then certainly one of its most important tools. Put simply, if you want less people doing publicly-funded research, you have a choice: kick them off the payroll just like that (as CBS will have to do) or make the career increasingly painful until people leave of their own accord. For those viewing the world via a behaviorist lens, the latter strategy is the more attractive one.
Audit replaces democracy
It is well understood that neoliberalism and financialisation have their political origins in the turmoil of the 1970s, which is often understood as a surfeit of democracy or (as economists might put it) ‘social demands’. Work by Greta Krippner, Martha Poon and others has shown how the rise of finance in the 1980s occurred quite surprisingly, as a result of politicians trying to distance themselves from awkward political choices about the allocation of credit and capital. Equally, one way of understanding the appeal of the Chicago School of economics in the post-Bretton Woods era is that it offered to de-politicise economic policy making, and turn it into a purely technical issue. When normative and social demands are in the ascendency, and trust in formal democratic process is in decline, something has to give: those demands can no longer be channelled effectively into the democratic system. They must either be channelled elsewhere (the market, lobbying, riotting, the private sphere) or they must be neutralised. Either way, politicians can no longer broker them, and nor do they wish to.
In my book, I describe neoliberalism as the ‘disenchantment of politics by economics’. What’s important to realise is that this doesn’t necessarily mean replacing the state or democracy by the market. What it means is that processes traditionally left in the realm of politics must now be reconfigured in calculative, economically rational terms. Yes, you can carry on expressing demands publicly; but you must now do so in ways that makes the costs and benefits of your demand explicit. You are no less welcome to stage an opera, provide social care for the elderly or research ancient manuscripts, and these may indeed be matters for the state to support. Just as long as you can explain that in the language of economics. Utilitarianism, based upon audit, becomes the lingua franca of democracy. Those who do not wish to speak this language do not acquire full citizenship, in this post-1970s model of politics. On the premise that only economic discourse makes sense, the obligatory reframing of social demands in economic jargon aims to ensure that the bullshitters reveal themselves automatically. The problem is, that ‘bullshit’ by this standard includes basic human sympathy and commitment.
Just as clothing designers came to realise during the 1980s that people want the label of expensive clothes on the outside, the injunction of neoliberal politics is to keep the price tag on at all times. As I argued here, the real underlying phobia of neoliberal audit is that someone might be getting ‘something for nothing’ – and yet that is simply another way of describing a gift.
The accompaniment to this ‘price tag’ mentality is a behaviorist psychological paradigm, which assumes (quite wrongly much of the time) that this explicitness of cost and benefit is adequate to control how people are likely to behave. In truth, people pursue ‘benefits’ for all sorts of reasons, which are nothing to do with ‘outcomes’, especially in areas such as the arts or care services. And ‘costs’ are not always offputting, in activities that are supposed to be slow, like the law. But a form of psychological government emerges nevertheless.
Austerity as managed unhappiness
Neoliberal audit is not a tool for shrinking the state in itself. On the contrary, it both requires a strong and interventionist state (imagine a genuinely liberal or libertarian state pulling off something like the REF, at a cost of £60m), and expansions in public spending are no doubt periods when audit is able to expand further. It was partly because Gordon Brown was willing to open up the public coffers from 2001 onwards that New Labour was also able to extend the demand for cost-benefit analysis and measurement. After all, people will become far more co-operative with audit culture when they think they’re about to benefit. Money has a habit of silencing political doubts. So, arguably, the current politics of austerity is paradoxically dependent on the prior wave of largesse, because it is enacted via techniques of measurement and management that were only ever accepted as the quid pro quo for increased public spending.
Austerity therefore arises as neoliberalism’s very own model of the Polanyian ‘double movement’. First, splurge the public sector with money, but do so in a way that extends the iron cage of audit further into professional and administrative life. Second, pull back at great speed, using that same cage in order to do so in a way that can be justified. It’s precisely this ‘double movement’ that a social democratic institution like CBS currently lacks: without an audit framework in place, senior managers have no rhetorical or technical basis on which to say who is the drowned, and who is the saved.
In the British context, life is somewhat easier for the Treasury, but the importance of ‘governing via unhappiness’ moves to the fore for the recipients of public money. No decision-maker really wants to get their hands dirty deciding who is worthy of public money and who is not (or not if they can avoid it). The function of competition, from a neoliberal perspective, is to save centralised politicians or experts the trouble of becoming imbroiled in normative or democratic disputes. It also allows the politics of austerity to be somewhat concealed. Every theatre or every university department in the country is welcome to continue as they always have done – but the odds of them succeeding in this venture are being progressively, deliberately cut, from each year to the next. Competitions for funding, in which everyone has a 1/20 chance of success, produce a society in which people are perfectly at liberty to remain with their cherished profession or vocation for as long as they like. It just depends on how long they can cope with the psychological torture and the feeling of earned failure. If, as a thought experiment, George Osborne had arbitrarily decided to close down Stefan Grimm’s department for financial reasons, Grimm would probably still be alive. The audit + austerity model is, in some respects, crueller than what will take place at CBS, because it takes longer to achieve the same ends.
How does it achieve those ends? This is where the psychology becomes more brutal and realistic. The suffering that it causes people, through stress, guilt, self-blame, isolation from colleagues, is a way of reducing their desire to stick with it. This isn’t a simplistic negative ‘incentive’ (like a ‘cost’). This is just the plain fact that everyone has a limit regarding what they can tolerate (naturally, that limit also varies from one person or sector to another, another plain fact that is brutally seized by proto-Darwinist evangelists of ‘talent’). George Osborne must know this, although it’s not taught in economics. It is naive to suggest that Osborne ‘has it in’ for the humanities or legal aid lawyers or regional arts in any specific sense. He is simply heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest. Competition, Hayek tells us, is a discovery procedure.
From discipline to control
Audit hasn’t always been a tool for the production of guilt and unhappiness. It can be a mechanism for public accountability (as it was when accountancy was still a profession), or, best of all, deeply funny, when it creates perverse incentives and laughable nonsense. One thinks of audit, traditionally, as something with a certain rhythm, which comes round every so often – as the REF does. It therefore has had the imprint of bureaucracy in the past, organisation man, discipline, routinisation, and so on.
However, when audit becomes married to rapidly shrinking budgets, and the continued use of planned competition to allocate those budgets, it shifts from a technique of discipline to one of control. The subject of audit shifts from seeking to meet a periodic target, to living with a constant sense of dread as to how things are currently going right now. The rise of ‘real-time’ indicators and dashboards (see this, for example, shared with me by Andrew McGettigan) becomes a more honest representation of how audit works, once firmly embedded in the logic of finance, rather than the less insidious utilitarian logic of cost-benefit analysis. The best summation of this situation is that provided by Gilles Deleuze in his famous 1992 fragment ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’ [pdf]:
In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factories), while in the control society one is never finished with anything… Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt.
Happy REF2014, everyone, and solidarity with all those being forced to play competitive games they hate.
This piece originally appeared on Will Davies’ personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Will Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is convener of a new BA Degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre.