John Lanchester’s Crisis in the Classroom

Tutorials with some of the victims of Nick Clegg’s bare-faced lies recommenced today amidst news that the economic recovery rollercoaster is now poised for an unprecedented third dip. The ongoing economic crisis, I reckon, is eventually going to bring an associated terminological crisis into being. How many more dips lie on the horizon? What term should we use to describe a seventh or even a fifteenth dip? Is this the sort of thing which non-repentant macro-economists lose sleep over? Contemporary economic terminology has become undeniably if unintentionally evocative –  I for one find it very difficult to think of the path to recovery and not think of the Euthansia Coaster. Grown ups will will no doubt draw more serious inferences.  

So within today’s session we read John Lanchester’s recent analysis of the nation’s finances together. Lanchester is the author of Capital, a sprawling fictionalised account of crisis-based London life, he is a sort of Marxist of an explicitly empirical persuasion and, thankfully for today’s purposes, he is also an erudite, concise, and above all clear economic commentator. When I grow up I want to be quite like John Lanchester. The article’s main concern is with explaining how, despite the fact that the coalition government’s austerity campaign is failing with respect to it’s own structural deficit management goals, only 28% of the British public are in favour of increased welfare spending. Fraser Nelson has since pointed out that austerity is also demonstrably failing to reduce the debt without much by way of public uproar.

The upshot? The majority of the British public seem opposed to heightened welfare spending, even though government spending is increasing. 90% of the British public believe the national debt is falling, even though it is rising. What is to be made of all this, Lanchester asks? Austerity is not working, economically speaking, but it still seems to be working, politically speaking – such is “the shit we’re in”. It is in keeping with this entry’s fairground-centric tenure to remark that people usually recommend rollercoasters upon emotional rather than technical grounds. 

Lanchester’s article is not without it’s challenges, of course, not least of all in a classroom of students with no more than ten weeks of Higher Education under their belts. So we’re approaching the article with the respect it deserves and the attention it requires. Today we read it together, once, in an effort to attempt to condense it’s 4,507 words into something like an elevator speech. “Austerity: economically redundant, politically expedient”, and variations on this theme, is where we got in the few minutes we had left for discussion. The more interesting discussion awaits. I’ve asked the students to read the article a second and then third time in advance of our next meeting. For the second time, each student will make a note of every single instance where something Lanchester has written is in any way un-clear to them. I proposed the following five headings:

* People

* Institutions and Bodies

* Concepts and Theories

*Turns of Phrase

* Calculations

* Sources of Evidence  

Each student will send their list to me and, once I’ve received a list from each of the students in each of the three groups I run, I will create an aggregate document. I told the students that I counted 21 potential moments of unclarity, spread across the five categories. I guess the figure will come closer to 30 once everybody has gotten their documents in – we’ll see – I’ll post back the results once they’re all in, towards the end of next week. In addition to asking each student to fill out an individual list, I’ve also invited them to propose additional categories and, for the particularly ambitious, to propose an alternative typology. If nothing else, these ambitious counter-typologies will offer us a productive segue way into Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’s Taxonomy. We’ll again see!

During our next meeting, then, each student will take responsibility for discussing a particular category in more detail and thereby to describe, and potentially challenge, aspects of Lanchester’s argument, to the rest of the cohort. Once we’ve done this, finally, I’ll ask the students to discuss how the article relates to them as economic subjects, in the abstract, as well as as pedagogical subjects paying for the privilege of discussing austerity, in the concrete. Again, I’ll report back on all of this.

Hard Cash Event – Brief Report

The first Hard Cash event took place during the week, structured along the lines which the book will be eventually structured. That is to say, we had a session on Art and Money, a session on Psychology and Money, a session on Political Economy and Money, and a session on Philosophy and Money.

Rather than running the event in terms of individual author presentations, sessions were instead co-ordinated around a series of interventions, much like had been the case with the Stengers, Caffentzis and Plotnitsky events. Some of these interventions were made off-site, via Skype, others were made through presentation aids, and others still were improvised on the basis of where the discussions were going. In all cases, the emphasis was upon asking would-be contributors to let us know what they proposed to do within their eventual contributions. A small audience therefore engaged in a series of quality discussions which bodes well for the future of the project. A link to my presentation can be found here. Further updates from individual authors in particular, and on the project in general, will be posted, as always, to this blog.

Consuming Consumption

Just over five years ago the University of Leicester allowed me to start referring to myself as a Lecturer in Social Theory and Consumption. I remember calling a friend up at the time in order to impose the good news upon him. He acted how I had hoped any friend would have acted within such a situation: by conspicuously avoiding a congratulatory tone, by stubbornly insisting upon the relative global insignificance of the event and, in an obviously well rehearsed tone of cynical resignation, by drawlingly bemoaning how yet another pretentious pseudo-intellectual was now sure to become yet another self-righteously pretentious pseudo-intellectual. The more than apparent symmetry between the occasion for this conversation, on the one hand, and my demonstrable ability to reasonably predict the course of its’ development, on the other, led me into believing this was a passage of life I would subsequently come to lament. Rather than mutually contemplating the poetry of a moment opening up to the inevitability of its passing, however, my friend and I instead remained true to the tenure of many of our previous dialogues by refusing to give so much as an inch to one another. “What the fuck do you know about tuberculosis anyway Dunner?” he snarlingly inquired. By way of dismissive response I patronisingly underlined how, by actually taking some time to listen to me at some point in his life, he might come to avoid prematurely misfiring so many contemptuous arrows into his own foot. 

It isn’t only within discussions between my friend and I that consumption is bound to go through a laborious degree of terminological give and take, of course. Those for whom it doesn’t conjure up associations of blood-spattered handkerchiefs concealed in denial have more than enough scope for conversational incompatibility remaining at their disposal. Etymologically and ecologically, we are regularly met with the suggestion that consumption is one of the names for destruction or annihilation; anthropologically, it often denotes a mode of communication; economically, it presupposes production; whereas aesthetically, it often serves to designate a mode of experience, or even to stand in as a name for experience itself. In what way are these various lines of enquiry to be brought together? What should a student of consumption actually study? What isn’t consumption? The first joke I tell my new students every year riffs on how the study of consumption seems all consuming precisely because it is logically self-consuming. Nobody ever laughs at the joke and this only goes to prove, by way of self-fulfilling prophecy, that I’ve gone and misunderstood the desires of my consumers.   

The most obvious way in which consumption is rendered observable and verifiable today, of course, is as a key economic indicator. This is one of the many domiciles claimed by the sovereign consumer of neo-liberal economics which sees its’ own property rights everywhere: the free to choose citizen who votes for parties at the polling station and for producers at the supermarket. Approaching consumption as an empirically demonstrable category makes it possible for analysts to put paid to the terminological ambiguity in which consumption is traditionally shrouded as a means of seeming to directly address the pressing macro-economic anxieties of the day. The anti-recessionary tonic will be concocted out of some parts consumer confidence, after all, so the contemporary student of consumption would be presumably well advised to apply themselves less to the question of what consumption is, or to whether it should prevail, and more to the problem of how to increase consumption’s occurrence for the sake of bringing the promised land which exists beyond recession that little bit closer to home.

J.K. Galbraith famously lambasted the seeming delusions of such a view of consumption over half a century ago. The Affluent Society develops a strident critique of what would become known as neo-liberalism’s account of consumer demand as a logical and moral imperative by gesturing toward the short sightedness inherent in the treating of all matters of public policy as matters of private preference. On the one hand, in an analysis that remains timely, Galbraith’s book polemically underlines the logical and moral hazards inherent within any macro-economic policy which would facilitate increased consumption by way of relaxed financial regulation. On the other hand, perhaps less in keeping with our time, Galbraith neglects to seriously consider why such an obnoxiously deluded world-view might come to persist. Consider the recent example of intelligent creatures finding themselves compelled to consider snow as a moral issue rather than as a meteorological event. With Galbraith, we might well sneer at such moments of patronisingly nonsensical hubris. Nevertheless, we repeatedly fall back upon this economic deterministic outlook on the world with alarming regularity and despite our better judgment. Of course snow isn’t a moral issue but for the purposes of how we now see the world lets think and act as if it was. Galbraith explains the persistence of such nonsense simply on the basis of the vested interests contained within the preservation of what he calls the conventional wisdom. If only it were so straightforward.

These notes are occasioned by the fact that less than a fortnight ago I attended a conference which I had spent much of the past year co-organising with Norah Campbell and Alan Bradshaw. As luck would have it, our conference on the Politics of Consumption, in Dublin, was synchronous with a strong public mobilisation against the privatisation of Ireland’s system of water provision. The timing of the event seemed to have run in our favour whilst the hard work of our contributors more than justified our many background endeavours. From Ben Fine’s opening keynote speech on Consumption Matters, through to Kate Soper’s keynote on The Politics of Prosperity and onto to the closing roundtable on The Politics of Consumption in Ireland, we were treated to a variety of provocations and analyses which addressed the phenomenon of consumption in its conceptual and political complexity. The event’s programme is here, audio recordings are available on request and a special issue of ephemera will follow towards the beginning of next year.

To briefly come back to my friend, I should say that he laughed right into my Skype mediated face when I suggested he should come along to the event for the sake of learning something. I take this as evidence for how consumption is partially a matter of individual dispositions which cannot be reduced to extra-individual phenomena. He takes such an account as evidence for the self-righteously pretentious pseudo-intellectualism he had previously predicted. As the producer of this text, of course, I’m bound to go for option one. Let us assume for similar reasons that my friend will go for option two. Which of the options would you choose? Stated otherwise: in what way will you express your freedom? This is the logic of the sovereign consumer applied to the act of critical reading. It is analogous to the form of democracy advocated by neo-liberal economics in as much as the aggregation of choice events is ultimately treated as a mode of justification which cannot be legitimately challenged.

To oppose this model at its roots, however, it isn’t so much a question of opposing potentially absurd choices in themselves, or even in total, so much as it is a question of opposing the abstract proposition that it is better to be able to choose, than not. This fundamental alternative brings us towards a potential paradox by virtue of the fact that it too can be understood as a matter of choice, of preference, of consumption. The inherent difficulty in opposing the logic of the sovereign consumer ultimately becomes the very paradox of choosing to choose against choice. This is a paradox which makes for a series of entertaining pedagogical and philosophical activity, for sure, but it also happens to be the paradox out of which an account of the consumer which neo-liberal economics would be incapable of accommodating might, or might not, eventually become produced.