Corny seasonal greetings

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A very conventional image this year, I’m afraid. I glimpsed this cornfield through a hedge on an all-too-rare summer country walk in Hertfordshire. There were ripening sloes and hazels in the sunken lane, reminding me of childhood walks in Anglesey. The unusually lovely weather this summer and autumn were, we are told, the result of global warming. And we are also told to expect an unusally cold winter. Whatever the extremes and their contradictory causes and effects, I hope that 2015 will be a good year for you, with sunlit vistas visible beyond any dark thorniness (not to mention corniness) you may encounter.

(click on the picture to see an enlarged version).

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An unconditional citizen’s income

This is the third in a series of posts on what sort of welfare state we might want. The first can be found here and the second here.

In these straitened times, the idea of a basic income, granted unconditionally to every citizen, from cradle to grave, feels utopian. How on earth could it be paid for?, we wonder. Wouldn’t everyone just stop working? Where would we be then?

I first came across it, in the optimistic late 1960s, in a form that materialised in the so-called ‘fifth demand’ of the Women’s Liberation movement (formulated in 1971) that called for ‘financial and legal independence’ for all women. This had an enormous appeal: not only is it degrading for anyone to have to beg or manipulate someone else for their means of subsistence, and materially damaging to that person if the money is not forthcoming; it also destroys the character of human relationships if they are embedded in relations of dependency. Unequal power relations like those between a husband and a dependent wife, parents and dependent teenagers, able-bodied providers and their disabled dependents can lead to a festering mess of guilt, gratitude and unexpressed anger. The results can range from dishonesty and depression to emotional and physical abuse. In a money-based society, an independent source of income is a pre-condition for human dignity.

Before going any further I should declare my personal position on this question. I have written intermittently about the idea of a basic minimum income since the 1990s, and would class myself as broadly in favour of the principle, though with some important reservations. In the 1990s I wrote a report* on the subject for the Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT), the UK affiliate of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), but then backed away from it for a while, for reasons that I will spell out later (under ‘risks’). Since then I have come back to the idea and am now (albeit not as active as I should be, and with some reservations I will come on to) a trustee of CIT. But I am writing here in a personal capacity and my opinions do not necessarily reflect the CIT’s position.

What I have written below is based on the assumption that a benefit would be paid unconditionally to all citizens, regardless of age, replacing most existing welfare benefits but also the personal tax allowance (at present, the first £10,000 of income for each person is disregarded for income tax, providing a ‘benefit’ of £2,000 per person in tax not paid at 20%). Whilst each person would receive the benefit, therefore, they would also pay tax on all income. The level of the benefit, the rate of tax, and the degree to which that tax is graduated would of course be political decisions and I am not going to make detailed proposals here. But my assumption is that the level of benefit would be enough to keep body and soul together and take care of basic needs but not more.

THE ADVANTAGES

  • It would save the state a huge amount of money, currently spent on processing claims and policing benefit claimants and would eliminate the need for many of the present complex array of benefits (child benefit, sickness benefit, pensions, maternity benefits etc.).
  • Because children would be eligible for it, as well as adults, it would be broadly redistributive towards households with children and thus help to alleviate the shockingly high levels of child poverty in this country.
  • Because there is no household unit of assessment it might well encourage people to live more collectively, sharing resources with friends and extended families, which would also have environmental benefits and take some pressure off the housing market.
  • It would enhance inter-generational solidarity.
  • It would make it possible for people to change their working hours flexibly and combine more than one job much more easily than at present.
  • Life would become much smoother and simpler for freelancers.
  • It would make it much easier to manage illnesses and disabilities and juggle caring responsibilities with work.
  • It would also make it much easier to move in and out of education.
  • The judgement about what is, or is not ‘work’ would no longer be made by a bureaucratic authority but by the individual. If you want to live on very little and devote your life to art, music, prayer, blogging, archaeology, chasing an elusive scientific concept, conserving rare plants or charitable work, that would be your choice. This is not just good for those individuals but spiritually enriching for society as a whole.
  • The labour market would become a little less one-sided. Employers might have to offer a bit more pay to entice people into unattractive jobs. Though, on the other hand, they might find people queuing up to fill the ones that offer high levels of personal satisfaction and reward.

THE RISKS

  • Giving everybody money plays along with the grain of an increasingly market-based economy. The risk is that individual purchases made in the market will drive out collectively-provided services. Recommodification might obliterate decommodification.
  • Globalisation raises serious questions about what constitutes citizenship. It is perhaps no accident, at least in Europe, that the countries with the most generous welfare states also tend to have the most tightly-controlled borders (think of Denmark). Combining a basic citizen’s income policy with non-racist immigration policies presents some serious challenges.

CONCLUSION

Although, in my opinion, it would bring huge benefits, an unconditional citizen’s income is not a magic solution to all political, social and economic problems. I believe that it could be one ingredient in the development of a kind of welfare state that is deserving of the name. However it is only one ingredient among several. In particular, it would have to be combined with:

  • an increased minimum wage;
  • increased investment in universally available public services that are free to the user, including health, childcare, education and social care;
  • a recognition that the housing market is so distorted that continuing extra help will be required to house the poorest people in many parts of the country;
  • a reformed tax system.

*Ursula Huws (1997) Flexibility and Security: Towards a new European balance, London: Citizen’s Income Trust.

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So what’s wrong with tax credits?

I have written about tax credits on this blog before, here and here, and regular readers must thing I’m obsessed with the issue. But, following  yesterday’s post, I  think it is important to spell things out more clearly. One reason for doing so is that there really seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the issue, in many different political quarters and countries.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a conference in Brussels on the theme of ‘Building a Gender Just Society’ and there was a very impressive presentation by Marcella Corsi (professor of economics at the Sapienza University of Rome) about how to reduce gender gaps in the EU. I agreed with just about everything she said except one: there, included (admittedly rather tentatively) in the ingredients of the ‘Pink New Deal’ she was proposing, was the idea of tax credits as a solution to the poverty and precariousness experienced by so many women. It seems that tax credits are often raised as an option in debates on the feminist left in Italian politics. And this, I suspect, is not very different from the kinds of debates that took place in the UK prior to the 1997 general election after which tax credits became such a strong feature of New Labour’s policies. (though I must confess I took no part in these debates).

Why am I so convinced that this view is mistaken? Tax credits, on the face of it, do seem to solve a lot of  problems: they lift (some) people out of extreme poverty; they remove some of the ‘traps’ that previously made it difficult for people to move off benefits and into work without being financially worse off; they can be claimed by people without a previous record of paying contributions into the national insurance system. What’s not to like? Well, in my opinion, plenty. Tax credits are a crucial component of the architecture of the new neoliberal employment regimes, which, under a benign guise, are actually dismantling the welfare entitlements that earlier generations fought for in the 20th Century. There is NOTHING that they provide that couldn’t be provided better, and as or more cheaply, by other means, as I hope to show.

But before listing what is so invidious about them I should probably first explain what they are and how they fit into the tax system as a whole. Incomes have been taxed in Great Britain since 1798 when they were introduced by William Pitt to pay for the Napoleonic Wars. Right from the beginning, taxes were graduated, starting at 2 old pence in the pound (there were 240 pence to the pound so this was less than 1%) on incomes over £60 (the equivalent of about £5,500 in today’s money) and increasing up to a maximum of 2 shillings in the pound (there were 20 shillings to the pound so this equalled 10%). Those earning less than £60 a year paid no income tax. Although eroded in several respects, the principle is still the same. In 2015, the ‘personal tax allowance’ (the amount of earnings on which you pay no tax at all) will be £10,000. On earnings up to £31,865 the tax rate is 20%, rising to 40% on incomes between £31,866 and £150,000 with a maximum of 45% for people earning above that level. Tax credits (which the UK government describes as  ‘benefits’) are currently in the process of being transformed into ‘universal credit’ but, since this has not yet been fully rolled out I will describe the situation in 2014, with two main types of credit in operation. One of these is for people with children, payable to households earning less than £16,000 a year (if they have one child) or £32,200 (if they have two or more children). The other is for childless single people earning less than £13,000 a year or childless couples with a joint income of less than £18,000. What these credits effectively do, after various means tests have been applied and bureaucratic procedures followed, is top the income up: the state adds to it, rather than subtracting from it as it does when it takes income tax.

So what is so invidious about this?

  • People who are claiming tax benefit are working people on very, very low earnings, in very, very badly-paid work.
  • They have lost the right to refuse low-paid work because the conditions of obtaining unemployment benefit (‘job-seekers allowance’) have been made so penal that they are ‘sanctioned’ if they refuse to take whatever job they are thrust into.
  • When they work for wages that are below subsistence level and claim a tax allowance, it is the employer who benefits.
  • Tax credits are therefore a way to subsidise employers who pay below-subsistence wages.
  • The direct link between pay and survival is broken: if workers get a pay increase, the amount of the increase is simply knocked off the credit.
  • So there is no incentive to join a union and campaign for better pay. Why pay union dues, that a low-paid worker can ill afford, for no financial benefit?
  • Again, it is employers who benefit and workers who suffer.
  • The level of tax credits is set by the government. It is a political decision that workers have no say over and can be reduced at a stroke.
  • Reducing wage levels in this way would be much harder. Minimum wages are established in contracts of employment and collective agreements and can’t just be unilaterally taken away.
  • Tax credits are seen by the government as a ‘benefit’ and therefore make up a high proportion of what is regarded as the ‘unacceptably high’ benefits bill.
  • The category ‘benefits claimants’ is elided with the category ‘unemployed people’ or ‘scroungers’.
  • The last time I looked at the figures (2012) benefits to the unemployed actually accounted for only 4% of welfare spending, while tax credits, paid to working people, accounted for 27%. Since then, the disparity has increased still further.
  • Raising the minimum wage would therefore, at a stroke, reduce the benefits bill.
  • Nevertheless, the demonisation of the unemployed as undeserving scroungers continues unabated.
  • In the mass media this can be seen every day in TV programmes like Saints and Scroungers, Benefits Britain, Benefits Street,  Nick and Margaret: We all Pay your Benefits and Tricks of the Dole Cheats.
  • It can also be seen in government advertisements encouraging people to call anonymously to report neighbours they suspect of being benefits cheats (despite the fact that, to quote the BBC, ‘only about 1% of all benefits are fraudulently claimed. Indeed more money is lost through administrative error than benefit fraud’).
  • This false dichotomy between ‘hard-working tax-payers’ and ‘claimants’ doesn’t just drive wedges into communities, it also legitimises further demonisation and further welfare cuts in a continuing downward spiral.
  • Again, it is employers who benefit and workers who suffer.
  • An extra ingredient in this toxic stew is the role of tax credits in migration.
  • Although they are actually quite hard to claim, requiring a lot of paperwork that most migrants don’t have, the fact that migrants are in principle entitled to claim tax benefits not only perpetuates a myth that Britain is unusually generous to its migrant workforce but also allows anti-immigrant right-wing parties to whip up resentment which is then used to legitimate even more benefit cuts.
  • Again, it is employers who benefit and workers who suffer.

I could go on. I would like to emphasise here that all these arguments against tax credits do NOT mean that I am against the idea that the state should provide a guaranteed minimum income for all. Quite the contrary. But that will be the subject of a new post in this series of blogs.

to be continued

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A workhouse without walls

Another winter is upon us, with a bitter wind blasting the doorways which provide the only beds for increasing numbers of Londoners. The side entrance to the Rio Cinema, opposite my house, previously only used as as urinal, now has a regular occupant, as has just about every doorway in this stretch of Kingsland High Street. Yesterday morning, getting off a bus near Liverpool Street Station, my eye was drawn by a festive bunch of balloons outside a door bearing the inscription ‘Dirty Martini: spirited sophistication”.

dirty martini‘The office party season’s started’, was my first thought. Then I realised there was someone asleep there, huddled up against the cold, with a stream of early morning commuters stepping past. There is a peculiar angry stamp that people who work in the City adopt. Probably something to do with the uncomfortable shoes they feel they have to wear for work. The women, especially, in their hard high heels, hammer their way along the pavement as though they have a personal grudge against every slab. It sounds as if a stonemason’s at work. You’d have to be utterly exhausted to sleep right through it.

 rough sleeper with ballonssunrise in the city 2

The sun was rising red in the east and the wind was howling round the nearby skyscrapers – the Heron Tower, the Gherkin and other newcomers whose names I don’t know.  It’s a threatening environment in which to try to find shelter, with a reminder around every corner of wealth and privilege and how tightly it is guarded. The newer of these gleaming glass towers are designed with zero emissions in mind, meaning that there are not even hot air vents to allow a little warmth to reach the destitutes on the streets.

The growing numbers of rough sleepers on the streets are only one of many indications that Britain is increasingly taking on the character of a vast workhouse, but, unlike its 19th century precedecessors, one in which there is not even a roof to keep out the weather. You cannot turn on the radio,  glance at a newspaper or log on to social media without being inundated with evidence: the exponential growth in numbers of people using foodbanks; the ‘sanctioning’ (arbitrary withdrawal of benefits) of claimants for such trivial offences as arriving a few minutes late for an appointment at a Job Centre; people being declared ‘fit for work’ when they are on their deathbeds; a cancer patient in Scotland told to give up his therapy if he wanted to retain his benefits; kids forced into unpaid ‘work placements’. I will not bore you with references. A cursory google will throw up enough horror stories to place you in that almost catatonic state, beyond shock, that so many of us now seem to inhabit.

Suffice it to say, the welfare state that my generation grew up taking for granted (far from perfect as we knew it to be) has morphed into a regime that has anything but welfare as its prime objective (unless we are talking here about the welfare of the occupants of the boardrooms of those gleaming glass towers in the City). Increasingly run under incompetently drafted service contracts (whose main feature is a requirement to meet targets) by multinational corporations with a firm eye on the bottom line, the main effect of this regime is to harrass and humiliate the most vulnerable people in society and transform them into a forced reserve army of labour, with no sense of entitlement, coerced to work below the cost of subsistence.

It is kept in place partly by a series of unexamined shibboleths perpetuated in a variety of ways – by the mass media, by the main political parties and by others – that are increasing taken for granted by the general public. These include the beliefs that:

  • The British welfare state is too generous. This is why so many immigrants are attracted here.
  • The welfare bill is too high. The only way the economy can claw its way out of recession and into growth is by more cuts to services and benefits
  • There are still too many benefit scroungers. They are stealing from hard-working people and need to be flushed out and punished.
  • The tax credit is a progressive innovation.
  • The Baby Boomer generation are an unaffordable burden on the young.They should be made to give up some of their privileges.
  • Raising the minimum wage would place an intolerable burden on small businesses and make life impossible for the entrepreneurs who create jobs.
  • Increasing income tax punishes hard-working people.
  • Increasing corporation tax drives out investment and destroys jobs.
  • The private sector can deliver services more efficiently than the state.
  • There is no alternative to continuing austerity.

I believe all these statements to be dangerous myths and I hope to demonstrate why in a series of blog posts of which this is the first.

My reason for doing so is to contribute to a debate which I think is opening up quite broadly, though not in a very joined-up way, about what sort of welfare state is desirable or achievable in these times. What alternative is there to the workhouse without walls?

It is often thought, on the left, that demands for new welfare models are necessarily ‘transitional’ (in Trotsky’s sense): demands that cannot be met without a revolutionary change to the whole system. It may well be that this is the case for some of the options I hope to be discussing. But I would like to emphasise now that this is not necessarily the case for all of them because many of the features of the current system are actually dysfunctional for capitalism itself. This can be illustrated by just a few examples.

Here’s one: in the hypercasualised labour markets of zero-hours contracts and crowdsourcing where people are employed for a few hours, or even minutes, at a time, a welfare model that assumes that someone is either ‘in employment’ or ‘unemployed’ simply does not fit the reality. A more flexible benefit system would actually make it easier for employers to tap into these forms of labour.

And here’s another: employers are finding it so difficult to recruit workers with children because of the lack of unaffordable childcare facilities that the Confederation of British Industry is now campaigning for an expansion of free childcare (see   http://www.channel4.com/news/free-childcare-workers-business-britain)

Capitalism has historically benefitted from the strong welfare states to be found in the Nordic countries and from the British NHS. It is much easier for companies to locate somewhere where they know the workforce is educated and has its health taken care of by the state than to have to negotiate expensive company health insurance schemes (as many large companies had to do in the United States in the latter part of the 20th Century).

Too much poverty leads to a drop in consumer demand which is bad for business (just look at how the big supermarket chains are suffering right now) and too much destitution will, sooner or later, lead to breakdowns in public health and public order.

It would be nice to think that this question – What sort of welfare state do we want?  – will be on the agenda for public debate in the lead-up to the next General Election. I’m not holding my breath.

But watch this space.

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Everything must go

Looking out of my window first thing this morning I was greeted by a sight which, whilst all too familiar, I still find stomach-churningly revolting: pigeons breakfasting on human vomit on the pavement opposite my house. Summoning up all the optimism I can, I try to regard this as part of the ecology of Hackney: nature’s unbelievable ability to generate new life from the detritus of the old. But I am strongly resisting the urge to think of it as one lot of vermin feeding another. Fortunately, before too long the street cleaning team came along with their machine (thank you Hackney Council) and washed it away. They also got rid of most of the rubbish but missed a few items, including this empty champagne bottle whose contents quite possibly contributed to the vomit.

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It stands there as a testimony to the increasing social polarisation in the area. The moneyed kids who can afford to get legless on champagne are, by their very presence, innocent though this may be, driving the desperately poor out of the public spaces. In the last month two pound shops have closed in Kingsland High Street, no doubt to be replaced by up-market restaurants and clubs, or ‘vintage’ clothes shops (worth a whole article in themselves, these, an expensive parody of traditional second-hand clothes shops with nothing in them that a really poor person could possibly afford). The pound shops got rid of their stock as other shops do: ‘everything half price’ and ‘everything must go’. Half price, in a pound shop? I thoughtwondering what difference this could possibly make.  But then I saw the queues of desperate people descend on them, elbowing each other to grab the bargains. When the first shop was nearly emptied (the second one still hasn’t completed the ransacking process) it looked like the sort of scene you might see on the news in the aftermath of some disaster as these hastily taken and blurry pictures show.

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This speaks of a degree of hardship unimaginable to the hipsters revelling at night on the streets made funky and cool precisely by the presence of these poor people and their improvised solutions to the intractactable obstacles they face, whose environment seems so lively and colourful to people brought up in the bland and ordered suburbs.

Another insight into life on the poverty line in Hackney came through my letterbox recently in the form of  some condensed ‘Testimonies of God Visitation at Triumphant Chapel’ . Packed onto two sides of a folded A5 size sheet of pink paper are thirteen typographically challenging vignettes of local life, featuring the healing power of Pastor Kennedy. As well as performing spiritual and bodily miracles (‘Delivered from Satanic Strongholds’, ‘Healed from Acute Abdominal Pain’, ‘One Year Blood Flow Healed’) Pastor Kennedy also helps people negotiate the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the immigration system and survive the daily buffeting of the search for work. I give you two examples here: ‘Immigration breakthrough’ and ‘Miracle Job’, both of which hint at the extreme stress which must be the daily experience of being a migrant in Hackney’s precarious labour market. (you may need to click on the images to increase their size so you can read the tiny print).

immigration breakthroughmiracle jobWhat kind of a society is this, where the chance to work a 12-hour shift for an agency (something which would have been thought intolerable punishment 40 years ago) is something to thank the Lord for?

And where, when the gentrification is complete, will be left for such people to live?

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Submission

I finished another research proposal yesterday. Clicking the ‘submit’ button induces the same sense of irrevokability that used to accompany the posting of a bulky manilla envelope through the maw of a post box: anxiety that it might contain some terrible mistake combining acutely with an overwhelming urgency to get it over with. I can remember times in the past when the thought of leaving it till the next morning was so unbearable that I would go out out in a raincoat in the grey pre-dawn just to be shot of that bundled offering, that peculiar combination of boasting and supplication that a proposal embodies, which i have written about elsewhere as ‘begging and bragging‘. This time it was a more collegiate effort than it often is and someone else performed the fateful deed, so the moment of release was a little modified – a somewhat anticlimactic transmission of an email with a pdf attachment, though the moment of hitting ‘send’ still had its poignancy.

Nevertheless, it is an event to be marked and an excuse to give myself some time away from all the other pressing oughts.

And also a moment to reflect on this writing of proposals which has consumed so much of my time over the last four decades. And with this, to reflect on some of the contradictions in intellectual life which the writing of proposals brings to the surface, contradictions that seem to become much more acute with each passing year.

First there is the matter of the sheer volume of writing required. This latest effort was about 45,000 words, shorter than some. In this case not all written by me but nevertheless taking up time – to chase up the authors, edit etc.  Multiply that by – say twice a year (I’ve sometimes done more – my record was 11 in one year – but I’m trying to be conservative here) and multiply that by thirty five (allowing for a few years when i was less productive, or the proposals were smaller) and that’s getting on for 3 million words. I’d rather not think how many books that could be! I suppose about a quarter of them turned into funded projects which provided me – rather unevenly – with a living all those years. I could only have written (or, to be fair to my collaborators, co-written) all those books if i had a private income of some sort (and, of course, strong motivation, which might not have been there if I’d been living the life of Riley at someone else’s expense). So it can’t really all be regarded as wasted effort. But it does sometimes feel like it.

A curious feature of research proposals is that they have no public visibility as anyone’s intellectual property. If the research is commissioned, they ‘belong’ to the client. If, like so many European proposals, they are put together by a team of collaborators from different countries, then they become the collective property of the team, regardless of how much, or little, effort any given member has put into the writing of them. If they proposal fails, large chunks of it are liable to be cut and pasted without acknowledgement into other proposals which may, or may not, involve the original authors of those pieces of text. If the proposal succeeds, then all members feel free to use is as they like. This should not matter in principle but can be annoying in practice. In one large European project I worked on a few years ago we developed some rules designed to help junior researchers gain some recognition for their work. The project involved carrying out a large number of case studies. According to these rules, anyone wanting to draw conclusions from the case studies was obliged to cite the original case study report written by the researcher who had done the interviews when referring to it, rather than any synthesised analysis on which their name might not appear. Fair enough, you might think. But in practice this failed to take account  of the genealogy of the interpretative text. I had written quite a lot of the original research proposal, under some time pressure, and, when doing so, had lifted some text from other work of mine in progress (some of which formed hypotheses that were tested in the fieldwork). Parts of this text then got reused word for word (with no acknowledgement) by the case study authors and reappeared several times in various reports analysing the fieldwork results, so when I finally got round to publishing something based on the text I had drawn on for writing the proposal in the first place, i was condemned for having ripped off the work of these junior researchers and, apologetic and bad at standing my ground as I am, ended up littering my ‘new’ text with references to the work of others which had used my own earlier unacknowledged language, in a sort double expropriation.

A proposal is a sharp reminder that, as intellectual lawyers constantly remind us, you cannot legally own an idea. A friend once told me an anecdote about a now-retired BBC producer who used to bring to brainstorming meetings a postbag containing letters that had come in from viewers with ideas for programmes. These would be emptied out on the table for the assembled professionals to pick through for inspiration with, of course, no reference to the innocent viewers who had submitted them. Things are not so different in the world of research evaluation. When doing evaluations for the European Commission I was once – disturbingly – advised ‘Never put in a proposal in the first call for a new Framework Programme. Just look out for good ideas you can use in the second call’. And I have certainly had the experience on more than one occasion of having proposals rejected only to see remarkably similar ones succeed a year or so down the line.

But this raises much more general moral questions of how ideas should be attributed. We are all, of course, immersed in other people’s ideas from childhood. It never occurs to anyone to acknowledge the understandings of the world derived from the explanations given by parents or teachers in answer to those early questions ‘how?’ or ‘why?’. This carries over into adulthood. The penny-dropping moment that occurs when a student suddenly ‘gets’ an idea when it is expounded by a gifted lecturer is experienced as part of his or her education, something to be absorbed from the surrounding culture as easily and naturally as a tune played on the radio or a joke heard in the pub or even a sermon. Few if any would dream of ‘citing’ it. The conscientious lecturer’s role, duty even, is to pass on understanding in such a way that the student internalises it and makes it his, or her, own. But this responsibility runs into headlong collision with the increasingly powerful imperative also placed on that lecturer, to publish, and be cited which implies becoming the visible public owner of a set of ideas that are privately owned and deserving of attribution. These ideas have to be hoarded, as private intellectual property, until the moment of publication, for fear that they will be stolen and published under someone else’s title. Academics must therefore, both share, and not share. They must also both collaborate and compete. And they must aim both for ‘excellence’ and ‘impact’. Of such contradictions are nervous breakdowns made (see this Guardian article for some scary evidence on mental illness in academia).

The process of assembling a research proposal embodies many of these contradictions, albeit often in ways that are unspoken. Take the matter of competition. A European proposal represents a collaboration between scholars in different European countries. Indeed the rationale for funding research rests in no small part on the principle that knowledge and experience will be transferred from one partner to another through the process of collaboration. So far so good, you might think. But no one country should dominate, so in practice you should not have more than one partner from the same country in the same proposal without a very strong rationale. So this puts people from the same country into direct competition with each other. And the more expertise on any given topic there is in any given country – the larger that country’s academic community – and the more pressure there is to secure external research funding in that country, the more intense that competition is. And there are many who could bear testimony to the internecine environment in some disciplines in, for instance, the UK and Germany, resulting from this. But of course there are also strong pressures to collaborate nationally for instrumental if no other reasons. Careers depend on peer review, on favourable evaluations from national funding sources, on friendly people to act as external examiners and sit on appointments committees. Who knows when you might need an ally? This academic terrain is a minefield whose safe negotiation requires a Stendhal or a James Cavell to do justice to its intricacy.

The citation becomes a sort of currency in this game. Although the algorithms for assessing citations are becoming ever more sophisticated, this is still primarly a quantitative matter. The more citations you have, the greater your standing. So in deciding to cite someone you are not just positioning yourself as someone who respects (or disagrees with) that person, you are also adding to their pile of points. Consciously, or perhaps not, academics form themselves into little gangs (often grouped round particular journals or conferences) within which there is a tacit agreement to cite each others’ work, but ignore that of others. Unsurprisingly this has a strongly gendered character, as Daniel Maliniak, Ryan M. Powers and Barbara F. Walter found in their study of the gender citation gap, with women much less likely to be cited than men. I have not studied this systematically but anecdotes suggest that it is evident even in the field of gender studies. Discussions I have had with women who know the field better than I do suggest that when ‘men’s studies’ first emerged as a distinctive field in the 1980s the first writers referred back to feminist authors of the 1970s but as soon as there was a second generation of publications, the authors chose only to cite the men from the first generation (the fathers, so to speak, rather than the grandmothers).

At its nastiest, selective citation can be a way of covering up plagiarism. This trick involves author A reading author B and citing all the people author B cites but not author B’s own work (except perhaps some trivial aspect of it which is rubbished). Author A can then claim ownership of all author B’s ideas without ever acknowledging them. And yes this does seem to be something that happens much more to women than to men. But generally speaking, I think it is done not from malice but in ignorance or from an unconfident need to gain approval by copying the people seen as successful. Up against a deadline, with huge pressure to publish on top of a heavy workload of teaching and marking and administration, the harassed academic skims through the literature that  other people have already cited, taking this to be the ‘state of the art’. The article being written will, of course, have to go through anonymous peer review so uppermost in the author’s mind may be an anxiety that the reviewer – or members of that reviewer’s gang – may actually appear in this bibliography, or expect to do so, so nothing must be left out. You mustn’t, after all, appear ignorant of anything already cited in the field. Often there isn’t even time to read the articles in question and the citation is made on the basis of an abstract -but you omit it at your peril.  The end result is clear. Each time a work is cited, its stature as an important text in the field is enhanced. Thus are some reputations built. But in the same process others are left invisible. Is this, maybe, another example of the way the gender division of labour manifests itself? Are the parts of being an academic that involve teaching and administration and proposal-writing –  the intellectual equivalents of childcare and housework  – regarded as less entitled to reward or recognition than those that are formally theorised and published in academic journals?

Twenty years ago, this citation-seeking culture, a culture in which intellectual activity is increasingly commodified, seemed peculiar to, or at least much stronger in, the English-speaking countries. It is now much more broadly pervasive, perhaps because the global academic world is expected to be English speaking: the values have been smuggled along with the language. So there is now a second question hovering behind every invitation to participate in a new research proposal. In addition to ‘how much money will we get out of it?’ is ‘how many articles will I get out of it?’. Sadly, in addition to increasing the tension between the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ – this pushes ever further into the background that old simple motivation for doing research: to find stuff out.

And this raises yet another tension: between the empirical and the theoretical. With ‘impact’ generally measured by the results of the former, and ‘excellence’ by the latter. But perhaps that should be the subject for another blog.

In the meanwhile, I should end by saying that there is silver lining in all this. When you find yourself working with people you can trust, and do share their knowledge freely and  are serious about carrying out new and original research and care about what use is made of the results then this is something to be treasured and celebrated. As I do today. Thanks, colleagues!

 

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Spring

It’s undeniably spring again. The lemon tree that i brought indoors to protect it from the frost that never was (see picture) has burst into bloom, incongruously filling my office with an overpowering Mediterranean perfume. Saint David’s Day has been and gone, as has International Women’s Day. The daffodils are out, the blossoms are falling from the plum tree on the roof terrace and here comes that itch in the fingers to scrabble in earth.

lemonI read the other day that there are actually bacteria in soil that activate the production of serotonin. It seems too neat to be true. The short dark days and lack of vitamins in the winter diet produce depression. Then along comes the urge to grub around in the soil and plant things and bingo, not only have we been programmed to produce food for the rest of the year but we also rid ourselves of the winter blues.

Only in my case this hasn’t actually led to anything more active than ordering some tomato seeds online. I haven’t even moved the lemon tree back outside where it can be pollinated let alone begun to weed or dig or tidy up. The huge weight of things undone makes it seem too much like playing truant, even though it’s Sunday. And writing this blog (which I see I have barely touched in a year) provokes similar feelings of guilt.

Looking back over my life I cannot ever remember a time when there wasn’t a pile of unanswered letters, neglected friends, unpaid bills, unfiled invoices, unwritten articles (or, once upon a time, essays), boxes in the attic still ununpacked. I suppose this is how most people’s lives feel. Though I am sure that many are more successful than me in avoiding that feeling of being a donkey with a carrot attached to the browband of its halter, ceaselessly following the unattainable moment when all will be completed, the desk empty, the moment finally arrived when I can write what I really want to write, go where I really want to go. That moment, as Bob Dylan put it ‘when I paint that masterpiece’.

I once, in the 1970s, worked in an office where editors (of whom I was one) worked alongside civil servants. The culture was one which must have vanished long ago. You weren’t allowed a typewriter on your desk, though everything – every phone call you had with a publisher, every meeting – had to be recorded. On your desk were three trays: in, out and pending. If you wanted to send someone a letter, or write a note of what had taken place in a phone conversation you had to write it out in longhand, or (if you were more senior and that way inclined) dictate it into recording device. You then put it into your out tray from which it was collected by a messenger and taken to a typing pool where it was typed up in four or more copies. There was one for the recipient (with an additional copy for anyone else who was copied in to the letter, or had attended the meeting that was being recorded), one for the official files, one to be put in a folder that would be circulated around the department for everyone to read, a practice known in some offices as ‘dailies’ but, for some reason, in ours as ‘chronologicals’, and finally one for the ‘bring up’. The bring up was supposed to be a reminder to oneself to chase the issue up in case there had been no response. When the typed document was brought to you for checking and signing, you wrote the bring-up date in the top right corner and it would appear in your inbox on the due date. Usually you couldn’t think what to do with it so you simply crossed out the date and replaced it with another one. Some dog-eared documents might have up to a dozen dates on them. The chronologicals folders (one per day, I think it was, or perhaps one per week) would pile up waiting for a day when you were too hung over or bored to do anything else and would be binge-read before being passed on to the next reader. Writing up one’s file notes was done at least in part with the readers of the chronologicals in mind. The challenge was to find a style that was sufficiently po-faced to sit formally in the files and act as a record in case a decision was challenged or a complaint made, but to make it amusing enough to raise a smile from colleagues in the know.

Why am I recalling all this now? It might of course be of some interest to historians of office work  (and some of the more horrible features of software packages like Outlook can probably be traced back to such origins). But what brought it to mind is my memory of one of the civil servants who worked down the corridor from me. I’m not sure what his job was, but he was clearly very efficient at it because he was the only person I ever knew who often had both his in tray AND his pending tray entirely empty. He would sit with his arms folded with a tidily piled outbox, waiting for the messenger to come round and bring him more work. He took his tea breaks and lunch breaks punctiliously, always going to the staffroom for that purpose (not drinking sloppily at his desk as we editors did) but his strong sense of morality did not permit him to pass the time doing anything that wasn’t work-related (like the Guardian crossword, which he happily worked on in the staff room). It would be easy to caricature him as one of those automaton-like bowler-hatted city gents with no inner life (like Dylan’s ‘Mr Jones’ who knows something is happening but doesn’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?) but that would be unfair. Like many of the civil servants I remember from that time he had passionate interests outside work: amateur dramatics, opera, botany, hiking in obscure parts of the world, I can’t now remember which but at least one such thing.

What must it be to have such an orderly life, to trade daily boredom for security and defer gratification not indefintely, as disorderly bohemians do, but in measured doses: to the weekend, the summer holiday, the early, well-pensioned retirement? I doubt whether there will be a generation any time soon that will know the answer to such a question. That model of work seems well and truly gone. (and if you want to know why I think this is so, here’s a recent article: http://analytica.metapress.com/content/632j131722874242/fulltext.pdf).

 

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