‘The Death of Public Knowledge? How Free Markets Destroy the General Intellect’ reviewed by Patrick Ainley

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

About the reviewer

Patrick Ainley was Professor of Training and Education in the School of Education and Training (as …


Following the perhaps fancifully named ‘Student Spring’ of 2010-11, when English higher education students nearly succeeded in reversing the tripling of undergraduate fees by the incoming Coalition government, self-styled autonomist Marxists and others revived interest in ‘The Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse. Its notion that ‘the development of fixed capital’ (machines – particularly those now incorporating advanced automation and Artificial Intelligence) had elevated ‘general social knowledge’ to ‘a direct force in production’, implied that ‘the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect’. Although much of this speculation resembled Marcuse more than Marx, it was linked to the idea that such a general intellect, or mass intellectuality, was being (or perhaps could be) forged in the new mass universities. So a uniformed and bemedalled General Intellect paraded around Leeds University campus at the Really Open University that students briefly established there. However, it is not clear whether the phrase, which was in general parlance when Marx was writing, was meant by him as relating to Rousseau’s General Will, or rather described the knowledge required to function generally in society with its demands for identical forms of fungible labour such as Vygotsky observed was acquired by peasants moving from countryside to town in Russia.

For Aeron Davis, the editor of this first volume from Goldsmiths’ Press, the Public Knowledge available to the General Intellect is wider than what is provided by education, but encompasses the information and knowledges disseminated primarily nowadays via the internet but also still by the press, books and libraries, museums and galleries. It also includes cultural repositories of all sorts, that, as Davis writes in his introduction, are ‘a foundational element of democracies, markets and societies everywhere’, and without which ‘there is no social contract, no political legitimacy, no market transactions and no basis for common decision-making’. Indeed, ‘no sense of shared local or (inter)national identity or possibility of a more equal society’, all of which are enduring a ‘long, slow death’ (p.3). Neoliberalism as a political strategy aiming to conform society to the economic model of a free market disregards this shared cultural heritage. Despite its commitment to perfectly informing all individual market participants, it actively encourages the atrophy of the General Intellect that is required to access and understand this collective cultural legacy. As a Professor of Political Communication, Davis therefore brings together academics and activists in four sections covering ‘Public News Media’ around the world, ‘Public Knowledge in Britain’ (education, legal aid and libraries), ‘The Corruption of News and Information in Markets’ and ‘Private Interest Encroachments on Public Policy-making’, to present an overview culminating in a ‘Manifesto for Public Knowledge’.

The first section affords an ‘insight into what a future British media landscape might look like’ (p.15), with short chapters that, according to Davis, ‘cross[…] between a blog and an academic working paper’, though some of them consists of as many pages of citations as of text. The chapters compare public and private media systems internationally before focussing on Greece under EU austerity, New Zealand, the BBC and USA. Aristotle Nikolaidis, writing on Greece, finds ‘a combination of polarization and fragmentation’, while Toril Aalberg, takes an international perspective on ‘impoverishing informed citizenship’. In New Zealand, Wayne Hope finds that the nationally mediated public sphere is dismantled by reshaping semi-independent broadcasting, a commercial press, and current affairs journalism into ‘infotainment packages’ aimed at building ratings between advertisements. Meanwhile, Kate Wright describes the ‘Public-Commercial Hybridity at BBC News Online’ where compromises are aggravated by staffing ‘efficiency’ cuts.

As Rodney Benson says of the USA, the system ‘creeps towards oligarchy’ as on-line operators disrupt the business models of the surviving mainstream newspapers, whose editors oppose a public policy solution in uneasy alliance with remaining professional journalists, just as in the UK. Causation is thus attributed to the exploitation of new media technologies by billionaire corporations that invest in a neoliberal economic regime in order to meet the demand for individual choice in a massified society, where the old divisions of class and culture have been erased to ‘give the punters what they want’. As Rupert Murdoch is quoted by Colin Leys below, ‘the public interest is what interests the public’ (p.233). Benson describes how alternative sources of non-fake news, such as The San Francisco Public Press, being launched in 2009, as a ‘Wall Street Journal for Working People’, tend towards a subscribing audience if they abjure advertisements and corporate sponsorship.

When it comes to ‘Public Knowledge in Britain’, part two examines legal aid and libraries (Roger Smith and Ian Anstice), where austerity-driven cuts deprive ordinary citizens of legal aid and other forms of public knowledge. Also, in schools, Ken Jones describes the new-market state form that has supplanted the post-war welfare state compromise between national and local authorities, through power contracting to the centre, whilst responsibility for ‘delivering’ targets is contracted out. Teaching and learning thus become increasingly constrained by prescription and inspection, so that students study more but learn less. Jones does not see this marketised schools system moving towards voucherisation, even though this was the stated aim of former-Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and one which he still hopes to achieve under the consolidation entailed in a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. Already, ‘the botched introduction of an unsustainable student loan system’ (Davis, p.88) augments what Andrew McGettigan’s chapter on ‘The Treasury View of Higher Education’ calls ‘a hybrid loan-voucher scheme’, in which fees/loans function as human capital investment in the Future Earnings and Employment Record (FEER), enabling applicants to speculate on the returns they may gain by comparing courses across universities. This is ‘the coming wave of education evaluation’ that McGettigan sees ‘threatening to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge.’ (p.112) Similarly to schools, the main aim is not ideological (so-called ‘dumbing down’), but that is its effect.

In Section 3, on ‘The Corruption of News and Information in Markets’, Philip Augar remarks that financial behemoths have had ‘The Edge’ on the integration of information flows since the deregulation of Wall Street in 1975 and the City of London’s ‘Big Bang’ in 1986. This includes the manipulation of inter-bank borrowing rates to ‘Put the Lies into Libor’, as Peter Thompson details. In Ireland, the role of the financial press, as an important source of supposedly reliable public information, in ‘framing housing not as a social need but as a commodity’ (p.180) to sustain the housing bubble that burst after 2007, is traced by Henry Silke on the basis of his PhD research.

In Section 4 Colin Leys provides a masterly account of ‘Public Knowledge and Health Policy’, in which the internal market was imposed on the NHS as a step towards privatisation in place of the previous social-democratic compromise Jones indicated for schools. An individualised market ‘effectively rejects… the concept of a public sphere to which the concept of public knowledge is necessarily linked’, connected in turn to the idea of the public interest (pp.231-2). Dismantling the public sphere in health therefore involved attacking the professions and the universities, both previously insulated from commercial pressures and from government, along with the press, public service broadcasting, judges and the civil service, until effective power was concentrated in the hands of managers, ‘think-tanks’ and well-funded consultancies. This followed Thatcher’s view that professionals and academic experts constituted market-constraining monopolies. ‘In health policy, the conditions for the maintenance of a concept of the public interest independent of politically dominant private interests have been largely destroyed, and with them the possibility of any coherent public discussion’ (p.239). This parallels ‘The Corporate Takeover of Economic Discourse’ by the chaebols in Korea outlined by Bong-hyun Lee’s chapter in this section. Free-market Utopianism precludes any learning from past failures of the outsourcing model (Michael Moran and Karel Williams on ‘The Tropes of Unlearning’ in the UK) with blame again shifted from politicians to those held accountable for delivery in a new Consulting-Corporate-Government Complex in the USA (Janine Wedel).

In conclusion, Des Freedman and Justin Schlosberg present a seven page ‘Manifesto for Public Knowledge’ as a public good, declaring that ‘We want to wrest control of knowledge-producing and decision-making back from structures that are not only largely unaccountable to their users but also explicitly intertwined with the powerful interests that need regulating in the first place’ (p.244). To achieve this, ‘we will have to demystify prevailing narratives about the knowledge society and associated civic empowerment’, paying heed to ‘the emergence of new forms of gatekeeping power vested in digital monopolies’, and ‘rejecting an overarching instrumentalist logic about the efficiency of markets’ (pp.247-8). ‘A truly progressive reform agenda requires… nurturing new vehicles of public knowledge production… and reconfiguring old ones to make them more democratic, accountable and sustainable.’ (p.248)

The magnitude of this task is daunting and requires allies, perhaps even asking with Colin Crouch in his 2017 book for Social Europe whether Neoliberalism can save itself by playing off ‘market’ against ‘corporate’ neoliberalism – although these are also collusive, as Crouch points out (particularly in the USA); more crudely, between American gangster capitalism and German banker capitalism, or in the UK between the remnants of productive capital mainly aligned to the EU and speculative finance capital mainly aligned to the USA. Were any of them to listen, such a strategy would require friends in high places, but for students this book provides a series of insights into the situation and the world in which they find themselves. It may take them beyond the boxes that even Goldsmiths, with its self-declared radical approach, is forced to tick for FEER. However, more conventionally prestigious institutions can afford to ignore such additional advertising. As Ken Jones notes of the stultifying academic National Curriculum in schools that ‘It is hard to see this codification of knowledge surviving for long’, and ‘it is reasonable to think that the precarity of social life in the long transition between “youth” and “adulthood” will lead to explosive moments of protest’ (p.99). These may contribute to smashing the political consensus on supposedly ‘vocational’ courses in schools, colleges and universities, as well as so-called ‘apprenticeships’ in employment, that prepare students/trainees for occupations – including many professions – often already redundant through automation and outsourcing by the time their courses are completed.

An alternative would involve a genuinely foundational education to help form ‘fully developed individuals, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions they perform, are but so many modes of giving free scope to their own natural and acquired powers’, as Marx wrote in Capital. This is the ideal of a General Intellect that could be fostered in comprehensive primary and secondary schools, and exercised throughout a democratic society in which tertiary-level lifelong further and higher continuing adult education would find its place in a National Education Service worthy of the name.

19 December 2017

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