Against “Innovation”

Is there a more ubiquitous category mistake (Gilbert Ryle) today than that involved in the use of the term “innovation?”  Categories are fundamental concepts which do not name things but instead different modes of understanding reality.  “Tree” names a type of plant.  There is an actual tree in my backyard, and the  seed it produces is a potential tree (if it takes root it will become an actual tree).  If we confused the potential tree with the actual tree, we would be making a category mistake.  We might understand what a tree is, but not the difference between potentiality and actuality.

In the case of “innovation”  the term is merely descriptive but is constantly used in a normative sense which makes no sense, unless further qualified.   Descriptive terms simply assert the way things are or name the things of the world.  Take for example the statement:  “The internal combustion engine was an innovation in transportation.”  The term “innovation” refers to a novel feature of reality, typically created by human thought and action.  As a descriptive term it says nothing about whether the innovation was good or bad, but only that at time t the innovation did not exist and at time t1 it did.  However, if we look carefully at the way in which the term is used in the media, by government officials, and business leaders, it becomes clear that when they use the term normative content is smuggled in:  the change in question is assumed good just because it is a change, when in fact the goodness or badness is in fact still in question.  The normative content is illegitimate because change is not necessarily good just because it introduces novelty.  A moment’s reflection makes it clear that the new and the good are conceptually and ontologically distinct (that x is new does not entail that x is good).  Hence to argue as if everything that is “innovative”  is good, i.e., better than the thing it changes or replaces, is to commit a category mistake.

Let us take two obvious examples to illustrate the point before coming back to the real social implications of the confusion.   Plutonium is amongst the most toxic substances in the known universe.  One could imagine scientists devising an innovative method for vaporizing it and disseminating it throughout the entire atmosphere, thereby poisoning everything that breaths.  That would be an innovation, but it is hard to see it as in anyway good.  Perhaps one objects that the example is too hyperbolic in its negative implications.  Granted.  Let us take a more mundane example, the size of a smartphone.  Having run out of qualitatively new technical capacities for the time being, smartphone manufacturers have been reduced to touting merely quantitative alterations as “innovations”  worth opening your wallet to acquire.  But is a marginally bigger or smaller phone really better in some important way?  The answer depends upon information that the term “innovation” alone cannot capture.  We have to know what the device is for before we can decide whether the given innovation is good .  An innovation is good only to the extent, a)  it enables a thing to better accomplish its purpose, and b)  that purpose is itself essential to the health, well-being, and meaningful life-activity of human beings.

The problem should now be clear.  When a descriptive term is confused with a normative term, then its uncritical adoption commits people to accepting the merely different as good.  When we accept something as good we validate it as a goal to which we should aspire.  So, when politicians and business people talk about the need for innovation, they are asserting that whatever changes governments or businesses introduce that can be sold as innovative are good, and we should not only accept them, but think of ourselves as “change agents”  whose goal in life should be to “innovate” as well, in all spheres of life, just because contemporary socio-economic dynamics demand it.  However, without critical reflection on the purpose of the processes and things we aim to change, and especially on our own (human)  purposes and what sorts of social institutions support and what sorts undermine them, we can in no sense ensure that we are making things better just because we are making things different.  

Let us take a concrete example to better explain my concern.  In a recent series of articles in The Toronto Star, Don Tapscott argued that Ontario’s universities need to  innovate in order to stay relevant to a new generation of students:  “If there is one institution due for innovation, it’s the university. It’s time for a deep debate on how universities function in a networked society. The centuries-old model of learning still offered by many big universities doesn’t work any more, especially for students who have grown up digital.”   I will come back to the substantive claims he makes about teaching methods and students in a moment.  First, notice the category mistake.  Tapscott clearly means that universities cannot fulfill their function unless they change (innovate).  Innovation is identified with the better and stasis with the worse.  But before we can accept that equation we must know what universities are for, what it is they are actually doing, and where, in what they are actually doing, they are failing (and where succeeding) to fulfill the purposes they serve. There may indeed be changes that need to be made in some areas of university life and others may be perfectly fine.  But blanket statements of the form “universities need to innovate’  clearly confuse a mere change with “better fulfillment of the function,”  because “innovate” is being used in a normative sense to imply that change as such is good.

To better understand the specific and the general social problem involved with this confusion let us examine Tapscott’s argument in more detail.  He argues that universities fail to take advantage of the full possibilities that digital communication technologies provide for collaborative learning, that they remain wed to hierarchical pedagogical styles (especially the lecture), and that their insistence on testing the knowledge of students treated as abstract individuals is in tension with the collaborative learning today’s students have grown up with on social media.

On empirical grounds much of what Tapscott argues is simply false.  No area of university life (save buildings and administrative positions) has received as much funding as teaching and learning centres.  For the past decade North American universities have dedicated themselves to trying to understand better what makes for an effective learning environment, what best pedagogical practices are, how to assess effective teaching, and how to help professors value and improve their teaching capacities.  Moreover, there have been massive investments in technology (smartrooms, campus-wide WiFi, software platforms for student interaction…), on-line course delivery, digitization of libraries and archives, open source journals, and more overt collaboration between the campus and the community.  If anything is archaic, it is Tapscott’s understanding of teaching and learning in the twenty-first century university.

The more important question remains to be asked:  has any of this investment improved the teaching mission of the university, and is technological change (innovation)  identical (as Tapscott implies) to effective learning?  The answers here are “of course”  and “of course not.”  Tapscott complains that professors are still lecturing, some even (heaven forbid!)  reading notes, instead of taking advantage of technological possibilities for collaborative learning that better fit with students’ experience of interaction through social media.  The implied disjunct:  either “traditional” lectures or on-line collaboration is false.  The use of lectures for one purpose does not rule out the use of new media for others.  Beyond the fallacious false dichotomy is the absurd implication that human beings interacting in shared physical space (the lecture) reduces students to passivity while only virtual interaction is cyberspace counts as active learning.

Lectures– good lectures, in any case– are not one way transmissions of information to a passive audience.  To be effective they must be interactive.  For the interaction to be effective, however, students must develop an understanding not only the meanings of the ideas at issue, but the historical context of their emergence and the purposes to which they were put.  These are not just facts that can be gleaned from a book or website:  proper explanation requires expertise, and that is the reason the professor is there.  An effective lecture is a dialectic in the original sense:  a dialogue that develops through opposed perspectives on a shared subject matter:  the effective lecturer does not transmit information but explains so as to engage the interest and critical capacities of the students such that they become the main drivers of the subsequent development of the conversation.  The shared co-presence is essential:  the tension and challenge of face to face interaction is essential for learning (development of cognitive capacities to more comprehensive scope and not just information acquisition).

The point:  “old” techniques like lectures are not worse because they are old and new technologies like on-line networks are not better because they are new.  Good and bad, better and worse in education, as in all fundamentally important social practices and institutions, is determined by whether and to what extent the technique and the technology satisfy the human needs that bring people together in the institution in the first place.  It would be as contrary to the realization of essential human purposes to forbid old techniques that have proven effective for millennia as to ban the introduction of new technologies that open up new forms of satisfying the needs that the realization of the purposes presupposes.

In order to have a rational conversation about how best to satisfy human needs, it is necessary to avoid the category mistake of confusing the novel with the good.  The novel might be good, but it might also be bad, while an old practice or technique might be good and its elimination bad.  But the category mistake is no mere logical error.  Behind the conceptual confusion lies social and economic interest.  The supporters of innovations always have something to sell:  the innovation.  In order to cure the conceptual problem the self-interest behind the sales pitch needs to be exposed in all cases.

In Defence of Libraries

In its colloquial image the library is a place of quiet contemplation and withdrawal from the conflicts of the world.  In fact, since the burning of the library of Alexandria in 391 CE libraries have been at the centre of those conflicts.  The library seems to be a strange target for religious and balanced book zealots alike, but if we think through the principle on which the library is based, the (sometimes literal) political  firestorms in which they get caught up is not surprising.  Libraries are repositories of knowledge, testaments to the range of human thought and creativity, material proof that not everyone thinks the same way.  Hence they are always a danger to dogmatism, because within their walls opposed perspectives can be found. That is why the Christians of Alexandria burned the library: it contained “dangerous” pagan philosophy and literature.

Today there are no Christian mobs threatening to burn libraries (although groups still do get vexed by this or that book). Today the library is not so much in danger of being torched as axed by budget cuts. The most recent threat is in Newfoundland, which announced that nearly half (54) of the libraries in the province will be closed because of a one million dollar budget cut.  Presumably the Newfoundland government is not threatened by the content of the libraries’ collections, but the effect of the cut will be to deprive rural Newfoundlanders of access to the ideas and stories contained in those collections. And to save what? One million dollars!

Think of that sum and what the citizens of Newfoundland are getting for such a modest expenditure: 54(!)  libraries, for one million dollars. That strikes me as an incredibly productive investment in public education and edification.  Yet, might we not see this efficiency (great public benefit for minimal public expenditure) as the underlying reason that libraries are under threat:  they constitute objective proof that competitive markets are not always the most efficient means of distributing resources.  Their brilliant success as public institutions is proof positive that collective investment in accessible institutions can–contrary to neo-liberal dogma that rejects all public institutions as inefficient when compared with independent firms competing for monetary advantage– meet shared needs and enable life-capacities.

For  a very modest investment the public library returns vast stores of life-capital in the form of literacy, education, edification, and communication.  It is a maximally open institution: there is no tuition fee, you do not have to explain to anyone why you are there, they are at the forefront of the struggle against censorship; their entire raison d’etre is to make the world of ideas accessible to everyone.

The right-wing disdain for libraries has long roots.  In the nineteenth century, forerunners of today’s neo-liberals denounced public libraries as “socialist continuation schools.”  They were not, at least in the direct sense in which M.D. O’Brian intended when he denounced them as such.  (M.D. O’Brian, “Free Libraries, A Plea for Liberty, p. 415).  However, the principle of the public library is socialist:  collective contribution to an open institution through which individuals develop their understanding and interests through their own decisions:  from each according to his ability (paying through taxes), to each according to his needs (for education, edification, enjoyment, etc).  They are proof that this socialist principle works.  And that is why, from O’Brian to Rob and Doug Ford, critics of public institutions have always included libraries in their attacks.

But libraries are not only valuable because they demonstrate the economic rationality of publicly funded institutions open and accessible to each and all, they are also essential for scholarship.  Google seems magical, an anticipation of your thoughts, but it in fact it can narrow the scope of research in very pernicious ways. The search algorithm knows nothing about the subject it ‘searches’ for,  and there are all sorts of tricks to move websites higher up the search engine rankings.  Invariably, the Wikipedia entry for almost any serious subject is the first one that appears and people usually click on the first link, assuming it is the most authoritative.  But it is not:  it is only the site with the most hits.  Hence, a tool like Google can grossly limit the scope of information that people actually access.  As Jean Noel Jeannneney, director of France’s Bibliotheque Nationale argues, the main problem with Google as a research tool is that it operates according to the principle that “success breeds success, at the expense of newcomers, minorities, marginals.  Its a system that could seriously harm the balance and energy of world cultures unless other forces, eschewing market interests, intervene.” (Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, p. 45).  In intellectual and cultural life quantity is not quality, the number of hits and links does not ensure the most penetrating insight or profound revelation (although it can translate into the most advertising revenue).

Compare this logic of sheer quantity to a professionally organized library.  The key to a great library is not only the size of the collection, but the contiguous organization of books by field and sub-field which permits, assuming a certain level of comprehensiveness to the collection, the immediate grasp of the history and the state of the art in the field.  To walk the stacks (rather than surf the web) is to be exposed to the (more or less)  full range of thinking in the field, and thus to encounter directly approaches that you might not have been aware of when you came in, but which claim your attention as you look for the book for which you were looking. In twenty years of being a professor who still spends time in libraries, I have never not encountered a book other than the one for which I was searching that I thought I would have to read at some point.   The physical presence of the unexpected is crucial to pushing scholarship to ever more comprehensive scope.

Of course, the library is not simply a collection of books anymore.  Sadly, it has grown to include the abominable “e-book,” but it has also expanded its role (and the work of librarians) from cataloguing and organizing a physical collection to helping people negotiate and think critically about information in cyberspace.  Hence, librarians can help to counter-act the uncritical use of tools like Google (which are of course useful, provided that they are understood and used effectively and treated like the screwdrivers they are and not the mind of God).  Moreover, libraries today are also one of the few places those without the financial resources to own home computers, pay for high speed internet, or afford a data plan for their phone can access the Internet.  Closing libraries- as with closing other public institutions–is thus another front in the war on the poor.

So once again we find the most glaring hypocrisy at work in our public discourse.  Politicians never cease singing peaens to the supreme importance of education at the same time as they defund or underfund or undermine it.   Which is, of course, madness, since the humanity of the human project lies not in the transmission of DNA (which is but a material condition) but in the critical appropriation, development, and transformation of the values and ideas that regulate our societies and which determine the extent to which the lives of each are meaningful and good.  If we lack access to alternatives, if we are unaware of historical differences, if we are cut off from the magnificence of human literary creativity, if we cannot connect with the wider world, then challenging oppressive conditions of social life is all the more difficult.  Attacks on libraries, whatever forms they take, are thus attacks on the ability of people to access the richness of the intellectual and artistic heritage of human beings as well as to find silences that call out for new voices.  This attack is thus directed against the future development of that heritage itself.  Those are the real stakes of budget cuts.

The Persistence of Misery

Fantasies of Classlessness

The justification of re-distribution through taxation is that by this means the wealthy contribute to the commonwealth of the nation.  It is a justification that presupposes that all citizens of a nation share a common interest in each other’s material well-being.  This assumption of a shared national interest has always been contradicted by the reality of class interest, which, in economic matters, typically trumps the ideology of shared citizenship.  That classes and class interest are still real and not just a problem of the past or a construct of Marxist argument is  proven once again by the revelations contained in the Panama Papers.  

While the revelations contained in these papers cost a few sitting politicians their jobs and occasioned promises for investigation and change, the key political truth that the papers revealed is that most of the practices that allow the wealthy to shield their income from national taxation by hiding it in tax havens are legal.  Those methods that are not strictly speaking legal are not pursued (typically) with the diligence one would expect if the law were really no respecter of persons.  It might not be a respecter of persons in their individuality, but it is certainly a respecter of class.  How could it be otherwise:  the poor do not write the law; they are its objects, not its subjects.

And When They Try to Become Subjects…

…they are demonized and attacked no matter what means of resistance and change they choose to employ.  The latest victim of the global right-wing reaction is Dilma Rousseff and the Brazilian Workers’ Party.   She is suffering from the same mobilization of anti-democratic forces that have largely undermined the Venezuelan experiments with new models of socialist development.

Anti-democratic?  Did I say anti-democratic?  How can massive street demonstrations against proven corruption and obvious economic crisis be anti-democratic?   The answer demands that we think through the value-implications of the term “democracy.”  By “value-implications”  I mean the goods that animate the struggle for democracy and the institutional requirements the realization of those goods entail.

We can start to get at these implications by looking historically at who has led the struggle for democracy.  In all cases, excluded groups have been central to the mobilizations against entrenched elites.  While ancient and modern conceptions of democracy are distinct, as are liberal, republican, and socialist conceptions, what they all have in common is a rejection of the principle that political power is the proper preserve of a noble class fit by their superior nature to rule.  In a democracy the shared interest is supposed to rule.  It is because there really is a shared interest in access to fundamental means of life and life-development that demands for democracy arise wherever these life-goods are denied by a ruling elite claiming the mandate of heaven or nature to rule.  Spartacus and the protesters of the Arab Spring were united by the rejection of the idea that it is ever just to prevent the majority (who do the necessary work of society) from accessing the means of life and life-development by excluding them from political and economic power.

If we look at the current mobilizations against Maduro and Rouseff, it is clear that many of the protesters are working class men and women, but they and their life-interests are not driving the movement.  While the specific history of state development in Latin and South America encourages corruption (for the case of Brazil, see Perry Anderson’s excellent article in this month’s London Review of Books) corruption is the surface justification but not the real driver of the mobilization.  The leaders of the reaction are the leaders who have been displaced from their historical positions of power by the “Bolivarian” Revolution in Venezuela and the Worker’s Party in Brazil.

The right-wing reaction has been made possible by the end of the boom in commodity prices.  It was this commodity boom that allowed the Venezuelan socialist party and the Brazilian Worker’s Party to fund real improvements in the lives of working and poor Venezuelans and Brazilians.  As prices collapsed, government income was reduced, an inflation crisis hit Venezuela, and austerity measures introduced in Brazil in an effort to placate the right wing.  But rather than placate them it has emboldened them to discredit the socialist parties as the cause of the economic crisis (when in fact of course the cause was the banking industry, centred in New York and London, not Brasilia or Caracas).

The real democratic movement was the mobilization of the social power of working people and the poor that Chavez and Lula were able to ride to victory (and, in the case of Chavez, mobilize to defeat a right-wing coup attempt).  If anyone has any doubts about the real social achievements of Chavez (vastly improved medical care in alliance with Cuban doctors, public housing,  the slow emergence of a parallel solidarity economy,  nationalization of key industries)  they should read Gregory Wilpert’s superb account of the first ten years of the Bolivarian Revolution (Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Verso, 2007).  Wilpert is far from uncritical,  but puts paid to the slanderous misrepresentation of the Chavez government that is typical fare in even the best North American newspapers.

While the achievements (and limitations and problems) were real in both Venezuela and in Brazil, the decline in commodity prices has exposed the fatal flaw of the model pursued by both countries. In neither case were there system-wide efforts to change the structure of property ownership. As a consequence, economic power remained in the hands of the traditional ruling class.  So long as there was a lot of money flowing into the state, public infrastructure projects could be advanced and the lives of the poor improved. But as soon as that money dried up, the traditional elites struck back, asserting the power they never lost over the economy and exploiting the local effects of a global economy to discredit the alternative model (very tentatively)  explored by the left wing parties.

This leads us to what me might call a paradox of transition: if electoral parties of the left pursue a vigorous transition to socialism through wide-spread expropriation and socialization of property, they risk the coup d’etat and civil war their electoral alternative to armed revolution was supposed to avoid.  On the other hand, if they avoid civil war by being cautious, they leave preponderant power in the hands of the right wing and risk being undermined from within, as is currently happening.  There is no easy or obvious solution to this paradox.  To simply allow the achievements of the past decade to be undone by a right-wing re-conquest of power would be a defeat that would undermine the credibility of the South American left for the foreseeable future.  At the same time, with unfavourable global economic conditions, a return to policies that helped consolidate the legitimacy of the alternative will prove difficult if not impossible.

The Political Stakes

Whatever policy decisions are ultimately made, the crucial political task is to defend the democratic legitimacy of the Bolivarian Revolution and the PT.  That does not mean uncritical support for either; it means that democracy remains rooted, as it always has been, in the shared life-interests, and the struggle for democracy with those popular forces whose life-interests are most threatened by undemocratic forms of social organization.  Those undemocratic social forms are the very social forms the right-wing is trying to drag Brazil and Venezuela back to, and they are why people who support democracy in the Global North must avoid being hoodwinked by mainstream media reporting about the “democratic” opposition to authoritarian and corrupt socialist governments.  The structures that feed corruption (as Anderson shows)  long pre-dated Lula and the PT and the real authoritarianism is the authoritarianism of capital, which claims the sovereign right to rule over everyone and the shared life-interest, unaccountable to and unconcerned with real life-conditions on the ground.

Windsor Spaces: Atkinson Park

This essay will be the first in an occasional series of unambivalent notes of appreciation for some Windsor spaces that I like because they make me feel like I live in a city.  Moving from Toronto to Windsor more than a decade ago generated some ambivalent (to say the least) feelings.  Still, Windsor is now home, and I think, without being overly sentimental, that we should appreciate the place we call home (which does not preclude criticism of it, when necessary). Windsor’s governance and leadership often leave much to be desired.  For someone who thinks, as I do, that the living intensity and cultural and creative dynamism of cities are the greatest achievement of human social interaction, the suburban attitude that too often prevails in civic life here is lamentable.  Nevertheless, while Windsor is a small city, it is a city, and these essays will share with the readers my admiration for some spaces that I find intensely urban.  The guide books (are there guidebooks about Windsor?) won’t know about these spots, so if you ever visit, seek them out and see if your feelings coincide with my own.  First up:  Atkinson Park.

No one will mistake Atkinson for Central Park.  There was no Olmstedian moving of heaven and earth to shape it.  It is an ordinary one square block flat field stretching from Riverside to University between Rankin and Partington. It is simply laid out:  some picnic tables (far enough apart to conduct sheltered conversation, close enough to share if you prefer), to sit and listen to Detroit hum, to watch the ships go by and the river dance from slate grey to tropical turquoise, depending on the light or, in the dark, to see the water become a mirror, perfectly reflecting the lights of the bridge.  A little further in, a utilitarian change room, swings and monkey bars for kids, a wading and an adult pool, a soccer pitch, and skateboard park.  It is not a memorable work of landscape architecture.  But parks are not museum pieces, artifacts, they are spaces for gathering and play.

Gathering:  from around the world the soccer players come every spring, summer, and autumn afternoon that it is warm enough to play.  From Africa, from across the Middle East,  from Pakistan and India: whomever shows up seems to be included.  I have never counted, but on good days there are certainly more than eleven aside.  The game is played hard, but relations between the players seem friendly.  Sometimes, when I see foreign students by themselves walking past my house I can see the depth of their loneliness in the desperation with which they clutch their phones.  They are realizing that, ultimately, there is no substitute for shared presence.  They find that shared presence on the pitch, where no one is lonely and laughter, calling for the ball, sighing after a missed attempt on goal together sing an atonal symphony of languages and accented Englishes.  The joy of strangers together playing…

… playing and not talking into their devices the local boys (and sometimes girls, but mostly boys) risk a broken bone or a gashed knee (no helmets or knee pads for most) if they should spill.  They nevertheless dare the jumps and ramps to upend them, hopping in real pain when the trick fails but always laughing too after even the nastiest of crashes.  I admire their adolescent resilience from the soft safety of middle age rotundity.  The equipment is now densely graffitied: an action painting has emerged from the overlapping and crowding of the individual tags.  The Rothko-coloured store wall that frames the west side of the park is still relatively empty, an inviting blank canvas.  If not for this park I might forget that kids and teenagers laugh, tethered as they usually are, staring mindlessly into a screen with ears plugged in, cut off from the material world that nevertheless won’t go away.  But here phones are not, skateboards and BMX’s are, carrying bodies (not avatars) in happy sweating motion, recovering a long suppressed truth: where movement is, boredom is not.

On occasion the acrid fun of pot smoke wafts across the park, and sometimes passing through on my bike I have to brake quickly to avoid running over shards of broken glass.  But there is no moral panic from the neighbourhood-  minding your own business can be a virtue in a city, and it is not that difficult to stop, bend over, and pick up some glass.

On other occasions a different moral panic threatens:  The costs!  The costs!  Of what?  The pool, used mostly by lower income kids from the social housing units on Union Street and the elderly residents who still live in the West End in great numbers but whose existence is almost always forgotten and ignored by the rest of Windsor.  The vitriol directed against the meager costs of the meager pleasures of the poor and old tells one all one’s needs to know about this world.

Or rather, it does not, for there is the other side: the commitment the community has shown to protect the park from the budget choppers.  Atkinson’s most engaged protectors have helped to create and preserve a small zone of urban neighbourhood life at the edge of the mostly uninspiring sprawl that concludes the country at its southwestern border.

So it comes to pass…

In Fear and Loathing in Ottawa, I worried that Bill C-51 contained provisions that made it analogous to the self-undermining Law on Suspects from the French Revolution.  According to this law, the police could arrest anyone based only on the accusation of another citizen that he or she harboured anti-revolutionary sentiments.  The end– protecting the revolution against monarchical enemies– was good, but the means– arrest without solid evidence or trial– was certain (we can now see in retrospect) to help destroy the democratic politics necessary to ensure the revolution’s success.  Allowing arrest on mere suspicion could not but become a political tool to eliminate not only monarchical opponents, but also factions within the revolutionary camp who disagreed with the  leadership.  From being a tool justified in the name of democracy, the Law on Suspects contributed to the undoing of the revolution as a democratic mobilization of the majority of (poor) French citizens.

The analogy with Bill-C-51 can no longer be denied with news of the arrest of Kevin Omar Mohamed under the “fear of terrorism” provisions contained in Bill C-51.  Supporters of the bill will no doubt rejoin that extraordinary conditions (the ever-present threat of terrorist attack on civilians, a threat only reinforced by the Belgian attacks) justify extraordinary measures (i..e, measures which contradict the long-established principles of liberal-democratic right).  Moreover, they might say, the authorities cannot simply round up anyone they chose, but must have some real evidence to support their fear that an individual under suspicion really is about to commit a terrorist act.

Let us start with the last point first.  It assumes that there is some way to tell the difference between a person who is merely ‘talking’ about terrorism and a person who is on the verge of translating theory to practice.  However, a recent story in the New York Times reports that all psychological and social scientific attempts to date have failed to isolate any set of factors consistently correlated with terrorist activity.  If there is no consistent correlation, there is no known causal connection that determines what sorts of people become terrorists and what sorts do not.  If there is no knowledge of causal connection, there can be no prediction, and if there can be no prediction, there can be no justification of preventative arrest on the grounds that someone fits a profile or that there was a high probability– based only on what the suspect said-  that he or she was likely to commit an attack.

Worse, fixation on “fear” of terrorist attacks over-valorizes the role of increased surveillance and more totalitarian police activity in the prevention of terrorism.  This fixation displaces effort from what alone can, over the longer term, help prevent terrorist attacks:  critical reflection upon the life-destructive implications of American (and allied) foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa.  While there might not be any consistent psycho-social markers of terrorist behaviour, there is a consistent political marker, typically ignored by governments and the police, because it exposes Western complicity with the terrorist outrages they claim unique power to prevent:  opposition to the destruction of Muslim life by American and NATO armies and their local allies.  As Sheldon Richman points out in a recent essay, “telling the full story about the terrorists’ objectives might inadvertently prompt a fresh look – maybe even a reevaluation – of America’s atrocious foreign policy. The ruling elite and the military-industrial complex would not want that.”  So instead of self-scrutiny, self-criticism, and self-transformation, Western nations continue to portray themselves as the victims and persist with the same failed policies.

(As a corollary, it is worth pointing out that those who choose the terrorist path are also pursuing the path of murderous failure.  Each attack in the West only intensifies the violence of the Western response, ensuring only more suffering in the Middle East and North Africa.  Revenge cycles are irrational by definition, since they never achieve satisfaction each side desires.  Instead, each side provokes the other to more of the same life-destructive behaviour that motivates the desire in each for revenge on the other.  Desire seeks satisfaction, so rational behaviour in this dimension of human activity is activity likely to ensure the satisfaction of the motivating desire.  Revenge cycles ensure that the desire can never be satisfied.  Hence their structural irrationality).

However, it is not my main purpose here to examine the irrationality of revenge cycles or propose a fully worked out solution, but to respond to the counter-argument to my criticism of the “fear of terrorism” provisions of C-51.   The other plank of that counter-argument was that extra-ordinary measures are required in the wake of Paris and Brussels to disrupt terrorist plots before they result in attacks.  The problem with this argument is not only that this policy will not prevent some attacks from happening– as long as there is wide-spread revulsion with Western policy there will be attacks,– but that there is no specifiable limit to interference with freedom of thought and political expression if something as vague as “fear” of terrorism is allowed as cause for arrest and preventive detention.

Let us take two examples– hypothetical, but hardly hyperbolic.  A Muslim author writes a fictional account of a sleeper cell organizing an attack in a major Western city.  The narrative is crafted in a realist fashion to be as accurate as possible to the known training and communication methods of Islamic terrorist groups.  On reading it, a number of citizens become alarmed and start to worry that the novel is not a novel but coded instructions to a real sleeper cell.  can we not imagine this author being targeted for arrest and interrogation?

For the second example, let us consider a politically charged debate in a university classroom (let us say, in a political philosophy class), about the legitimacy of terrorist methods.  Free inquiry, as as well as a good faith attempt to understand terrorism in order to solve the problem, demands that all perspectives on a given problem be aired.   Is it unreasonable to imagine a group of students who object to the tenor of the debate and complain that the professor or another group of students are terrorist sympathizers, again sparking an inquiry and perhaps arrest?

Opponents might object that I am committing a slippery slope fallacy (drawing outlandish conclusions from limited or no evidence).  I am certainly exploring worst case scenarios– the loss of artistic and academic freedom if imagination and critical discussion are confused with advocacy, and advocacy confused with the actual commission of political crimes.  However, there is abundant evidence that unless restrained by clear legal limits, police authority will push beyond traditional liberal legal constraints on their surveillance activities.  Moreover, there is some evidence that even the threat of surveillance causes people to censor themselves.  A recent study by Elizabeth Stoycheff of Wayne State University has found that people are more and more reticent to express challenging political positions on Facebook for fear of attracting the attention of the police.

If we see liberal democratic rights as important victories on the road to a fully democratic and life-valuable society in which problems are solved by mutual understanding and not violent destruction of the opponent, then we must be loath to allow the ruling power, against whose interests the rights were initially secured, to weaken or undermine them.  When the ruling power is allowed to weaken democratic rights, people are never made better off.  If-  as defenders of emergency measures maintain, citizens can be made better off by having some of their democratic rights curtailed, then would they not be best off with no rights at all? Of course not.  But this totalitarian logic is implicit in the fear-mongering and unwillingness to change our own geo-political course that underlies wrong steps like Bill-C-51, whose most dangerous implications now appear to be coming to pass.

America on the Brink?

In 2006 I was attending the ReThinking Marxism conference at UMass Amherst where I heard a paper by Michael Roberto and Greg Meyerson.  In as richly detailed and engagingly presented paper as I have heard at an academic-political conference, they examined the political, economic, and cultural tensions in America as they had intensified since 9/11.  They concluded that American society was headed towards a crisis of such severity that a fascist solution could not be ruled out.  “In
” they argued, “the
fascist tendency in the United States.”  They were careful to avoid a superficial identification of fascism with the particular appearances it assumed in Italy and Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s.  They defined it in class terms as a unified ruling class response to a structural crisis of capitalism which could not be solved without the elimination of political pluralism and formally democratic institutions.  The fascist solution is a single party that gains mass support with the promise to save the nation from imminent catastrophe before revealing the ruling class interests that actually drive it as soon as it gains power.

Fascism in this sense need not rely on uniformed armed thugs like the SA in Germany or mass spectacle propaganda.  What is essential is  ruling class political unity in eliminating existing democratic avenues of working class and subaltern opposition.  “If 
 – the
 class.”  Their fear in 2006 was that the still-reverberating aftershocks of 9/11 would be exploited to produce consensus around the claim that any opposition to whatever a government of national unity commanded as necessary to “fight terrorism” would be labeled treasonous, and liquidated on that basis.

It was a superb paper, and, with the spectre of The Patriot Act looming over the conversation, not without empirical support.  Still, I left the room wondering whether their conclusion was rather too alarmist.  I was not convinced that the crisis (of the economy and of democratic legitimacy) was as severe as they argued.  As it turned out, despite the American financial sector leading the world into a recession from which it has still not recovered, Obama won the next American election.  The central pillar of their argument– that American fascism would come wrapped in bi-partisan embrace of the Stars and Stripes– seemed to collapse.  If anything, American politics in the last ten years has become more polarized, even as the economic crisis and the political crisis of Pax Americana has become more severe.  While prospects for a fascist movement in Roberto and Meyerson’s sense has retreated under deepening splits in the American ruling class, talk of fascism has escaped stuffy classroom at UMass and entered the mainstream of American political discourse.

The never-to-be-confused-with-a-Marxist-or-alarmist Roger Cohen has warned twice in the New York Times of parallels between Trump and Mussolini and Weimar Germany and contemporary America.  The parallels are superficial– at the level of rhetoric one the one hand and political stasis on the other and do not add up to conclusive proof that a Trump victory would lead to the destruction of liberal-democratic institutions and fascist rule.  On the other hand, that even a conservative like Cohen is sounding the alarm against Trump’s race baiting, Islamophobic, the-country-is-on-the-brink-and-only-I can-save-it rhetoric highlights the real danger of the forces that Trump has mobilized.

While Trump is obnoxious, megalomaniacal, has not shied away from encouraging thuggery, and has warned of riots if he is somehow denied the Republican nomination, he has not invented the deeper-seated ideological tropes he is relying upon to build his base.  Trump did not create Islamophobia and he is hardly the first American politician to race-bait his way to popularity (does anyone remember George Bush Sr. and Willy Horton)?  By the standards of official organized violence directed against Civil Rights protesters in the 1950’s and 1960’s (often unleashed by Democratic state governors) Trump’s campaign had been mild.  That is not to say that the forces that Trump is trying to cultivate are not dangerous.  They are.  But they are the same dangers unleashed by any xenophobic campaign:  the nation is reduced to supporters of the candidate and everyone outside is demonized as a threat to the nation’s survival and “greatness.”

Rather than a fascist, Trump is perhaps better understood as an example of the phenomenon that Max Weber called “plebiscitary democracy.”  Andre Gorz’s explanation accords well with what we are seeing from Trump.  When a “society has disintegrated and been replaced by an industrial-bureaucratic megamachine, [it] can only gain the loyalty of the masses through the person of a charismatic leader.  This leader must possess both the majestic authority that befits the driver of the state machine … and a sympathetic concern for the interests and everyday problems of the people called upon to leave the management of the state in his hands.”(Critique of Economic Reason, p. 49). Trump exemplifies both sides of Weber’s charismatic leader: he promises to bring his business expertise to bear on the problems of the economy, and puts on an effective “I feel your pain”  routine that has proven quite successful thus far with a large subsection of disempowered white workers.

Under constant social and economic pressure, seeing little hope for the future, a large section of the white working class see in Trump some sort of saviour.  The Tea Party has already blazed the trail that Trump is following:  Obama+Mexicans+the Chinese+radical jihadis are ruining and threatening America.  All that is needed to solve the problem is a leader with the balls to stand up to them (which Trump has promised-literally– he owns).  The machismo spills over into overt violence when anyone has the temerity to challenge the position– as the black protester punched by the Trump supporter in North Carolina found out. Still, the unity of the movement is not found in its macho-aggressiveness but in the magic-thinking involved in the belief– based on no evidence at all- that a billionaire is fundamentally concerned with changing the socio-economic structures that have undermined the life-conditions of the white working class.  For magic thinking, material forces do not exist– they can be eliminated simply by the word of the magician.  And so Trump will speak, the economic forces that have led American manufacturing industries to Mexico and China will be overturned, and steel mills will return to Pennsylvania and Nike factories will sprout up in the corn fields of Ohio.

The attraction of magic thinking is that it does away with the need for collective political work.  If structural social and economic problems can be solved by incantation, then nothing is required of the victim save to trust.  Whereas the trade union and socialist movement argued that only the working class could solve the problems of the working class, magic thinking invests supernatural power in the leader to vanquish enemies and restore the nation to its mythic greatness.   While right-wing commentators crow about how Trump proves the vitality of American democracy, what he in fact demonstrates is the loss of mobilizing power of the idea of self-emancipation in favour of magic thinking.

The relationship between Trump and mass passivity is not accidental.  The demobilization of working class politics is the other side of plebisctary democracy.  Trump (or any charismatic leader)  needs crowds to generate the feeling of collective power, but at the end of the day he can succeed only by substituting himself for democratic collective action.  If people organized themselves in a political movement that identified the causes of the threats to their livelihoods and well-being they would not need Trump.  But self-organization and understanding takes time and effort, whereas Trump is promising immediate solutions.  Time and again, despite the fact that abundant and easily accessible evidence proves that those who promise everything to the working class will deliver nothing, too many people choose to cast their lot with magic.

Is the Bernie Sanders’ campaign the sort of mobilization I am talking about?  No.  While the fact that Sanders can call himself a democratic socialist and run a competitive campaign for the Democratic nomination is historically significant, Sanders is not running to create an extra-parliamentary movement that can carry him to victory and start to make the sorts of structural socio-economic changes that would begin to improve workers’ lives.  Instead, he is mobilizing supporters to fund his run for the Presidency but to otherwise leave matters in his hands to address in a top-down way.

Let me be clear.  Of the alternatives on offer, Bernie Sanders is by far the best candidate for President.  But simply electing a social democratic president is not sufficient to bring about the structural in-roads against the social power of capital that must be made if real improvements in workers’ lives are to be accomplished.  The history of the working class movement in Europe (and to a far lesser extent in Canada) is littered with the corpses of social democratic politicians who de-mobilized the movements that brought them to power as soon as they took their seat in government.  So, while it is understandable that American socialists are excited by the success of the Sanders’ campaign it is far too hopeful to say, as  Brad A. Bauerly and Ingar Solty, recently said, that:

“the American left has won by establishing Sanders’ concrete left-wing social-democratic and/or transformative transition demands in the American political landscape and imagination: single-payer health care, free public education, a federal living wage of $15/hour, the Workplace Democracy Act facilitating unionization, fundamental banking reform (even if focused on dismantling instead of socialization…). Hence, the American populace is now much more aware about the real tertium-non-datur alternative: A left-wing Social Green New Deal as a general, inclusive and solidarity-based high-road exit strategy from the crisis, which would re-shift the relationship of forces between capital and labour and could function as the most coherent entrance project to a post-capitalist future, or the global neoliberal unity coalition’s low-road exit strategy of austerity with further immiseration, nationalist exclusion and destruction of the public good.”

What this assessment ignores is the fundamental importance of what Sanders is not building:  a political organization outside the Democratic Party that can sustain the struggle for those laudable objectives between election cycles and after the disappointment and disillusionment with Sanders sets in.  And set in it will, because the forces that will align against Sanders should he be elected will stymie him at every turn.  If you think that Congress undermined the progressive heart of the Obama administration, what do you think it will do the agenda of a self-declared socialist?  The only hope to moving Sanders`agenda forward (and then once it has started moving forward, to push it to the left)  is a movement outside the Democratic Party that is broad and deep enough that it cannot be ignored and can bring business-as-usual America to a halt.  It would have to link a revitalized labour movement to the young people and students who are propelling the Sanders`candidacy at the moment and build bridges to African-Americans and their myriad, creative, and powerful community-based organizations.

That said, the American left has indeed won something:  the opportunity to build a new political movement that can make it relevant and effective for the first time in decades.   And a relevant and effective American left could not be ignored by the rest of the world or have terms dictated to it by the financial industry.  The worst thing that could happen this election cycle is not a Trump victory, but the squandering of the political energy of millions of hopeful Sanders supporters.  Another generation lost to political cynicism could prove fatal to any future form of the American left.

Ten Theses: A Coda

In the past five days more than 17 000 people have read my Ten Theses.  This number of readers is two orders of magnitude greater than my previously best read posts.  If anyone still thinks that the contemporary university does not take teaching seriously, the scope of interest in the piece and the seriousness of the debate which followed is evidence that it does.  I do not expect my position or the criticism it aroused to be the final word.  I have been making these arguments for a decade (without much practical success at the institutional level) and, while I am always open to counter-argument and to developing my own pedagogy in light of others’ good ideas, I remain committed to a more open practice of teaching which I do not think is well-served by learning outcomes.  For those who in good faith disagree and argue that without clear objectives students’ interests are compromised, I ask you to look at the debate here.  It was not framed by any extrinsic outcomes, was not steered or conducted by any extrinsic goals, but developed spontaneously through the considered interventions of the participants, but a coherence evolved that enabled all of us to learn a great deal, just by virtue of our participation and not because we gave each other assignments to assess.  I prefer the higher intensity of face to face argument to the flatness of electronic communication, but even so, the argument as it evolved here is an excellent illustration of what I meant in the post where I identified the dialectic of problem-question-re-posing of the problem as the life of a well-taught class.  I do not mean that I assumed the role of teacher here, but rather that this spontaneous energy of idea development is analogous to what happens in a class when it is doing what it should:  stimulate in the students the desire to think and contribute and see where the argument leads.  Thanks to everyone for their contributions.  The conversation can of course continue and I will respond as best I can to subsequent comments and criticisms, but other projects call.

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.
2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.


10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.

There’s No App for That

Faced with the prospect of being left by his girlfriend, Rasheed Amini, a physicist working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, worked out a mathematical proof of why she should stay with him. (Toronto Star, Sunday, February 14th, 2016, p. A1).  There is an app for everything else, why not one that takes all the fun out of fighting with your partner: when times are tough, turn to the spread sheet.

On one level Amini’s app is certainly au courant, yet another attempt to marshal computing power to discover patterns which, when modeled and used to predict outcomes, can unburden us from decisions which, when not made in light of “the data,”  can be messy.  On another level, however, Amini is not really doing anything new.  Both arranged marriages and bad poetry have tried to eliminate chance and work from love, the former by subordinating the impetuosity of youth to the wisdom of aged command and the latter by reducing love to list of properties (“How do I love thee, let me count the ways” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43).  All three commit the same mistake of reducing feelings (love, happiness) to end states (family honour, economic advantage, desirable properties) the attainment of which can be guaranteed by following a mechanical pathway.  They confuse knowing what the value of the feeling is with providing an account  of some of its properties.

One does not have to give into any mysticism of romantic love to object to all three.  Love may not be ineffable, but that does not mean that it is explicable by lists or mathematical  functions.  As with every element of human emotional life and motivation, the experience of love can only be understood in terms of the commitments and desires it provokes in us as specific individuals and the precise ways in which these are qualitatively different from closely related but distinct feelings (liking someone, lusting after them, etc).  It is by paying attention to the nuance and the specificity, searching for the words to capture the uniqueness of the feelings (as good poetry does), that we understand love, and any other human emotion.  We would destroy the qualitative richness of human experience– the very substance of lives worth living– if we reduce it to those aspects of it that can be listed or modeled.

Here is the real problem with Amini’s and all related attempts to model emotional life so as to guarantee the attainment of some purportedly desirable end-state (happiness, etc). It is not that they simply cannot work because there is something essentially unknowable about the “passions of the soul.”  Rather, they depend upon reducing those passions to their quantifiable elements only:  the predictive devices work, in their own terms, but their own terms are so one-dimensional that any victory over messy uncertainty is pyhrrich.  If we equate love with happiness and cash out happiness as a set of typical social outcomes (nice house/career/kids/sexual relations within the statistical norm/enjoying time together/ etc…) then it is certainly possible to write a computer program that will predict whether two people will likely attain those outcomes.  However, as divorce rates between couples “who seemed so happy” prove, it is quite possible to have all the external trappings of happiness, and be miserable “inside.”  It is the inside that matters, and it is the inside that cannot be modeled.  It can be understood, but only by paying attention to what is unrepeatable, what is unique, what is most you.  Love is the attunement of the lover to the unique identity of the beloved, not a set of generic properties instantiated in the individual.  The ubiquity of the question: “How can you love him/her” is all the proof we need that its ways are not subject to understanding through observation of external properties.

The uniqueness of our identity means that not only is there is no formula to making one another happy, happiness is not the truth of love.  Much of life does not make us happy, and nor should it, and love must persist through these moments (in pain we need love most of all, a truth which no love-as-happiness predictor is going to be able to capture).

In the rush to turn decisions over to apps which function by discovering patterns in behaviour, the real risk is that we begin to edit our identities and our decisions according to what the app is capable of modelling.  La Mettrie was wrong when, in 1752, he argued that man is a machine.  But he was not wrong to point out that there are many mechanical dimensions to life, only to ignore all the non-mechanical dimensions of the same phenomena.  The computer has carried forward this same lamentable human propensity for turning parts into wholes, metaphors into literal meanings.  The partisans of “big data” still think of humans as machines, digital machines, which can program themselves for optimal success.  Since they treat the outcome as given (happiness), they think they can guarantee a life worth living, if only they set the value of the inputs correctly.

What is missing here is not only valorization of the effort which the attainment of any worthwhile outcome requires, but, more importantly, reflection upon the meaning and value of the ends of decisions.  If we take happiness to be some quantifiable end state whose attainment can be modeled statistically, then a program that we ask to predict happiness will make predictions for us.  And if we allow ourselves to be programmed by the program, we can then start making the decisions that are statistically correlated with the quantified definition of happiness.

And then what?  A prediction of my own:  we will not be any happier than before, not because there are not statistical correlations to draw between behaviours and outcomes, but because happiness is not something that can be modeled in the same way as a weather system.  Since it necessarily involves evaluative interpretation of particular and unique lives (yours, mine), there is an irreducibly subjective and particular (i..e, not modelable without loss of that which was to be modeled) element to happiness.  But the more important point is that happiness is not the only end of a meaningful and good life, and part of what any reflection on happiness must include is a reflection on the proper place and scope of happiness in a life like ours:  uncertain, with competing demands, ambivalent desires, conflicting goals, the need to make ultimately unrevisable choices.

If you try to manage this complexity by assigning weights so as to be able to include them in a program, you have already misunderstood the issue.  Take ambivalence, the most human of all feelings.  When we are ambivalent, we want one thing, and we want its opposite.  Mathematically, the two would cancel, and so an ambivalent desire would actually appear as zero (want= +1 want the opposite = -1 = 0).  Yet this result is the very opposite of what ambivalence actually is in life:  a tension that pulls us in opposite ways at once with equal force.

We learn to deal with ambivalence by tormenting ourselves and playing over different scenarios and making decisions– often, if life is fully lived, the wrong one, from which we learn, but which we had to choose in order to learn.  In order to live fully, humans have to make mistakes.  To rob someone of the mistake is to cheat them out of an essential element of life.  Sparing people the mistakes of ambivalence  is thus not helping them live a better life, it is emptying life of the most powerful and valuable experiences.   Life needs tears and anger because both let us know that we are alive as embodied, committed, engaged, passionate beings making decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  If a program could spare us tears and anger it should be avoided for precisely that reason:  in sparing us both, it spares us of life.  That which is satisfying to a program (efficient attainment of the outcome) is death to a thinking and feeling individual, who must learn for him or herself through experience what the right decision will be (there being no way to predict in advance whether any choice will produce happiness and whether this happiness proves ultimately worthwhile).

In making these decisions we are not completely blind– literature and philosophy are both repositories of qualitative insights into the human condition.  Unlike the hoped for predictive models, they do not try to eliminate the messiness, but learn from it that in essential dimensions of human experience certainty is the enemy of meaning and life-value.  Ask yourself whether you could value a life that was nothing but the predictable execution of a routine.  By definition, such a life would exclude our decisions making any difference to outcomes.  A life in which our decisions have no causal efficacy is unfree.  Hence, the logical implication of the search for algorithmic solutions to existential problems is the elimination of freedom from human affairs.

My argument is taking a long time to get to the main point:  models are useful solutions to problems that involve patterns generated by inanimate matter, or problems of human interaction in domains of life that have purely instrumental value (traffic flows, for example) but for all problems that concern motivation, mutualistic relationship and interaction, and political goals, conflict, and structure, there is no app that can solve our problems. Since there is no quantitative model, our motivations, our relationships, and our political problems need to be worked out and solved on the basis of interpretative understanding of what life is and can be, what the value of other people in our lives is going to be, and how we can arrive at institutional structures that are as free of destructive conflict as possible.

I do not want to pose solutions to these problems here, but instead conclude that because the most essential problems in life (the one’s that no person can avoid, no matter what historical period they live in or what culture they come from), are not soluble through the mechanical application of an algorithm, literature, philosophy, and history must always have a place in any credible education system.  And so when we hear that universities (and even secondary and primary schools) need to prepare students for “the jobs of the future,” those of us who toil lovingly in the jobs of the past (as poets, literary critics, philosophers, and historians) need to stand up and say to the young:

“Emancipate yourselves from the republic of fear that politicians and business people have tried to trap you in, so as to determine your choices for you.

Not even engineers are always engineers: if they are at all reflective they too have to pose questions about the meaning and value of their work, and answer them in non-engineering terms (the value of a structural engineer’s work is not measurable by its load bearing capacity, since the work as vocation does not bear any load).  The most pressing philosophical problems are at the same time the most pressing practical problems of our age: cultural difference, civil war, religious belief versus secularism, the possibility of artificial intelligence, the future of art, the status of democracy, the best economic system, the meaning of love and happiness (and also hate and sorrow), the meaning of human freedom.  There are no mechanical solutions to these problems, but all require attending to experience, your own, and the accumulated wisdom of past ages of all cultures, the ability to detect contradictions between principle and practice and principle and stated goals, to discover hidden agendas, private interests masquerading as the general, but also the ability to see underlying shared interests and commonalities, the ability to make an argument without ad hominem attack, and the ability to accept criticism without thinking your person is under attack.

Laugh when they call these “soft skills,” and rejoin: “what important human problem can be solved without them, and what aspect of the human project (to build a world in which each person who is born into it finds a place to freely contribute to its further unfolding)  can be advanced if we were to close off the institutional time and space required to develop them?”

Readings: Henri Lefebvre: The Critique of Everyday Life

A perennial question for he socialist left has been:  if capitalism is so bad, why are mass movements against it so rare (not to mention unsuccessful)? One answer is obvious:  the state has a monopoly on the means of violence and has proven willing to use it to enforce capitalist class rule.  However important that reason is, it does not sufficiently address the deeper issue: workers are not constantly in a state of near or actual insurrection.  Indeed, they are not even in a constant state of overt dissatisfaction, but most often seem content to seek their pleasures and purposes within capitalism.   Beginning with Gramsci and developing through the Frankfurt School, early and middle twentieth century Marxists and Critical Theorists looked to the roles that popular culture and the growing purchasing power of workers played as explanations for ruling class “hegemony” (the ability to build and maintain consent without resort to violence).  While the names of Gramsci and Marcuse are well-known, that of Henri Lefevbre is less renowned, at least in the English speaking world.  And yet, of all the analyses and critiques of consumer society, none matches the detail or temporal scope of Lefebvre’s The Critique of Everyday Life.  Its three volumes, composed over nearly forty years (1947, 1962, and 1981), trace the changing structure of consumer society from its re-emergence following World War Two to the dawn of the information society in 1981.  Without denying that these forty years witnessed profound changes to everyday life:  the liberation of women from the home, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the growing role of technology, Lefebvre is able to demonstrate that the one constant of everyday life under capitalism is that it alienates us in multiple ways from our needs and from each other.

It is easy to forget that behind alienation lies genuine needs and goals– genuine in the sense that if the needs are not satisfied, harm ensues, and if the goals are not fulfilled, life has in a sense, been wasted in that dimension of being alive. To focus on everyday life as a structure of alienation is thus at one and the same time to assert that certain needs and goals are genuine, and to disclose the ways in which capitalist priorities impede their satisfaction and realization (or permit only partial forms of both). But to focus on everyday life, as opposed to the workplace, as the zone of alienation, is to argue for a different conception of socialism (or, perhaps better said, to widen the scope of the idea of socialism), as not just a structural change in relations at the point of production, but equally a transformation of life-activity and relationships.

In the first volume this argument is deployed against Stalinist orthodoxy and its failures.  He maintained that socialism had to involve more than releasing the forces of production from their capitalist fetters:  it had to mean transformations of self-understanding that allowed for more satisfying forms of activity and relationship in all zones of life.  “What is socialism, exactly? How does it intervene in everyday life? … the answer is unclear. The elimination of class antagonisms? The supersession of capitalist property and production? These are only negative definitions. We find the picture of a bourgeois society without a bourgeoisie neither reassuring nor satisfying.” (p.69).  Lefebvre never fully answers this question, but his aim was not to provide a blueprint for how free people would live, but to insist that freedom must encompass everyday and consciousness.

The main problem with orthodox Marxist politics is that– despite Marx’s own protestation that the emancipation of workers had to be the act of the workers themselves– it tried to reconstruct workers’ consciousness from the outside, and thus proved continually at odds with the majority of workers.  Already becoming clear in 1947, the conclusion that this politics was a dead end could not be avoided in 1981:  “So the fate of philosophies of pure knowledge as not spared Marxism: Revolution through positive knowledge, brought to the working class from without, (Lenin)- that revolution has miscarried.”(p.731)  While Lefebvre’s purpose is not to reconstruct the politics of the struggle for socialism, his arguments have the general political implication that socialism must be a transformation of everyday life and not just a change in the class identity of the people in charge of major social institutions. As a transformation of everyday life, the struggle for socialism is a long term on going struggle and not a cataclysmic overthrow of bourgeois power.  The Soviet Union was undone, according to Lefebvre not because class power was not overthrown, but because the power seized was not used to emancipate everyday life.

What would it mean to emancipate everyday life?  To overcome all manner of alienation:  not just alienation from the product and process of labour or other people as workers, but in all dimensions of our lives- playing, interacting, loving, building homes, creating.  Alienation in everyday life means looking to things to do for us what we can only do for ourselves:  make ourselves feel worthy, valued, loved, respected as the rela means of producing meaning and joy.  Everyday life exists between the institutionalized spaces and forces of the economic and political system and the uncontrolled sectors of inner, psychic life.  It is “the region where man appropriates not so much external nature, but his own nature—as a zone of demarcation and friction between the uncontrolled sector and the controlled sector of life—and a region where goods come into confrontation with needs which have become more or less desires.”(p.375).”  The problem with everyday life under capitalism is that it alienates the desire, i..e, the conscious striving to satisfy needs into to desire to consume commodities.  The critique of everyday life is thus the critique of the commodification of desire.  “Critique,” he argues, “mounts an attack on gaps and imbalances (between temporalities, between the “basic” and the “superior,” between the historical and the private, the social and the individual). It points out the gaps, the vacuum, the distance yet to be crossed. It criticizes the role of society and the roles society imposes … It attacks alienation in all its forms, in culture, in ideology, beyond the moral sphere. Critique demands the dissolution and revolutionary metamorphosis of the everyday.”(p.517).  The revolutionary metamorphosis of the everyday, in turn, involves the recovery of the spontaneity of self-creation from the unsatisfactory pleasures of capitalist consumer society.

In the controlled sector of society people are tokens of types: workers, bosses, electricians, politicians, and their lives the execution of more or less programmed routines.  Outside of these roles, in everyday life, people are not mere functions of social positions but persons:  “In the everyday, when the “human being” confronts within itself the social and the individual through the test of problems and contradictions which have been more or less resolved, it becomes a “person.” What does this mean? In our view, a cloud of possibilities gradually vapourized by choices—by actions—until it is exhausted and comes to an end- until death. It is … a drama, the drama of participation in society, the drama of … individualization.”(p.357).  Consumer society alientates us from the spontaneity of personality formation by promising to routinize happiness:  buy this product or appear in that way, and happiness will follow as a mechanical effect. Even if that effect were achieved (and it clearly is not) the complete loss of spontaneity it would entail would further entail the loss of our humanity.  Our humanity is the capacity to write the drama as it unfolds, not to merely follow the script but to be its author too, and to never know exactly how it is going to end.  Human freedom is bound up with the responsiveness of the future to choices that we make in the present:  the value of our activity is not determined solely by outcomes, but also by effort.  When Marx says, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that under socialism “man will be man and his relationship to the world will be a human one,” he means that socialism, whatever institutionalized forms it takes, will restore spontaneity and truth to everyday life.  We will be the persons that we make ourselves to be, not the people our money can make us appear to be, even though we are the opposite.

Lefebvre (like Marx), is not nostalgic, but he does look to rural society (the ghosts of which still walked the French countryside in 1947) as evidence of the depth sociality of human life that capitalism alienates.  This depth sociality is best expressed in the festival, where the fruits of nature and collective labour were shared in a communal celebration enjoyed by each individual. “Rural communities associated nature specifically with human joyfulness … Thus when the community gathered to carry out this simple action of eating and drinking, the event was attended by a sense of magnificence which intensified the feelings of joy.” (p.233)  Lefebvre does not posit the feudal festival as a model to be emulated. Indeed, in the third volume he begins to examine urban space as the potential site for modern forms of creative human expression and interaction.  His goal is not, therefore, to romanticize the past but to look resolutely to the future, to freeing urban space from its current domination by commercial interests for the sake of opening its cultural dynamism to the contributions of everyone.  In this regard he was a primary inspiration to the contemporary “right to the city” movement. (See further, David Harvey, Rebel Cities)  He does not look backward, but forward, but at the same time, he does not think of a free society as a creatio ex nihilo, as the result of foundational needs and desires being satisfied in new ways.

The student and worker rebellions of the late 1960’s appeared to have captured some of the spontaneous creativity that underlies Lefebvre’s critique of everyday life.  Lefebvre was professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Nanterre during the 1968 rebellion.  Its failure did not completely disillusion him, but it did cause him to shift political focus and reject once for all the Leninist model of revolution.  In the third volume he affirms the unrealized potentials of peaceful democratic struggle and human rights:  “Let me end with the example of human rights.  The fact that some dangerous forces, even imperialism, have sought to make use of them … cannot justify abandoning the, … On the contrary.”(p.780).  This embrace of human rights might be dismissed as conservatism, but this rejection would be to miss the point (which serves as a political through line connecting all three volumes):  practice must be judged pragmatically and historically.  The values of socialism are not dependent upon some one means of struggle.  What matters is realizing the values, not fetishizing “The Revolution.”  If the evidence proves that nineteenth and early twentieth century forms of struggle have failed, but the values remain unrealized  but essential to human well-being, then we honour the history by changing the tactics, not slavishly repeating them, a move that will only ensure more failure.

The political value of the book follows from its clear understanding that the essence of historical materialism is the principle that because society changes the methods appropriate to understanding society have to develop along with it.  In the case of The Critique of Everyday Life these changes take the form not only of defining a new object domain (everyday life) but effecting a new conceptual synthesis between philosophy and sociology.  The synthesis involves bringing the normative core of philosophy (its concern with realizing the full value of human potentialities) to bear on the empirical study of the complexities and nuances of the forces that shape everyday life as these forces change historically and pose new threats (and opportunities) for self-realization.  His method treads carefully between the twin dangers of structuralism on the one hand (which ignores human agency)  and methodological individual and voluntarism on the other (which ignores the ways in which the content and motivations of individuals are socially structured.  It is a paradigm instance of dialectical thinking which, sadly, was mostly ignored in the English speaking world in the eighties and nineties when it would have provided an antidote to the one-sided poststructuralist deconstruction of the human subject.

The difficulties of developing a dialectical understanding of the relationship between structure and agency are sufficiently challenging that the book still repays reading for its proposed solution to this problem.  It also remains vital today for its anticipations of the problems of technological society.  Even in 1981, before the internet and smartphones, Lefebvre could already see that the promise of technological society, at least so long as it was bound up with capitalist market forces, would be more advertising hype than actual emancipation.  But more than ideological unmasking, he also saw what contemporary technotopians still refuse to acknowledge today, when this truth is so  much more in evidence than it was in 1981:  the ideal of the technological society is the elimination of the spontaneity of human self-creative activity in favour of programmed pleasures and predictable outcomes:  “Assimilation, repetition, equivalence (calculable, predictable, and hence open to rational administration)—such are the characteristics daily life tends towards … Everyday life managed like an enterprise within an enormous, technocratically administered system—such is the first and last word of the technocratic ethic: every moment anticipated, quantified in money terms, and programmed temporally and spatially.”(p. 731).  That is not to say that Lefebvre rejects the value of technology (indeed, in the earlier volumes he often present the problem of the transformation of everyday as the problem of realizing the social value of technology that had been tapped in industry but not everyday life).  What his argument makes clear is that there is a difference between technology as a means to social ends, and technology as an end in itself.  The latter, fetishized view can only ever be the ally of economic forces that alienate human capacities.

The Critique of Everyday Life is not a book to read with your feet up and mind half elsewhere.  It is a difficult, sometimes turgid work in which there is a lot of thinking out loud and searching.  It is also one of the great works of twentieth century Marxist philosophy and still well worth the effort that must be expended to understand it.