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Dear Ed…

Ed Miliband is in a spot of trouble. We all know it. He knows it. He might still win the next election but nobody seems to be sure what will happen at the moment. If you want Labour to win the next election, and I do, then you’d expect there to be a few more positive signs. The conservative strategy of appealing to a core vote, hoping people who voted Lib Dem last time will vote for you (perhaps return to you) this time, and the Tory vote will be hit by UKIP isn’t looking too promising if the aim is a reasonable majority.


The problem isn’t policy. Ed has lots of it, much more than either of the coalition parties when it comes to a manifesto for the next election, and despite the “Red Ed” tag his sensibilities seem to be more in line with the electorate than most of the press are prepared to give him credit for. I also think he’s got more right than wrong and made decisive and brave stands on key issues. Murdoch, phone hacking, the press — that doesn’t get mentioned much now, does it? There’s more talk about him being geeky, as evidenced by his alleged inability to eat a bacon sandwich in a way the press can endorse.


Ed isn’t going to turn the press round on whether he can pass the bacon sandwich test, which is pretty crucial when it comes to deciding if someone can make big decisions on foreign policy. What he needs is someway of turning what is an apparent disadvantage into a positive. Here’s my suggestion.


There was segment on Newsnight during the week about the parliament buildings (iplayer link). They’re basically falling down and it’s reached the point where something needs to be done. There are number of options on the table: build something new, restore it gradually so MPs can stay there while it’s done, restore it in one go but that would involve MPs having to decamp somewhere else among them. Restoring the building will be expensive; billions of pounds, in fact. It’s historically important so understandably you can’t just get any old person in to bodge it. A decision needs to be made but nobody will do anything until after the next election, largely because of the cost issue.


Tristram Hunt was involved in the segment. He’s often but not always reasonably sensible, though in this case he basically said “look, I bloody love my office and I want to stay there” then suggested MPs get to go on holiday around the country — including to York, a place I can recommend highly — for a month every year while the repairs are done. This got me thinking. Surely Ed can turn this latter idea into something more substantial? Here’s my suggestion.


Ed should refuse to let MPs kick this can down the road. What he should do is say we need to do something now. The building needs to be saved. That’s not an issue. What is an issue is whether MPs should stay in it and when. Ed should suggest MPs shouldn’t stay in the building and that parliament should be moved somewhere else permanently. Here’s the clever bit: parliament should be moved to somewhere else in the country. Anywhere but somewhere in the midlands or north like Manchester or Birmingham. Why? A massive issue at the moment is the disconnect between Westminster politics and pretty much everywhere outside the M25. It’s something UKIP are benefitting from. Ed should say he’d deal with this by moving parliament somewhere else. In the process, there’d be a multiplier effect. We’ve said we’d improve transport infrastructure in the rest of the country, says Ed. People are sceptical of that. Well, this is how serious we are about it: we’re going to move so things will definitely get better.


There would be further important benefits, of course. There’d be a welcome erosion of London’s power, in that politics would move somewhere else. And it’s something that would certainly go some distance to reconnecting politics with the world outside the capital. There’d also be an opportunity to redesign the parliament building, making it less adversarial and perhaps more cooperative via a horseshoe design. Ed could turn that to his advantage too, arguing that the pantomime politics of PMQs etc is putting people off. What we need is debate and discussion that doesn’t involve people throwing insults at each other and waving bits of paper, what we need is serious discussion that reflects a new multi-party world.


A new building somewhere else would probably be cheaper than restoring Westminster.


You’re welcome, Ed.


Things I Hate: Gig Edition

I went to see Bruce Springsteen in Leeds last night. He was good and I enjoyed it, even though I have serious reservations about the new E-Street Band set up. The old stuff doesn’t need ten vocalists and an entire brass section, which drowns out the guitars and makes the sound cluttered. That’s a story for another day, though.


It was the first gig I’ve been to since my daughter was born a couple of months ago and the gap between gigs allowed me to appreciate some of the things that people do at gigs that really, really, really piss me off. Here’s a list I compiled in my head when Bruce was trudging through some average stuff off of The Rising.


1. Filming Songs/Whole Sets on Mobile Phones.

If you do this, you are an absolute prize idiot. It’s really not worth getting into slightly abstract discussions about what this says about people’s ability to live in and enjoy the moment. The more basic point is that footage of this kind is always shit. It’s shaky and the audio quality is awful. Why take it? More to the point, what do you do with the footage when you’ve taken it? The process of filming a song just ruins things for people stood behind you who have to watch part of the gig through your phone. As I said, you’re an idiot if you do this.


2. Taking photos

I’ll concede that some people might want some photos of themselves with friends at a gig. I’ll let you have that one (though it comes with the additional complaint that I hate it when a group of ten people expects everyone to move so they can have sufficient space to stand together for a photo. I hate that). Taking photos throughout a gig, though? It suffers from all the same faults as filming things.


3. Carrying more than two drinks at a time

This is obviously dependent on where the drinks are being carried to. But I cannot stand anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to carry four pints of beer through the standing area of a gig. Seriously? What goes through your head? You lose about half of each drink, splash everyone with beer, and generally make life uncomfortable for people as you wander about, pushing people out of the way, as you look for people.


4. Wearing a band t-shirt to a gig being played by that band

We know you like the band. You’re at the gig. Have you thought for one second what you look like?


5. Waving a sign or flag

You’re ruining the view for lots of people for no real reason. Your sign is probably not very interesting or funny. They are qualities that aren’t closely associated with people who wave signs or flags at gigs (and in answer to your question: yes, I know why people take signs to Springsteen gigs but, as he said himself a few songs in, put them down during songs because he’s not taking requests then)


6. Sitting on people’s shoulders (unless you’re right at the back)

Again, spoiling the view for people. It’s selfish. The fact you think it’s a good idea to start is a clear indication that you’re an idiot.


7. Talking loudly and/or singing

I paid to hear someone else sing, not you talk. Don’t do it. The same goes for singing. I’ll accept a low level of singing but I hate communal sing-a-longs. It’s not karaoke so don’t try to make it that.




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8. Continuing to wear wrist bands from other events, particularly festivals

This, like the t-shirt observation, is really a second order complaint but it annoys me nonetheless. Seriously, take the wristband off at the earliest opportunity after the gig or festival has finished, when it no longer serves an actual purpose. Why keep it on? Do you think anyone is actually impressed that you bought a ticket, with money, from a website that sells tickets, to go to a festival last year? Do you think people are going to look at your wristband and think “what an interesting person! I should go and talk to them”? They don’t, they think you’re an idiot.

Neoliberalism, Crisis, and the World System

My post on neoliberalism is now up on Open Democracy. Go read it, along with the others.

Neoliberalism, Crisis And the World System

A number of people who attended the “Neoliberalism, Crisis, and the World System” conference, recently held at York and about which I posted some comments, have written pieces on neoliberalism that are being hosted as a special section on Open Democracy. I’ve written a piece that is a significantly cleaned version of my earlier post. I’ll let you know when that piece is up. In the meantime, check out the other pieces, some of which will be important when it comes to understanding my complaints. I can, however, recommend Will Davies’ piece — I like that a great deal.

In praise of: Paul Weller

Time for something completely different… Much to the delight of a number of my colleagues, I’ve recently set up a stereo in my office, largely because I now work out of it every day and therefore wouldn’t get to listen to music as often as I’d like if I didn’t. I mostly listen to music on vinyl but I usually have the stuff I really like on multiple formats. Yes, I’m a sucker for different vinyl versions (especially if they have different covers or different coloured vinyl) and special edition CDs with extra tracks. Much to my wife’s displeasure, I’ll also hold “retrospective” days where I’ll listen to a particular artist’s back catalogue (the Neil Young days are the one she looks forwards to least, though she’s probably lucky I’m not into The Fall). I held one of these days yesterday — a Paul Weller retrospective — and listening to every album he’s made got me thinking about his career.

As Mrs Renwick and many of my friend’s will testify, I have long-running love affair with Paul Weller. The Jam rank a close second to The Who in my list of favourite bands and I love pretty much everything he’s ever done, including the Style Council. This is an apparently controversial position among the people I talk to about music and I’ve never been able to put my finger on why, with the exception of some people who simply don’t dig that kind of thing. There is, however, a prevalent view of Weller as a grumpy one-dimensional dad rock figure, which is most often held by people aged 25-35 and helps explain the inertia behind the negative attitudes towards his oeuvre. After a steady build up, Weller’s solo career took off during the Britpop years when he was made into a kind of elder statesman of British guitar rock, producing some of the finest music of that era, particularly Stanley Road. Consequently, a lot of people have read that “modfather” period backwards and interpreted Weller as some kind of one trick pony. I think that view is totally wrong.

It’s worth remembering that Weller’s renaissance during the 1990s came about because he was on an upward curve from what was his lowest moment: the Style Council losing their recording contract. That moment became an important part of the 1990s’ Britpop view of Weller: he was rediscovering the guitar after a lost decade. The Jam were great, so people said, but the Style Council were shit and finally Weller had come to his senses. Even though I bought into this story in the mid-90s (I was 15 and 15 year olds know fuck all), I now realise that I was wrong. The Style Council were a really good band. That doesn’t mean everything they did was good because it wasn’t. However, even their duff records and mistakes are testament to what made them good: a willingness to experiment and follow ideas through to their logical conclusion. The “Modfather” label often leads people to see him as someone who constantly ties to preserve the 60s. But what made the Style Council good was the way Weller took the modernist side of mod culture seriously and explored not only the frequently sidelined aspects of 60s mod culture (jazz for example) but also the modernist aspects of his own era. Let’s not forget that the final straw for Weller’s record label was when the Style Council delivered a house album, which was the entirely logical conclusion of the modernist explorations Weller had been undertaking.

In my opinion, the people who write off the Style Council are largely those who fell into the trap that Weller set for them. Weller broke The Jam up when he was only 24  and the band was at the absolute height of their power and popularity — an act that is probably difficult to comprehend these days when things like record sales have a completely different meaning. The Style Council were his reaction against The Jam and it’s a move that is probably closest to the ones Neil Young made after Harvest made him massive. Everything about the Style Council was supposed to test fans of The Jam: the clothes, the music, everything — something that is most clearly demonstrated in the notorious video for “Long Hot Summer“. But if you look past a couple of occasionally dodgy haircuts, the Style Council produced some of Weller’s best music. Songs like “My Ever Changing Moods” are among my favourites from his whole career. And, for all people knock it, I actually think much of the late Style Council output was good.

In this respect, it’s also worth remembering that the kinds of music the Style Council made was a growth from The Jam’s later output. The Jam were actually a much more diverse band than people often recognise. Their first couple of albums were really good and classics of that period and genre but they don’t sound like the Jam — they sound like the Jam playing punk music, which is what they basically are. It was when Weller started exploring soul and funk sides of his music tastes (as well as the more experimental side of his guitar music tastes that probably owe much to The Beatles’ Revolver)  that The Jam evolved into an interesting, individual and powerful group and it’s when they put out their best records — Sound Affects and All Mod Cons among them. Their later output — specifically that on The Gift — was very, very different to that on In the City and it merged almost seamlessly into the Style Council. I don’t, however, often hear Jam fans argue that “Beat Surrender” is a bad song.

This diversity is reflected in Weller’s solo career. He’s made a couple of albums I don’t like (Heliocentric — I’m looking at you) but, generally speaking, he seems to make batches of albums that explore different aspects of the same idea. Wild Wood, Stanley Road, and Heavy Soul are one batch; his recent excellent albums, beginning with 22 Dreams, another. Those recent albums are in fact much more interesting and diverse than much of the stuff you hear from new bands. In fact, Weller is among the few artists who have been around for as long as he has and still puts out good, interesting records. He is not part of the heritage trail, populated by bands like the Rolling Stones, who make a living playing songs from 30 years ago but who long since ceased to be a functioning outfit, artistically speaking.

Why do people have such a negative opinion of Weller then? Well, part of it is certainly the repackaged Weller story that came as part of Britpop. However, I can’t help feel that some of it is a class thing. Weller isn’t an art-school type and for that reason I think it’s difficult for trendy types to say they think he’s a genuine innovator in the same way they are happy to say that about, say, David Bowie or Neil Young. Weller’s music explores the traditions of soul and funk, which he has frequently joined successfully with things like psychedelia in ways that are deserving of much more respect than he gets from the music press. Not everything he’s done has been great but not everything Neil Young or David Bowie have done has been great either and I’m sure Weller would be the first to admit that the odd part of his back catalogue isn’t as strong as the rest. The point, though, is the place those mistakes came from and the reasons they were made. And I think the fact those mistake exist is evidence enough that Weller is not the dad rock figure he’s often held to be.

“We can’t be content with running alternative coffee shops while leaving the global financial system to our opponents”

I recently attended a two-day conference on neoliberalism, partly organised by my friend and intellectual collaborator, Nick Gane, from York’s sociology department. Nick’s been working on neoliberalism for the past couple of years and my own research into British social science during the early twentieth century now takes in the early entanglement between the two. The conference featured a number of really fascinating talks and panels, in particular the keynote address from Jamie Peck, Will Davies‘ talk on the return of the “social” in neoliberal thought, and the panel on neoliberalism and higher education. Neoliberalism raises most academics’ temperature  and, as a consequence, the conference was an often thought-provoking event. It certainly led me to reflect on neoliberalism and not all of those thoughts are ones that might be considered positive or fitting entirely with the leftist narrative on neoliberalism.


The first thing that seemed obvious to me from the conference was this: it’s quite obvious why the neoliberals have won and are continuing to win. The conference was pretty big for a single focused event: there were around 150 people there and it was genuinely interdisciplinary, with people from geography, history, sociology, social policy, and English departments, to name just a few. My thoughts are therefore a slightly impressionistic reflection on the academy as a whole, rather than something aimed at any one field. But that is in itself important. As recent a number of recent books by people like Daniel Stedman JonesAngus Burgin, and Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe have shown, neoliberalism is something that goes back much further than 1979. That’s important because it’s a crucial part of understanding how neoliberalism has been so successful. By 1979 neoliberalism was a fully-formed project that had been put together by people like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman in places like the Mont Pelerin Society over the course of almost 30 years (though the ideas date back further than that). The project has taken people on the left by surprise, and left them in shock, since then because they’ve often seen as it as new and emerging thing rather than something that developed out of their sight and was fully matured and ready to go when its leading lights saw their moment in the late 70s and early 80s.


The fact lefties and other opponents of neoliberalism didn’t see it coming is also important. Why? To cut a long story short, and with some key exceptions, like Chicago economics, Hayek and others developed neoliberalism outside the academy. They largely gave up on universities because they saw them as a lefty, planning lost cause that had captured the attentions of government. Instead, the neoliberals set up their own organisations — particularly think tanks with quite bland names — that developed their quietly developed their programme. The neoliberals worked at promoting that programme to people who might be in a position to one day put it into practice and it established a whole network that eventually got to shape the world as we know it now.


The important thing about that process is that Hayek and co were learning a lesson from their opponents. The people we now call neoliberals effectively lost the original argument, which was about what to do in response to the Great Depression. Keynes and his allies won that but, long term, the neoliberals won out. They won because the neoliberals believed they had lost in the 1930s because key figures in government had been captured by university intellectuals, who, as a mass, had been converted to planning and socialism. Hayek and co didn’t think they could break but they thought there was a lesson to be learned: if the problem is that the people pulling the levers of power are enchanted by a group pushing a particular ideology, the answer was to think long-term and get that group to fall in love with them instead.


I was thinking about this throughout the conference at York for all kinds of reasons. But one reason stuck out: the complete failure of most of those present to understand the nature of the problem that confronts them and the kinds of solutions that are required to break the hold neoliberalism has on the political classes. That criticism has a number of aspects. One is that I don’t think most academic critics of neoliberalism appreciate neoliberalism’s long historical gestation or understand how it got to be so dominant. Another, however, is that the kinds of things they talk about as alternatives to neoliberalism are, quite frankly, a joke. One thing that kept on coming up was “Occupy”. I’m no fan of Occupy, not because I don’t think resistance (whatever that might actually mean) to neoliberalism is a bad thing but because I have no idea what alternative it’s offering. Occupy fans talk a good game: it’s all about self-organising, etc but that doesn’t offer an alternative vision of the world that is (a) sufficiently different from the language around neoliberalism and (b) a programme that is actually going to make things happen. The academics buying into Occupy and everything round it are largely promoting a hazy, ill-defined, right-on bundle of ideas that are a form of libertarianism combined with the bits of lit-crit cultural theory relativism that people call socialism but aren’t really, in that it’s identity politics.


The fact of the matter is that lots of academics feel helpless and powerless in the face of neoliberalism because they are helpless and powerless. Neoliberals have cut them out of the loop and most of them are left flailing, blabbering on about “subjectivity”, as if somehow that’s going to change anything. This point was hit right on the head by Jamie Peck when he argued that part of the problem was that opponents of neoliberalism had surrendered the areas where power is actually exercised in favour of places where naval gazing can take place without anyone else looking. As he put it, “we can’t content ourselves with running alternative coffee shops, while leaving the global financial system to our opponents.” I agree completely with that sentiment. What’s needed is a genuine alternative programme that articulates how power will be used to achieve particular aims in definite areas. I have ideas about this. In particular, I think it’s well worth going back to the groups Hayek thought he was learning lessons from because they seem to provide a working model of how to do business. In fact, I’m of the opinion that those groups actually have mountains of ideas that the left and academia more generally would do well to look at again (spoiler alert: I’m working on a book proposal to this effect at the moment…). In short, though, what opponents of neoliberalism need to do is learn a lesson they probably haven’t thought they need to learn from a group they think of as free-market anti-state ideologues: have a definite set of goals, engage with powerful people, think long-term (that is, have a plan that’s ready to go when the moment is right), and get properly organised.


[nb: this was written in one sitting and hasn’t been proof read — that’s my excuse anyway…]

Contact Hours: Some Follow-Up Thoughts

So, the past week has featured a great deal of discussion amongst my colleagues and I about the contact hours issue. That discussion has been spurred on by not just by the Mail on Sunday article about York last week but also subsequent coverage of that story in student newspapers and opinion pieces in other national newspapers (including this idiotic piece in the Guardian). That discussion has made a number of issues a little clearer for me. Probably the most important of those issues is trust: more specifically that the particular model of education that I work with and in places a significant amount of trust in students to do things that they need to in order to get what they’re supposed to out of higher education. It’s no coincidence that the institutions that offer the highest contact hours in the arts and humanities are ones that are lower in the university league tables than the ones that offer fewer contact hours. This isn’t said explicitly very often but the bottom line is that those institutions often have a high number of contact hours because (a) they actually have to teach their students in a way that’s like A-Levels or GCSEs and (b) the academics doing the teaching don’t really trust enough of their students to turn up to sessions prepared. The high contact hours are a way of supervising learning.

Thinking about that issue has also highlighted how stupid the strict identification of contact hours with fees is. It’s a point I make a lot but it’s true: students don’t get or experience contact hours in an open field with no books. There is a more subtle point here that I don’t think students at institutions like York quite appreciate. The money from fees helps produce the range of courses (geographic and chronological) that they get to choose from. For instance, first-year students in my department get to choose from around 20 courses that will run during the spring term of their second year. Those courses can only run because York has invested not only in hiring staff, including historians of China, Japan, and India but also the resources that are required for students to study those subjects. This doesn’t and won’t happen any time soon at other universities, particularly those lower down the league tables, because they simply don’t have the resources to do it. They could hire a historian of China but there’d be no point because they wouldn’t have the money to buy all the books they need to if that person is going to do their job effectively.

None of this is an endorsement of league tables or a slight on the institutions I’ve been referring to. If anything it’s a set of observations that supposed to underline the massive inequalities that exist in higher education. One of the things that’s obvious from the debate about contact hours is that it’s convenient for some people to present the situation as one in which all institutions are on a level playing field and differences in contact hours are indicative of the extent to which groups of academics are trying to pull a fast one. That point always comes across in the comparison between the arts and the humanities and the sciences. As we all know, science students get a billion contact hours per week compared to the apparently tiny number arts and humanities students get. However, science students get lots of hours in the lab each week where they are heavily supervised (and not by senior academics) in technical and basic aspects of scientific practice.

All of that got me thinking: how could arts and humanities departments replicate the science approach in a way that would keep most of the learning processes they expect students to engage with and increase contact hours? As far as I can see, we’d have to drop the trust we currently place in students. What we’d do is hire a room in the library for each course. The time we’d hire that room for would be proportionate to the number of hours reading we require students to do for the seminar that week (something that’s roughly determined by the length of the seminar, the stage of the degree, and the weighting of the module). We’d then tell students that they’d have to turn up to that room at set times, say 9-5 one day then 9-2 the next. When they were in the room the students would undertake supervised reading: they’d sit at a desk and do the reading they’d need to do for the seminar with an academic in the same room, just in case anything out of the ordinary happened. That, as far as I can see, would be the arts and humanities version of lab time. What do you think? Would the students go for it?