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Chris Bertram

Research Excellence Framework… the denouement

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2014

In the UK, we’ve just got the results of the Research Excellence Framework, successor to the Research Assessment Excercise, and the method that the state uses to disburse a very large amount of public money. Nobody is sure why the name was changed from “exercise” to “framework”, but since you can strap a person to a frame and then compel them to submit to sundry indignities, the change seems apt. The point of the REF is to measure the quality of research done at a particular institution and to give more of it, indeed most of it, to the departments that have produced the best work. It also has other effects, such as moving universities up and down in various league tables, and doing the same for their constituent departments. One further effect of those movements is to get university managers sharpening knives and threatening to close departments and sack individuals. It is all very unpleasant.

You would hope, then, that an exercise so fateful for the lives of academics and for the distribution of public money would measure what it is supposed to measure. No doubt there is some relationship between good research and REF scores, but there are also significant problems. One of these is that people are incentivized to produce research that will meet with the approval of the assessors and that this may have a conservative effect on disciplines, which also, thereby, become more disciplinary towards the heterodox. Another is that the rules for inclusion may be constructed in such a way that research that redounds to the credit of one institution may have been done somewhere else entirely. This has, in the past, resulted in a transfer market for “high fliers” and the payment of salaries to them which may have restricted entry-level opportunities. When this happens in the UK, we’ve effectively had a near zero sum game between institutions which won’t have done much to improve the overall quality of research done. The other issue has been the question of how to include people with fractional appointments in the assessment. This time, anybody employed on a 0.2 contract (that is, effectively one day a week) could be submit the same number of “outputs” to the exercise as a full-time employee. Although the inclusion of such a person would only increase the staff numbers eligible for “QR” funding by 0.2, their papers and books would still raise the average score of the department as if they counted for one, and this average, multiplied by the staff numbers, will benefit them financially. And, of course, such a department would rise higher in the league table than its comparators, with possible ill-effects for the displaced.

Of course, there may be perfectly good reasons to offer top American scholars 0.2 contracts at UK universities. They may improve the environment, be of service to graduate students, and so on. I’ve been assured that such were the reasons the University of Birmingham employed Paul Boghassian (NYU), Hartry Field (NYU), Kit Fine (NYU), Allison Jaggar (Colorado), Stephen Neale (CUNY), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Ralph Wedgwood (USC) in its Philosophy department. Still, when the BBC publishes a league table saying that “most world leading research” in Philosophy in the UK is done at Birmingham, one might think that claim a misleading one.

I’m also puzzled, given the effects on the disbursement of public money, why no UK university sought to challenge the 0.2 rule in the courts, to seek judicial review, given its perverse consequences.


Teaching Marx to newbies, redux

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2014

At a meeting on refugee rights the other night, one of the other activists asked me if I am a Marxist. “No,” I replied, “though I used to be.” I think the last time it was a vaguely accurate description of me was probably sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is hard to be sure. Not that I mind being called one, or think that being one is something to be ashamed of. In fact, I felt slightly sorry to disappoint my interlocutor. But things are what they are. So despite there being an irritating buzzing noise somewhere on the interwebs telling the world that I am a “Western Marxist”, I’m afraid I have to disclaim the title.

Nearly six years ago, I wrote the following as a suggestion for how to explain Marx to people (students) who were coming to him cold:

Suppose I were lecturing about Karl Marx: I’d do the same thing. I’d probably start by discussing some of the ideas in the Manifesto about the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, about their transformation of technology, social relations, and their creation of a global economy. Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives. And then I’d talk about Marx’s belief that a capitalist society would eventually be replaced by a classless society run by all for the benefit of all. Naturally, I’d say something about the difficulties of that idea. I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin, I don’t think I’d recycle the odd bon mot by Paul Samuelson, I don’t think I’d dismiss Hegel out of hand, and I don’t think I’d contrast modes of production with Weberian modes of domination (unless I was confident, as I wouldn’t be, that my audience already had some sense of those concepts).

Thinking about the matter again, I think I’d stick to those themes. Of course, then there’s the question of which texts would best illustrate those themes. It seems that some people believe those themes are best illustrated by looking at Marx’s early writings and that to do so would necessarily involve a distortion of Marx’s career bu concentrating on early texts. I don’t see it myself. When Corey Robin, Alex Gourevitch and I were thinking about freedom and the workplace, a central text for us was the chapter on the buying and selling of labour power, from volume 1 of Capital, you know, the one about “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” Thinking about human nature, work under capitalism, and its contrast with truly human work, I’d be sure to look at “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production” (included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of volume one of Capital). And central to explaining the importance of Marx to students of contemporary political philosophy would be the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Of course the themes you’d focus on and the texts you use are inevitably shaped by what you’re trying to achieve, the audience you’re addressing and similar matters. A comprehensive survey of Marx’s work, such as the two-year-long course Jerry Cohen ran in the mid 1980s at UCL (and which I was lucky enough to attend) would have a very different content to a taster course aimed at newbies.


Sunday photoblogging: old boat in Reykjavik harbour

by Chris Bertram on December 14, 2014


Detention, torture and standards of legitimacy

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2014

Yesterday was Human Rights Day, and I spent the evening at an excellent gathering organized by Bristol Refugee Rights about the UK’s record on indefinite detention of migrants. Around 30,000 people every year, mostly men, are detained by the British state by bureaucratic processes without judicial oversight. Some of them include extremely vulnerable people who have been torture victims in the countries they have fled from. When they are detained, often after a routine visit to a police station, they then face a future with no certainty at all. Some people have been detained for up to eight years: as a criminal you’d have to have done something pretty serious actually to serve that long. And these are prison-like conditions, administered mainly by private companies with poor records (to put it mildly) of looking after the interests of those in their charge.

It wasn’t the only news on Human Rights Day. We also heard what we’ve long known, that the United States routinely tortured on an industrial scale after 9/11. And then we have the seemingly endless series of post-Ferguson stories of police ill-treatment of black Americans and the failures of the judicial branch of that state to hold such official perpetrators to account.

Meanwhile, here’s a commonplace statement within political theory about what “legitimacy means”. It is from Andrew Altman and Christopher Heath Wellman’s book A Liberal Theory of International Justice.

“a state has earned legitimacy if it is willing and able (a) to protect its members against ‘substantial and recurrent threats’ to a decent human life – threats such as the arbitrary deprivation of life or liberty, and the infliction of torture – and (b) to refrain from imposing such threats on outsiders”. (p.4).

In other work, on immigration, Wellman has argued for the right of states to exclude would-be migrants, just so long as those states are legitimate. The trouble is, that lots of modern states, the ones tacitly referred to by liberal theorists when they distinguish between legitimate states, outlaw states and so forth, don’t actually meet the criteria for legitimacy that the same theorists endorse. Here, I’m not intending a dig at Wellman, but rather a statement of what participants in these conversations presuppose when they enunciate principles, give policy examples, and so forth. But when we leave the seminar room, there’s not an awful lot of legitimacy in the world.

What should be our attitude? I’m not completely sure, but here’s a stab at an answer. As campaigners, I think that lowering our standards for legitimacy would be a mistake as these express important principles which politicians play lip service to on high days an holidays. Just the other day, in a much-promoted speech on immigration, the British PM David Cameron went on about Britain’s proud record of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Did he believe what he was saying? Is his capacity to hold contradictory beliefs that developed? Or is he just a hypocrite? We should hold them to the ideals they profess. But for other purposes, such as political theory, maybe threshold standards of legitimacy have to go and we should take a more piecemeal attitude, granting authority to states, including non-democratic ones, in some of their functions (directing traffic, macroeconomic management, maintaining public health) but refusing it to them as a whole? Piecemeal philosophical anarchism.

Sunday photoblogging: high noon in Solva

by Chris Bertram on December 7, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Oslo opera house

by Chris Bertram on November 23, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Clifton steps

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2014

Sunday photo(re)blogging: the Wall then, and borders now

by Chris Bertram on November 9, 2014

Yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4, and they were remembering the people who died, shot by East German border guards. It doesn’t seem to occur to our official voices of commemoration that there are parallels today with the thousands who die trying to escape tyranny, war or poverty and who drown in the Mediterranean, perish from thirst in the Arizona desert, or with those who the Australian government turns back at sea or interns offshore. Nor do such barriers as the “separation wall” in Palestine seem to evoke such horror in those voices as the Berlin Wall did then. These newer barriers are treated as necessary and normal and those deaths as self-inflicted by people naive enough to believe that a better life awaits in prosperous liberal democracies. Not that free movement is the only thing where official attitudes have changed. It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens depicted in Anna Funder’s Stasiland and in the film Das Leben der Anderen was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were, lest any commenter come along and moan about “moral equivalence”. But I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.

Here’s my photoblog from five years ago:

Berlin Wall

Swords into ploughshares

Two photos today. My partner, Pauline Powell and I visited East Germany and West Berlin in 1984. The first picture is a shot of the Berlin Wall from the western side, and seems appropriate as tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of its fall. The second shot, taken inside the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, announces one of the prayers for peace meetings that helped to build the popular movement that would eventually contribute to the fall of the regime. Both pictures are Pauline’s, not mine (all rights reserved etc). We believe the swords into ploughshares picture is unique on the web, though perhaps others exist as prints. As such, it is something of a historic document.

Inequality, migration and economists

by Chris Bertram on November 8, 2014

Tim Harford has a column in the Financial Times claiming that citizenship matters more than class for inequality. In many ways it isn’t a bad piece. I give him points for criticizing Piketty’s default assumption that the nation-state is the right unit for analysis. The trouble with the piece though is the immediate inference from two sets of inequality stats to a narrative about what matters most, as if the two things Harford is talking about are wholly independent variables. This is a vice to which economists are rather prone.

Following Branko Milanovic, Harford writes:

Imagine lining up everyone in the world from the poorest to the richest, each standing beside a pile of money that represents his or her annual income. The world is a very unequal place: those in the top 1 per cent have vastly more than those in the bottom 1 per cent – you need about $35,000 after taxes to make that cut-off and be one of the 70 million richest people in the world. If that seems low, it’s $140,000 after taxes for a family of four – and it is also about 100 times more than the world’s poorest people have. What determines who is at the richer end of that curve is, mostly, living in a rich country.

Well indeed, impressive stuff. And as Joseph Carens noticed long ago, and Harford would presumably endorse, nationality can function rather like feudal privilege of history. People are indeed sorted into categories, as they were in a feudal or class society, that confine them to particular life paths, limit their access to resources and so forth. But there’s a rather obvious point to make which rather cuts across the “X matters more than Y” narrative, which is that citizenship isn’t a barrier for the rich, or for those with valuable skills. It is the poor who are excluded, who are denied the right to better themselves in the wealthy economies, who drown in the Mediterranean, or who can’t live in the same country as the love of their life. Citizenship, nationality, borders are ways of controlling the mobility of the poor whilst the rich pass effortlessly through. It isn’t simply an alternative or competitor to class, it is also a way in which states enforce class-based inequality.

Sunday photoblogging: Under the L

by Chris Bertram on November 2, 2014

Grossman’s Life and Fate

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

The past year has been one of reading long books. Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, War and Peace, and, on the back of the latter Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’m still digesting. Is Life and Fate the greatest Russian novel of the past century? I don’t know, and it seems like an invidious question. But great it certainly is. Not so much for the writing — at least in translation Grossman’s prose is, well, prosaic — but for it breadth of vision, its humanism, its psychological insight and for Grossman’s courage in facing up to inconvenient facts about human beings and his own society. Grossman, Soviet war correspondent alongside his rival Ilya Ehrenberg, one-time favoured Soviet writer, seems to have imagined the book might have managed to get published under Khruschev, as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was. What an absurd hope to have had. Life and Fate, was “arrested”, the typescript seized by the KGB. But Grossman had made copies which were smuggled to the West, and the book was finally published in 1980.

At the heart of the novel is Stalingrad, briefly, as he puts it, capital of the world, the focus of a great struggle between two totalitarian powers. Alongside this, and interwoven with it, are the travails of nuclear physicist Victor Shtrum and his extended family, their dealings with a capricious state, their moral dilemmas and psychological adaptations in the face of its cruelties. In the background lurks the memory of the year 1937, knocks on the door in the night and sentences of ten years “without right of correspondence”, meaning, in actuality, a bullet in the head. Right in front is the destruction of European Jews, massacres and deportations by the invading Germans and the imminence of death. And all the time the question occurs, made vivid by Grossman cutting between Soviet POWs in Germany and zeks in Siberia of whether there is any moral difference between these two regimes. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Saguaro cactus

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: houses

by Chris Bertram on October 19, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: reflection

by Chris Bertram on October 12, 2014