Teaching the Climate Crisis
Teaching the Climate Crisis
Jason Hickel discusses his new book Less is More. The book is a must read for anyone who wants to know how we can stop ecological break down and enable human flourishing.
What role does higher education play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
My guest today is Tristan McCowan, author of the new book entitled Higher Education for and beyond the Sustainable Development Goals, which was published earlier this year. Tristan interrogates the idea of a so-called developmental university working towards the SGDs, identifying both positive and negative outcomes.
Tristan McCowan is a Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. I spoke with Tristan in his office in London, which just so happens to be around the corner from mine. This is actually the first podcast that I’ve recorded at my new intuitional home at the Institute of Education. There’s a lot more to say about the future of FreshEd now that I live in London, but I’m going to wait until next year to tell you all about it. For now, enjoy our latest episode and stay tuned for our end of year show with Susan Robertson and Roger Dale, which will air next week.
Citation: McCowan, Tristan, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 184, podcast audio, December 9, 2019. https://freshedpodcast.com/mccowan/
Will Brehm 1:39
Tristan McCowan, welcome to FreshEd.
Tristan McCowan 1:41
Thanks, Will. It is a great pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 1:43
So, I want to start by talking a little bit about the SDGs, but specifically about higher education because this is something that might not get talked about as much as primary or secondary schooling. So where in the SDGs – in the Sustainable Development Goals – is higher education even mentioned?
Tristan McCowan 2:02
So, I think it is worth thinking about what comes before the SDGs to talk about how it does appear. And in the Millennium Development Goals that came before, there was a conspicuous absence of higher education there. So, the education goal was around primary education. I suppose higher education might be included in the requirement for gender equality that was also there, but it was absent in the education goal. And this was also indicative of a general neglect of higher education in the development community for some decades before. So, the inclusion of higher education in the SDGs marks something of a return – a rekindling of interest – in higher education generally in development. And there was a lot of discussion in the consultation around the creation of what was going to replace the MDGs about how higher education might be included in that. In the SDGs themselves, the most obvious inclusion of higher education is in how it appears as a target in itself. It appears along with vocational education, tertiary education, and a specific mention of university. So that is the access goal. It is not very demanding, in my view. It doesn’t require universal access or anything resembling that. What it requires is equal access, which, as we know from international law, is really around nondiscrimination. It is an important requirement, but it is not very demanding on this. But nevertheless, it is there. And I think it is very important that universities mentioned in terms of access, getting people into university or some form of higher education. But that is not the only way that it appears in the SDG. In the book, I distinguish between three different ways that it appears. So, there is that first one we have talked about, which is access, and then two others. The second is as part of the education system as a whole. And this relates to one of your previous podcasts that was talking about SDG 4.7 and the overarching aims of education in terms of promoting global citizenship, sustainable development itself. So higher education fits into that. It is part of the education system. And it might promote a lot of the goals that we would like to see in society. The third role for higher education is the one that the book focuses on mainly, and that is higher education as a driver for all of the goals. So, every one of the 17 goals in all different areas: environmental, health, poverty, and so forth require to some degree on universities in the broadest possible way, through its teaching, but also its research and community engagement and all of its functions.
Will Brehm 4:45
So I mean, in a way, what you’re saying is that universities have this massive role to play in the SDGs not simply as access not simply as being part of the education system to meet some of these very lofty goals of 4.7, which, as the previous podcasts have shown are very sort of diverse and complex ideas. But more importantly, and perhaps most importantly, this idea of higher education as being a driver of development. So, this is a pretty large role for education, for higher education. Can universities actually even fulfill this role, do you think?
Tristan McCowan 5:24
I think my answer to that is yes, but perhaps not in the way that might immediately be imagined. So, I think the potential of universities is extraordinary. And one of the arguments that I try to make in all different kinds of fora is that universities are essential for all countries and not just for the wealthy countries that we might imagine might afford it. Universities aren’t luxury; they are critical part of all countries, however impoverished they might be, however many challenges they might face. In fact, we might think of as being especially important in those. The teaching role of universities is crucial for forming professionals in a whole range of different areas, including the kinds of primary services that were focused on in the MDGs, but also in the SDGs, around education, health, and so forth. There is a much broader teaching role of universities as well for civic and personal benefits. There is the research role of universities, breakthroughs in health, the environment, all sorts of areas in which there are huge challenges facing humanity. And then the community engagement role where universities can apply that knowledge and also engage with the knowledge that communities have. So, the potential of universities is extraordinary. Whether they can fulfill that is a different matter, and that does depend on the level of quality that universities have, the resourcing that they have, how they are organized, the kinds of autonomy they have. So, it is not guaranteed. And I think, you know, the empirical research that we have… and we have fairly good research on some countries, less good on others. The research we have shows that they are sometimes able to do that. Sometimes they are able to do that in ways that we hadn’t actually imagined. In others, they struggle to. It is worth pointing out that in low-income countries, universities have roles that are not present in higher-income countries as providers of basic services often. So, communities will often use universities because they don’t have other spaces for meeting, for, you know, cultural pursuits. Even for things as basic as Internet access, and so forth. So, universities can play a really crucial role in all countries. The final point I’d make is that the role of universities as a driver perhaps is not as automatic or guaranteed as we might imagine, even when we might consider that to be a quality university. And that is because there is a level of unpredictability to all processes of learning and scholarship.
Will Brehm 8:01
So, what do you mean? Is there a downside, sometimes, to higher education?
Tristan McCowan 8:06
There certainly can be a downside. I mean, universities have not always had positive impacts on their societies through history. One of the downsides is in exacerbating inequalities in societies. So, while universities can certainly act as mechanisms for social mobility, they can also do the opposite. And in many points in history where access has been restricted to an elite, or for particular religious or language groups, or just for men, for example, it has actually made things worse rather than make things better. So, there is that element. Also, universities have been implicated in fostering of prejudice and xenophobia as all parts of the education system.
Will Brehm 8:51
Right. Okay. So you’re sort of taking this complex view, whether it’s good and bad, the development is not always this positive linear idea but can have a complex multitude of outcomes as a result of work in higher education, or any sector, I would imagine in education more broadly defined. So, I guess when we think about the university, what you are sort of saying is that not all universities are the same. There is a lot of potential in higher education, but what actually happens looks different in different contexts; the cultural context, the national context, whatever it is. So, when you think historically, then, how can we make sense of, you know, different types of universities? You know, maybe ideal types, not necessarily what actually exists. How can we start categorizing different types of universities?
Tristan McCowan 9:48
Thanks. It is a really important question, and one that’s not posed often enough, I think. And it is worth saying at the start that what we are seeing now across the world in higher education is much less diversity than there might have been. Historically there have been models of higher learning in many parts of the world – in India and China, in the Islamic world, in Mesoamerica. Other places as well that have been quite distinct. And many of those have been lost. In fact, most of them have been lost through history. We’ve seen a dominance of the European model of university from medieval Europe, which in its spreading around the world has gained new forms of diversity, but perhaps not as much as we might have wanted and still rooted in some very similar assumptions. So, there is a degree of homogeneity around the world, but what I argue is that universities have a kind of a mixing of different historical models within them. And as you say, they are partly ideal types and partly real historically. So, you have got the medieval institution, which was a community of scholars, a community of students, engaging and debate over authoritative texts. You have the Humboldtian model that emerges in the 19th century of the research university on the pursuit of truth and academic freedom and so forth. You have then got drives towards greater relevance of the university to society, and the land grant universities in the United States were very influential in this regard. Also moves in Latin America in the early 20th century towards democratization of the university space. And leading to what in Africa in the post Second World War period was called the “developmental university,” one that is tied very much to service to society. And then most recently, the emergence of the entrepreneurial or the enterprise university, one which is focused on income generation through selling of its services. So, we have got these different models, and I think we can see them all in our institutions. In some, you know, the entrepreneurial model is dominant. In others, we might see, you know, more of the Humboldtian model, but jostling for space, and of course, in the different actors that are engaged as well.
Will Brehm 12:07
You are thinking through this developmental university because it sort of links in with the SDGs. So, in what way do you see the developmental university? How do we think about that university, that type of university, if it truly does do service to society in the ideal that is written in the SDGs?
Tristan McCowan 12:31
Yeah, I mean I think if you look at the role that’s proposed for universities, it is something close to the developmental model: a university that has as its primary purpose serving society in an egalitarian mode, or perhaps beyond the egalitarian, actually focusing primarily on the most disadvantaged populations. By privileging those populations, reducing poverty and so forth, and dealing to a large extent with applied knowledge and an impact on nonacademic communities. And there is something of a contradiction there between the kinds of higher education that are promoted by many of the international agencies, which in many ways actually undermine that kind of developmental role of universities.
Will Brehm 13:13
Tristan McCowan 13:15
Particularly through a promotion of expansion at all costs. Now, there is a real need for expanding higher education. Access has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. But much of the expansion has taken place in very commercialized, for-profit sectors of higher education, or sometimes distance education with low quality, which has, while it has allowed more people to gain higher education diplomas, it has not necessarily allowed them the learning that will be meaningful in their lives, and certainly hasn’t promoted research and community engagement in the public interest. So, there have been dynamics in the growth of higher education sectors, which have brought some benefit for individuals, but without much of a contribution to the public good.
Will Brehm 14:04
So, given this sort of “massification” of higher education and how that might begin to challenge some of the value and the functions of the university, what sort of trends have you noticed worldwide? You know, let’s take a broad view here. Broadly speaking, what sort of major trends do you see in higher education today?
Tristan McCowan 14:24
Well, one of them I have touched on already, which is the move towards commercialization. Which is present in the astounding growth of the for-profit sector. And that is very evident in one of the countries that I work very closely with, which is Brazil, but you can also see it in many other parts of the world. But also, of course, there is a commercialization of public institutions through so-called cost-sharing policies, the charging of fees, and other forms of creeping privatization. Now commercialization is a term that encompasses a whole range of different activities which have different kinds of influence. And it is certainly, in an immediate sense, has assisted in allowing higher education systems to grow. So, it is complex. But if we are thinking about the SDGs, or about the public good more generally, there are some very worrying outcomes of that. Firstly, around the attaching of quality to price. So, as the system starts to marketize more, variable costs of courses will start to become attached either to quality or to prestige, which has worrying implications for equity. But also it makes it much harder for universities to engage in research in the public benefit, or community engagement in the public benefit, without some kind of a name to generate income from those communities; makes it much harder to fulfill the SDGs. So that is one of the big trends. A second trend is associated with the very often discussed international rankings in higher education. And one of the implications of those rankings is a privileging of a certain kind of university or a certain kind of university action. And I am not saying for a moment that the elite universities that do well in rankings are not benefiting the SDGs. Actually, I think they are with a lot of their work. But it is certainly not the only kind of institution that does that. And much of the work that is most beneficial for communities around the world is not valued by those rankings. Community engagement has almost no presence in the rankings. And an inclusive intake of students also is not valued through most of the rank.
Will Brehm 16:33
In your book, you point to this like unbelievable indicator or proxy for, I think its quality of teaching in these rankings, that is used. Can you explain what it is?
Tristan McCowan 16:44
Well, in the Shanghai ranking, the number of alumni with Nobel Prizes is taken as a proxy for quality, which is…
Will Brehm 16:52
That is crazy! I mean, so, these rankings then, the way they sort of measure this idea of quality across universities, can be pretty absurd, almost to the extreme sometimes.
Tristan McCowan 17:06
It is a small minority of all higher education institutions that are listed on international rankings at all. So, you could say, “Well, perhaps it’s irrelevant”. But actually, it does have an influence. Because even if most institutions don’t have a realistic chance of getting into the upper echelons, discursively, it does influence the way institutions see themselves. They start not to value the good work that they are doing. And they start to aspire towards work that perhaps isn’t in their best interest.
Will Brehm 17:33
I mean, we are sitting here at the Institute of Education, and out the front door, there is a big sign with the ranking on it. I mean, it is sort of, you know, it is the first thing you see when you walk into this building.
Tristan McCowan 17:46
Will Brehm 17:48
So, one of the last trends that you write about in your book, you use the word “unbundling”. Can you explain what this is? I never really came across this term before.
Tristan McCowan 17:57
So, it is a term that comes from business originally. And it is the process of separating out products that had previously been sold together for commercial advantage, either for the producer or sometimes for the consumer. I suppose the most obvious example in contemporary times is low-cost airlines, where you are not tied into paying for your baggage or your seat or so forth; you can purchase things individually. In higher education, it is a very controversial process. It is quite incipient; we’re just seeing the earliest signs of it yet. But for example, the separation out of different parts of what we might have considered to be the bundle of higher education. Of instruction, assessment, research, extracurricular activities, and so forth. So, one way that this has manifested itself is in the provision of no-frills, what I call no-frills courses. Very basic provision, where you pay a lower cost, and you just have access to the basic instruction, and you have to pay extra if you want some other things
Will Brehm 19:01
Such as? Like access to the library?
Tristan McCowan 19:03
Well, I have never seen a case of no access at all to the library. But certainly, there is an example in the UK where you have very minimal access to university facilities beyond what you would basically need to do one’s course. You know, this does open the door to a kind of a segregation of lower and higher-income students.
Will Brehm 19:25
Of course. And where does the process end? Right, you almost can get to the point where you have to pay to use the bathroom.
Tristan McCowan 19:30
Absolutely, absolutely. I think it is very worrying. It is a seductive idea because it appears to be addressing the huge escalation of costs, particularly in the United States. And allowing more people into the higher education system. So, it is seductive in that sense, but it is very worrying because then you start to have a very hierarchical system, a stratified system, where disadvantaged students have access to less.
Will Brehm 19:54
Second class students. You know, these are pretty worrying trends. This idea of status, this idea of commodification and commercialization, and this idea of unbundling. So, do you think this idea of, you know, the developmental university, service to society, these sort of liberal democratic ideals. You know, what has to change so we can actually create universities that embrace those ideas rather than … or, you know. It seems as if some of these other ideas and trends you have been talking about sort of go against some of these developmental ideas.
Tristan McCowan 20:32
Well, I think we need two things. I think there does need to be state investment; there needs to be public investment and state support. But I wouldn’t want to say that all of initiative needs to come from the central state. I think we also need to create more opportunities for local innovation. So, in my work, I am very interested in and supportive of various grassroots initiatives in higher education. I think this is a really important part of the answer as well. And there are some great examples around the world of developmental institutions. They are fragile in many cases, but they are very inspiring. So, we have got University for Development Studies in Northern Ghana, which is a very interesting institution serving the arid regions of Northern Ghana, working in very innovative ways with integrated teaching and research and community engagement. There are the so-called “thematic” federal universities in Brazil, which were established over the last 15 years to promote different forms of international engagement and local development. They are fragile because, to a large extent, they just depend on the governments of their day. And in Brazil, you have had a very radical shift to the right and the consequent withdrawal of support from these institutions. You have also got challenges with innovative institutions starting to, you know, being pulled back to the conventional type over the years. So, there are challenges, but there are some inspiring examples that we can look to.
Will Brehm 22:01
I also think about some of these protests in Chile. I know it started recently with bus fare increase, but it sort of dovetailed with that longer student protests from 2013 that was very much against what we might call the “neoliberal university,” or whatever it might be. And even here in London, they only just had, in the UK, 60 universities went on strike for about eight days trying to really counter a lot of these same trends that you are talking about. So, there are these signs, it seems, of pushback. Now, will it actually result in any action, that’s another sort of question, I guess.
Tristan McCowan 22:41
Absolutely. I think there are mobilizations in different parts of the world. South Africa recently has had a huge student mobilization around decolonization, the curriculum, and also around fees. I think we look at Chile as a great example of a student mobilization, not only because of its massiveness, but also because, perhaps unusually, but very successfully, what started as a student mobilization started to bring other spheres of society on board. And also gained real endorsement from society and, you know, made things … you know, the government couldn’t ignore it anymore. So, I think it is a really successful example.
Will Brehm 23:20
You know, that actually makes me think of the Chicago teacher strikes in America, where it wasn’t higher education, but it was public school teachers going on strike, I think 2012/2013. And one of the reasons that they were successful, that many scholars point to, is precisely the same reason is that they had this broad coalition; it wasn’t just this narrow focus on teaching and learning, but it brought in all sectors of society, and it became such a massive movement that the government had to respond. And more importantly, a lot of the leaders from that strike ended up getting elected in many parts in Chicago. So, I mean, it seems like it is a bigger conversation on social mobilization and successful social mobilization.
Tristan McCowan 24:03
That is a really interesting example. And it also makes me think of, you know, these ideas of “post-truth” and “anti-experts” that were coming out in 2016, through Brexit and the election in the United States. And I think some politicians have tried to drive a wedge between universities and society by creating resentment. And I think it is a really important task that those involved in universities have is to try and communicate with society this shared enterprise to a large degree.
Will Brehm 24:32
Exactly. And to see it as a service to society. It is not just our own little siloed workspaces here. So, as great as that makes me feel: this idea of social mobilization and trying to change universities away from status competition, away from commodification, away from unbundling, I do wonder – and you point out in your book – that, you know, there’s a critique, as well, of that movement. Of, you know, promoting a university for liberal democracy, for furthering capitalism in many respects. So how can we even begin to think about post-development: a critique of development itself?
Tristan McCowan 25:14
So, this is why I ended up making the title “For and Beyond”, because it is very important to look beyond as well. And I see the SDGs as being important. I am not trivializing them, but they are an intermediate step. And I think ultimately, they are not going to solve all of the problems that the global community faces at the moment. As you say, the SDGs are rooted in liberal capitalist model, to a large extent, a modernization model. And there are some deep flaws in those, and indeed, you know, we can be very skeptical about whether a capitalist system can ever really achieve, you know, equality and sustainability in a global community. You know, some of the incentives for accumulation and profit that corporations have are precisely the problem that we have with the fossil fuel lobby and so forth. So, there are some real problems there. There’s another issue with the SDGs in the lack of attention to questions of identity, culture, language that leading into another issue that I think is important to a certain relation to higher education, which is around what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls a dialogue of knowledges. So how can we think about epistemic pluralism? How can we think about not just mainstream Western academic knowledge, which is important. But how do we put that in dialogue with other forms of knowledge from different knowledge communities, from indigenous peoples, from diverse traditions around the world, which will inevitably enrich that knowledge. And this is a very important aspect of where we go with development and also where we go with higher education. And I think we need to think about two forms of creativity and imagination in the higher education space: one is around questioning the institutional forms that we are very familiar with. You know, we look at a university, and we assume that it’s going to have very particular kinds of structures and practices. And I think we need to open up our imagination, perhaps drawing on Ivan Illich’s ideas of deschooling to think about how our university might be otherwise. And then the second point around epistemic pluralism, around having different kinds of knowledge in the university, and drawing on the experiences. I’m familiar with experiences in Latin America, indigenous institutions around the continent, but there are some in other parts of the world as well, Swaraj University in India is an interesting example of how we can create universities in different ways. And if we need to go beyond the SDGs, we need to think about sustainable development. It is a different kind of university that’s going to help us achieve it.
Will Brehm 27:56
Tristan McCowan, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure talking today, and I look forward to your next book.
Tristan McCowan 28:02
Thank you very much.
What’s the connection between education and climate change? My guest today, Arjen Wals, takes a critical take on sustainability yet offers a hopeful outlook.
In our conversation, Arjen details a few examples of school-level practices that could be seen as working towards a sustainable future while also critiques educational competition and the hidden curriculum of commodification.
He ultimately calls for more dissonance in education systems as a way to learn new forms of sustainability to combat climate change.
Arjen Wals is the UNESCO Chair of Social Learning and Sustainable Development and Professor of Transformative Learning for Socio-Ecological Sustainability at Wageningen University in The Netherlands.
I spoke with Prof. Wals at the 2018 Global Education Meeting, which was a high-level forum held in Brussels in early December that reviewed the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
Citation: Wals, Arjen, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 144, podcast audio, January 14, 2019. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/arjenwals/
Transcript, translation, and resources:
Is there a worldwide learning crisis today? My guest, Keith Lewin, argues that the real issue in much of international education development has to do with financing.
In our conversation, we discuss aid to education and the ways in which the Sustainable Development Goals don’t take the idea of sustainability seriously.
Keith Lewin is an Emeritus Professor of International Education and Development at the University of Sussex
Citation: Lewin, Keith, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 138, podcast audio, December 3, 2018. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/keithlewin/
Transcript, Translation, & Resources:
Many listeners probably use LinkedIn. That’s the social media website aimed at connecting employers with employees. My guest today, Janja Komljenovic, researches the ways in which LinkedIn is shaped by and shaping higher education.
Janja argues that LinkedIn furthers the employability mandate in universities.
Janja Komljenovic is a lecturer of higher education at Lancaster University. In today’s show, we discuss her new article “Linkedin, Platforming labour, and the new employability mandate for universities,” which was published in Globalisation, Societies and Education.
Citation:Komljenovic, Janja, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 129, podcast audio, October 8, 2018.https://www.freshedpodcast.com/janjakomljenovic/
Transcript, translation, and resources: Read more
Today we interrogate the idea of creativity.
My guest, Oli Mould, says 21st Century capitalism has redefined creativity from being a power to create something from nothing to the ability to create new products for markets. Creativity, in other words, feeds capitalism’s own growth.
Students and workers alike are told they must be entrepreneurial and flexible to survive the global economy. We are told businesses and governments seek out these character traits. In effect, the power to create has become an individual characteristic that can be traded and exploited.
Oli Mould is a human geographer based at Royal Holloway, University of London. He argues for a creativity that forges entirely new ways of societal organization. His new book, Against Creativity, published by Verso, goes on sale tomorrow.
Oli Mould works at Royal Holloway, University of London. His new book is Against Creativity.
Citation: Mould, Oli, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 127, podcast audio, September 24, 2018. https://freshedpodcast.com/olimould/
Will Brehm 1:18
Oli Mould, welcome to FreshEd.
Oli Mould 1:22
Thank you for having me.
Will Brehm 1:24
So, you start your new book by detailing a Pepsi commercial from 2017. Can you describe to listeners what that commercial showed?
Oli Mould 1:33
Yes. So, this Pepsi ad came out in 2018. And it shows Kendall Jenner, who is, I guess, the new kind of model of the day, and she is having a photoshoot done. And she spies this protest movement that is walking outside her door. And it’s really riffs off what’s been going on in the UK and the US of late days – protests, marches that have been going against police brutality, and Brexit, and you know all the kind of ills of this contemporary world. And it is a very generic protest. There’s sort of signs saying things like, “Join the conversation”, and “Love”, and all these really words that you never ever see at protests. And she spies this other sort of model looking guy, she, you know, throws off her wig and smudges her lipstick and just joins this march. And it is really quite incredible. She goes over, she grabs a Pepsi can, gives it to a policeman who’s clearly there to supposedly keep the peace, and he nods approvingly, and everyone sort of laughs and everyone is really really happy that this guy is drinking this Pepsi. And all the while, there is a what is clearly supposed to be a Muslim girl who is a photographer who comes in and out of the commercial at various times. And at the beginning, she is frustrated because the photos she has are not very good, and she’s clearly frustrated. You can see her doing that. And then she spies the protest as well, and she sees Kendall Jenner giving this Pepsi can to the policeman, and she takes a photo, she is really happy. And everyone is really really happy about what’s going on. But you watch it, and you know, the timing of it was important, given all that stuff going on in the states in the US, and in the UK. And it was clearly riffing off this. It was clearly sort of taking this aesthetic of protest to, you know, sell Pepsi cans. And it was very very blatant, very very crass. And it was just, you know, very very obviously done in that way. And clearly, when it came out, there was a lot of stuff online that was very critical of it, and it was taken down. Actually, they apologized for it. So that is what the advert does. And, you know, it was very very blatant. And actually, there was a very famous photo from Baton Rouge, where there was a woman who was being kind of approached by police and being handcuffed, and it was clearly, you know, riffed off that, and it was just very very low. And so that is what the commercial does – it really appropriated the protest aesthetic in order to essentially hawk a sugary drink.
Will Brehm 4:16
And what does that tell you about the contemporary form of creativity?
Oli Mould 4:22
Well, it says that, essentially, creative practices – in this case, advertising – but it bleeds into a lot of the corporate practices more generally, that essentially, you know they’re called creative, but what they’re doing is, they’re scouring the world. They are scouring all sorts of different images and experiences and feelings and emotions in order to plant them in ways that make profit for their products. So, you know what people say are creative in terms of advertising, what they’re doing is, they’re not being creative, they’re being appropriative, they’re been co-optive, in that they’re taking things that already exist, things that are sort of actually kind of anti-capitalist or resistive, and using it for corporate processes. So they’re emptying it of any kind of ethic, any kind of anti-capitalist meaning, and just kind of using it to just plaster over ways of flogging their products you know in new and kind of I guess, “innovative, creative ways”, as they say. So, for me, that is not creative at all, because they are actually destroying what that image means. And as they get more and more into the corporate aesthetic, they begin to lose their meaning, and they actually lose their resistive and anti-capitalist ethic. You have seen it with punk and skateboarding, and I guess even things like hip-hop to a certain extent. You know these are things that were once quite subcultural and quite resistive. But now they are very much part of the mainstream, and you watch it now, and you do not get a sense of that countercultural movement. You do to a certain extent, and they still exist in the cracks and everything else. But in the whole, you just don’t get that when you see it. So that is why that Pepsi ad, in particular, I think, was a particularly damaging form of creativity.
Will Brehm 6:21
And is this a new phenomenon? Or has, in a sense, capitalism been appropriating various creative ideas and industries, and riffing off of maybe anti-capitalistic imagery and protest to further capitalism itself? Is this new, or has this been happening for quite some time?
Oli Mould 6:44
I think it is relatively new. There is a lot of work, scholarly work, which has been done around the May 68 Parisian riots. These were almost considered a bit of a watershed moment because post that time, and I guess you can couch that in the wider countercultural revolution of the 60s more broadly, that you know it signaled a kind of shift in how corporations work, from being quite structured and hierarchical and quite kind of pragmatic to being little much more flexible in how they go about using images to further their profit margins and their spread, I guess. And people like Boltanski and Chiapello in their book, ‘The Spirit of New Capitalism’, they argue quite strongly in what is essentially 550 pages of this argument, that post-1968, capitalism has got much better at doing this. So, it is not necessarily new, but the ways in which capitalism has changed its processes have, since around the kind of late 60s, early 70s, and from then you see a lot of this appropriation happening. And it actually happens much quicker now, and I think with the advent of social media, it’s sped up even more. So, I would not say it is necessarily new, but I think that it is quicker, it is a lot quicker now. I always use the example of subcultures. I mean, I did some work around parkour and graffiti and skateboarding, all those I guess urban subcultures. And you look at skateboarding, it took maybe a decade, 15 years, for it to become appropriated if that is how you can measure these things. And then graffiti took a similar kind of time. Parkour took about two or three years. So, you can kind of trace these things. You spot something that is new and innovative and very very creative, because it is subcultural, anti-capitalist, and then within a few years, it is become part of the mainstream; has been Red Bull or Nike splashed all over it. So, I would not say it is new, I would say it is different and quicker.
Will Brehm 8:49
So, in a sense, is the idea of creativity, therefore, changing in itself?
Oli Mould 8:54
Yes, it depends on, I guess, which version of creativity you mean. Yes, I think what it means to be creative, I guess from top-down, to use a blunt phrase, I guess what corporations and businesses and politicians and teachers and everything else tell us to be, yes, it’s about being flexible and innovative in how you work. It is kind of exploring the world, always bringing that back into say, “Look, how can that how can that help us to grow.” It is about growth. Now that is often couched in economic growth, economic development, and sometimes that can be personal growth as well. But it is always about, “What can you find out there that helps you to grow – as a person, as a nation, in terms of monetary wealth, or whatever it might be?” So that is why I argue in the book – that the notion of creativity has now been privatized. It is about, “How can you be creative in order to help yourself?” How to expand yourself in monetary terms, in enlightenment terms, and everything else. So, that is what creativity means in terms of top-down, I guess, and that is how it is changed, yes.
Will Brehm 10:15
And so, what does that actually look like? This privatized notion of creativity, what does that look like today you know for someone in entering the labor force, for instance?
Oli Mould 10:27
Well, it looks very precarious. It looks very problematic for me anyway. You look at all the different job ads out there at the moment, from fast-food workers to corporate CEOs, “creative” is in there. You have to be creative. And it is become so ubiquitous that it is almost meaningless. But what it always means, for me anyways, is that you have to be flexible. You have to sort of embody that mode of competition, I guess. And this is a broader argument that I made in the book; that this version of creativity is very much couched in with what people call the “neoliberal turn”, and this idea that the markets must be as efficient as possible, and they must extend into every realm of life. And so within work, if you go into the job market, that’s what creativity, I think, when you see it, that’s what you should always be very very careful because it is asking you to be flexible. So, it is asking you to maybe work on a zero-hour contract, or it is asking you to work as a sort of outsourced worker where you get very few workers’ rights. You look at all the various gig economy companies that are around. There has been a huge backlash against their working practices. They are great if you have got the flexibility. The students that I teach actually really like these kinds of things because it allows them to earn a little bit of money whenever they want during their studies. But if you are relying on that kind of work to live, it becomes a whole different ballgame. And you know being creative in that way should really not just mean, “Oh, you can be flexible and just work whenever we want you to work, and you bow to the whims of us as employers, and to how the market dictates you should work.” So that is what that version of creativity means in the labor force.
Will Brehm 12:16
What does it look like in education? I mean, I know you have students who may work as Uber drivers as well, for instance, but what about in education itself, either in higher education or even in secondary and primary education? Do we see this sort of definition of creativity, this neoliberal definition of creativity creeping into these spaces as well?
Oli Mould 12:41
It is an interesting question, and funnily enough, I toyed very much with the idea of having a chapter about education in the book. I did not, primarily because I did not think I could make an argument with the examples, but I think that it is, to a certain extent, this neoliberal version. It is interesting, because obviously, I have got two young children now at school. And it is really really fascinating to see how the educational structure is encouraging or not encouraging creativity. There’s a big thing in the UK, at any rate, at the moment about how it’s really important for children to know and university students as well to have STEM subjects like science, technology, engineering, and maths, because those are the things that drive the economy, drive productivity. But actually, a lot of people are saying that “Well, actually, you do need that, but you also need the STEAM, such as an art in there as well. And you actually need to meld the two, you know, having music classes, art classes with engineering to make sure that they have a very well-rounded education. And that is being driven by a lot of people who work in, for example, the computer games industry, or you know, the tech sector. They are saying, “Actually, we need people who understand creative methods and artistic practices as well as the nuts and bolts of maths and engineering.” So, I think that that is important to a certain extent. So that division is happening quite early on in education. For example, my kids don’t do a huge amount of music, and that’s partly because of budget cuts and everything else. When budgets get cuts, the first things to go are the arts. They’re like, “Oh, they’re not important. Let’s just concentrate on English and maths and stuff.” And I think, “Well, maybe not.” The other thing as well is, and in the UK, we have a guy, Sir Ken Robinson, who you may know. He’s been very vocal about this, and one of the things he’s concerned about is that we group students into year groups very very early on. You know, like five-year-olds, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, and they flourish at very very different times. And you have a particular kind of year group, but you’ll have very very different educational levels within that. And Ken says that maybe we should change the way that we group students together, for example. So, yes – I think that this version of creativity is creeping in, and it’s around the numbers, the targets and the exams, and everything else that has to be done is so huge now that students are just told how to pass exams, they’re not told how to think. And so yes, there is a number of different problems within education in terms of how creativity in that neoliberal form is being applied.
Will Brehm 15:25
And what about higher education? When you were saying about the idea of being flexible and having work that is very precarious. Higher education becomes a great example of the rise of contract teachers. So, in what ways have you seen this idea of creativity, or neoliberal creativity, entering higher education?
Oli Mould 15:50
Do you mean the teachers themselves?
Will Brehm 15:54
The teachers, or even more broadly, where do we see some of these neoliberal forms of creativity in universities?
Oli Mould 16:03
So, I think that within higher education it is really interesting. The workforce themselves, the academics and the teachers within higher education, you’re almost getting a sort of dichotomy or dualism created, where you’ve got a sort of higher, let’s say, “research class” or “professorial class” that are very secure. They have huge amounts of free time to do their research, and it is kind of self-serving in that respect. And you couple that with the massive increase in students that we have seen, which you know has become part of the problem, because that is where that’s where universities get their money from now, our students. So, we need large numbers of students; they need to be taught. And so, we have this sort of underclass of very, very precarious teachers, and universities in the UK, and I think the US as well have nine-month contracts, part-time contracts – very short term things. And being in the sector myself, I hear so many stories about early career staff, and peoples fresh out of PhDs who have had to travel to different countries, live in different parts of the world, move away from their families, their wives, and children, in order to secure a nine-month teaching post or a 12-month part-time lectureship, and it’s just not healthy, and it doesn’t foster that longevity and that kind of connection that students require – higher education. I am in the higher education system because I believe it is a fundamentally crucial part of people’s lives, and having that critical thinking is really really important. Because without it, we are just producing more of these, to use the phrase, these “worker drones” that have no kind of ability to act creatively in the way that I want people to in the book. And that comes from the amount of critical thinking and the input that people get in higher education, in further education, the sort of “latter years”, if you like, of their educational career. And having that binary class, again, kind of just erodes that, because you’re just creating this sort of cadre of precarious workers who just are like, “I’d like to be able to do that, but I can’t because I need to make sure that the students do this, and they pass the exams, and they do this, and I make sure I have my numbers up so I can get employed elsewhere.” So, there is a sort of soft hegemony I guess just moving people towards a sort of far more auditing, and just by-the-numbers kind of educational system, which is very very neoliberal at its heart.
Will Brehm 18:45
And so how has creativity been defined sort of outside of this idea of being appropriated by capitalism? Historically, how else has creativity been thought of?
Oli Mould 18:59
Well I guess it depends how far back you go, I mean. There’s very interesting lineage; I mean, you could go all the way back to kind of ancient societies where creativity was considered something which the gods had. They were the ones that had ability to create something out of nothing. And you know you trace that through history and the way that it’s kind of been developed over time, creativity has been increasingly privatized, and increasingly something which, you know, value has been extracted from it. But I think there is something to be said about having a creative mindset or having a kind of idea of creativity, which is about societal progress. Now, the arguments are that creativity now is just sort of something that we need to grow, we need to make more money. And that is one version of progress, but it is one which doesn’t necessarily inculcate anything new. It just creates more of the same sort of stuff. In a world that is rapidly deteriorating ecologically, growth is just a concept that we are going to need to rapidly get away from very very quickly. And so the idea of being creative that doesn’t just produce more of the same stuff, in this case, well in capitalism’s case, like money and profit, then that’s the kind of creativity which we need to work towards. And there is lots of examples throughout history of societies that work that way. So, you know, I often talk about the Diggers and the Levelers in the UK, sort of in the 15, 16th century. They were very much ones who kind of came up the idea of “the common”, the “common wealth”, this idea that there is no such thing as private property, and people kind of work together on the land and they work together to create an economy, a social economy, which provided all the need, provided everything that people needed to get by and to live, including culture and artistic enjoyment, but it was done collectively. It was done with a sense that you know, we can negate any potential damages or potential shortfall in provision by acting collaboratively and collectively, and as a common. Capitalism erodes that. Capitalism source says, “Well, look, I’m working this way, it’s really great for me. I want to do it more.” So, it then begins to encroach on other people’s enjoyment, which is why we get huge inequality and everything else. So, a creativity which source says, “No, let’s not to work towards, you know, making more of the same for a very small amount of people, let’s make sure that we create a world which actually, we can all enjoy. Because, you know, if the climate change people are correct, this world is not going to be the same very very soon. So, it is something which we need to reconceptualize creativity very very quickly. Because at the moment, the way it’s currently defined in the mainstream is just not creative at all. It just produces more of the same problems, and that is going to become very very difficult to sustain very very quickly.
Will Brehm 22:07
So how would that happen? How can we reconceptualize creativity away from the idea of “more growth is always good”?
Oli Mould 22:16
That is a very good question. One which if I had the answer, then I would probably be a very rich man – rather ironically, I guess. But to push against that idea of creativity as something which just sort of makes more of the same capitalist growth, there are examples of it out there. And in the book, I try to sort of pinpoint some of the more progressive ones: worker cooperatives, different political systems, disability. There is a huge array of ways that we can conceptualize creativity there at the margins of society. Now, it is not a case of bringing them into the mainstream and just saying, “Okay, let’s make disability the way we define creativity, and let’s just use them as means of growth.” It does not work that way. You have to kind of shift your societal structures to look towards the margins and say, “Well look, what is it that these people are doing? What is it that these communities are actually achieving?” And that is, in the most case, kind of a quite radical sense of equality, and making sure that there is enough of the resources, or at least the resources of which they have goes to the people that need them. And in doing so, you create a far more just, far more progressive, and actually far more sustainable community. So, you know, there is plenty of examples out there. After the book, I came across an example in Mexico: Cherán, which is a city which has completely refused to engage in local elections. Have you seen that example? It is fascinating. It is annoying that I saw it after I finished it, but there was some stuff written about it recently. And I think, yes, around kind of 2011 I think it was – they got rid of all their local politicians because they were not doing enough to stop the crime in the city, which was about logging. There was illegal logging, and it was creating a horrible kind of crime syndicate. And you know they were losing all their trees and everything else. So basically, the people got together, and they kind of complete defenestrated their local politicians and the police. And they said, “We’re going to sort out ourselves”. And reading the stuff, it is actually a lot of the women that organized this. And since 2011, 2012, they’ve not engaged in local elections, they’ve not engaged in any national elections (i.e. the recent presidential elections in Mexico), and crime has dropped significantly, people are healthier, they’re regrowing their trees, it’s a far more environmentally friendly place. And this is all because they had sort of said, “No, we are not going to engage in your version of society”, which is a kind of parliamentary, democratic, kind of this voting system which we have. So, that, to me … I mean, it’s got its problems, obviously … it’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a city-wide example of people that have refused to engage with what people have said. “You should engage in this kind of version of state capitalism”, but they refused to do that, and it is produced very very beneficial results.
Will Brehm 25:39
So how would that community in your mind define the notion of creativity?
Oli Mould 25:46
Because they are refusing to go along with the way in which the powers that be suggest that you need to do in order to progress. They are saying, “No, we are going to create a different version of life, one where we are not ruled by local politicians or indeed national politicians. One where we are not subject to police brutality. One in which we can actually stop crime before it happens in terms of, we don’t have to go to the police process, we can actually cut it down to this source.” So, they are being creative because they are refusing to engage with the version of progress which the world imposes upon them. And that is the kind of version of creativity which I try to explain in the book. I mean, there is nothing wrong with creating a brand-new technology, or a brand-new product to market, or a new computer game, or a new app, or whatever it might be. There is nothing wrong with that; they are creative in and of themselves. It is how they are then plugged into the wider systems, which then just sort of eradicate any kind of chance they have of revolutionary change. That’s the problem for me: that creativity has to be broadened out, you have to think about it globally on a societal kind of level because if we don’t create a new mode of living, then there’s all sorts of problems are going to happen. So, in Mexico, in Cherán, it is a really good example of a city trying to do that. Now, you could try and scale that up. Brilliant. The scale problem is a crucial one – can you scale up these things? Sometimes they do not work. Sometimes power comes crashing down, and you end up having to replicate the same problems. So, scaling them up is a very very important process. And that’s a very different question because you have to sort of start changing political systems, and heaven knows in the US and in the UK, we’re seeing a massive polarization of the political spectrum with socialism coming to the fore and everything else, but also the far right. So that is a different kind of question, but there are examples of this kind of creativity, and they are everywhere. Because they are not feeding capitalism, they are often marginalized. And people see them and go, “Well, that is clearly wrong because you are not making more money, you’re not doing this. Let’s try and stop it. Let’s try and appropriate it somehow. Let’s just try and violently enclose it.” So, for me, those are the kinds of things which make it creative.
Will Brehm 28:29
And it goes back to that Pepsi commercial that we talked about at the beginning, where these protest movements were certainly … in many respects, they had power to sort of create something new, something more just, something for the social good, or the commons. But businesses like Pepsi were appropriating these sort of creative spaces to perpetuate the status quo of capitalism.
Oli Mould 28:56
Absolutely. And you know, these protests and all these marches that we see in the world at the moment, it’s not just because it’s the new thing to do. It is that people are angry. People are really really scared and angry about the things that are happening in the world at the moment. And you know, corporations that use that to sell drinks, I mean look at what Nike recently with the NFL player. They have come under similar kinds of critiques. It’s fine on the one hand to have this and to bring these things into the public consciousness, but at the same time, their bottom line will be about, “How can we do that to make more money?” And if that’s the underlying process that’s going on, there will always be at the end game kind of “the growth of Nike”, or “the growth of Pepsi” and the problems that entails in terms of like working structures and continuing to sort of have child labor in Indonesia, or whatever it is that Nike do, how they make their shoes, and everything else. And that won’t change just because they’ve put Colin Kaepernick all over their adverts; it’s not going to change. So yes, these protests and everything else that Pepsi have appropriated, they mean something, and they are of a time, and they’re actually trying to change the system. They are trying to change how we operate in this world. And if the ethics of that are emptied, as they are being with things like Pepsi, then that is for me incredibly problematic.
Will Brehm 30:31
Well, Oli Mould, thank you so much for joining FreshEd.
Oli Mould 30:34
Thank you very much.
Today we take a critical look at human rights. My guest is Radha D’Souza. Radha has a new book entitled: What’s wrong with rights? Social movements, Law, and Liberal Imaginations
In our conversation, we discuss why there has been a proliferation of human rights since the end of World War II and how these rights have actually furthered the interests of the transnational capitalist class.
Radha also discusses education as a human right and the challenge it has for social movements and unions such as Education International.
Radha D’Souza teaches law at the University of Westminster, London.
Citation: D’Souza, Radha, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 120, Podcast audio, June 25, 2018. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/radhadsouza/
Will Brehm 1:59
Radha D’Souza, welcome to FreshEd.
Radha D’Souza 2:02
Thank you, Will, for having me on this program. I’m delighted to be here today.
Will Brehm 2:07
How are human rights commonly understood today?
Radha D’Souza 2:12
Commonly, people when they speak about human rights, they have in mind a set of claims that they can make about certain basic needs for human life. For example, it could be civil and political rights: right to fair trial; right not to be tortured; and these kind of rights are called civil and political rights. Or they may be social economic rights: rights to education, rights to health, rights to housing, those kind of rights. Or they could be Cultural Rights: rights of indigenous people, and so on. But the key thing about rights in popular imaginations is that rights are universal, that every individual has them by virtue of being human. That is why they understand it as human right.
Will Brehm 3:12
How many rights are there?
Radha D’Souza 3:15
When the United Nations was established at the end of World War Two, in 1945, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enumerated about 28 rights; there was a list of 28 rights. Today, it is estimated that international law recognizes more than 300 rights, so human rights have proliferated phenomenally in the last 70 years.
Will Brehm 3:46
Why? Why has there been a proliferation of human rights?
Radha D’Souza 3:50
Well, we can see if we look at the history of rights that the prefix ‘human’ was added only after the so called New World Order was established after World War Two. Now, why does that order need this expansion of rights? Earlier, before the World Wars happened in the 19th century, 18th century and so on, rights were largely confined to nation states, they were only available to citizens against states. But after World Wars, we find that capitalism changed in its fundamental character; it became transnational, it became monopolistic, it became finance driven. And these kinds of expansion of capitalism and intensification of capitalism required a proliferation of new types of rights. And that is why we see all sorts of new rights. Most of them are international in character, and most of them are rights that actually meet the needs of transnational monopoly, finance, capitalism.
Will Brehm 5:18
Could you give an example of a right that meets the needs of transnational financial capitalism?
Radha D’Souza 5:28
Okay, let’s look at the proliferation of rights, the ways in which rights have proliferated. We have all sorts of rights now, you know, rights to surrogacy, rights to land, indigenous people, including a right to happiness. Now, if you look at the UN General Assembly, it adopted a resolution in July 2011 called ‘Happiness: A holistic approach to development.’ Now, you might wonder what happiness has got to do with transnational monopoly finance capitalism, right? And can happiness be legislated at all? I mean, can people demand from the state a right to be happy in the same way as they can demand from the state right not to be tortured, for example? But when we actually — and it may on the face of it sound a little strange that we have a right to happiness, which is now part of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 — but when we start looking behind these rights, we can see that there are a lot of important organizations like EU commissioners, European Union commissioners, who are advocating for this right; the OECD, the Organization for Economic [Cooperation and] Development, has published guidelines on measuring subjective well-being for national statistical offices for the use of bureaucrats, etc.
Who’s driving this new right to happiness? On the one hand, we see large corporations are trying to de-unionized workers, deny them collective bargaining rights, which they always had. On the other hand, these very same corporations are also introducing what they call work life balance programs. Now, these work life balance programs have led to a large coaching industry which has about 47,000 employees and estimated to be around $2 billion US dollars a year. So one of the things that the right to happiness provides for people, or underprivileged people in developed countries, is the right to tourism. So now you can straightaway see the link between tourism industry and the right to happiness. And similarly, you have in the social, the economy… the SDGs or the Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Now these goals were established as successor to the Millennium Development Goals and the Millennium Development Goals set out about eight goals to achieve basic needs of people. So the goals like, for example, primary education, eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal gender equality, the goal to reduce child mortality and so on. Now, these goals where we know that it’s questionable whether they have been achieved at all. But regardless there was an eighth goal, which was to achieve Global Partnership. And this is the only goal in the Millennium Development Goal 2015 that was actually achieved because it was about establishing private public partnerships and induct global corporations, trust funds, private foundations, and so on into the very heart of the UN’s work.
Now, following on from that, we need to ask, if the Millennium Development Goals were not achieved, why do we need Sustainable Development Goals? And why do Sustainable Development Goals 2030 include the right to happiness? Right, and then you can see a whole lot of big players, for example, the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation and so on taking up many of these development projects. And how do they plan to deliver on it? They deliver on — now because poverty has not been eradicated women are not equal. There’s no universal primary education yet. So instead of addressing those, now we have a new goal: let’s try to make people happy. Because people can obviously be happy even without anything, right? Because even slum children now are very happy when they kick footballs on streets, for example. There is momentary happiness, and it takes attention away from the fact that even if slum kids are happy, playing football on the streets — probably with a torn ball — and still feel happy, maybe questions of education, housing, health, you know, don’t really need to take center stage, or we don’t need to give it as much importance as we’ve been doing so far. So it kind of deflects attention from all of those things. And I think that is really one of the problems.
How does it deflect attention? Because the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 has led to this whole indicator industry, if we can call it that. How do we measure happiness? mathematical methods, you know, with a complete array of methodologies, multiple disciplines, including psychology, religious studies, sociologists, Development Studies, all getting together to list a number of factors, which, if they exist, we can say the person is happy. And that completely changes the meaning of happiness. And instead those indicators become ways of measuring, you know, development and saying, ‘Okay, these kids in the slums are happy playing football.’ So maybe, you know, they are somewhat developed. And that completely skews the whole thing. And I think it takes us away from the reality that as human beings we live in this community, whether we are rich or poor, and happiness is an attribute of being human. And regardless of our social status or conditions, we will always seek solidarity with other human beings and that will always bring us some level of happiness.
Will Brehm 12:55
So, are you saying that the the human right to happiness that’s embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals actually furthers the interests of a transnational capitalist class?
Radha D’Souza 13:10
It does. It does it at several levels, because at the level of poverty and all those basic needs, as I’ve just said, there is no need to deliver on them. So, there is no need to feel guilty because rich people are also unhappy, poor people are unhappy, rich people are happy sometimes. So, there is no need to give it the kind of primacy that we have given it all these years. It operates at the level of corporate management and so on, because of this work life balance, so that employees are driven to work more and more and the technologies have increased the intensity of work and yet, you know, there is no sense of solidarity because the trade unions are gone, communitarian life of employees are gone, entire towns have been dis-established. So, all those other social factors which give people some kind of social identity, solidarity, and so on is taken away. So the corporations need to step in and and do something about it. So instead of returning their communities in lives, they take over even their most personal lives by making, you know, work life balance a corporate goal and creating an industry coaching industry around it.
Will Brehm 14:45
Has capital been interested in rights before they were human rights? So you said human rights sort of came around post World War Two and sort of proliferated as transnational capitalism sort of grew globally. Before World War Two, the idea of rights, were they also connected to capitalism in any way?
Radha D’Souza 15:11
Absolutely. I said that the prefix ‘human’ was added to rights after World War Two. And before World War Two, say in the 17th and 18th centuries, rights did not have the prefix ‘human.’ When people talk about rights, it included property rights, as well as human rights. And rights are absolutely instrumental in establishing capitalist societies. Now, if we look at pre-capitalist societies, pre-capitalist societies were land based societies. Land was the central organizing principle for the social order and as land based societies, people and nature were united. This does not mean that there was no exploitation or whatever. I mean, serfs were exploited, etc. But their connection to nature was…their lives were embedded in nature. They were not disconnected from nature.
What capitalism, in contrast, is a commodity based system, so it’s commodity producing system. And that means that everything in capitalism needs to be commodified, bought and sold, exchanged and so on. And one of the first commodifications we see is commodification of land. So capitalism is establish by commodifying land, and when land becomes private property, and land becomes alienable, that means people can buy and sell it, which could not, was not, possible in the feudal system. Then people are displaced from land, because to get clear title, you have to buy it, sell land without the people. And when people are displaced from land, you have labor, a free labor market.
So you have two kinds of markets. One is the land market and the labor market. And these two are absolutely foundational for capitalism and commodity production, and a system based on commodity production. Now, rights are the means that actually reorganized society. They reorganize our relationships to nature, our relationships to each other, the capitalist and the worker, our relationship to land and forests and water and so on, and our relationships to each other in society, on the basis of rights. So capitalism kind of transforms, you know, property, a land, which is a social relationship between ourselves and nature into a thing, a commodity, and it transforms labor, which is an inherent property of being human, we have always worked and we can only live by working and that labor is transformed into another kind of commodity. And I think rights are the ones that established the system and rights establish in right bearing individuals. And each right bearing individual is right bearing because they have something to give and something that they need and can receive. And this is basically the basis of capitalist systems. And capitalism works on contracts. Because to produce commodities, to exchange commodities, individuals need to be able to arrive at contractual relations. And all contracts presuppose the existence of at least two right bearing parties. And that is the relationship between commodity production contracts as social relationships and rights as the concepts or the other basic idea that establishes right bearing individuals that can enter into contractual relations. So there is an absolutely inalienable, intrinsic relationship between rights and capitalism.
Will Brehm 19:48
On this show, I’ve spoken with a lot of people who do research on education privatization, the ways in which education has become commodified in so many different parts around the world. Do you think rights and human rights, since since education is a human right, as you said earlier — have rights played or furthered the commodification of education in your opinion?
Radha D’Souza 20:14
It has because, look, education has always historically, has always been central to social reproduction. Because what education does is reproduces the social order, it trains the next generation to take over the reins. This is not being or what capitalism does. This turns that into an education and education becomes an investment. And as an investment, it becomes meaningful only if it can produce returns. So education then loses its meaning as a way of, understanding the social order and how we can continue our social life. It becomes an individual personal investment. And with the right to education, we also see education itself becoming an industry in so many different ways. If you look at the internal management of educational systems, they are very much run like corporations. If you look at the disparities, they mirror the larger capitalist societies, you know: those with education and those without education, those who use it to make capitalism more profitable are the ones that go very high up, and those who use their education for social justice or to improve things in the world, you will find that they are not making much money out of their investment. But also the methods used. For example, we have these huge organizations, educational companies, you know, who produce databases who produce various kinds of technologies, they’re making money out of it. Let me give you a very simple example. Now, I work for a University. The University pays me a salary, but when I write something, I can’t give it to people free of charge to read. And because there are journals, academic journals, there are publishers and they all claim that they have a right to make money out of it, even though they have not spent anything on my work. So it’s a strange situation. We are in a position because I don’t need the money because the university’s paying me a salary. And education companies, I’m not doing anything, they’re only charging readers exorbitant sums of money $35, $40, to read an article for what, for doing nothing, because the technology is now so freely available that I can let anybody who wants to read my articles, but I’m not allowed to do that.
Will Brehm 23:25
And this comes back to the issue of having rights to commodify, in a sense, articles and books — very essential features of higher education.
Radha D’Souza 23:37
Yes, it is absolutely central to that, because education is about passing on our knowledge to others, and learning from others. So why do we need to pass on knowledge to others? And why do we need to learn from others as educators? Presumably there is something called a social good, presumably there is something called future generation, and we want the societies and the world to continue. And that is why this exchange of knowledge, both accumulated knowledge from the past and new knowledge is necessary to solve problems, just iron out difficulties, and to see how we can continue human life in the future. But this purpose is taken away. When education becomes a commodity, human life gets a backseat, social well-being gets a backseat and education becomes a product which has to be sold in the market. And increasingly, research is linked to corporations linked to government, social policy, to international organizations, and all of that, where it is designed to improve their productivity. But as social beings, we need a critique of society, constantly reviewing our practices, evaluating our practices, and, and trying to make improvements in our social life for society to continue. What education as a commodity does is exactly the opposite.
Will Brehm 25:23
Seeing education as a social good is something that organizations like Education International would most likely advocate for. Education International being the global federation of teacher unions around the world. But Education International also supports the human right to education. They sort of see that as one of the justifications for what they do. And so the question I guess I have is: to create education as a social good, can human rights help in that cause? Or is it actually just sort of undermining it because human rights have become sort of helping the political agenda of the global capitalist class?
Radha D’Souza 26:08
That’s a good question, Will, because I think one of the things I do in this book is to examine what the disjuncture between property rights and human rights does. Because that’s where we started this conversation. In the 17th and 18th centuries, rights included property rights, as well as human rights and in fact, rights, property rights and labor rights were very closely tied. And the justification for property rights was really about labor theories. You know, John Locke, for example, he says, he asks how can we call a piece of land mine and he says, because I labor on it, and therefore add value to it. So anything that we add value to through our work becomes property, my proper, private property, and so labor and property rights or social rights and property rights were entwined in the traditional thinking, or what we call enlightenment thinking, the European enlightenment. But after World War Two, we find that the property rights are disassociated with human rights. And I think this is the problem that we have today.
And your question is really an example of this disassociation. Because when people think about human rights, they think about, oh, children need to go to school, or, you know, people need — must have the right to go to a university or whatever. But they forget why the education industry wants human rights to education. See, and when…we see the property relations and education as a property, intellectual property, as is a post World War, you know, it has really expanded as a transnational, right, we see the industry itself, we see copyrights and all these kind of rights to my thoughts, which has become a form of property, because ultimately, that’s what it is, my thinking has become somebody’s property. And we don’t make the connection between these two things when organizations like this union, that you refer to, Education International, when they demand human rights, they’re only thinking about what we want from rights. But what I say is, you should also question why they want rights, why does the education industry want rights? Why do research foundations want rights? And why do corporations want intellectual property rights and so on. And when we start to ask why they want rights, then we start to see the connection between property rights and human rights. And this is what has been severed in the last 70 years. And that is why people continue to imagine that if they demand human rights, that somehow they can achieve it. But it only becomes an aspirational statement when it is not linked to the realities and how rights actually operate in the world. And that’s that’s the crucial point.
Will Brehm 30:07
I’d like to ask a personal question about how you navigate the space of academic publishing, because you just said that your thoughts become property. And we’ve been talking a little bit today about the academic publishing industry and how it’s, it’s very, it’s commodifying an essential part of higher education: books, articles. And you just put out a book and I think it’s published by Pluto Press.
Radha D’Souza 30:38
Will Brehm 30:38
How do you navigate signing contracts with publishers and knowing that your thoughts and your hard work is literally going to be the property of some other entity?
Radha D’Souza 30:52
It’s a difficult to navigate, especially at an individual level, because — and this is where the reality that we are social beings, we live in a social setting, and we can only change the world collectively becomes so important — because at an individual level, what is my option, either I publish, or I don’t publish. And even there, there is a lot of gatekeeping that happens. I mean Pluto is amazing; is one of the few, you know, radical book publishers around Left really remaining. But generally, if you look at the other big publishing names, they decide what they will publish and will not publish. And that will depend on the market that will depend on their judgment of your ideas. Say, I have an amazing idea, which is a radical idea. Or I write a piece of literary work, which is completely, you know, new genre, for example. If the publishing industry does not come on board, and some publisher does not agree to publish my work, I cannot communicate with the world. And in order to communicate with the world, then I’m under pressure to tailor my thoughts, to tailor my thinking, and my style and, you know, genre, to whatever is marketable. And that makes the gatekeeping a hugely problematic thing for our rights to intellectual freedom, you know, rights to knowledge, to conscience, all of those things. And I think the journals, it’s even worse because with journals, there are gatekeeping, gatekeepers who will decide, you know, you have not cited x or y or z and therefore, your article is unpublishable, or you’re right your ideas are too radical, therefore, they will not be publishable and it is through this kind of gatekeeping, that we are unable to produce knowledge that addresses the real problems of the real world and the people who are really in need of solutions.
Will Brehm 33:16
So, in your book, you argue that the 21st century needs a new counter social philosophy. What does that look like in your opinion?
Radha D’Souza 33:27
You see, all problems of the modern world are, in one way or another, related to three types of questions that we have: questions about human relations to nature, questions about human relations to each other, and questions about our inner lives, you can call it emotional life, psychological life, spiritual life, whatever you want to call it. Now, in ancient times, philosophy helped us to understand these relationships, helped us to understand our place in the world, our purpose in life, the meaning of life and our actions. What are the long term effects of what we do or don’t do.
Capitalism dismissed these questions as irrelevant, it undermined philosophy. The European Enlightenment thinkers for example, separated philosophy from science and philosophy was a useless part of knowledge and science became the useful part of knowledge. And then a series of separations followed: the separation of Natural Sciences from Social Sciences, separation of law from ethics, separation of society or sociology from law, and so on and so forth. And I could expand. Some European Enlightenment thinkers, like Liebnitz for example, fantasized about transforming all knowledge into an ideal kind of mathematical formula. Now, today, with computing, we see this fantasy being realized, because all computing is ultimately about mathematics. It’s about combinations of zeros and ones. I may be oversimplifying it here, but that’s what it is. Everything can be reduced to numbers, happiness can be measured, intergenerational equity is reduced to the technical definition of 30 years, and so on. But as a result of this, we no longer have any way of knowing our place in the world: Why are we here? What do we want to do? And we have no way of understanding the world around us. Therefore, I say we need to return to these big questions about human life. These are not useless kinds of knowledge, because they don’t produce marketable value, or they don’t produce returns on investments. We still need to understand how to make sense of our actions. And therefore I say, we need to find ways of restoring the three relationships that I talked about: relationships between nature and society, between people, and between ethics and aesthetics. And only a counter philosophy that puts these questions at the center of our knowledge production can help us get out of this terrible mess that we’re in.
Will Brehm 36:43
Well, Radha D’Souza, thank you so much for joining FreshEd it really was a pleasure to talk and a lot of thoughts and more questions are coming in my mind right now. And and I hope audience members will just have so much to think about going forward.
Radha D’Souza 36:58
Thank you so much, Will, it was a pleasure talking to you.