Monday, 21 May 2018

The End of Westoxication

Antara Haldar is the inaugural lecturer in Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Cambridge

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a place where peace and prosperity reigned. Let’s call this place the West. These lands had once been ravaged by bloody wars but its rulers had, since, solved the puzzle of perpetual progress and discovered a kind of political and economic elixir of life. Big Problems were relegated to either Somewhere Else (the East) or Another Time (History). The Westerners dutifully sent emissaries far and wide to spread the word that the secret of eternal bliss had been found –and were, themselves, to live happily ever after.
So ran, until very recently, the story of how the West was won.
The formula that had been discovered was simple: the recipe for a bright, shiny new brand of global capitalism based on liberal democracy and something called neoclassical economics. But it was different from previous eras – cleansed of Dickensian grime. The period after the two world wars was in many a Golden Age: the moment of Bretton Woods (that established the international monetary and financial order) and the Beveridge report (the blueprint for the welfare state), feminism and free love.
It was post-colonial, post-racial, post-gendered. It felt like you could have it all, material abundance and the moral revolutions; a world infinitely vulnerable to invention – but all without picking sides, all based on institutional equality of access. That’s how clever the scheme was – truly a brave new world. Fascism and class, slavery and genocide – no one doubted that, in the main, it had been left behind (or at least that we could all agree on its evils); that the wheels of history had permanently been set in motion to propel us towards a better future. The end of history, Francis Fukuyama called it – the zenith of human civilization.
While liberal democracy was the part of the programme that got slapped on to the brochure, it was a streamlined paradigm of neoclassical economics that provided the brains behind the enterprise. Neoclassical economics, scarred by war-era ideological acrimony, scrubbed the subject of all the messy stuff: politics, values – all the fluff. To do so it used a new secret weapon: quantitative precision unprecedented in the social sciences.
It didn’t rest on whimsical things like enlightened leadership or invested citizenship or compassionate communities. No, siree. It was pure science: a reliable, universally-applicable maximising equation for society (largely stripped of any contextual or, until recently, even cognitive considerations). Its particular magic trick was to be able to do good without requiring anyone to be good.
And, it was limitless in its capacity to turn boundless individual rationality into endless material wellbeing, to cull out of infinite resources (on a global scale) indefinite global growth. It presumed to definitively replace faltering human touch with the infallible “invisible hand” and, so, discourses of exploitation with those of merit.
When I started as a graduate student in the early 2000s, this model was at the peak of its powers: organised into an intellectual and policy assembly line that more or less ran the world. At the heart of this enterprise, in the unipolar post-Cold War order, was what was known as the Chicago school of law and economics. The Chicago school boiled the message of neoclassical economics down to a simpler formula still: the American Dream available for export – just add private property and enforceable contracts. Anointed with a record number of Nobel prizes, its message went straight to the heart of Washington DC, and from there – via its apostles, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank radiated out to the rest of the globe.
It was like the social equivalent of the Genome project. Sure the model required the odd tweak, the ironing out of the occasional glitch but, for the most part, the code had been cracked. So, like the ladies who lunch, scholarly attention in the West turned increasingly to good works and the fates of “the other” – spatially and temporally.
One strain led to a thriving industry in development: these were the glory days of tough love, and loan conditionalities. The message was clear: if you want Western-style growth, get with the programme. The polite term for it was structural adjustment and good governance: a strict regime of purging what Max Weber had called mysticism and magic, and swapping it for muscular modernisation. Titles like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else jostled for space on shelves of bookstores and best-seller lists.
Another led to esoteric islands of scholarship devoted to atonement for past sins. On the US side of the Atlantic, post-colonial scholarship gained a foothold, even if somewhat limp. In America, slavery has been, for a while now, the issue a la mode. A group of Harvard scholars has been taking a keen interest in the “history of capitalism”.
Playing intellectual archaeologists, they’ve excavated the road that led to today’s age of plenty – leaving in its tracks a blood-drenched path of genocide, conquest, and slavery. The interest that this has garnered, for instance Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton, is heartening, but it has been limited to history (or worse still, “area studies”) departments rather than economics, and focused on the past not the present.
Indeed, from the perspective of Western scholarship, the epistemic approach to the amalgam of these instances has been singularly inspired by Indiana Jones – dismissed either as curious empirical aberrations or distanced by the buffer of history. By no means the stuff of mainstream economic theory.
Some of us weakly cleared our throats and tried to politely intercede that there were, all around us, petri dishes of living, breathing data on not just development – but capitalism itself. Maybe, just maybe – could it be? – that if the template failed to work in a large majority of cases around the globe that there may be a slight design error.
My longtime co-author, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and outspoken critic, Joseph Stiglitz, in his 1990 classic Globalisation and Its Discontents chronicled any number of cases of leaching-like brutality of structural adjustment. The best-selling author and my colleague at Cambridge, Ha-Joon Chang, in Kicking Away the Ladder, pointed out that it was a possibility that the West was misremembering the trajectory of its own ascent to power – that perhaps it was just a smidgen more fraught than it remembered, that maybe the State had had a somewhat more active part to play before it retired from the stage.
But a bright red line separated the “us” from the “them” enforcing a system of strict epistemic apartheid. Indeed, as economics retreated further and further into its silo of smugness, economics departments largely stopped teaching economic history or sociology and development economics clung on by operating firmly within the discipline-approved methodology.
So far, so good – a bit like the last night of merriment on the Titanic.
Then the iceberg hit.
Suddenly the narratives that were comfortably to do with the there and then became for the Western world a matter of the here and now.
In the last 10 years, what economic historian Robert Skidelsky recently referred to as the “lost decade” for the advanced industrial West, problems that were considered the exclusive preserve of development theory – declining growth, rampant inequality, failing institutions, a fractured political consensus, corruption, mass protests and poverty – started to be experienced on home turf.
The Great Recession starting 2008 should really have been the first hint: foreclosures and evictions, bankruptcies and bailouts, crashed stock markets. Then came the eurozone crisis starting in 2009 (first Greece; then Ireland; then Portugal; then Spain; then Cyprus; oh, and then Greece, again). But after an initial scare, it was largely business as usual – written off as an inevitable blip in the boom-bust logic of capitalist cycles. It was 2016, the year the world went mad, that made the writing on the wall impossible to turn away from – starting with the shock Brexit vote, and then the Trump election. Not everyone understands what a CDO (collateralised debt obligation) is, but the vulgarity of a leader of the free world who governs by tweet and “grabs pussy” is hard to miss.
So how did it happen, this unexpected epilogue to the end of history?
I hate to say I told you so, but some of us had seen this coming – the twist in the tale, foreshadowed by an eerie background score lurking behind the clinking of champagne glasses. Even at the height of the glory days. In the summer before the fall of Lehman Brothers, a group of us “heterodox economists” had gathered at a summer school in the North of England. We felt like the audience at a horror movie – knowing that the gory climax was moments away while the victim remained blissfully impervious.
The plot wasn’t just predictable, it was in the script for anyone to see. You just had to look closely at the fine print.
In particular, you needed to have read your Karl Polanyi, the economic sociologist, who predicted this crisis over 5 years ago. As far back as 1954, The Great Transformation diagnosed the central perversion of the capitalist system, the inversion that makes the person less important than the thing – the economy driving society, rather than the other way around.
Polanyi’s point was simple: if you turned all the things that people hold sacred into grist to the mill of a large impersonal economic machinery (he called this disembedding) there would be a backlash. That the fate of a world where monopoly money reigns supreme and human players are reduced to chessmen at its mercy is doomed. The sociologist Fred Block compares this to the stretching of a giant elastic band – either it reverts to a more rooted position, or it snaps.
It is this tail-wagging-the-dog quality that is driving the current crisis of capitalism. It’s a matter of existential alienation. This problem of artificial abstraction runs through the majority of upheavals of our age – from the financial crisis to Facebook. So cold were the nights in this era of enforced neutrality that the torrid affair between liberal democracy and neoclassical economics resulted in the most surprising love child – populism.
The simple fact is that after decades on promises not delivered on, the system had written just one too many cheques that couldn’t be cashed. And people had had just about enough.
The old fault lines of global capitalism, the East versus West dynamics of the World Trade Organisation’s Doha Round, turned out to be red herrings. The axis that counts is the system versus the little people. Indeed, the anatomies of annihilation look remarkably similar across the globe – whether it’s the loss of character of a Vanishing New York or Disappearing London, or threatened communities of farmers in India and fishermen in Greece.
Trump voters in the US, Brexiteers in Britain and Modi supporters in India seek identity – any identity, even a made-up call to arms to “return” to mythical past greatness in the face of the hollowing out of meaning of the past 70 years. The rise of populism is, in many ways, the death cry of populations on the verge of extinction – yearning for something to believe in when their gods have died young. It’s a problem of the 1 per cent – poised to control two-thirds of the world economy by 2030 – versus the 99 per cent. But far more pernicious is the Frankenstein’s monster that is the idea of an economic system that is an end in itself.
Not to be too much of a conspiracy theorist about it, but the current system doesn’t work because it wasn’t meant to – it was rigged from the start. Wealth was never actually going to “trickle down”. Thomas Piketty did the maths.
Suddenly, the alarmist calls of the developmentalists objecting to the systemic skews in the process of globalisation don’t seem quite so paranoid.
But this is more than “poco” (what the cool kids call postcolonialism) schadenfreude. My point is a serious one; although I would scarcely have dared articulate it before now. Could Kipling have been wrong, and might the East have something to offer the mighty West? Could the experiences of exotic lands point the way back to the future? Could it be, could it just, that it may even be a source of epistemic wisdom?
Behind the scaffolding of Xi Jinping’s China or Narendra Modi’s India, sites of capitalism under construction, we are offered a glimpse into the system’s true nature. It is not God-given, but the product of highly political choices. Just like Jane Jacobs protesting to save Washington Square Park or Beatrix Potter devoting the bulk of her royalty earnings to conserving the Lake District were choices. But these cases also show that trust and community are important. The incredible resilience of India’s jugaad economy, or the critical role of quanxi in the creation of the structures in what has been for the past decade the world’s fastest-growing nation, China. A little mysticism and magic may be just the thing.
The narrative that we need is less that of Frankenstein’s man-loses-control of monster, and more that of Pinocchio’s toy-becomes-real-boy-by-acquiring-conscience; less technology, and more teleology. The real limit may be our imaginations. Perhaps the challenge is to do for scholarship, what Black Panther has done for Hollywood. You never know. Might be a blockbuster.

Friday, 4 May 2018

L'apologie de l'économie sociale de marché

FIGAROVOX.- Dans votre livre «La politique de la vertu», vous critiquez abondement le «libéralisme» qui est selon vous dans une «métacrise». Qu'entendez-vous par là?
John MILBANK, Philosophe: Le libéralisme peut vouloir dire beaucoup de choses. C'est avant tout une erreur anthropologique: l'intuition d'Hobbes et de Locke de construire une théorie politique en partant des individus isolés, détachés de tous liens. L'individu est décrit comme une créature inquiète et désirante faisant preuve de volonté, et non plus comme un être constitué par ses liens aux autres ayant des finalités. Ce libéralisme pense de façon abstraite l'individu en dehors de tout contexte culturel, social ou historique. Il s'agit de déterminer ce qu'un système politique doit nécessairement être, en le déduisant d'un hypothétique état de nature, sans traits culturels. Alors que le libéralisme est souvent associé à l'optimisme, il fait preuve en réalité d'un pessimisme anthropologique radical, même s'il est censé être socialement amélioré par le miracle de la main invisible. Une autre forme d'anthropologie libérale est celle de Rousseau, qui pense lui aussi l'individu isolé de tout comme originellement bon. L'association a tendance à corrompre l'individu, en introduisant la rivalité, l'avidité. Cela implique un différent type d'ingénierie sociale pour produire une société qui minimise la rivalité. Ce sont deux formes de pessimisme: pessimisme au niveau de l'individu jugé intrinsèquement égoïste, ou pessimisme au niveau d'un processus culturel jugé intrinsèquement corrupteur. Dans les deux cas, cela repose sur une dualité instaurée entre nature et culture.

Dans quelle anthropologie la «politique de la vertu» s'enracine-t-elle?
Nous à l'inverse qui nous situons dans l'anthropologie aristotélico-thomiste, nous pensons que les hommes sont des animaux naturellement culturels. Les buts de la société humaine: avoir des bonnes relations, participer au processus politique, mettre en œuvre des amitiés, atteindre la connaissance, s'ils sont naturels, doivent être soumis à un soubassement métaphysique. Sans transcendance, je crains que le postlibéralisme ne prenne soit la voie d'un fascisme sanctifiant l'état nation soit la voie d'une sorte de progressisme qui ne reconnaît des droits individuels ou bien ne reconnaît que l'écologie comme projet collectif, qualifiant toutes les autres médiations culturelles comme des formules arbitraires. Les principaux rivaux du libéralisme: le socialisme de guilde non-étatiste (proudhonien), le personnalisme catholique ou le conservatisme tocquevillien ont été mis hors-jeu.
Vous êtes l'un des théoriciens de la «Radical Ortodoxy». Quel est ce mouvement?
C'est d'abord un mouvement théologique. Il s'agit d'insister sur le fait que l'orthodoxie chrétienne ne consiste pas seulement en une série d'observations rituelles traditionnelles, mais possède un pouvoir de transformation radical. Cela implique d'insister sur une vue intégrale de la nature et de la grâce, de la raison et de la foi, de la théologie et de la philosophie. Il est impossible de séparer la foi chrétienne de la manière dont nous pensons l'éthique, les sciences sociales. Je ne pense pas qu'il y ait une frontière entre théologie et philosophie.

Par ailleurs, il s'agit de s'ériger contre l'idée selon laquelle le christianisme serait un humanisme comme les autres. Le christianisme est un modèle alternatif à la modernité telle qu'elle est issue des Lumières. L'idée post-kantienne selon laquelle on pourrait stabiliser le savoir dans des structures de la connaissance sans les ancrer dans une métaphysique a fait long feu. Foucault et Deleuze ont été utiles lorsqu'ils ont souligné le profond relativisme auquel devait nécessairement aboutir un humanisme sans transcendance: tout en réalité est instable et le savoir est incertain. En poussant jusqu'au bout les prémisses d'un humanisme sans dieu, ils ont paradoxalement montré que la seule stabilité possible était la transcendence.
Le problème viendrait des Lumières?
Je n'accuse pas directement les Lumières, qui n'ont été qu'une réaction à une théologie appauvrie, qui était devenue trop dogmatique, univoque et avait perdu tout mysticisme. Avoir fait de la connaissance de Dieu une connaissance logique, claire, certaine et objective faisait encourir le risque du scepticisme. La théologie s'était calquée sur le modèle logique de l'épistémologie. Je crois que sur le long terme, le problème était la perte d'une métaphysique chrétienne fondée sur l'analogie, c'est-à-dire l'idée que tout sur terre est plus ou moins un reflet du divin. L'idée que nous sommes des corps incarnés dans le monde, pas des spectateurs détachés et que nous pouvons avoir une connaissance intuitive des choses.
Est-il possible de proclamer le retour d'une éthique de la vertu dans un monde où le relativisme est si fermement enraciné dans les mentalités?
Si on est chrétien, alors on est fermement convaincu qu'il existe un fond de morale commune. Il y a je crois une révolte instinctive et populaire contre un libéralisme moral extrême. Par exemple, certaines revendications de minorités sexuelles qui réclament l'abolition de la différence entre hommes et femmes et la tentative de dissoudre cette différence dans une identité «transgenre» heurte profondément le sens commun. On voit là les limites du relativisme. Bien sûr il est difficile d'argumenter contre la logique même de la théorie du genre, mais il est possible par exemple de pointer les contradictions d'un discours hyper relativiste. Par exemple, le discours sécularisé a beaucoup de mal à établir une frontière entre ce qui relève d'une nature donnée ou du choix.
On le voit dans le discours «transgenre» qui oscille entre une vision de la sexualité entre pur déterminisme («je suis né comme ça») et pur choix («je choisis mon orientation sexuelle»). Cette contradiction apparaît aussi chez les féministes qui défendent l'idée d'une solidarité entre les femmes tout en niant l'idée d'une féminité naturelle qui serait pourtant le liant de cette solidarité. Ce dualisme de la postmodernité, qui distingue entre un pur déterminisme d'un côté, et une pure volonté de l'autre, mène à une impasse. Si on pousse les prémisses postmodernes jusqu'au bout, c'est le chaos. Mais heureusement la plupart des gens agissent comme s'ils avaient encore une morale traditionnelle. Nous utilisons tous les jours des arguments qui ne sont pas complètement démontrés.
Vous critiquez dans votre livre les effets du capitalisme, spécialement sur la culture populaire… Êtes-vous anticapitaliste?
Nous défendons une économie sociale de marché, qui critique à la fois le marché capitaliste et l'état bureaucratique, car comme la plupart des penseurs communautariens, nous pensons que ce sont les deux faces d'un même problème. L'état souverain et le marché sont des jumeaux qui se servent mutuellement. L'état providence est la réponse à un système économique inapproprié. Nous critiquons l'idée selon laquelle par nature une transaction économique est basée sur l'intérêt particulier des parties. Il ne faut pas selon nous désencastrer les transactions économiques du social, comme Karl Polanyi l'a montré dans La grande transformation. Un échange économique peut aussi s'appuyer sur un but commun. Ce n'est pas une question d'altruisme pur, mais de la réciprocité qui caractérise toutes les relations humaines quand elles ne sont pas artificiellement détruites.
Quel genre d'économie prônez-vous?
Nous voulons donc réencastrer les transactions économiques. Les affaires peuvent conduire à des profits mais peuvent aussi avoir des buts sociaux. Peut-être faut-il changer de culture. Dans notre société, on reçoit de l'honneur et du respect lorsque l'on gagne beaucoup d'argent. Dans des cultures plus traditionnelles l'argent n'est pas le seul critère de respectabilité sociale. Ce n'est pas utopique. Par exemple la loi allemande exige que les entreprises aient un but social. S'il doit y avoir un marché, il doit y avoir une répartition équitable des gains, des risques et des résultats. Nous défendons un modèle fondé sur l'association et la mutualisation. Nous plaidons pour un modèle coopératif d'entreprise, d'assurance et de logement. Tout ne peut pas être coopératif. Je ne suis pas contre la propriété privée, mais dans la tradition chrétienne où la propriété est liée à la personne, et en est le prolongement. Mais je crois qu'il n'existe pas de propriété privée absolue. La propriété est toujours un devoir et une responsabilité. C'est toujours une question de confiance.
Qu'est-ce que le «blue socialism», ce courant que vous avez contribué à créer?
Il existe aujourd'hui un courant qui s'appelle le «Blue labour» au sein du parti travailliste. Traditionnellement en Angleterre les Tories ont la couleur bleue et le Labour a la couleur rouge. Le «socialisme bleu» est économiquement radical mais socialement conservateur. Il croit dans les lieux, le local, les traditions, la famille, les corporations. Je suis d'accord avec Jean-Claude Michéa lorsqu'il dit que le socialisme est différent de la gauche. Ce qui distingue la droite et la gauche depuis la révolution française, c'est que la droite est nostalgique de l'Ancien Régime et la gauche est libérale et individualiste. Le socialisme est une troisième voie. Nous essayons de renouveler l'héritage du Labour avec une tradition burkienne. On croit souvent que l'aristocratie et la démocratie sont opposées. Mais sans aristocratie, sans visée d'excellence, sans élite au service du bien commun, on se retrouve avec une vision de la politique uniquement comme manipulation des masses. Ce sont les années Blair, où ont culminé les spin-doctors.
La démocratie toute seule n'est pas un bon régime?
Il doit y avoir un débat permanent, non sur ce que les gens veulent, mais sur ce qui est intrinsèquement bon. La démocratie marche seulement si elle est un mode de gouvernement mixte: dans la tradition aristotélo- thomiste, nous pensons qu'un bon régime politique est un mélange de démocratie, d'aristocratie et de monarchie dans un sens technique. Il doit y avoir un rôle pour une élite engagée. Il y a besoin d'une fonction monarchique dans le pouvoir, qui incarne le long-terme et la continuité politique, mais aussi la nécessité de l'urgence et de l'exception. Même dans les temps les plus démocratiques, chaque pays a son leader: c'est un fait remarquable, une permanence qui a su résister à la modernité. Mais je pense aussi qu'il faut renouveler les formes locales et informelles de démocratie participative. Tout le monde devrait avoir un rôle dans son quartier, sa rue, son village, son lieu de travail. Dans l'Angleterre médiévale, une personne sur dix avait une sorte de rôle représentatif, aussi minime soit il: vous pouviez être le «gardien de la bière» de votre village. Contrairement aux apparences, le Moyen-Âge était peut-être plus démocratique qu'aujourd'hui, dans le sens où les gens avaient plus de prise sur la vie ordinaire!

Saturday, 28 April 2018

The structure of subservience in "classical" music irritates Brian Eno the godfather of chill-out music

Peter Apsden
A queue begins to form at the entrance to the British Library a good two hours before the guest of the evening, Brian Eno, is due to begin his lecture. The audience already have their tickets, but they are here extra-early to enjoy the music that is promised before the lecture begins.

Once inside, we are treated to some floaty, trance-like, mostly mellifluous background sound over the PA as we order drinks over the bar. No one is paying particular attention to Eno’s music. It is just there. But a mood develops. A sense of relaxed anticipation.

Eno is introduced (“musician, artist, thinker”), sets up his laptop, and delivers a polished and good-humoured analysis of his life-long relationship with sound and vision, with some fruity philosophical detours along the way. He is here, as part of the BL’s “Season of Sound”, to talk about a new six-CD compilation of his “Music for Installations”, a collection of his ambient pieces.

Eno is a unique figure in British cultural life, bursting into prominence as a pop star, helping to make, with his Roxy Music bandmates in 1972, one of the most accomplished, radical and accessible debut albums of the pop era, and then abruptly leaving that particular scene as quickly as he had entered it. His subsequent mission, he tells us simply, has been to investigate “how simplicity can produce complexity”, which is not something he had in common with his fellow glam-rockers of the early 1970s.

After the lecture, the music returns, but not so that you would notice. The ambience feels just fine.Three weeks later, sitting with him in his Notting Hill home, I ask Eno how it felt to be regarded as something like the godfather of a type of music that had become extremely fashionable — think Ibiza chill-out bars, spa soundtracks, the delicate grooves of minimalist hotel lobbies — but that nobody really paid very much attention to.

“When I first came up with the idea of utilitarian music, it was very, very unpopular,” he concedes. “It meant muzak. It was music reduced, stripped of its fundamental cultural importance. And that was my biggest hurdle. Artists were supposed to want people’s 100 per cent attention.” What interested him instead was, “what was the least that I could do with music; how much could I leave out? What if I made music that was just like an atmosphere?”

He took his cue from the lighting in his Maida Vale flat. “It was quite a dark flat, and I was amazed by the difference the lights made, whether you had violet lights on the floor, or orange lights on the ceiling.” Light creates mood. “But nobody looks at the bloody bulb. And that is what has been happening in music. We’ve been looking at the bulb.”

Eno’s ambient pieces and installations have been at the heart of his work ever since, as he left the pop world behind, although he continued to be a key figure in the recording studio, most famously in his work with David Bowie. He says he quickly lost interest in narrative music-making altogether, not least the limited relationship dramas of most rock music.“I decided very early on [when writing] that if I missed out the words “I”, “you” and “love”, I would automatically be in new territory.

”He would not return. Eno remains aloof from rock nostalgia, finding today’s prevalence of comeback tours “grotesque”.

I ask him to explain the remark about producing complexity from simplicity, and he draws a pyramid on a piece of paper, and points to the top. “This is God, or the Pope, or the orchestra conductor. And information flows this way only,” he draws lines from top-to-bottom. “There is no feedback, other than something dramatic like a revolution.”

The traditional model of music operated like this, he says. “The symphony: it is inspired by the divine; it enters the composer’s head; he writes it down and passes it to the conductor, and then the leaders of the orchestra, then the section principals, and then down to the rank and file. There is this idea that the music is already in existence, in the mind of God or the composer, and it is our purpose to realise it.

Now, as a working musician, I know it doesn’t happen like that. I have seen a lot of music come into existence. It is a mess. It is a lot of complex things bouncing off each other, until suddenly something beautiful and intricate exists. It wasn’t in anybody’s mind. Nobody had conceived it up to that point.”

He calls his approach organic, or Darwinian, finding joy in “all these noises that keep juxtaposing in different ways, constantly generating new entities: here is a new creature, here is another one, and another one. It is more like gardening than architecture.”

I ask if traditional classical music irritates him. “I find it difficult to listen to,” he admits. “I can’t help but hear this structure of subservience. All those sour faces, looking like they have had a poker stuck up their . . . ” he fades out. “I just feel this sense of superiority, that they are doing the “right” music. I agree with John Cage, that art is philosophy embodied, and the philosophy I hear is not one I like very much.”

So Eno the highly influential record producer (U2, Talking Heads, Coldplay) did not conform to that hierarchical model? “No. Not at all. I ask things like, what if that guy in the corner were to become leader for a little while? With Coldplay, I wanted to work with them for a couple of weeks without Chris [Martin, the group’s singer and principal songwriter] just to see what the band would come up with.”

He doesn’t tell me what happened. “If people want to work with me, they know what they are going to get,” he says.Eno’s installations, twinning his abstract videos and paintings with his ambient music, were the result of an early epiphany. “I had this real struggle inside me, on whether to do music or art. I worried about it a lot. And then one day, I decided I didn’t have to do one or the other, I could do both. I glimpsed the possibility of making each one more like the other, a sort of fusing together.”

He finds the current art scene disturbing in its voracious focus on acquisition. “It is not so different from bitcoin. Art is the ultimate cryptocurrency. What the art world is doing is engineering the consensual value of something, very quickly. It only needs two people, a buyer and a seller.”

He has similarly trenchant views on a host of social issues, speaking out against Israel’s stance on the Palestinian question, and lobbying in favour of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He is far from downhearted by the shockwaves produced by the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result, however.

“But now there is engagement with politics. I have so many American friends, they were so apolitical. Politics was something you never admitted to doing, like masturbation. But that has changed now. We all thought these [Trump and Brexit supporters] were this little bubble of weirdos. But we discovered that we were the ones in the little bubble.”

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Vocational education training helps Switzerland stay ahead

David Mattwews
In the heart of Europe lies a country that seems to prove many common assumptions about higher education wrong.

In its higher education system, observers believe, Switzerland has managed to knit together the vocational prowess of Germany, the egalitarian entrance system of France and the highly ranked research universities of the Anglo-American world.

The country is one of the world’s richest (not to mention happiest), ranking alongside petro-states and international tax havens in terms of average purchasing power.

But despite the claims of economists that the “knowledge economy” requires workers with the abstract reasoning and critical thinking instilled by an academic higher education, Switzerland has stubbornly refused to follow other developed countries such as Australia, the US and South Korea in sending anywhere near the majority of its young people into academic higher education.

According to the most up-to-date figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, just under 28 per cent of Swiss aged under 25 enter what is called “type A” tertiary education – theory-based courses that last at least three years – the lowest proportion among the countries for which the OECD has figures. In 2014, the organisation chided Switzerland for its performance.

But Swiss university leaders seem unperturbed. “There are only so many people who need a classical university education for the job they will do,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich.

If anything, the concern in Switzerland now is that too many people are going to academic universities. “A lot of voices say we should keep [university enrolment] at this level because vocational education training is the reason why Switzerland is doing so well at the moment,” said Matthias Ammann, a fellow of Avenir Suisse, a free-market thinktank.

Although Dr Ammann’s thinktank has recently lobbied for tweaks to the system, overall he is content with it. Just 8 per cent of Swiss youngsters are unemployed, well below the OECD average of about 12 per cent. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he said.

At age 16, only a small fraction of youngsters – as low as 15 per cent in the more rural eastern cantons – continue with their education full time, on an academic track that leads to their taking the matura qualification, which allows entry to an academic university, Dr Ammann explained.

Most young people start down a vocational path, working part time in a company but still attending school, normally for two or three years, he added.

Indeed, the “Swiss paradox” of riches despite its relative paucity of graduates is so striking that it has been used by the University of Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang to challenge the very idea of the “knowledge economy”. The country helps to demonstrate that higher education functions largely as a sorting system for employers, rather than actually making workers more productive, he has argued.

In other countries, many universities offer specific training as well as cultivating higher mental skills. But in Switzerland, which boasts nine universities of applied sciences alongside 12 traditional universities, the distinction between the two missions is strictly policed.

Unlike the UK’s former polytechnics, which attempt to “play in the same league” as other universities, Swiss universities of applied sciences “are by law encouraged, if not forced, to focus on applied research. They don’t get rewards for publishing in top international journals,” said Marius Brülhart, a vice-dean of the University of Lausanne’s Faculty of Business and Economics. Yet some academics do push back at these constraints, he added.

And to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a university of applied sciences, applicants must have done an apprenticeship first. “The practical experience comes before the BA,” explained Professor Hengartner, the reverse of the situation in most countries.

A growing number of apprentices do now go on to a university of applied sciences, he said. Indeed, the whole ethos of the Swiss system is to allow vocational learners to take multiple paths to universities of applied sciences, or even to academic universities; a trainee electrician “can end up being a professor of electrical engineering”, Professor Hengartner added.

Of course, academics consider university education to be much more than just a cog in an economic machine. Is the Swiss system a little utilitarian?

“Swiss are quite well known for being pragmatic,” Professor Hengartner acknowledged. “But having a small fraction of people going to university, we [universities] have less of a pressure to think ‘employability, employability, employability’ ” than institutions in countries where university study is seen as the key route into the job market, he pointed out.
Another oddity of the Swiss system is the lack of any kind of university entrance selection system, except in medicine. The high school matura is “your free ticket of entry into any university”, explained Christian Leumann, rector of the University of Bern.

Swiss high school graduates’ right to take almost any course at any university makes ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich a particular anomaly in the world of “elite” universities: its peers in the upper echelons of world university rankings – the likes of the University of Oxford, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – have vanishingly small acceptance rates. But ETH manages to boast egalitarian access, low tuition fees (SFr580, about £420, a semester for Swiss and non-Swiss alike) and a stellar research reputation.

Selection occurs in other ways, however, for example during the school system. Then, as in France, many first-year undergraduates drop out – about a quarter, according to Dr Ammann. In Professor Brülhart’s faculty, the figure is as high as 40 to 50 per cent; they tend to succeed at other universities, but “it’s not pleasant for people who try and fail and lose a year”.

Without a selection process, universities only get three to four months’ warning about how many students they will have to teach, Dr Ammann said. For large, established courses, fluctuations are small and predictable. But for trendy modules – film studies became very popular a few years ago, for instance – a course can become “overrun” with students, said Professor Hengartner, necessitating a rapid boost in the number of teaching assistants and in professorial teaching time.

Could other countries copy the Swiss system? If they want to, they will have to pay up. Switzerland spends close to $28,000 (£19,740) a year per tertiary student (although this does include research), about 70 per cent more than the OECD average.

Companies would need to be willing to take on apprentices. They do so in Switzerland not out of economic self-interest but because they respect national culture and tradition, argued Dr Ammann (although others who spoke to Times Higher Education disagreed – apprentices are a good source of cheap labour and new recruits, they pointed out).

And finally, the Swiss system arguably works only in a country where university attendance has not become an essential middle-class rite of passage.

In the UK, there is a pervasive sense that not going to university compromises a young person’s life chances, said Professor Brülhart. But in Switzerland, “factually and culturally, it’s not true”. Many who take the vocational track have better career prospects than academic university graduates, he explained. The chief executive of Swiss bank UBS, Sergio Ermotti, began his career with an apprenticeship at a local bank, for example. There are “lots of stories where people manage to climb their way up” despite not going to university, Professor Brülhart said.

But this parity of esteem is under strain from foreign values. “We are seeing that foreigners who are not used to this [vocational system] are trying to send their kids to high school” in order to ensure that they get into universities, said Dr Ammann. In more internationalised cities such as Zurich, high school entrance is now highly competitive, he added.

The “Swiss paradox” may yet melt like Alpine snow in springtime.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

La satire est souvent le meilleur moyen de dégonfler le bullshit

Le titre de son excellent essai est limpide: Total bullshit! Voilà le fautif. La billevesée, la foutaise, le baratin qui leste le discours de la politique, de la communication, de la publicité.

Total bullshit !
Le Temps: L’hégémonie du bullshit est-elle vraiment dangereuse?
Sebastian Dieguez, chercheur en neurosciences à l'Université de Fribourg: Je ne dis pas que nous vivons dans un monde de post-vérité qui serait terrifiant et pervers. Je m’interroge plutôt sur ce que ce monde pourrait être, comme dans 1984 de George Orwell. Heureusement, il y a des raisons de penser qu’il s’agit d’un phénomène qui ne peut pas dépasser certaines limites. Il n’y aura plus de raison de bullshitter s’il n’y a un jour que du bullshit!
La vérité n’est-elle pas assez forte pour lui résister?
On peut laisser la vérité faire son travail en espérant qu’elle s’imposera, grâce à sa force d’attraction. Cela peut prendre beaucoup de temps et, parfois, de sang. La vérité ne sort pas facilement de son puits. Il est souvent difficile de l’obtenir. L’une des propriétés de la post-vérité est la volonté d’imposer son point de vue, sa propre vérité, son opinion, sa voix, son identité sans s’interroger sur le bien-fondé de ce qu’on dit. Comme s’il était aujourd’hui inconvenant de poser la question de la valeur d’un point de vue. Nous disons: «Mon point de vue est aussi valable que le vôtre». Cette manière d’être est aujourd’hui commune.
Vous semblez sceptique sur la valeur de l’éducation pour résister au bullshit.
C’est bien sûr une piste intéressante. Mais s’il l’on dit que l’éducation est la solution, cela implique qu’elle fait aussi partie du problème. Je ne suis pas certain que l’école a contribué à produire des adultes qui sont désormais insensibles à la vérité et à la réalité objective. Est-ce que la majorité des gens ne vérifient plus du tout leurs informations? Bien sûr que si.
Vous prônez un retour à la fiction. Pourquoi?
Postuler que nous vivons dans un monde de post-vérité, c’est dire que nous vivons aussi dans un monde de post-fiction. Nous ne serions plus capables de distinguer la réalité de la fiction à force de mettre du faux dans le vrai. Si la réalité souffre de ce phénomène, la fiction en souffre également. Il faut d’un côté encourager l’éducation, la vérification des faits, le rationalisme. Mais aussi la vraie fiction, cet exercice de l’imagination et de la fantaisie humaine. Elle pourrait rétablir du même coup le respect pour la réalité.
Vous recommandez une autre approche, plus efficace selon vous.
Il s’agit de l’arme qui a montré le plus d’efficacité dans l’histoire: la satire. La moquerie est souvent le meilleur moyen de dégonfler cette baudruche qu’est le bullshit. L’art de ridiculiser les hypocrites et les prétentieux est si précieux. Le problème est que cela demande un certain talent. Tout le monde n’est pas Jonathan Swift ou George Orwell.
Mais les satiristes d’aujourd’hui, par exemple à la télévision, n’aggravent-ils pas le phénomène à force de dérision et de ricanement sur n’importe qui et n’importe quoi? N’alimentent-ils pas la perte de confiance envers les institutions?
C’est une critique que je peux entendre. Mais est-elle vraie? Pour moi, il n’y a pas de bon ou de mauvais humour. Il y a des humoristes qui ont du talent et d’autres qui ont en moins. La satire fait toujours deviner un arrière-fond normatif. Le ridicule accentue les défauts de quelqu’un, pousse jusqu’à l’absurde la logique supposée d’un propos. Le satiriste tente toujours de dévoiler ce que devrait être l’ordre normal des choses. C’est pourquoi la satire a toujours une dimension tragique et morale. Elle suscite le respect. Elle fait appel à l’intelligence des gens.