The Social Factory

the blog of King's CMCI PostGrad Society

Very Clever Very Conservative. Some thoughts on the Paul Talyor Seminar

It’s not good to shoot from the hip but for Paul Taylor it seems the bad is the good and the good is the bad. So I will take a chance on following his philosophy.

As a first year PhD student I have been aware for a while that it is only a matter of time before I am confronted head on with the bizarre but telling spectacle of a extreme left wing culturalist exposition performed in the heart of the modern neo-liberal environment that is the contemporary elite British university. Telling because for all it cleverness – it clabbering to be ever so much more critical of anything that moves than the next guy – it betrays an awful conservatism, even a reactionary essence, which is fully compatible with its embeddedness in a site of capitalist reproduction.

To give this milieu a taste of its own medicine I could and I would argue that paranoiac and cynical assertions that fascism, instrumentalism, and a host of other bads lie within just about – no lets not be too liberal – lie in absolutely everything that exists in the social field reveals a classic psychological displacement. It allows the subject to feel ever so radical and yet do nothing practical about his or her situation. Its extremity compensates for the timidity of positive action in the face of the contemporary intensification of the neo-liberal project. As the psychological literature has conclusively shown being has little or no impact on doing. And what you do, or don’t do in this case, makes you who you are. The notion that radical thought is subversive without concurrent positive action is hopelessly idealistic as it is empirically unsustainable.

As he slipped into his initial remarks, as if the truth was self evident, the true intellectual has the privilege of being able to question but not to give answers. This is a grotesque formulation violates the more fundamental human responsibility to propose to the extent that we criticize. To have the latter without the former allows one to slide into an infantile idealism which ironically abandons the status quo to the social forces of reaction.

This may seem like just another quaint eccentricity of the academic ivory tower but having spent much of my life as an organiser and trainer variously in the peace, radical green and anarchist movements before moving into social entrepreneurship I can say without a shadow of doubt that this fashion for extreme idealistic negativity has been an absolute disaster for the project of creating viable alternative economic and political institutional formations. Nothing can happen when people don’t turn up on time, leave without notice, accuse anything that gets going as compromised and reactionary, and generally view the practical inevitability of give and take as a betrayal of their principles. What seems like very radical and very clever turns out in practice to be just plain stupid and a complete waste of space.

With no institutionalisation – no culture of imperfect but still radical collective organisation and norms – every bottom up social movement has to re-learn the same basic lessons and structures. To take a classic example, sophisticated consensus decision making has been going on at least since the eighteenth century with the Quakers – and certainly from the radical sixties through to the 1980s peace movement. Fast forward to the Occupy generation and the first general assemblies had no idea that consensus procedures can have stages between agreement and blocking. In amongst the reams on Foucault where are the manuals for deliberative democracy?

Even within the realm of academic political criticism Paul’s points go beyond the ridiculous and become, well – just plain silly. The notion that the film Finding Sergeant Ryan betrays fascist overtones because the main character’s granddaughters have blond hair in first scene of the film is beyond bizarre. In fact I am sure that many of the survivors of the D-Day landing would find the proposition profoundly insulting. The film’s main point of course is that it graphically displays the horror of war and served a useful social function of making a new generation aware of the sacrifices of an older generation that didn’t have the luxury of cynicism in the face of the existential threat of fascism.

As David Graeber argued in his book The Democracy Project, working people do not share this cynical cleverness of the metropolitan intellectual. What they see is a system of privilege which systematically excludes their participation. How many British working class people are doing PhDs at Kings? What people want is secure jobs, a reduction in work stress, and time with their families. Correct deconstructions of soap adverts in not high on their list. The same point was made by George Orwell commenting on an Italian republican volunteer in his ‘Homage to Catalonia’.

And the last irony, if we are to indulge in such things, is that for the second week running the seminar started late and finished without any time for questions. So much for a university creating a space for intellectual dialogue and debate. The speaker made his points and then it was time to go.

There was a facility admin meeting which was supposed to finish at 3.30 so that the seminar could have started on time at 3.45. At 3.43 when I left it was still going on. So let’s forget about the heady heights of critical deconstruction and start by getting things to start on time. Let’s focus on some basics – seminars which are worthy of the name, adequate space for PhD students to work in, and not forgetting that ultimate violation of the lifeworld – charging people to go to a Christmas Party (anyone read any Jesus lately?)

None of this should be read as absolute criticism (an indulgence which is self contradictory as it is unconstructive) and I have no reason to believe that Paul Taylor is not a thoroughly nice guy – and even if he isn’t I am not in the business of judging souls. The point is that whatever the supposedly insightfulness of this analyses, the impact of his philosophy is socially and politically ruinous. The world is becoming a dangerous place in case we hadn’t noticed and academics need to start thinking more seriously about providing a constructive contribution to the anti-hegemonic project. If not our children may well not be deconstructing Sergeant Ryan but re-enacting it.

Roger Hallam.