From The New Ruthless Economy, by Simon Head, loc 1209. I wonder what ‘innovations’ have emerged in the ten years since this was book was published?

There are at least five distinct types of monitoring software. First, there are what might be called “classic” monitoring products, software that embodies the Taylorist preoccupation with timing and measurement: How long do agents take to answer a call? How long does the call last? How long does the agent take to “wrap up” the call by completing clerical tasks that may have arisen in the course of the call? Second, there are “quality-monitoring” products-software that eases the manager’s task of measuring the agent’s “soft skills”-his warmth and politeness, and whether his demeanor has strengthened ties of intimacy and loyalty between company and customer. Third, there are what might be called “total monitoring” products, software that simultaneously multaneously monitors what is happening on the agent’s screen and what the agent is saying on the telephone. With this “total monitoring,” it is possible to know whether the agent is following a prescribed script and accurately relaying the information and recommendations provided by product databases. Fourth, there is software that monitors Internet and E-mail “conversations” between agent and customer, and which can, if necessary, integrate this monitoring with the parallel monitoring of telephone conversations. Fifth, there are the digital technologies that are embodied in many of these monitoring products and that have made possible this forward leap in the scope and intensity of monitoring.

 Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Surveillance, pg 64:

By definition, the idea of ‘transition’ stands for a finite process, a time- span with clearly drawn starting and finishing lines – a passage from a spatial, temporal, or spatial and temporal, ‘here’ to a ‘there’; but these are precisely the attributes denied to the condition of ‘being a refugee’, which is defined and set apart from and in opposition to the ‘norms’ by their absence. A ‘camp’ is not a mid- station, or a road inn, or a motel on a voyage from here to there. It is the terminal station, where all mapped roads peter out and all movement grinds to a halt – with little prospect of parole or of the sentence being completed: more and more people are born in camps and die there, visiting no other places in their lifetime. Camps ooze finality; not the finality of destination, though, but of the state of transition petrified into a state of permanence.

See below for comments by the Whole Foods CEO John Mackey in this article that are by now rather familiar. This notion can be formulated in many different ways but at root it seeks to redeem ‘free-market capitalism’ by agreeing with leftist critics and disowning the excesses of the last few decades, denouncing them as the result of a perverse corporatism which we now need to overcome:

Instead of blaming capitalism for inequality and environmental degradation, Mackey suggests that we should look at the actions of governments. Departing from the dominant idea that states have retreated from the market over the past three decades, Mackey argues states have become more interventionist than ever, and that in the process they have “fostered a mutant form of capitalism called crony capitalism” that is to blame for many of the problems societies face today. Mackey does not see crony capitalism as “real” capitalism. Instead it is a product of big government in which politicians trying to preserve their cushy jobs develop symbiotic, parasitic relationships with businesspeople too lazy or unimaginative to compete successfully in the marketplace. In Mackey’s story, crony capitalism has been exacerbated by the rising power of the financial sector and shareholder value ideology — the idea that firms are nothing more than a stream of assets designed to maximize profits for shareholders. Mackey argues that this obsession with greed and profits has “robbed most businesses of their ability to engage and connect with people” and has created “long-term systemic problems” that destroy profitability and that can be deeply damaging to people and to the planet.

It might be confirmation bias on my part but I feel like I’m seeing this sentiment expressed with ever greater frequency. It becomes sinister when you consider it alongside the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the politics of austerity and the disturbingly post-democratic direction of European politics. Are we seeing the emergence of the cultural formation which will accompany the final and formal subordination of the social democratic state to the market economy?

An important argument by David Graeber in his new book. I’ve been thinking about this (particularly on university campuses) since events at Warwick last term and I find his analysis deeply persuasive:

And indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating and ultimately deploying physical violence, just about everywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.

All this takes place as social theorists continue to insist that the direct appeal to force plays less and less of a factor in maintaining structures of social control. The more reports one reads, in fact, of university students being tasered for unauthorised library use, or English professors being jailed and charged with felonies after being caught jaywalking on campus, the louder the defiant insistent that the kinds of subtle symbolic power analysed by English professor are what’s really important. It begins to sound more and more like a desperate refusal to accept that the workings of power could really be so crude and simplistic as what daily evidence proves them to be.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,pg 32-33

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts and the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validating ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical force.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pg 58

80% of new teachers in 2005 were still teaching after their first year. In 2015 that has shrunk to just 62%, coupled with record numbers leaving mid career. In the intervening period, we’ve seen successive governments seek to transform schooling in a way that has left the “profession monitored to within an inch of its life”: increasingly teaching can’t retain its new recruits and given 76% of new teachers report having considered leaving the profession, it’s possible the retention rate will continue to collapse over time.

Can you blame them? David Cameron recently pronounced that “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change” and that “If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you” – with ‘good or outstanding’ constituted through the unreliable judgements of an audit regime utterly disconnected from the realities of teaching. The result is a ratcheting up of situational demands amidst a climate of fear, leaving teachers drowning in assessment, terrified of negative assessments and increasingly prone to illness, as a recent survey found:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress.
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

This has produced a situation which the general secretary of the ATL describes as teaching having become “incompatible with normal life”. This is what audit regimes do when they’re pursued as an instrument of workplace control. How far behind is higher education? Will the greater sunk costs of newly qualified PhDs preclude a mass exodus from the profession? The analogy is far from perfect, not least of all because of the much lower ratio of available jobs to newly qualified academics, but there seems to be a similar direction of travel in both professions.

This expression by Will Davies has stuck with me since I read it a few months ago. Teaching is a disturbing example of the process Will is alluding to: ratcheting up demands on staff to the point where many are unwilling to continue. In fact increasing numbers seem unable to continue:

The BBC has also seen a survey of 3,500 members of the Nasuwt teaching union which shows more than two-thirds of respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year.

Workload was the top concern, with 89% citing this as a problem, followed by pay (45%), inspection (44%), curriculum reform (42%) and pupil behaviour (40%). In addition:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

Much of the issue here stems from the demand for ‘excellence’: as David Cameron recently put it, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change. If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. For head teachers a bad Ofsted report can mean the end of their career and this tyranny of excellence mutates into something ever more brutal as it works its way down the hierarchy.

Replace ‘heads’ with ‘HoDs’ and ‘Ofsted’ with ‘REF’ and we can see the same trend at work in higher education. Meanwhile the VCs fly around the world, creating strategic partnerships to actualise latent synergies. Here on the ground, one in six universities refuse to answer freedom of information requests about their expenses.

Across both spheres, we can see people breaking the professions, one personal tragedy at a time, while rewarding themselves extravagantly for doing so.

I wrote yesterday about cognitive triage in higher education and its ramifications for personal reflexivity. My claim is that an inflation of situational demands leads subjects to prioritise the urgent, moving immediately from one necessity to another, in a way which crowds out the important. While the urgent/important dichotomy is a feature of the ‘productivity culture’ I’m trying to analyse, I nonetheless think it’s actually a useful contrast. It loosely reflects the distinction between first-order desires and second-order desires offered by Charles Taylor and Harry Frankfurt: between our immediate desires and our desires about our desires e.g. I don’t want to go outside into the snow to walk to work but I want to want to do this and will if my second-order desire wins out over my first-order desire.

I’d like to develop the urgent/important contrast as a way of conceptually unpacking how reflexivity operates in working life. Dealing with both entails reflexivity but of very different sorts. The reflexivity of  urgency is much more limited in its scope, often instrumental and usually restricted to situational considerations. The reflexivity of importance is much more expansive, often value-rational and tends to transcend situational limitations. It’s the latter that is the foundation of agency, as what is important leads to action orientated towards changing our circumstances or exiting them (another aspect of what I’d like to do with this project). This is an overview of what I’m trying to argue:

  1. Social acceleration leads what is urgent to crowd out what is important via an escalation of situational demands
  2. In doing so, personal reflexivity tends towards the urgent rather than the important
  3. This has important ramifications for how subjects behave within the workplace
  4. Coping strategies by subjects reinforce this tendency towards urgent reflexivity
  5. These coping strategies also tend to reinforce acceleration within the workplace, as they facilitate the continual escalation of situational demands

Along with Filip Vostal, I want to develop this argument using higher education as a case study but I believe the process is far from restricted to the academy. In short, we’re trying to explore how a ‘circle of acceleration’ is intensified by personal coping strategies. These questions seem politically pressing to me because social acceleration is not an inexorable phenomenon. While some important aspects of it are technological, there’s nonetheless a large element which emerges from new technologies of control within the workplace (and is in turn being entrenched through an expansion of the technological facilities for audit & intervention). This amounts to, as Will Davies put it, “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest” (I’ve had this line stuck in my head since I encountered it) – what we’re interested in is how people seek to get better at hopping and how this reinforces the overall trend.