Utopia and Its Discontents

Ahead of my presentation on ‘The Catastrophic Function in Contemporary Culture’ at the ‘Fragments of Time’ conference on 16th October, here’s my article on contemporary utopianism, which forms the backdrop to the ideas I hope to develop there.  I’m looking forward to returning to some of the tentative suggestions I raised about science fiction and the supernatural in the short coda to this article. Although not directly related to the topic of pedagogy and education, I was tempted to return to the theme of the “dead/undead” as a political category following my appeal to the possibility of “zombie zones of action” in relation to the crisis of contemporary education.

This article was originally published in Volume 18 (Winter 2010) of Studies in Social and Political Thought  and based on a paper I gave at the ‘Utopia, Dystopia and Critical Theory’ conference in May 2010, hosted by the Centre for Social and Political Thought and the Centre for Literature and Philosophy at the University of Sussex.

Utopia and Its Discontents: Dreams of Catastrophe and the End of ‘the End of History’

The early Anglophone reception of Ernst Bloch’s utopian philosophy in the 1960s was undertaken primarily by liberal, left and existential theologians in North America, and the first English translations of his work were, accordingly, sustained reflections on theology from his mature writings, Man on His Own and Atheism in Christianity, translated in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Until the republication of the latter in 2009, both texts were out of print for many years. This early theological reception can be distinguished from a more recent and distinctly aesthetic Anglophone recuperation of Bloch’s work that began in the 1980s. Although Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (1971), and his edited collection of exchanges from the 1930s, Aesthetics and Politics (1977), provided a crucial stimulus for this reception, it is with Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (1986) that the contours of this emerging field can be traced.

61u7gEjrFUL.Image._SY445_Demand the Impossible draws on Jameson and Bloch, as well as Herbert Marcuse, to construct an account of the utopian imagination in order to analyse American science-fiction of the 1970s as offering examples of ‘critical utopias’. Such texts are marked, Moylan argues, by “the awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition”, rejecting “utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream” (1986: 10). This feature is also characteristic of much of the work that follows Moylan in the field of utopian aesthetics, which has over the last decade become institutionalised as the discipline of ‘Utopian Studies’.

This emergence can be traced back to the publications of Moylan’s Demand the Impossible, the first English translation of Bloch’s The Principle of Hope in 1986, and a collection of Bloch’s essays in The Utopian Function in Art and Literature, which appeared two years later. In the following two decades, a slew of further books and collections on utopia, dystopia and science fiction have appeared, culminating in Jameson’s own return to this theme in his Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005). Since 2000, we have seen English translations of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia and Traces, the inauguration of the Ralahine Centre for Research in Utopian Studies (which has to date published five volumes under its ‘Utopian Studies’ imprint), the launching of a Masters in Research degree in Utopian Studies at the University of Plymouth, numerous journals and conferences organised by both the European and American societies for Utopian Studies, and research on utopianism in contemporary art emerging from cultural studies and art departments such as Goldsmiths and Chelsea.

This discipline of Utopian Studies remains relatively small, but it is worth examining because the historical and political landscape under which it has emerged imposes, I want to argue, a kind of discontent or uneasiness upon the contemporary recuperation of Bloch, one which masks a deeper philosophical problem. For the resurgence of utopianism in the last few decades is premised upon both the collapse of existing socialist alternatives to Western capitalism, and a liberal rejection of those specific forms of actually-existing socialism in their associations with Stalinism in particular, and the Party and State in general. This produces the appearance of stasis and closure, or what Mark Fisher has dubbed a ‘capitalist realism’, which the appeal to the utopian imagination seeks to circumvent. At the same time, its broader opposition to any neo-Hegelian ‘end of history’, in either its right or left formulations, is internalised as an imperative against all concepts of closure and totality. This is perhaps reinforced by the institutional location of Utopian Studies, to the extent that theology – as opposed to aesthetics – tends to be more comfortable with philosophical and metaphysical reflections upon infinity, totality and fulfilment.

To give some brief examples, in Archaeologies of the Future, Jameson notes how, in the wake of the Cold War, the concept of Utopia becomes synonymous with Stalinism, and with political programmes that involve a commitment to closure and thereby to totality (2005: xi; 4). This commitment is, virtually by definition, lacking in what he distinguishes as an obscure yet omnipresent Utopian impulse, associated with Bloch’s work (ibid.: 1-9). For Moylan, the utopian impulse recovered in contemporary science-fiction is one that resists closure and systematisation, for which there are utopian expressions but no Utopia (1986: 28). Similarly, Lucy Sargisson, writing in the first volume of the Ralahine Utopian Studies series, argues that perfection, finality and stasis should not be taken as defining features of Utopia, and that contemporary science-fiction is politically exciting precisely because its utopias are incomplete. Instead, they “lie on the horizon, or, as Ernst Bloch puts it, in the ‘Not Yet'” (Sargisson, 2007: 37).

What unites these writers is the advocacy of a ‘Utopianism without Utopia’: for Sargisson, this takes the form of a pluralism in which no single utopia can become the Utopia (Sargisson, 2007: 37); Darko Suvin refers to a horizon of unlocalised possible worlds (Suvin, 1997: 132-137); Jameson invokes the idea of a federalism of utopias (Jameson, 2005: 224). This critical utopian impulse has a longer heritage, of course, but its affirmative commitment to open-endedness, partiality and plurality registers the more explicit and direct lineage of Bloch within contemporary Utopian Studies. Indeed, it is Bloch’s failure to properly resolve the theoretical tension between these two aspects – between Utopianism and Utopia – that makes his work so amenable to the kind of jettisoning of the Utopia in its historical form that is currently being performed. For, as Jameson and Moylan point out, Bloch’s utopianism, even at its most generalising and ahistorical, already had a concrete historical Utopia, namely, the Soviet Union (Jameson, 2005: 3, n. 3). In The Principle of Hope, that which Adorno describes as the innermost antinomy of Bloch’s thought is stretched so wide that it appears as if one problematic half can simply be lobbed off, and the other half uncritically taken up by Utopian Studies (cf. Adorno, 1991: 213).

We are now educated to be suspicious of the linear, teleological – ‘Christian’ – aspect of Bloch’s utopianism, of the Enlightenment tropes of maturity, freedom and perfection coded into his evocation of the ‘upright gait’ (accepting there are other, more nuanced and interesting aspects of Bloch’s work, including his work on history, that are important and worthy of further consideration). But what is philosophically problematic about Bloch’s thought is not resolvable by simply omitting the optimistic faith in communism in general or the Soviet Union in particular. Indeed, too much is lost by throwing out any specific attention to the content of the political in order to embrace the empty formalism of a ‘pan-utopianism’ in which the imaginative surplus of the fantasy-principle triumphs over the capitalist reality-principle. Still required is a rethinking of the theoretical relationship between communism and history, not the rejection of history altogether.

Furthermore, because the problem relates to the phenomenological hermeneutics underlying Bloch’s utopianism, uncritically adopted by much of Utopian Studies, this cannot be resolved by simply ignoring his own political and historical Utopia. While David Kaufmann claimed (echoing Jürgen Habermas’ criticism of Bloch as a ‘Marxist Schelling’), that there is “too much Schelling and too much Stalin” in The Principle of Hope (Kaufmann, 1997: 35), the institutionalising of Bloch over the last few decades perhaps too easily ignored the Stalin and too readily embraced the Schelling.

The Phenomenology of Utopianism

I want to elaborate upon this point in specific relation to Bloch’s concept of ‘anticipatory illumination’ [Vorschein], by considering it in relation to the utopian element of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. The darkness of the lived moment is illuminated, for Bloch, by the daydreams of the not-yet-conscious. This is a supplement to Freud’s methodology for the interpretation of dream-symbolism, one which is necessary in so far as Bloch seeks to overcome the limitations placed on the interpretation of the cultural superstructure by Marx’s narrower reflections on ideology. Just as Freud’s concept of the unconscious would encourage him to dismiss the psychotic fantasies of the schizophrenic as a purely regressive collapse of the reality-principle – unanalysable and therefore unredeemable – Marx’s concept of ideology led him to dismiss the utopian fantasising of the 1849 revolutionaries as comparable to those of the madman in the asylum, caused by a past, obsessive and regressive fixation (cf. Freud, 1995: 69-70; Marx, 2002: 21).

Bloch’s Marxism sought to secure the ‘objective element’ of utopian presentiment by distancing it from the pathological implications associated with a place in the Freudian unconscious. Because the not-yet-conscious is not the unconscious, anticipatory illumination may contain its own kind of anticipatory symbols associated with consciousness, reason and freedom. Bloch compares this to the “cultural surplus” Marx describes when the interests of a rising class are expressed in terms of the needs and aspirations of humanity in general (Bloch, 1988: 111). The meaning of the utopian has an implicit futural dimension, produced by a surplus of intentional expectation, whose significance overshoots the ideological workings of false, mystified consciousness.

Wayne Hudson’s The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch charts the philosophical influence of Brentano’s recuperation of the scholastic theory of the intentional object, Meinong’s work on intentional inexistence, as well as Husserl and Scheler’s development of phenomenology on Bloch’s formulation of the ‘not-yet-conscious’. Bloch made contact with the latter via his study of empathy psychology under Theodor Lipps at the University of Munich in 1905, but from 1907 onwards, Hudson claims, Bloch’s emphasis “fell on the directedness of consciousness to objects and its intentionality to future possibilities”, extending “Brentano’s doctrine that all thought acts were directed to objects to cover intentionality towards objects which were ‘not yet'” and utilising Meinong’s Gegestandstheorie as “a model for a theory of directedness towards non-existent objects” (Hudson, 1982: 6; 22-24).

This intellectual movement from phenomenology to a concern with intentional inexistence is reflected in Bloch’s discussion of phenomenology in The Heritage of Our Times, where he argues that Gestalt theory should be detached from the “scholastic-objectivist component in Husserl” (Bloch, 1991: 278). Husserl, Bloch argues, mistakenly augments the subjectivity of the (bourgeois) ego with the objectivity of a ‘contemplative’ construction derived from scholastic and neo-Platonic mysticism. This sought a graphic intuition of essences in which, following the initial bracketing of existence, the “bare species of intention [. . .] is ‘fulfilled'” (ibid.: 275). Bloch proposes that, in contrast to phenomenology, Gestalten should be conceived not as fixed laws but “figures of tension, as tendency shapes, as experiments of the unknown life-shape”. This accords, he says, with Meinong’s understanding of melody as a “quality of shape” (ibid.: 278).

The Epoch as Catastrophe

Bloch’s anticipatory utopian consciousness reflects the attempt by intellectuals of his generation to overcome the narrowness of the orthodox Marxist account of ideology, and its influence can be seen in some of Walter Benjamin’s early formulations for his method of constructing dialectical images of history in the Arcades Project. For Benjamin, the ‘dialectical – the Copernican – turn of remembrance’ represents a “revolution in historical perception”, granting politics a primacy over history by transforming the completed ‘facts’ of what has been into the incomplete experience of “something that just now first happened to us, first struck us” (Benjamin, 2002: 388-389). Comparing this “new, dialectical method of doing history” to Bloch’s anticipatory illumination, Benjamin notes that what “Bloch recognises as the darkness of the lived moment is nothing other than what here is to be secured on the level of the historical, and collectively” (ibid.). For there is a “not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been”, and “its advancement has the structure of awakening” (ibid.). The 1935 exposé of The Arcades Project consequently speaks of the “utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions”, and assumes as its motto the utopian slogan, borrowed from the historian Michélet: “Each epoch dreams the one to follow” (ibid.: 4).

This concern with the perceptibility of a historical ‘epoch’ – in this instance, that of nineteenth-century Paris – is fundamental to the dialectical materialist presentation of history practiced in the Arcades Project. In this respect, it may be regarded as a critical response to the (undialectical) materialist presentation provided in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, dramatically expanding and ultimately reversing the work’s historical and cultural perspective. Indeed, part of Benjamin’s project is to demonstrate how the Marxist concept of ideology itself expresses the ideological limitations of this epoch, in accordance with Marx’s political radicalisation in mid-nineteenth century Paris. Adorno’s critical response to Benjamin’s 1935 exposé is therefore notable in this context. He singles out Michélet’s motto as that around which everything undialectical about Benjamin’s theory of the dialectical image crystallizes (cf. Benjamin, SW3: 54). This concerns (1) Benjamin’s identification of the dialectical image with the content of consciousness; (2) the dialectical image’s linear relation to the future as utopia; and (3) the resulting conception of the historical ‘epoch’, which entails an immanent, rather than theological, version of the dialectical image.

The problematically undialectical conception of the ‘epoch’, which follows from Michélet’s motto, in part derives from the 1935 exposé’s understanding of the temporal relation of the representation of the past to the future (i.e. of the bringing of the past into its (future) present). Admittedly, both Bloch and Benjamin sought, in various and often comparable ways, to rethink these relations outside of chronological linearity. But the futuricity of Benjamin’s concept of the ‘epoch’ remains problematic here because it attempts to think the significance of historical phenomena, in accordance with Bloch’s anticipatory consciousness, by analogy with the phenomenological structure of the wish.

Adorno’s correction to Benjamin’s motto – ‘the recent past always presents itself as if it had been annihilated by catastrophes’ – is not therefore to be understood as some dystopian inversion of Benjamin’s Blochean progressiveness, since that would retain the temporal linearity of which he is so critical (ibid.). Nor should Benjamin’s adoption of this reformulation into the structure of the project be understood as a reference to some empirical possibility (cf. Benjamin, 2002: 397). There are elements of such a productive pessimism in Benjamin’s mature writings, just as there are elements of a simplistic utopian optimism in his earliest essays on the politics of the Youth Movement, but the function of the catastrophic cannot be reduced to this. “Each epoch dreams of itself as annihilated by catastrophes” (cf. Benjamin, SW3: 58) – in this reformulation of Michélet’s slogan, the concept of the catastrophic functions as a dialectical correction to Benjamin’s method of epochal construction.


Consequently, in his 1937 essay on Eduard Fuchs, Benjamin’s (dialectical) historical materialist is now charged with the task of “blast[ing] the epoch out of its reified ‘historical continuity’, and thereby the life out of the epoch, and the work out of the lifework” (Benjamin, SW3: 262). “Yet this construct”, he continues, “results in the simultaneous preservation and sublation of the lifework in the work, the epoch in the lifework, and the course of history in the epoch” (ibid.). An identical formulation from a presumably contemporaneous remark in The Arcades Project concludes that the homogeneity of the epoch is in this way “interspersed with ruins – that is, with the present” (Benjamin, 2002: 474). The catastrophic signifies the dialectical intrusion of the whole of history (including the present in which it is represented) into the epoch, and by extension the whole of the epoch into the life of the artist, and the whole life of the artist into a particular work. In this way, the intrusion of the historical Absolute contributes to the ruination of the work. This theological reference to the totality of history constitutes the basis of Benjamin’s messianism, conceived as a specific relation between the historical particular and the historical Absolute.

As Adorno suggests in his 1935 critique of the non-theological version of the dialectical image, this conception of the catastrophic does not represent a specifically ‘Adornian’ correction to Benjamin’s utopianism but encapsulates his own earlier theory of primal history [Urgeschichte], given its fullest explication in “the most audacious passage in the Trauerspiel book” from 1924-5 (cf. Benjamin, SW3: 55). Indeed, a good example of such epochal construction can be found in Benjamin’s essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities from the early 1920s, where the tensions of the whole ‘Age of Goethe’ are condensed into the structure of the novel, such that the work itself becomes a Goethean “primal phenomenon [Urphänomen]” in which the epoch can be perceived. The Paris Arcades would similarly concretely express the configurations of capitalist modernity in such a way that the entire course of history (including Benjamin’s present) could be read from their structure. In this monadological conception of historical construction, the linearity of progress (or decline) is therefore overcome.

The Non-Intentional

At the heart of Benjamin’s understanding of the dialectical construction of the epoch, and the new method of historical representation it entails, is a critique of the scholastic and ultimately Aristotelian theory of intentionality. In the Arcades Project, this reincorporation of the catastrophic, in its dialectical relation to the utopian, ultimately stands for the rejection of the account of signification inherent to the utopian phenomenology of Bloch’s anticipatory surplus of intention. Adorno’s introduction of the catastrophic back into Benjamin’s mature account of wish-symbols as collective, historical dreams is a dialectical correction to Marxist historicism in order to stave off the idealism of Bloch’s utopian phenomenology.

Convolute N of The Arcades Project distinguishes Benjamin’s dialectical images from phenomenological essences on the basis of their ‘historical index’. This ‘index’ indicates that the image belongs to a particular time in the past and attains legibility at a particular ‘now’ in the future. Truth is charged to the bursting point in this indexical conjunction, and the point of explosion is “the death of the intention, which thus coincides with the birth of authentic historical time” (Benjamin, 2002: 463). The perceptibility of such an image “bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded” (ibid.). The imprint of the historical index on the image (the intensifying conjunction of the past to its particular present) takes on the appearance of the catastrophic. According to this principle, the growing significance of historical phenomena is apparent from the conversely diminishing status of the intention attributed to them.

The kernel of this semiotic critique of the intentional is contained in Benjamin’s aborted plans for a critical Habilitation on Duns Scotus and signification (based, like Heidegger’s own thesis, on a misattribution of Thomas of Erfurt’s thirteenth-century work on Speculative Grammar, Or the Modes of Signifying), and a consideration of this critique contributes to an understanding of his reference to a non-phenomenological ‘historical index’ at the basis of the dialectical image. Truth, unlike knowledge, is concerned not with the coherence of the object established in consciousness, but with the immanent self-representation of the object, devoid of all intention (Benjamin, 1998: 36). The Aristotelian-scholastic schema of words signifying concepts denoting things is unable to account for how something possesses the capacity in the first instance to be taken as a sign of something else. That is, how do signifiers originally signify their signifying function? Without an explanation, the theory of intentionality – and any epistemology founded upon it – not only suffers an infinite regress, but is also sundered from the possibility of fulfilment and therefore the experience of truth.

Benjamin’s solution is to assume that everything possesses an essential semiotic nature (words, concepts and things), entailing a linguistic ontology comparable to that of J. G. Hamann’s metacritique of Kant’s transcendental idealism. The realm of significance belongs neither to the consciousness of the knowing subject nor to the object, but extends as a “critical medium between the realm of the signifier and the signified”: “We may say, therefore, that the signifier points to the signified and simultaneously is based on it, insofar as its material determination is concerned” (Benjamin, SW1: 228). The signifying element within the signified itself concerns its immanent self- signification (or self-representation), what Benjamin elsewhere extrapolates in relation to Early German Romanticism and to a theological conception of Naming as the primal element of signification, “the analogue of that knowledge of the object in the object itself ” (Benjamin, SW1: 90). But the Name, as the linguistic essence of a thing, is the totality of its historical determinations or significations.

Every aspect of relation, including that which takes place between a ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of perception, is to be understood as a form of language or signification. Benjamin’s theory of the perceptibility of phenomena extends this model of signification into the experience of history. In a discussion of the ‘now of recognizability’ from 1921, what Benjamin later calls the historical index of the image (the mark of its significance) is explained according to a ‘medium’ or a ‘nexus between existing things and also with the perfected state of the world’ to which truth belongs. The metaphysical immanence attributed to the theological name is here incorporated into the ‘meaning’ associated with historical events themselves, including the ‘significance’ of great works of arts.

Whereas ‘intentionality’ describes significance as a relationship holding between the subject and the intentional inexistence (or conceptual kind of existence) of the object of consciousness (i.e. the concept), the catastrophic redeems the objective element by liberating it from the human knowledge of history. Benjamin’s messianic account of the experience of truth imposes the theological concepts of the infinite, fulfilled and perfected state of the world into the immanence of finite, particular, existing phenomena.


What is surprising about Bloch’s concept of ‘anticipatory illumination’ is how commonsensical and idealist is its grounding in intentional surplus, how its substitution of the valorization of the ‘just-then’ for the ‘not-yet’ performs the inversion of historical conservatism. Bloch’s theory of signification ends up abandoning any qualitative content within historical significance: objectivity resides in the mere futurity of things. Even if Utopian Studies rejects the true historical meaning and implication of Bloch’s utopianism – Soviet socialism itself – it nonetheless inherits Bloch’s failure to resolve this problem at the level of historical signification. This uneasiness over the ‘end of history’ imposes a critical self-limitation upon contemporary utopian theory, which as a result jettisons the concept of history which is required for the genuine critical purchase it espouses. For, to repeat the standard hermeneutical problem, how can anything have significance or meaning if one fails to pose the question of totality or fulfilment? Bloch’s utopian images are as undialectical in their futural incompleteness as Jung’s archaic images are in their past completion.

The contemporary interest in utopian aesthetics, reflected in the proliferation of forums discussing the topic of utopianism, is useful for registering the general impasse in the possibility of political change, but its specific reception of Bloch’s work – devoid of his particular political commitment – merely reinforces the inverted conservatism of political and cultural liberalism.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that the dream of catastrophe which underwrites Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image provides a more philosophically attentive and useful resource, not least because it formulates itself precisely in relation to this question of signification and historical significance that, I suggest, remains unresolved in the recuperation of Bloch. To the extent that it seeks to reject the positivist representation of historical ‘facts’, it opposes the view of history produced by the present ruling class. In common with much of contemporary Utopian Studies, it therefore opposes any quasi-Hegelian, empirically foreshortened ‘end of history’ which merely serves to reinforce the eternalization of the present moment. But, unlike the recuperation of Bloch in the field of Utopia Studies, it does not simply jettison reflection upon the problem of historical significance, but rather replaces the Hegelian Absolute with an Early German Romantic and Goethean one.

Coda: Science Fiction and Utopian Studies

There is a further condition of the institutional emergence of Utopian Studies, which remains unaddressed here. As indicated in the introduction, this institutionalization is predicated not only on (1) a theoretical recuperation of a phenomenology of utopian consciousness derived primarily from a reception of the work of Ernst Bloch, and (2) a postmodern suspicion of the totalizing project of historical meta-narratives (on both the Left and Right), formulated as a discontent towards any ‘end of history’, but also (3) a literary and cultural attentiveness to science fiction, conceived as a sub-genre of ‘critical utopian’ writing, and drawing on a body of literature which emerges in the 1970s out of the experience of counter-cultural America. At this point, I am only able to offer as a conjecture the suggestion that the affinity between Utopian Studies and science fiction is a reflection of their comparable disciplinary emergence – their recuperated ‘respectability’ – in the historical and political conditions of the late 1970s and 1980s. But I would suggest that this affinity can also be extended to the phenomenological temporality inherent to the form of much science fiction, in the way that its anticipatory structure – which is precisely the condition of its ‘realism’ – reasserts rather than disrupts historical continuity. The dialectical conception of catastrophe expounded above would have the appearance not of some utopian or dystopian possibility, but the immanent and violent intrusion of the Absolute into the space of the present. This manifests itself not in the appearance of the new, but of the archaic and primal. It would, presumably, possess the theological or supernatural simultaneity of horror. A rejection of science fiction’s anticipatory structure would therefore push its realist form into the domain of surrealism. Admittedly, some of the greatest works of science fiction have extended the boundaries of the genre in precisely this way.


Adorno, T. W. (1991) Notes to Literature (Volume 1) Columbia: Columbia University Press

Benjamin, W. (1988) The Origin of German Tragic Drama London: Verso 

Benjamin, W. (2002) The Arcades Project Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Benjamin, W. (1996-2003) Selected Writings (Volumes 1-4) Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Bloch, E. (1988) The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays Massachusetts: MIT Press

Bloch, E. (1991) The Heritage of Our Times Oxford: Polity

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books

Freud, S. (1995) ‘Psycho-Analytical Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Volume XII) London: The Hogarth Press

Hudson, W. (1982) The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch London: Macmillan

Jameson, F. (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions London: Verso

Kaufmann, D. (1997) ‘Thanks for the Memory: Bloch, Benjamin, and the Philosophy of History’ in J. O. Daniel & T. Moylan (eds) Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch London: Verso (33-52)

Marx, K. (2002) ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ in M. Cowling & J. Martin (eds) Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: (Post)modern Interpretations London: Pluto Press

Moylan, T. (1986) Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination New York: Methuen

Sargisson, L. (2007) ‘The Curious Relation between Politics and Utopia’ in T. Moylan & R. Baccolini (eds) Utopian Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming Bern: Peter Lang (25-46)

Suvin, D. (1997) ‘Locus, Horizon, and Orientation: The Concept of Possible Worlds as a Key to Utopian Studies’ in J. O. Daniel & T. Moylan (eds) Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch London: Verso (122-137)

Volume: Pedagogies of Disaster

Pedagogies-of-Disaster_Cover_Web-216x324Edited by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, Adam Staley Groves, and Nico Jenkins (for The Department of Eagles, Tirana, Albania)

Photography by Diego Cossentino and Marco Mazzi; Translations by Jonida Gashi

Bilingual Edition: English/Albanian

FORTHCOMING: September 2013


We live in an era where the university system is undergoing great changes owing to developments in financing policies and research priorities, as well as changes in the society in which this system is embedded. This change toward a more market-oriented university, which also has immediate effects in academic peripheries such as the Balkans, the Middle East, or South-East Asia, is of great influence for the pedagogical practice of “less profitable” academic areas such as the Humanities: philosophy, languages, sociology, anthropology, history.

Because of the absence of a historically grounded establishment of the Humanities, academic peripheries, usually accompanied by a weak civil society infrastructure, seem to offer the most fertile ground for rethinking the Humanities, their pedagogical practice, and their politics, as well as the greatest threats, such as the ongoing capitalization of research, and profitability as the norm of educational achievement. The sprawling presence of for-profit universities and in academic peripheries such as Albania and Kosovo is indicative of this problematic, as are consistent underfunding of universities and the relentless budget cuts in American and English, and to a lesser extent European, universities. Motivations for this ongoing attack on the university are often driven by a political system or a politics with an aggressive stance to critical thought.

At the same time, such an absence of historical grounding may inspire a rejuvenation and reinvigoration of research in the Humanities, such as may be seen in academic centers around Asia, as many young scholars are attracted to an educational environment which is not yet completely petrified in bureaucratic procedures. In this case, a different set of questions appear concerning the place of the scholar in societies with semi-democratic or even authoritarian rule. For civil society to flourish, an educational system that reflects and interrogates the values and concepts that underlie a healthy social fabric are of crucial importance.

This volume comprises papers culled from continent. journal’s Pedagogies of Disaster conference held in Tirana, Albania, hosted by The Department of Eagles (Departamenti i Shqiponjave) in June 2013, and organized to address the fate of relation and the future of pedagogical practice in the University, and especially as it concerns the humanities. The papers gathered here seek to address the infrastructural or interpersonal changes in the modes of production as it relates to current academia, examining the elements and spaces of the rifts opening up in the polis of the University—its students, professors and administrators. The volume further addresses the pedagogical horizon at a critical limit, asking: for whom or for what are we teaching and from whom or from what are we learning?

Table of Contents:

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei · Opening
Christopher Fynsk · A Pedagogy on the Verge of Disaster
Oliver Feltham · Desocializing the School: Education and the Action-Zone
Adam Staley Groves · Sandy Hook University: Poetic Violence, Scope, and Style of Imagination
Julia Hölzl · A Call for Thinking (The Disaster)
John Van Houdt · The Rhetoric of Disaster: Surviving the End of the Humanities
Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei · A Passion for Yes: Coming Out and Affirmation
Edith Doron · Welcoming the Stranger: From Social Inclusion to Exilic Education
Urok Shirhan · Occupy Baghdad: On the Occupation of Images
Jonas Staal · Art After Democratism: The Pedagogy of the New World Summit
Katharina Stadler · “Reading on Disaster” Intervention: Imaginaries in Participatory Artistic Practice
Manifesto for Education in Albania
Andreas Vrahimis · Philosophy and Humanistic Education: J.S. Mill’s Catastrophic Pedagogy
Matthew Charles · Walter Benjamin and the Inhumanities: Towards a Pedagogical Anti-Nietzscheanism
Nico Jenkins · Philosophy beyond the Peras: Thinking with/in the Periphery
Justin Joque · Cyber-Catastrophe: Towards a New Pedagogy of Entropy
Tijana Stevanović · Faculty in Withdrawal: Not To Know and the Uncertainties of Self-Institutionalization
Denisa Kera · On Prototypes: Should We Eat Mao’s Pear, Sail Saint-Exupéry’s Boat, Drink with Heidegger’s Pitcher, or Use Nietzsche’s Hammer to Respond to the Crisis?
Sina Badiei · The Necessity of Education: Or How Can One Still Be an Althusserian in the Wake of Badiou?
Nick Skiadopoulos · The University Must Be Transcended
Judith Balso · Compter sur l’impossible inexistant / To Rely on the Inexistent Impossible
Constitution of Happiness
Jonida Gashi · Translator’s Note

Lines in Class: The ongoing attack on mass education in England

This commentary was first published in Radical Philosophy 176 (Nov/Dec 2012). Sections of this paper were presented as part of a panel I helped organized on ‘Critical Education and Radical Pedagogy’ at the London Conference in Critical Thought (29th and 30th June 2012).

Andrew McGettigan’s analysis of the financial transformations of higher education (‘Who Let the Dogs Out? The Privatization of Higher Education’, RP 174) is important for comprehending the complexity of the changes universities are undergoing and their implications. As he argues, ‘it is mass higher education in England’ that is now under attack and adequately responding to this requires the development of new habits and new forms of thought.¹ It is also necessary to contextualize this attack in relation to comparable changes occurring in other educational sectors in England, not least because it is through control of the points of intersection between primary, secondary, and tertiary education that the government’s political intent is being most effectively realized. An analysis of these changes reveals the broader nature of the attack on the idea and practice of mass education itself.

Rolling out and back

McGettigan makes it clear that any starting point for our resistance to the attack on mass education must begin by recognizing the inadequacy of speaking of a simple process of ‘privatization’. The situation is more complex, first, because institutions that we currently conceive as ‘public’ are already semi-privatized to the extent their corporate structures are those of private charities. The policies now being pursued by the government are intended to ease their further transformation from charities to for-profit companies, as well as encouraging current institutions to outsource further services to commercial providers. Second,a countervailing movement of existing independent educational institutions will bring them into the orbit of regulation by government-funded bodies such as the Student Loans Company (SLC) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in order to gain competitive advantages, such as access to student loans and eventually degree-awarding powers (there has been a 77 per cent increase this year in private college courses approved by the SLC).²

As McGettigan notes, we lack a distinct term to capture the former process and the latter might be better characterized as a ‘counter-tendency to privatization’.³ In Networks, New Governance and Education, Stephen J. Ball and Carolina Bart-Simpson-Blackboard-Opening-image-from-The-Simpsons-e1334321941538Junemann borrow Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell’s formulation of ‘roll out and roll back’ neoliberalism to characterize this process in English education.4 But however we describe this double movement of the state-enforced marketization of private charities and a market-driven governance of businesses its outcome will most likely be a broader horizontal merging of distinct kinds of educational providers into a subtly different type of institution. As Ball and Junemann describe, the destabilization of state education permits an increasingly ‘mixed economy’ of provision to emerge, whose blurring of the boundaries between the public, private and philanthropic enables the imposition of an ‘enterprise narrative’ of competition and entrepreneurialism through distinct and more diverse and flexible networks of governance.

Far from unifying or expanding provision, however,this state-regulated market for higher education will better permit existing divisions to be exacerbated,splitting the merged sector into two tiers along a fault line that will follow more closely the contours of social class that were partially blurred by the recent expansion of higher education. In contrast to any simplistic model of neoliberal marketization, this is achieved by retaining regulated restrictions on student fees and numbers in order to permit strategic exceptions to these regulations. McGettigan discusses one example of this core/margin model, whereby institutions charging below the lower fee cap are given access to additional student places above the cap on ‘core’ numbers. This should be understood in relation to another sanctioned exception, which currently permits institutions to recruit students achieving at least two As and one B in their A-levels (and from 2013, it is proposed, ABB) above and beyond the numbers cap.

In the sealed environment enforced by the current upper fees cap, these exceptions are intended to separate two distinct markets. Stripped of funding, non-elite and largely metropolitan universities serving lower-middle and working-class students will compete with other education providers in a ‘race to the bottom’in terms of the price, length and quality of educational provision. The Russell Group institutions that are prestigious and rich enough to attract the most successful students through scholarships and expensive marketing campaigns will compete in the opposite direction. Ultimately, this is intended to concentrate and narrow academic research and funding within a smaller monopoly of globally elite institutions, with a merging of higher and further education as the rest become increasingly teaching-based, qualification- supplying institutions.6

Interestingly, in practice a drop in the number of AAB-achieving students this year has led to the converse situation in which a third of Russell Group universities have been required to enter into the Clearing system to fill empty places, some for the first time. This drop has been linked partly to increasing governmental pressure on exam boards to resist so-called ‘grade inflation’ and partly to broader issues around the number and type of student taking A-levels this year, as well as the unpredictable impact of the new funding structure on students’ decisions to decline places offered or defer applying at all.7 But the situation was reportedly manufactured in the first instance by a miscalculated increase in the number of offers made (not merely at elite universities and often also for insurance places) that were conditional on achieving results of AAB or above, as universities sought to give themselves the greatest flexibility to manipulate their intake once A-level results were published.8

Given that university applications continue to out-number places, the ‘shock’ entry of elite universities into a Clearing market long frequented by less prestigious institutions should be read merely as symptomatic of the general conditions of state marketization itself. In this instance, the ‘educational kettling’ has been almost too quick and effective, as fractures have started to appear within the Russell Group itself. In the longer term, however, the attempt to differentiate students through the manipulation of both the type and toughness of examinations and the core/margin model should relieve pressure at the top and produce a clearer separation from the bottom. In the short term, however,the losers have been those students who have narrowly missed out on their predicted results but have been stuck in Clearing whilst their first-choice universities cherry-pick the most successful students. This will ultimately work to decrease choice for a majority of students if predictions and conditional offers continue to exceed the government’s downward pressure on grades: an outcome of the pincer movement between marketization and governance.

At the other end of the spectrum, around 2,600 students at London Metropolitan currently face deportation following the UK Border Agency’s decision to revoke its licence to sponsor non-EU student visas. As a result, the university has taken what HEFCE euphemistically describes as the ‘pragmatic decision’ to limit the number of institutions involved in a ‘mini-Clearing’ setup for affected students.9 But, as McGettigan reports, six of the fifteen involved are ‘private providers’, once again manipulating the system in favour of the government’s political agenda and against student choice.10 The effectiveness of the government’s educational agenda is perhaps clearest, however, in anecdotal reports of the shortfalls in recruitment to MA level. Here, the talking-down of academic learning in England would seem to have been an effective deterrent to potential postgraduates both home and overseas, despite wider variations in tuition fees.


This kind of transformation is not restricted to higher education, however. A brief consideration of the changes being wrought in other sectors is instructive to the extent that it reinforces the systematic nature of the overall attack on mass education, but also because it reinforces how controlling the intersections between primary, secondary and tertiary education remains crucial for this government. As with the assault on the universities, it is notable how effectively the Conservatives have been able to extend Labour’s existing policies on education and redirect them ‘to the advantage of the already advantaged’.11

Whilst much attention has been given to the Conservatives’ introduction of free schools, it was Labour’s expansion of the academies programme that proved most significant for Tory attempts to create a state-regulated market in primary and secondary education that mirrors the movement discussed above.12 Labour’s academies were introduced in 2000 as a way of injecting private sponsorship and governance into underachieving schools by removing them from local authority control (themselves a modification of the Conservatives’ ill-fated City Technology Colleges).They differ from the plethora of ‘maintained’ schools in being independent of direct control by local authorities,and from fee-charging and independent private schools in having a model funding agreement direct with central government.13 Like universities and private schools,academies are typically private charities with a corporate structure limited by guarantee rather than shares (hence not-for-profit). Initially the remaining capital and governance were to be supplied through sponsorship by a not-for-profit educational company, although this investment is no longer a condition of such companies running academies (thus erasing one important distinction between academies and free schools).

In contrast to Labour’s focus on struggling schools,however, the Conservatives have encouraged schools rated as ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ to convert to academy status, and it is these better-performing institutions that are therefore the principal beneficiaries of the financial resources being ploughed into the programme.14 Although academy sponsors are currently not commercial ventures, there is a clear incentive to privatization taking place here as the ‘best’ schools, including those in the primary sector, are transformed into private charities.15 This is also accompanied by the outsourcing of services to a burgeoning market in for-profit service providers. The rapid expansion of academies and free schools legislated by the Academies Act of 2010 therefore ‘blur[s] the divide between the independent and state sectors’.16

As with higher education, one notable aspect of this process is a counter-movement of existing private independents to take on closer government and financial regulation by either converting to academy status themselves or becoming sponsors for new academies. Last year the Guardian claimed that private schools were ‘lining up’ to become free schools, and although the defeat of a backbench revision to the Academies Act that would have permitted them to select intake has perhaps dampened enthusiasm, for fee-paying schools foundering financially during the recession the temptation to take on state funding whilst keeping their independent status remains strong.17

The government has also been pushing for closer collaboration between private schools and academies/free schools, encouraging the former to provide educational leadership and financial sponsorship for the state sector.18 Many may dismiss such moves as mere posturing by the private sector, a cynical concession for self-preservation (particularly with regard to their VAT exemption).19 But,  as McGettigan reports, the Coalition is currently set on extending VAT exemption to all providers of education, including commercial enterprises, and there has been little or no political will to meddle with the private sector by either the current government or the last Labour one.20

For the most academically successful ‘maintained’ schools and for the poorer private schools, conversion to academy status will ensure a clear allocation of central funding during times of severe cuts in both public and private spending on education. This merging of distinct sectors under the institutional umbrella of the academy reiterates two issues in relation to McGettigan’s observations on higher education: the complexity of referring to this general trend in education in terms of ‘privatization’ and the way in which this merging of sectors permits a more insidious attack on mass education.

‘Publicization’ and the riots

The confusing designation of traditional fee-paying schools as ‘public’ points to the complexity of this situation, and to the way in which these broader issues in education must be contextualized historically, not merely in relation to increasingly globalized capital but also to shifting ideological relations between nation, church and state in England.21 The appellation ‘public school’ came to indicate institutions independent of both residential restrictions imposed on endowments by local philanthropists and religious restrictions imposed by church schools A trend for private schools to convert to academies – with legal contracts established with the state, a governing body and curriculum negotiated with their charitable sponsors, and the ability to draw their own catchment areas for local selection – might, in this specific sense, be confusingly said to represent a ‘privatization’ of public schools. Conversely, the shift of ‘maintained’ schools away from local authority control could be said to involve a political ‘publicization’. This reiterates McGettigan’s claims concerning the complexity of a process that belies the simplicity of the term ‘privatization’, as well as the need to scrutinize more carefully the ideological limitations of the concepts of ‘public’ and ‘private’ being invoked in such claims (particularly with regard to philanthropic sponsorship; see my discussion of a ‘return to the public’ in ‘Philosophy for Children’ in RP 170).

goveIn the context of secondary education in particular, the possibility of closer involvement of sponsors and providers opened up by the legal structure of academies is ideally suited for pushing the government’s Big Society agenda (a political policy that, having been quietly dropped after much lampooning in the early years of the Coalition, seems prepared for a comebackafter the vast softening-up exercise of the London 2012 Olympics and its ‘Games Makers’). Here, the findings of the government-appointed Riots Communities and Victims Panel are instructive for anticipating a future role for academies in the most deprived areas.22 In the Panel’s interim and final reports, the phantasmagoric substitution of objective socioeconomic conditions(rising unemployment, growing inequality, cuts in investment and welfare, evidence of police, media,and government corruption) for subjective feelings of hopelessness and disenfranchisement permit nearly all of the piecemeal policy recommendations to fall within the sphere of educational reform (a lack of jobs, for example, is to be resolved by better vocational training,and a lack of personal resilience by education into optimism, self-sufficiency and entrepreneurialism). By the final report these differences coagulate into a precise policy suggestion of the need for schools to instil ‘strength of character’, to be thematically reviewed by Ofsted and assessed on a regular basis.

One unlikely outlet for such rhetoric was the media discussion surrounding the success of the British team in the London 2012 Olympics, where – according to a report from the Sutton Trust – 36 per cent of British medal winners were privately educated from a sector which educates only 7 per cent of the student population.23 Comparable figures from Beijing 2008 had prompted the chairman of the British Olympic Association to declare this ‘one of the worst statistics in British sport’ and to demand a more ‘comprehensive engagement’ from independent schools prepared to share their sporting facilities with their state-sector neighbours.24 The Right, in contrast, saw this as an opportunity to attack state education itself and the teaching unions in particular. David Cameron claimed the problem was not merely one of resources but of ‘too many schools not wanting to have competitive sport’ and accused ‘some teachers not wanting to join in and play their part’: ‘we have got to have an answer that brings the whole of society together to crack this, more competition, more competitiveness, more getting rid of the idea all-must-win-prizes and you can’t have competitive sports days.’25 Similarly, Rupert Murdoch speculated on twitter that China’s position at the top of the Olympic medal table was because the ‘US and UK mainly teach competitive sport a bad thing. How many champions state school background?’26 When Tory mayor of London Boris Johnson subsequently called for pupils to emulate the two hours of sport a day he enjoyed at Eton, Cameron riposted that such a target (introduced under Labour but scrapped by the government) had only been met by doing uncompetitive activities such as ‘things like Indian dance or whatever’.27 Much of this rhetoric of character-building and civic education clearly chimes with that being promoted in the idea of educational leadership by independent schools, with their traditions of competitive sports and cadet training, and is saturated with the Arnoldian ethos encapsulated in the apocryphal ‘playing fields of Eton’.28 Michael Gove’s description of rioters as an ‘educational underclass’ takes strength from such a belief.

Also significant in this context are the Riot Panel report’s promotion of ‘responsible capitalism’, encouraging local businesses to become more closely involved in education by sponsoring youth programmes and apprenticeship schemes. For example, two specific policy recommendations are that ‘businesses become part of the solution acting as Business Ambassadors for local schools’ and that

all [public service] contracts over a significant value (£50,000) make transparent how the successful contractor benefits the local community, for example by publishing details of the number of local jobs and apprenticeships they create, work experience offered and links to schools, colleges and wider youth provisions.29

The use of the academy model funding agreement to introduce two new types of colleges for 14–19-year-olds indicates how easily this might be done. University Technical Colleges have a technical orientation and are sponsored by local universities. The first, the JBC Academy in Staffordshire, was opened in 2010 and there are currently thirteen academies approved with plans to establish twenty-four by 2014. An extra £150 million in funding has been set aside for such academies, with commercial partnerships including Procter & Gamble, Rolls-Royce, and BlackBerry.30 Studio Schools are smaller, sponsored by local employers, such as Hilton Hotels, Michelin, Ikea, and various football clubs, with a more vocational focus on work placements.31 It is indicative of this growing involvement of corporations in the educational sector that last year Barclays Bank also announced its intention to fund groups setting up new academies and free schools, along with £15 million worth of money-management courses and 3,000 work experience places for their pupils. At the time Gove described the bank, which has since been fined £290 million for attempting to fix the London inter-bank lending rate (Libor), as one of ‘Britain’s most impressive and responsible companies’.32

Social engineering

As with the blurring between universities and private providers, the growth of academies involves a complex enmeshment but also confusion of public and private interests. Although this appears to break down the divide between the local authority ‘maintained’ and private sectors, in reality it increases the gap in provision not only between independents and those schools that remain cash-strapped comprehensives, but also between academies serving different communities.33 As the National Audit Office remarked, ‘Sponsors have strong influence on the running of  academies,which brings both benefits and risks to value for money.’34 Independence from local authority entails an increasing dependence on the nature of the sponsoring partner for determining the identity and ethos of each academy. Ball and Junemann encapsulate such a process in terms of ‘network governance’, a ‘new form of state’ that achieves its political ends through mediated and indirect network of actors, whilst marginalizing ‘local government, professional organizations and trade unions’.35 This is, they further note, being increasingly achieved through philanthropic activity, which ‘has provided a “Trojan horse” for modernizing moves that opened the “policy door” to new actors and new ideas and sensibilities’.36

The process by which grammar, faith and increasingly private schools have over the last quarter of a century become middle-class enclaves through either academic, financial or soft selection results in what Melissa Benn describes as a virtuous circle, whose corollary effect on provision elsewhere is a vicious one. 37 The flexible structure of sponsored academies presages the emerging kinds of universities discussed earlier in permitting both to happen simultaneously: educational benefits for the best, educational risks for the worst. The way in which the current government has rapidly expanded the academy programme entails that the best academies and free schools (whether nominally grammar, ex-maintained or ex-private) will likely end up expanding provision for middle-class and the academically brightest working-class students, responding to middle-class anxieties over competition for secondary and university places and fostering Michael Gove’s own obsession with defining social mobility in terms of access to Oxbridge.38

Gove’s retro-tinkering with the exam system is similarly intended to more clearly differentiate between the best and worst performing students and schools, facilitating a two-tier education system, with one eye on simplifying further and higher education admissions.39 This year the number of A*–C grades fell marginally for the first time in the history of GCSEs, amid accusations that the government had exerted political pressure on the exam boards. The most significant drop, in GCSE English, has provoked the Association of School and College Leaders to consider a legal challenge against the exam boards on the basis of current equal opportunities legislation.40 From 2015, Gove’s English Baccalaureate is to replace the GCSE altogether, with its Maths, English and (from 2016) History components to be assessed entirely through final examinations, to be held for the first time in 2017.41 A larger differentiation of grades is likely to be reflected in the awarding of numeric or percentage scores, with a greater proportion of school students expected to leave school without any qualifications.42

Currently, increases in funding and soft selection entail that the existence of the newest, academically advantaged academies already disadvantage their locally maintained competitors in the state sector. In 2012–13, for example, local authorities will lose a total of £265 million from their general grant to help central government funding of the academies programme.43 Further financial problems have been generated for the most deprived students by cuts to the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). This will eventually increase the number of poorly performing schools being forced to convert to academy status.

Poorly performing schools will likely be tendered to large academy chains: the fate of Haringey’s ‘failing’ Downhills Primary School, which despite spirited local resistance to the plans suffered the resignation of its head teacher, the dismissal of its board of governors, and forced conversion to academy status under the sponsorship of the Harris Federation (a rapidly expanding chain of academies owned by the multimillionaire Tory donor and life peer Baron Harris). In the short term, the success of such academies depends on quickly raising academic standards in Ofsted reports (in the absence of fuller exam data for cohorts and of contextualizing results from any other kinds of ‘new’ schools, these remain controversial). In the longer term budgetary considerations will require the lowering of running costs as justification for such external management. Initial efficiency savings will be possible through the pooling of non-academic services, although it is predictable that eventually such savings will encroach into the teaching budget as well (teaching staff are already exempt from nationally agreed pay deals).

This is the aim of the educational division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, headed up by Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Schools and US Charter School reformer. Murdoch regards schools as the ‘last holdout from the digital revolution’ and is willing to invest significant capital in his educational business in the hope of making it ‘revolutionary, and profitable’. News Corporation-owned Collins Education already sells print-based teaching resources to UK schools; the aim being piloted in the USA is to eventually supply digital content and software direct to classroom tablets. News Corp currently sponsors several schools in New York and in 2010–11 began plans to sponsor a ‘News International Academy’ in East London. The project ran into difficulties when it failed to secure government funding for its new buildings and the plans seem to have been put on hold around the time the phone-hacking scandal broke in the spring of 2011.44

In School Wars, Benn predicts that

the fast pace of technology, and the temptation for private providers to cut costs, will increase standardized, centralized learning methods. It will not be unusual in the future for one talented lecturer to record a standard lesson on a key section of the syllabus, a lesson that will then be screened in all the other schools in the chain.45

The revelation of a shared interest in ‘educational reform’ discussed in meetings between Gove, Murdoch and Klein, which have come to light following the Leveson Inquiry, make these predictions all the more suggestive.46 As Murdoch’s own remarks on the teaching profession make clear, such reforms would first require breaking the power of the teaching unions, and the Tories’ academy programme has a clear part to play in such an attack.47

As with higher education, two distinct markets are therefore opened up through the academies. Many at the extremes of wealth and poverty maybe unaffected by such changes as they continue to follow the well-defined routes of local and public schooling. For institutions serving working-class areas with low levels of educational attainment and a high level of unemployment, an increase in specialized academies for excluded pupils and vocational training championed by businesses will serve the government’s interests in giving this ‘educational underclass’ a stake in their local communities in order to avoid further disorder, with the rise of a new breed of teaching-focused universities able to supply cheaper and quicker qualifications.
For the middle-class electorate the Tories must win over, education – as with Labour before them – has become the central political battleground, and the protection of middle-class advantage in securing their favoured secondary school and university would seem to be a key strategy in this contest. A corollary of this attack on mass education in the interest of the middle and upper classes is the media’s talking down of comprehensive education itself. As Benn writes, ‘Now, more than ever, we are subject to relentless coverage of our allegedly “dumbed-down” state schools and the “curdling” of the comprehensive experiment’, whose purpose ‘is to soften up the public and justify further unhelpful reforms’.48 The same is true of the popular denigration of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees at post-1992 universities, all of which – despite being voiced in the sceptical vernacular of the working classes – more accurately reflect middle-class anxiety over a social preserve only recently snatched from the clutches of the upper classes.
In this context, the defence of ‘mass education’demands the transformation not only of our intellectual habits and practices, as McGettigan quite rightly points out, but also, where necessary, our own bourgeois habits of thinking about the purpose and practice of education itself.


1. Andrew McGettigan, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out? The Privatization of Higher Education’, Radical Philosophy 174, July/August 2012, pp. 23, 27. Thanks to Andrew for his comments on an earlier version of this response.
2. John Morgan, ‘Private Bodies Saddle up for State Subsidies’, THE, 12 July 2012,www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=420545.
3. McGettigan, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’, p. 23.
4. Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell, ‘Neoliberalizing Space’, Antipode, vol. 34, no. 3, 2002, pp. 380–404; Stephen J.
Ball and Carolina Junemann, Networks, New Governance and Education, Policy Press, Bristol, 2012, pp. 31, 8.
5. See Ball and Junemann, Networks, New Governance and Education, pp. 3–37.
6. Howard Stevenson and Les Bell, ‘Introduction – Universities in Transition: Themes in Higher Education Policy,
in M. Neary, H. Stevenson and L. Bell, eds., The Future of Higher Education, Continuum, London and New York, 2009, pp. 11–12.
7. John Morgan and Jack Grove, ‘Elite Feel Pinch of AAB Shortfall’, THE, 13 November 2012,www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?c=1&sectioncode=26&storycode=421124.
8. Kim Catheside, ‘Clearing 2012: Universities Need a Better Message than “Keep Calm”’, Guardian, 13 August
9. ‘London Metropolitan University Licence Revocation: Third Meeting of the Task Force’, HEFCE News Archive,www.hefce.ac.uk/news/newsarchive/2012/name,75360,en.html.
10. Andrew McGettigan, ‘London Met Update – “Clearing” Begins on Monday’, 16 September 2012http://andrewmcgettigan.org/2012/09/16/london-met-update-clearing-begins-on-monday/.
11. Melissa Benn, School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education, Verso, London and New York, 2011, p. 4.
12. Free schools have the same legal status as academies, and even their distinguishing feature of being established by parents and teachers – rather than existing education charities – looks set to be phased out; see Toby Young: ‘Free School Movement Should Be All About Mavericks Like Me’, Independent, 7 September 2011,www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/toby-young-free-school-movement-should-be-all-aboutmavericks-
13. This agreement grants them independence from national pay and conditions for teachers and support staff, and from local authority admissions and financial arrangements, with only the secretary of state having direct power to close unsatisfactory academies down (see Benn, School Wars, pp. 109–10).
14. Local authorities now suffer a ‘top-slice’ from their general grant for ‘maintained’ schools to help fund the government’s academies programme, whilst schools converting to academy status have found themselves better off to the net sum of between £150,000 and £570,000 (see Benn, School Wars, pp. 29–30).
15. From July 2012, primary schools are being encouraged with a £25,000 grant from the Department for Education if they convert to academy status en masse as trusts of three or more schools. Of the 102 newest free schools recently approved to open in 2013, 40 are primaries.
16. Sutton Trust, ‘Open Access: Democratising Entry to Independent Day Schools, March 2012,www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/1open-access-report-march-2012–final.pdf.
17. Sara Gaines, ‘Private Schools Line up to Become Free’, Guardian, 12 April 2011,www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/apr/12/private-schools-conversion.
18. Anthony Seldon, whose own fee-paying Wellington College sponsors the new Wellington Academy, has spoken of the need for such ties in order to create ‘one big happy family’. Anthony Seldon, ‘Public Schools Can’t Go On in Splendid Isolation’, Guardian, 30 June 2012, www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/30/public-schools-anthony-seldon; ‘Why Can’t We Be One Big Happy Family?’, TES, 17 March 2012, www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6194085; ‘Britain’s Private Schools Have Lost Their Moral Purpose’, Guardian, 30 June 2012, www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/jun/30/britain-private-schools.
19. This is how Toby Young attempted to persuade such alliances in an article addressed to private schools. Toby
Young, ‘Independent Schools Are Becoming Increasingly Enthusiastic about Setting up Free Schools and Academies’,Telegraph, 7 October 2011, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100109526/independentschools-
20. McGettigan, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’, p. 25. See also his ‘VAT Exemption for For-profit HE Providers – Consultation’, 15 September 2012, http://andrewmcgettigan.org/2012/09/15/vat-exemption-for-for-profit-he-providers-consultation/.
21. Understanding the significance education has assumed for successive British governments over the last quarter of a century requires recognizing the peculiarity of church and educational institutions following the English Reformation and, in particular and over a longer period, their historical belatedness. The relationship between church and state in England has largely inured the educational apparatus to popular critique, such that it has only more recently emerged, under the contradictions of globalized capitalism, as the fetishized locus of English ideology.
22. See Riots Communities and Victims Panel, 5 Days in August: An Interim Report on the 2011 English Riots
and After the Riots: Final Report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel.
23. ‘Over a Third of British Olympic Winners Were Privately Educated’, Sutton Trust,http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/over-a-third-of-british-olympic-winners-were-privately-educated/.
24. ‘Private Schools Must Share Sport Facilities – BOA Chief’, BBC News online, 20 August 2012, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19315418. In response, Labour drew attention to the thirty-one school playing fields sold off under the approval of the Coalition government (wrongly declared initially as twenty-one under an earlier Freedom of Information request) and their withdrawal of specific rules stipulating minimum pitch sizes for different-size schools. In truth, however, whilst Labour had itself sold off 200 playing fields during its thirteen years in power, the activities of both the current and previous governments pale into insignificance compared to the 10,000 pitches that were sold off by the previous Conservative government.
25. ‘Olympics: Cameron Urges School Sport “Cultural Change”’, BBC News online, 8 August 2012, www.bbc.
co.uk/news/uk-19174757; ‘Teachers Criticise Cameron’s Olympic School-sport Remarks’, BBC News online, 9
August 2012, www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19181990.
26. https://twitter.com/rupertmurdoch/status/230930292326674432.
27. ‘David Cameron: I cut school sports target because pupils were learning Indian dancing’, Telegraph, 10 August 2012,www.telegraph.co.uk/education/keepthe-flame-alive/9466379/David-Cameron-I-cut-schoolsports-target-because-pupils-were-learning-Indiandancing.html.
28. See Matthew Charles, ‘Philosophy for Children’, Radical Philosophy 170, November/December 2011, p. 45.
29. Riots Communities and Victims Panel, After the Riots: Final Report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, pp. 66, 81.
30. Department for Education, ‘79 New Schools Now Approved to Open from 2012 Onwards’, 10 October 2011,www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a00199061/79–new-schools-now-approved-to-openfrom-2012–onwards; ‘What Are UTCs?’, 26 April 2012, www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/
31. Angela Harrison, ‘More Work-based “Studio Schools” Announced’, BBC News online, 19 July 2012,www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18892984. See also Studio Schools Trust, www.studioschoolstrust.org/node/3.
32. Angela Harrison, ‘Barclays to Support New Free Schools and Academies’, BBC News online, 18 January 2012,www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16610988.
33. ‘Under proposals published in late May 2011, successful schools were to be allowed to expand … and so-called “poor” schools were to be allowed to wither and die. In July, the Guardian confirmed that civil servants privately advised ministers that schools should be allowed to fail, if government was serious about reform’ (Benn, School Wars, p. 32).
34. National Audit Office, The Academies Programme: Department for Education, p. 39.
35. Ball and Junemann, Networks, New Governance and Education, pp. 134–5, 4 (quoting Peter Triantafillou, ‘Addressing Network Governance through the Concepts of Governmentality and Normalization’, Administrative Theory and Praxis, vol. 26, no. 4, 2004), p. 489).
36. Ball and Junemann, Networks, New Governance and Education, p. 32.
37. Benn, School Wars, p. 76. As with exceptions to regulation in the higher sector, independence increases the ability to ‘soft select’ the brightest students; see ibid., p.92.
38. Michael Gove’s ‘mission on education has seemed largely focused on getting more people like himself – the naturally brilliant who were not born to rule – to an elite university: the classic grammar-school narrative that still obsesses our nation’ (Benn, School Wars, p. 7). His definition of social mobility involves the number of children on free school meals who make it to Oxbridge (see ibid., p. 19).
39. Gove first introduced his idea for an English Baccalaureate part of the way through the academic year, and then leaked plans to reintroduce older and tougher O-level-type exams for the academically brightest, with ‘more straightforward’ CSE-like exams for the rest. The latter has now been replaced with the possibility of a deferred EBacc at FE level.www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2162369/Michael-Gove-plans-scrap-dumbed-
40. ‘GCSE Grade Changes May Face Legal Challenge’, BBC News online, 25 August 2012, www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19378586.
41. James Meikle, ‘GCSEs Are Dead: The EBacc is the Future, Says Michael Gove’, BBC News online, 17 November 2012,www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/17/gcse-ebacc-michael-gove?newsfeed=true.
42. Nicholas Watt, ‘GCSE Exams to Be Replaced by EBacc’, Guardian, 17 September 2012,www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/17/gcse-exams-replaced-ebacc-michael-gove.
43. Benn, School Wars, p. 29.
44. David Leigh, ‘The Schools Crusade that Links Michael Gove to Rupert Murdoch’, Guardian, 27 February 2012,
www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2012/feb/26/schools-crusade-gove-murdoch; Leveson Inquiry, Witness Statement of Keith Rupert Murdoch, www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Witness-Statementof-Keith-Rupert-Murdoch2.pdf.
45. Benn, School Wars, p. 170. Similarly, Harvard’s and MIT’s edX platform permits courses to be taught and assessed online, whilst Edinburgh University is the first UK institution to sign up to Stanford’s alternative platform, Coursera.
46. See evidence supplied by Murdoch and Gove to the Leveson Inquiry, www.levesoninquiry.org.uk.
47. ‘We [Murdoch and Klein] believe that it’s an absolute disgrace, the standard of public education here and in America … there are being efforts in different states to try and tackle this, but it’s very difficult. Not for lack of money, but for lack of teacher co-operation…’, transcript from the Leveson Inquiry, http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Transcript-of-Morning-Hearing-26-April-2012.txt.
48. Benn, School Wars, p. xxi.