Institutionalising critical pedagogy: Lessons from against and beyond the neo-liberal university (2017)


I recently had an article published in Power and Education that comes out of my PhD, here is the accepted version – if you need to reference if you can get a copy of the published version, which you can find here. This version may have some grammatical and/or referencing mistakes!



This article approaches the question of how far critical pedagogy can be institutionalised through a series of historical and contemporary examples. Current debates concerned with the co-operative university are examined, as well as histories of independent working-class education and the free university movement. Throughout this history, critical pedagogy has occupied a difficult space in relation to higher education institutions, operating simultaneously against and beyond the academy. The Deweyian concept of ‘democratisation’ allows the institutionalisation of critical pedagogy to be considered as a process, which has never been and may never be achieved, but is nevertheless an ‘end-in-view’. The article concludes by offering the Lucas Plan as a model of radical trade unionism that could be applied to the democratisation of existing universities and the institutionalisation of critical pedagogy



As political activists and critical pedagogues working ‘in, against and beyond’ universities in the UK, we are by now aware of the ways in which neoliberalism transforms and dominates society, its institutions and social relations (Mirowski, 2013; Davies, 2014; Brown, 2015). The term ‘critical pedagogy’ was coined and popularised by Henry Giroux in the 1970s, but has a genealogy that ‘extends back centuries’ (Amsler, 2013).

Today, more than two decades deep into a period of far-reaching reforms to higher education and the growth of academic capitalism, the idea of critical pedagogy seems to have acquired an aura as the obvious ‘alternative’ to all forms of commodified and marketized education. At the same time, depoliticised forms of ‘critical thinking’ have been integrated into the curricula of university programmes oriented towards shaping the ‘entrepreneurial’ student-subject. And yet, what it means to think, teach or ‘be’ critically, in theory and in practice is rarely articulated among university students or teachers. it is time, once again, to take stock. (Amsler, 2013, pp. 66-67).

The above quote notes critical pedagogy’s complex relationship with the university. The ‘in, against and beyond’ of critical pedagogy describes, respectively, attempts to: (1) bring political and social analysis into the classroom through critical-pedagogical techniques, in order to break through the commodification of higher education; (2) change the structure of higher education institutions within which such teaching takes place; and (3) look beyond the academy altogether to create radically different forms of higher education that are not answerable to the logic of the market (Cowden and Singh, 2013).

This paper will focus on some historical and contemporary examples of (2) and (3), to raise the question of how far critical pedagogy in these forms can be institutionalized. As Amsler points out, (1) often results in ‘depoliticised forms of critical thinking’. The pressures of marketisation not only make such consciousness raising extremely difficult, with students understandably wanting their £9000 degree to lead to a decent career, but in many cases this kind of critical pedagogy is all too easily recuperated into the marketized system as part of a university’s brand, as with Goldsmiths, University of London, for example. Furthermore, in terms of emancipatory research, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) pushes all knowledge production towards utilitarian ends, ultimately encouraging, at best, game-playing and cynicism, at worst, capture and monetisation within over-arching neoliberal objectives (Holmwood, 2011; Hammersley, 2014; Watermeyer, 2014). The 2016-17 Higher Education Bill proposes to consolidate the marketisation of higher education, firstly introducing ‘alternative providers’ to create a ‘quasi-market’, and secondly implementing the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which John Holmwood (2015) has described as an ingenious ‘big data project’ designed to re-align higher education towards neoliberal socio-economic ends.

This paper explores the question of critical pedagogy’s institutionalisation through the concept of ‘democratisation’. For John Dewey, a key figure in the early history of critical pedagogy, institutions are ‘relatively fixed’, they are ‘a tough body of customs, ingrained habits of actions, organized and authorized standards and methods of procedure’ (Dewey, 2008, p. 153). Institutions should be analysed in terms of their function, and educational institutions should be critiqued according to how far they encourage what Dewey called ‘growth’, which is the ‘enlarging and enriching of experience’ (Ralston, 2010). For Dewey, life itself is educative, and experience is a process of problem solving that can be developed into more or less institutionalised forms of inquiry, such as science, morality and education. As ingrained social ‘habits’, institutions can be made more intelligent. As intelligence is the capacity to successfully deal with problems arising in experience, the intelligence of an institution can be judged on how far it frustrates or encourages the application of natural intelligence in dynamic problem-solving. Democracy, as ‘an ethical way of life’, is a way of organizing people that decentralises responsibility and control as much as possible while encouraging pluralism in points of view. Both aspects of democracy encourage growth, and should form the basis for any process of ‘democratisation’. ‘Democratisation’ is used instead of ‘democracy’ as the former is concerned with a process of transformation, rather than with a fixed ideal. For Bernstein (1983), ‘democratisation’ is more realistic, and ‘helps us to keep aware of the fact that, in all probability, there is no fixed, or final state of democracy’ (Bernstein, 1983).

In Deweyian terms, ‘democratisation’ is an ‘end-in-view’ (Dewey, 1916). Dewey argued that there was no such thing as an ‘end-in-itself’, just as it is obvious that there cannot be a ‘means-in-itself’. Instead, he proposed a ‘means-end continuum’, which from a pragmatic perspective means that all ends become means for further action, and means must be sometimes considered as ends, for example when new tools, concepts or theories are developed. For critical pedagogy, as an ‘end-in-view’, democratisation is both end and means. Critical pedagogy tends to separate the critique of neoliberalism and neoliberal education from critical-pedagogical practice. Many of theories of the latter are developed in contexts that are so different from the here and now that the recommendations seem utopian. The concept of democratisation changes the question from ‘what is wrong with the world and what should it be like?’ to ‘Where are we going and how do we get there?’ The former encourages disappointment, and what Dewey (1917) would call ‘consolation’ in theory, while the latter is explicitly oriented towards action. Democratisation allows us to be pragmatic, rather than idealistic. The ‘against and beyond’ thus describes a process rather than a dichotomy, and transforms critical pedagogy into an inquiry into the limits of its own institutionalization.


Against the neoliberal university

In response to the privatisation and marketisation of the public sector, many educational institutions have turned towards ‘co-operation’ as an alternative. Since 2008, 700 co-operative schools have been created in England (Woodin, 2015), with the Schools Co-operative Society now one of the ‘fastest growing networks of schools in the UK … dwarfing the academy chains more frequently mentioned in the press’ (Cook, 2013, p. 10). The co-operative movement is now considering how this success can be extended to higher education, with a new discourse around the ‘co-operative university’ emerging (Neary and Winn, 2016; Yeo, 2015; Somerville, 2014; Cook, 2013; Boden et al, 2012; Ridley-Duff, 2011). For many, the need to think about co-operative higher education is a direct result of marketisation, and co-operative universities are a way to protect ‘the idea of the university’, which is to say ‘higher education as a public good’ (Yeo, 2015; Holmwood, 2011b).

The co-operative university model seems to provide an excellent ‘end-in-view’ for democratisation. The 1995 ‘Statement of Cooperative Identity’ defines the core values of co-operatives as ‘self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity’ (Woodin, 2015). Furthermore, two cooperative principles highly relevant to democratisation are ‘democratic member control’ and ‘member economic participation’. Democratic member control requires that members ‘activity participate in setting their policies’ and in decision making. Member economic participation requires that ‘at least part of the capital [of the cooperative] is the common property of the cooperative’. In terms of democratisation, the former principle would ensure that the people affected by decisions made by the institution are involved in the decision-making process, thus also must take responsibility for any decisions made, while the latter principle grounds this participatory process in concrete economic concerns, preventing this process from becoming a façade.

As well as cooperatives providing an attractive end-in-view for democratisation, the principle of the ‘autonomy and independence’ of cooperatives strikes a chord with the idea of academic freedom at the heart of modern universities. The UNESCO (1992) working document on ‘Academic Freedom and University Autonomy’ defines the latter as a ‘characteristic of the decision-making process’ of universities, and asserts that ‘each university must make its own decisions on matters related to knowledge, research, and teaching.’ Within actually existing universities, this does not translate to democratic structures of collegiality. Murray et al (2013, p. 8) draw attention to the way in which the concept of ‘academic freedom’ has been increasingly absorbed into an institutionalised view of autonomy:

The implication here appears to be that ‘academic freedom’ belongs to the university, not to the academic. Here and elsewhere it seems that there is a not-too-subtle redefinition by university managers of ‘academic freedom’ from meaning ‘freedom of academics from us’ to ‘freedom for us from everyone’. And this is taking place at a time of growing concern about whether real academic freedom is really being protected.

Cooperative universities, on the other hand, would democratise this relation, insisting on democratic and economic control by members, ensuring that autonomy is owned by members and materially linked to their academic freedom.

The problematic link between institutional autonomy and academic freedom points to governance as a key site of struggle for democratisation. For Boden et al (2012), the separation of ownership and control in ‘quasi-private’ universities, in particular post-92 universities, has led to serious issues in governance. The ‘fuzzy’ question of who owns these ‘quasi-private’ institutions, combined with managerial approaches that distrust collegiality and collective bargaining traditions, both result in ‘managerial predation’ on the part of Vice-Chancellors. This can be evidenced the astonishing increases in Vice-Chancellor salaries: in 2016, their average salary was £272,432, with the maximum being £516,000 (University of Salford). The average pay increase for vice-chancellors between 2013/14 and 2014/15 was 3% (UCU, 2016b), compared with a real terms loss of 14.5% since 2009 for academics (UCU, 2016c).

Shattock’s (2012) triangle of good governance allows us to see the problem of governance in universities more clearly:


Within neoliberal universities, i.e. universities that have become victim to ‘new managerialism’ as a result of neoliberal reforms (Bacon, 2014; Deem et al, 2007), this triangle breaks down at two points. Firstly, governing bodies ‘don’t always assert themselves’ and have ‘great difficulty in challenging their executives’ (Shattock, 2012, p. 59). Furthermore, governing bodies tend to be made up of ‘part-time amateurs largely unfamiliar with the organisation’s culture’ who ‘without specialised knowledge … tend to dwell on the more familiar realms of operations, finance and investment, usually to the neglect of the institution’s core business’ (Taylor et al, 1996, p. 3). Secondly, academic self-government has been replaced by Senior Management Teams (SMTs); senior colleagues transformed into line managers, directly answerable to the executive. What collegial behaviour remains is skewed by targets and the measurement of outputs within regimes of performance management. Thus, the system of ‘checks and balances’ that should underpin good governance in universities cannot function, resulting in not just managerial predation, but also excessive risk taking with what still remain public institutions.

Boden et al (2012) suggest the idea of a ‘trust university’, based on the John Lewis Partnership (JLP) model, as a solution to this governance problem, while at the same time offering a means of defending the idea of the university in a concrete way. In a ‘trust university’, the combined assets of the institution would be put into a ‘non-revocable trust’, which would mean that they could not be sold off for the self-interest of any member of the institution. This move is particularly important as the HE sector becomes marketised, as this would ensure that public assets, paid for by taxpayers, are protected. As with JLP, employees can then be made beneficiaries, effectively becoming ‘partners’, with rights to influence decision making and any profits either put back into the company (which would be most appropriate for a ‘quasi-public’ institution) or redistributed as an annual bonus. The public interest and democratic structure of the ‘trust university’ can then be enshrined in a charter. The first article of JLP’s trust deed, for example, outlines the purpose of the company: ‘To ensure happiness of all its members through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business’ (in Boden et al, 2012, p. 21).

For critics of this model, however, the trust university does not in fact overcome the deep problems of governance caused by the separation of ownership and control. In a trust university, corporate governance would not necessarily change, and workers would not necessarily be directly involved in decision making. For Somerville (2014, p. 4 – 5), the trust university is ‘way short of being a member controlled body [as] there is no challenge to either the capitalist wage or to the internal management hierarchy’. Cook (2013) agrees, pointing out that the trust university is a ‘sub-optimal’ model of co-operation, as the division of labour is retained and market pressures still encourage efficiency over democracy. Even at Mondragon University, arguably the most successful co-operative university in existence, the reality and myth of worker participation have diverged significantly. For Kasmir (1996), who conducted a deep ethnographic study of Mondragon, the myth and the overwhelming desire to believe in co-operative education hides evidence of suppressed dissatisfaction among workers there. Kasmir describes how the myth of co-operation creates an a-political system where workers are not actively engaged in holding governing process to account, and workers are manipulated by managers through nationalist ideologies. Mondragon teaches us of the importance of politics, the necessary role of organization, and the continuing value of syndicates and unions for transforming the workplace.

The Lincoln Social Science Centre (SSC) represents an attempt to democratise higher education by building a new university on cooperative principles. It is also an explicit attempt to institutionalise critical pedagogy within its foundations. The SSC was ‘conceived in response to the UK Coalition government’s changes to higher education funding which involved an increase in student fees up to £9,000 and defunding of teaching in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences’ (Neary and Winn, 2016, p. 3). In their own words, the SSC (2013)

Organises free higher education in Lincoln and is run by its members. The SSC is a co-operative and was formally constituted in May 2011 with help from the local Co-operative Development Agency. There is no fee for learning or teaching, but most members voluntarily contribute to the Centre either financially or with their time. No one at the Centre receives a salary and all contributions are used to run the SSC. When students leave the SSC they will receive an award at higher education level. This award will be recognized and validated by the scholars who make up the SSC, as well as by our associate external members – academics around the world who act as our expert reviewers. The SSC has no formal connection with any higher education institution, but attempts to work closely with like-minded organizations in the city. We currently have twenty-five members and are actively recruiting for this year’s programmes.

One of these programmes is the introductory course ‘Social Science Imagination’, which is for ‘anyone who wants to learn more about how the social world works and how we can change it, with the help of social science’. In 2016/17, it was decided by participants that the course ‘will focus on ‘Brexit, unemployment, the concerns of rural communities and the government’s campaign against radical extremism’. With the SSC, we can see critical pedagogy in both its structure and practice.

Although the SSC has never had a significant number of students, at least compared to traditional higher education institutions, it has managed to survive since 2011 and retain its cooperative structure. The Higher Education Bill 2016-17 poses an interesting dilemma for the SSC:

A key objective in these government reforms is to open the sector to ‘alternative providers’. Up until now, this has been interpreted as providing a space for market-based provision, aaccentuating the principle of the policy. Our point is that it opens up a ‘crack’ for a real alternative, neither private nor public, that undermines the policy and resists the logic of the capitalist state on which it is premised. (Neary and Winn, 2016, p. 3)

Although this statement seems optimistic regarding the HE Bill, it is not clear whether the SSC would aim to become formally recognised as a ‘university’ with degree awarding powers (DAPs), or continue to exist outside the system. This reveals a tension at the heart of the project, described by Joss Winn (2015) as the ‘dialectic’ of the cooperative form within capitalism. This dialectic is enacted as a ‘prefigurative politics’, in which the ‘social relations, dream-making, culture and human experience that are the ultimate goal’ are embodied in ongoing political practice. As its negative, the cooperative form confronts the capitalist system with an ‘immanent critique’, revealing ‘both the reality and the ideals of capitalist society’ and their historically determinate nature. This, however, is a difficult dialectic within which to maintain the SSC. If it chooses to be absorbed within the ‘quasi-market’ of neoliberal higher education, becoming fully institutionalised, for the same reasons as critical pedagogy ‘within’ the neoliberal university, it is unlikely to be able to maintain its cooperative structure and practice, at least in such a pure form. But if it remains entirely outside the system, as it is now, the force of the SSC’s immanent critique will be severely limited.

This problem of the institutionalisation of critical pedagogy also runs through the history of Independent Working Class Education (IWCE). The SSC ‘recognises and builds on a long tradition of working class, self-managed, alternative, open and radical education’ (Neary and Winn, 2016, p. 28), a tradition that can be traced back to the correspondence societies of the late 18th century. As described by E. P. Thompson (1963) in The Making of the English Working Class, correspondence societies were informal gatherings of artisans and other working people who met to read aloud and discuss the latest radical pamphlets, Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man being a popular example. In contrast to the ‘bourgeois’ public sphere (Habermas et al, 1964), these crucial institutions of its ‘plebian’ (Fraser, 1990; Negt and Kluge, 1993) counterpart were explicitly political and radically democratic, placing no limitations on membership. Thomas Hardy (in Thompson, 1963, p. 151), argued that the purpose of the Sheffield Correspondence Society was

To enlighten the people, to show the people the reason, the ground of all their sufferings; when a man works hard for thirteen or fourteen hours of the day, the week through, and is not able to maintain his family; that is what I understood of it; to show the people the ground of this; why they were not able.

We can see here that the earliest forms of IWCE are very much early examples of critical pedagogy. They are also very Deweyian. Inquiry moves from the concrete every day to the reconstruction of problematic situations through reflection and discussion. The results of inquiry then form the basis for action, for example in the production of a pamphlet or in the organisation of a public meeting. These may not seem very radical today, but in the late 18th century even such minor actions were considered illegal, and could be punished severely as intention to commit treason.

The IWCE tradition continued with the Chartists in their critique of ‘useful knowledge’. The idea of ‘useful knowledge’ descended from the middle and upper classes, as an attempt to civilise the increasingly unruly and independent working class, which were beginning to be perceived as dangerous. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for example, was a mid-19th century organisation that simplified scientific texts for a wide audience, with the explicit purpose of neutralising radical pamphlets and newspapers (Johnson, 1988). In contrast to such uses of knowledge as ‘subjection’, Chartist really useful knowledge ‘served practical ends, ends that is for the knower’ (Johnson, 1988, p. 21). For 19th century radicals, ‘practical’ meant learning how to change the world through understanding the ‘conditions of life’ and real problems faced by real people. This knowledge, according to George Jacob Holyoake, ‘lies everywhere to hand for those who observe and think’, and because its purpose was the emancipation of the working class, was inherently partisan (in Johnson, 1988, p. 18). Again, we can see here an early version of critical pedagogy, especially in its emphasis on everyday problems that through reflection become the vehicle for emancipatory knowledge. The partisan emphasis also echoes Dewey’s concern for the unity of means and ends, where democratic knowledge is knowledge that is used by those who created, not for the profit of others who appropriate it or a means for subjection (Dewey, 1935).

The debate between useful and really useful knowledge initiates an antagonism between formal and information education that lasts right up until the present day, which is also a history of attempts to institutionalise critical pedagogy. This antagonism came to a head at the beginning of the 20th century at Ruskin College, an early version of the university extension courses that became popular in the mid-20th century (for which E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams taught). The impetus behind Ruskin College was the same as that of ‘useful knowledge’: to provide an education for the working class that show them the ‘correct’ way to think, so that they would become amenable to and aspire to middle class ideas, rather than the revolutionary ideas coming at that time from European Marxism. But again, the already radicalised working class students at Ruskin rejected these attempts at pacification, and demanded a more radical curriculum. This dispute reached a crisis point in 1908 when the Marxist students formed the Plebs League, went on ‘strike’ and eventually left Ruskin to set up their own independent working class college, the Central Labour College in Oxford (Waugh, 2009). This college was initially supported by the National Union of Railwaymen and later by the Trades Union Congress, and soon grew into a network of independent labour colleges under the umbrella organisation the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC). After the Ruskin strike, the adult education movement split into independent (NCLC) and paternalistic forms, the latter represented by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), which set up university extension courses all over Britain. The NCLC, due to a lack of funding and a deep suspicion of state intervention eventually collapsed into the trade union movement, which according to Armstrong (1988) had itself had become ‘right-wing’ during the period of labour-capital compromise coming out of the Second World War.

This history of IWCE opens up once again the question of the desirability of institutionalisation. Institutionalisation is attractive because the resources and longevity of established institutions can be, at least in principle, appropriated for radical ends. But for IWCE, institutionalisation was a primary danger, representing on the one hand appropriation by the middle class and on the other increased state control. For IWCE, institutionalisation came to represent a fundamental threat to independence. But as Armstrong (1988) argues, this fear of institutionalisation also undermined any possibility for such independent forms to become sustainable; we can see the history of IWCE as a history of failed attempts to sustain a movement. With IWCE, we see once again the dialectic of institutionalisation and independence that is at the heart of critical pedagogical practice. For Armstrong, this dialectic must today be once again raised to consciousness if any attempt to rescue IWCE is undertaken, primarily through an understanding of the Gramscian concept of ‘hegemony’ (the way that institutions reproduce the class form of capitalist society), and incorporating this into the theoretical foundations of IWCE. For Waugh (2016, p. 20), IWCE practitioners should become ‘midwives’, ‘working with people to help them level up their own insights into a consistent socialist consciousness and capacity to act’.

In the 1960s, the Free University movement re-enacted this dialectic of institutionalisation, but from the perspective of middle class intellectuals. According to the Winter Catalogue of 1966, the Free University of New York (FUNY) was

Forged in response to the intellectual bankruptcy and spiritual emptiness of the American educational establishment. It seeks to develop the concepts necessary to comprehend the events of this century and the memory of one’s own life within it, to examine artistic expression and promote the social integrity and commitment from which scholars usually stand aloof. (in Jakobsen, 2013, p. 10)

Joseph Berke was a founding member of both FUNY and the Anti-university, which was based in London, and very influenced by the anti-psychiatry of R. D. Laing. The Anti-university emerged out of the Dialectics of Liberation Congress in 1967, which featured key anti-psychiatrists as well as leading critical theorists, such as Herbert Marcuse. ‘Deinstitutionalisation’ was, therefore, a key concept of the ‘Anti-university’. which involved a paradoxical attempt to create a new institution with the same form as the one it is meant to replace. For Berke, ‘institutions must be destroyed and rebuilt in our own terms’, and ‘in the process of making an institution we deinstitutionalise ourselves’ (in Jakobsen, p. 9). This position, however, created irresolvable contradictions within the Anti-university, which had adopted a conservative organisational structure and pedagogical approach, leading to rebellion on the part of radical students attending Anti-university courses. These students challenged all hierarchy represented by the ‘ad-hoc coordination committee’ who directed the anti-university, shouting slogans such as ‘pay the students charge the teachers’, pushing the principles of the anti-institution to its limits. Eventually what little structure there was dissolved into dispersed and permanently changing courses held in people’s flats, cafés and pubs. As Shalmy (2016) concludes:

The staff and visiting lecturers somehow all fell out, the administration was chaotic and a lack of funding eventually led to their eviction from the building on Rivington Street. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the Antiuniversity did not revolutionise academia and create a new world order, but it left a legacy. (Shalmy, 2016, n.p.)

This legacy was resuscitated during the student movement of 2010, the same movement that produced the SSC, seeing many other free universities conceived in response to the UK Coalition government’s changes to higher education funding. What linked these more recent examples with the Anti-university and Free University of New York was a shared sympathy with situationism, an avant-garde political, student and art movement that emerged in 1950s Europe, which came to prominence during the 1968 general strike in Paris (Ross, 2004). A key text of this period was Alexander Trocchi’s (1963) A Revolutionary Proposal: Invisible Insurrection of a Million Minds, which called for the creation of a ‘spontaneous university’. According to Trocchi, the spontaneous university should take the form of a ‘cultural jam session’, and be situated away from the city, by a river ideally. Politically, the spontaneous university can be said to be utopian, in that it seeks to re-imagine society and the people themselves in a bubble that is at once within and outside society. Crucially, the spontaneous university should also be:

An international organization with branch universities near the capital cities of every country in the world. It will be autonomous, unpolitical, economically independent. Membership in one branch (as teacher or student) will entitle one to membership in all branches, and travel to and residence in foreign branches will be energetically encouraged … Each branch of the spontaneous university will be the nucleus of an experimental town to which all kinds of people will be attracted for shorter or longer periods of time and from which, if we are successful, they will derive a renewed and infectious sense of life. We envisage an organization whose structure and mechanisms are infinitely elastic; we see it as the gradual crystallization of a regenerative cultural force, a perpetual brainwave, creative intelligence everywhere recognizing and affirming its own involvement. (Trocchi, 1963, n.p.)

We see here not only the dialectic of institutionalisation, but also an early example of Winn’s ‘prefigurative politics’.

The ‘spontaneous university’ also establishes a strain of ‘horizontalism’ that runs through the Free University movement, becoming so important in the 2010 student movement. Horizontalism, as described in protean form by Trocchi, is a form of organisation that is fundamentally generative and creative, as well as ‘prefigurative’. Within horizontalist organisations, the controlling idea is actualized in concrete attempts at institutionalisation, but is not exhausted through this process. Each institution is autonomous, but supported and nourished by this controlling idea. We see this explicitly in the self-description of The University for Strategic Optimism (2011):

The University for Strategic Optimism [UfSO] is a nomadic university with a transitory campus, based on the principle of free and open education, a return of politics for the public, and the politicisation of public space.

The UfSO encouraged other groups of activists to set up their own campuses wherever they liked, or steal and re-use any of the theories, analyses or techniques that had been developed through ongoing political action. In what was to become an influential use of ‘flashmobbing’, the UfSO temporarily occupied a Lloyds’ Bank high street branch in Central London, turning it into a ‘transitory campus’ and recording an impromptu lecture that went viral on the internet. We see here also how the controlling idea, ‘free and open education’, along with the subsidiary aims, are realized but not exhausted in such transitory campuses.

The contemporary concept of ‘horizontalism’ also derives from the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement, in particular from the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, and is a translation from the original and indigenous concept ‘horizontalidad’. For Marina Sitrin (2006, p. vi-vii)

Horizontalidad does not just imply a flat plane for organizing, or nonhierarchical relationships in which people no longer make decisions for others. It is a positive word that implies the use of direct democracy and the striving for consensus, processes in which everyone is heard and new relationships are created. Horizontalidad is a new way of relating, based in affective politics, and against all of the implications of “isms.”

The idea of democracy as a process, beyond one person one vote, or the ‘tyranny of the majority’, has clear affinities with Deweyian democratisation. Instead of simply voting on issues, horizontalist organisation is committed to ‘consensus’, which means that issues are discussed until a consensus is reached. Within the Occupy movement, an embodiment of horizontalist organisation, meetings would go on for hours, sometimes even days (Marcus, 2012). Although exhausting, this commitment to democracy as a process is clearly also itself a process of mutual education, a tradition that we have already seen goes back to the correspondence societies of the 18th century, and comes close to Dewey’s idea of ‘democracy as a way of life’. Although horizontalism meets the same ‘dilemma’ of institutionalisation that runs through the other examples, and repeats many of the mistakes of the 1960s, with ‘leaderless politics’ in fact leading to informal domination and bullying, there does seem to be a consensus emerging that decentralization must be an essential component of contemporary forms of extra-parliamentary organisation (Bailey, 2012).

Our last example, by reinventing the Anti-university for the 21st century, seems to learn from all the traditions we have looked at so far. The contemporary Anti-university builds on the concept of the ‘organised network’ (Rossiter, 2006). Organised networks recognise the need for face-to-face organisation alongside online communication and networks, taking seriously the social basis of sustainability:

In order for networks to organize mobile information in strategic ways that address the issues of scale and sustainability, a degree of hierarchization, if not centralization, is required. (Rossiter, 2006, pp. 205-8)

The Anti-university encourages groups of activists based in any location across the world (although mainly in the UK) to organize events under the Anti-university banner. These events all take place within a week, and are organized and advertised centrally through an attractive and cleverly designed website. In 2016, events included

A lecture, a round table discussion, a gallery tour, an interruption, a presentation, a screening, a public reading, a practical workshop, a walking tour … While everyone worked under the Antiuniversity Now banner, most people didn’t know each other and we, the three co-organisers, never met most of the hosts. In fact, we never imagined that so many people would even hear about our project, never mind put all that time and effort into planning so many events. (Shalmy, 2016)

The Anti-university model was a great success, with over 60 events organised by 90 hosts and attended by over 1200 people. The model incorporates the ‘deinstitutionalisation’ of the original Anti-university, but adopts a more sustainable approach, using internet and social media technology to create an organized network that exists for as long as it can without exhausting itself, and lives to be repeated in the future. The contemporary Anti-university is also more socially open that the original version, with many events resembling the radically democratic and inquiry based discussions of correspondence societies.

This section has discussed some key examples of critical pedagogy that attempt to deal with the question of institutionalisation in practice. Any attempt to create such practices today must learn from the fact that this is a history of failure, but also realise that failure is a necessary component of democratisation. Democratisation must be pragmatic, it is a process and relies on a certain amount of optimism. Democracy is not something that can ever be achieved, but rather something that must be striven for and realized in all our strivings. Dewey’s (1938) argument with Marxism hinged on this point. He felt that Marxism, represented by Trotsky in his public debate with Dewey, deduced the means, violent revolution, from an end, socialism, that was itself based on a deterministic theory of history. For Dewey, the means must be continuous with the end, and then end must be worked out in practice. Democratisation, as both means and end, cannot decide the specific form that institutionalisation may take. The history of critical pedagogical practice provides both lessons as to means that can be applied and to formal characteristics that can be selected in order to shape its instructional structures. The analysis in this section points to the co-operative form as an excellent institutional basis for critical pedagogy, having a well-developed controlling idea in its principles of co-operation, as well as a rich and successful history of sustainable yet radical examples. The idea of a ‘secondary cooperative’ also provides flexibility, solidarity and resources through a centralized network of primary cooperatives (Ridley-Duff, 2011).


Against the neoliberal university

As indicated in the previous section, the co-operative form seems to present the most appropriate model for the institutionalisation of critical pedagogy. Democratisation, however, dictates that the co-operative form should not be posited as an abstract end, but as an end-in-view, to be realised in critical pedagogical practice. This is all the more important today as neoliberalism seeks to replace the value and practice of co-operation with those of individualism and competition. As Cook (2013, p. 43) argues, ‘cooperation is fundamentally as educative process’, which is why ‘cooperative education’ has always been both a core principle and fundamentally important practice in the history of the cooperative movement. For Dewey also, cooperation is a habit that we learn and develop through practice, and the best way to learn is to try things out (Bohman, 2010). Trade unionism, as the historical struggle of workers to learn to cooperate with the aim of democratising society, presents a possible critical-pedagogical mechanism for the realization of the cooperative university. To provide such a mechanism, however, trade unionism will need to move from being a defense of existing industrial relations to a form of creative inquiry into new possibilities for democratic worker control.

According to Hyman (2001), the history of British capitalism is distinctive in that it never had to deal with social revolutions, as in France for example. This has meant that the two antagonistic forces of labour and capitalist management gradually adapted to each other, with employers reaching a grudging acceptance of the functions of trade unions, and the latter settling for ‘a fair days pay for a fair days work’. In contrast to continental labour movements, British unionism has been historically anti-intellectual and has largely resisted total co-option by far-left parties such as the Communist Party. British trade unions have by and large ‘accepted and adapted to existing social and economic conditions’ and are resigned to protecting terms and conditions for workers within this system (Hyman, 2001, p. 68). The tradition of ‘free collective bargaining’ in the UK has also meant that the gains of trade unions have never been fixed at a wider political level. This means that terms and conditions are more sensitive to changes in political leadership and economic turbulence, exacerbating the mostly defensive posture of trade unions as they spend most of the time ‘firefighting’.

After the Second World War, industrial relations in the UK experienced a period of relative stability. This was because trade unions had had ‘a good war’, playing a key role in militarisation and managing the war economy, and both Labour and Conservative governments were happy to involve trade unions in the post-war reconstruction of British society (Undy, 2013). But after the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s, where trade unions (in particular the miners) confronted the Labour government at the time who wanted to control spiraling inflation through caps on pay rises (thus betraying the ‘social contract’ that had been established between the TUC and government), resulting in highly controversial strikes by gravediggers and waste collectors, trade unions in Britain lost large sections of support within the wider public. This loss of support was capitalised on by Thatcher in 1979, who rose to power through supply-side economic policy, which also had the desired secondary effect of crushing union strength through deregulation and mass unemployment. The Conservative leadership also introduced many anti-trade union policies in subsequent years, including laws against secondary picketing, ‘closed shops’ (where all new employees must also be trade union members), and the involvement of trade unions in the highest levels of industrial decision making (Undy, 2013)

Today trade union membership is at its lowest since 1995, with 6.5 million workers in trade unions, 24.7% of the population (Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, 2016). This is a long way from the peak of trade union membership in 1979, when 13 million workers were members of a trade union. The decline in trade union strength continued after Thatcher, with New Labour claiming to be supportive of trade unions while at the same time furthering the deregulation and modernisation of the British economy which started in the 1980s. The biggest challenge facing trade unions today, aside from this drop in membership, is the changing state of the UK workforce.

The 2013 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS) ‘indicates that the use of fixed-term or temporary contracts grew in both the public and private sectors with five or more employees between 2004 and 2011. Their use rose from 51 to 53 per cent of in the private sector and from 17 to 21 per cent in the public sector’ (Hudson, 2014, p. 7).

In higher education, 53.6% of all academic staff are on insecure contracts, and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) have been engaged in an effective campaign fighting casualisation which has resulted in many institutions moving away from the use of insecure employment contracts, as well as forcing a culture shift within the higher education sector as a whole (UCU, 2016). The effectiveness of UCU’s campaign is an example of the move towards an ‘organisational’ model of trade union strategy, which is more activist and grass-roots focused than the previous ‘partnership’ strategy (which characterised the ‘golden age’ of industrial relations, where unions worked together with management).

This move towards an organisation model of trade union strategy, as well as efforts to organize precarious workers, can be complimented by an even more radical form of grass-roots activism. In 1972, in response to mass redundancies in their workplace and an ineffective trade union apparatus, the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee produced their ‘Corporate Plan: A Contingency Strategy as a Positive Alternative to Recession and Redundancies’, now simply known as the ‘Lucas Plan’. In response to a questionnaire distributed by the Combine to Lucas Aerospace workers, 150 socially useful products were suggested. Among those selected for further research were green innovations decades ahead of their time, such as ‘heat pumps, solar cell technology, wind turbines and fuel cell technology’, as well as ‘a new hybrid power pack for motor vehicles and road-rail vehicles’ (Salisbury, 2016). Although the Plan was rejected ‘out of hand’ by Lucas Aerospace management, the inquiry was itself as important as the stated aims of saving jobs and creating ‘socially useful’ products:

Perhaps the most significant feature of the corporate Plan is that trade unionists are attempting to transcend the narrow economism which has characterized trade union activity in the past and expand out demands to the extent of questioning the products on which we work and the way in which we work upon them. This questioning of basic assumptions about what should be produced and how it should be produced is one that is likely to grow in momentum. (Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee, 1976, p. 9)

This quote, taken from the summary of the alternative corporate plan, indicates the Combine’s conscious attempt to reinvent trade union activism through democratisation. It also points to an awareness that it is this radical inquiry into alternatives, rather than any concrete achievement of socially useful production, that would survive and influence later generations.

As Mike Cooley (2016, p. 139), a key contributor to the original Lucas Plan, later reflected:

On the front page of the now famous Lucas Worker’s Plan for Socially Useful Production there is the statement that ‘there cannot be islands of social responsibility in a sea of depravity’. Lucas workers themselves never believed that it would be possible to establish in Lucas Aerospace alone the right to produce socially useful products … What the Lucas workers did was to embark on an exemplary project which would enflame the imagination of others. To do so, they realized that it was necessary to demonstrate in a very practical and direct way the creative power of ‘ordinary people’.

What Cooley and the other Lucas workers discovered, alongside Dewey, is that inquiry is the key to learning how to cooperate. Inquiry is the essential mechanism of democratisation that builds both consciousness and knowledge, both required for the institutionalisation of critical pedagogy. By focusing on ‘socially useful production’, the Combine also expanded and connected this process of democratisation to include the wider social context beyond the factory. An inquiry into ‘socially useful’ higher education would provide a much more effective way to anchor universities to the wider social context than the concept of a ‘public university’, a concept which can be seen as both conservative (looking back to a non-existent 1950s golden age) and ambiguous (as universities are ‘quasi-private’). Democratisation, as inquiry into the social function of universities, would also provide a way of connecting issues of marketisation to wider social struggles and members of the community who may otherwise not be invested in the fate of higher education.



This article has approached the question of how far critical pedagogy can be institutionalised through a series of historical and contemporary examples. Cooperatives seem to suggest the most appropriate form of institutionalisation, as democracy is not just a key cooperative principle but also enshrined in the cooperative form through worker control and ownership. As the longevity of the Lincoln Social Science Centre shows, cooperatives do not necessarily have to mimic the unwieldy and expensive structures of traditional universities, and can operate more like the ‘anti-institutions’ of the Free University movement. Secondary cooperatives also offer the kind of ‘organised networks’ that are a key innovation of contemporary free universities. By remaining in a utopian, or ‘prefigurative’ space, however, alternative institutions ‘outside’ the academy are severely limited in their capacity to democratise higher education. Within a post-Higher Education Bill marketized sector, cooperative universities face a difficult choice of becoming ‘alternative providers’, being subject to market forces and pressures that would inevitably undermine the radical potential of the cooperative form, or remaining aloof, relying on the unsustainable free time of academics and fluctuations of interest on the part of the public.

Democratisation through trade union activism, converting existing universities to the cooperative form, is a much more exciting possibility, but perhaps a more daunting prospect. Trade union structures already exist, providing much needed support and sustainability for attempts to democratise higher education, but ironically the institutionalisation of trade unionism leads to a conservativism in industrial strategy. Trade unions are still primarily concerned with protecting existing conditions and relations, and would see democratisation as outside traditional bargaining machinery. However, as the Lucas Plan has shown, worker’s inquiry, as a form of both critical pedagogy and democratisation, is an alternative trade union strategy that is effective in both creating solidarity in the workplace and with the wider public. In higher education trade unionism, this potential for building broad based support alongside other public sector workers is crucial for creating leverage in the fight against privatization and marketisation, and is also more likely to appeal to a new, non-traditional membership of casualised and migrant workers. The Lucas Plan suggests that through inquiries into alternative corporate plans existing union structures can be democratised alongside the university.



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Book Review: Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)

According to Price (2007), the concept of ‘public opinion’ came into use in the 18th century, with the creation of the printing press and expansion of literacy, leading to the creation of a ‘public sphere’ (Habermas, 1962/1989) which evolved around discussions of philosophies of freedom and a general articulation of a critique of monarchy and the absolutist state. With the rise of democracy, this idea of public opinion constituted a source of legitimacy for this new way of organising society which moved away from the authoritarianism of monarchy, and also provided a system of ‘checks and balances’ to prevent any such authoritarianism taking place. The achievement of the Enlightenment theories of civil democracy was

To transform the classical assembly of the people—in Athenian democracy a physical, face-to-face forum—into a mass-mediated, fictive body constituted by newspapers bringing people together, not in physical space but in shared stories and conversations at a distance. (Peters, 2007, p. 12)

Thus ‘public opinion’ was a creation coming out of the attempt to reinvent the ideal of classical, or Athenian, democracy for the modern world. The public sphere arising out of the combination of the printing press and new forms of social interactions of the emerging middle classes in the cafés and salons of Europe were a vital part of the this attempt to transform society.

Walter Lippmann, however, in his hugely influential 1922 book Public Opinion, was extremely sceptical about the viability of this idea within 20th century society. Lippmann was generally critical regarding the possibility of democracy in the modern world, leading him to be dismissed as a democratic elitist, or in extreme cases an anti-democrat (reference). For Lippmann, it is not clear even if a perfect democracy could be conceived that people really want to rule themselves, considering it ‘extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered, or would take the time to form an opinion on ‘any and every form of social action [a quote from G. D. H. Cole, late 19th century advocate of ‘guild socialism’]’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 314) Lippmann also believed that every form of organisation, whether socialist, democratic or otherwise, would require some hierarchy to be established, in order to deal with unexpected and pressing problems that didn’t have time for public deliberation, or just becaue human nature dictated that people liked to be near charismatic and powerful people, and that a group of insiders would inevitably appear around such people (Lippmann, 1991, p. 227)

Aside from these well-worn dismissals, however, Lippmann put forward some very interesting arguments, or perhaps it is better to think of them as challenges, to the idea that public opinion could be the basis and guarantor of democracy. Firstly, Lippmann challenged the idea that the media could act as what we might now call the ‘fourth estate’, that is as a watchdog of political power and a provider of truth to the public, effectively fulfilling the function that ‘public opinion’ was supposed to have in democratic theory. This is perhaps where Lippmann’s work remains most influential, and his reflections on the economics and sociology of the press were well ahead of its time. According to Lippmann, ‘we expect the press to supply truth, a ‘picture picture of all the outer world in which we are interested’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 321), but due to the financial constraints placed upon the press to provide news that will appeal to the largest possible cross-section of the public at the smallest possible cost and the social constraints of having to do this quickly (an interesting example of ‘market failure’), which in most cases means according to tired conventions, this expectation is unrealistic and ultimately not possible for the press to fulfil.

Furthermore, the news, for Lippmann, is already ‘shaped’ as news before it is even subject to these structural limitations. Reality must present itself to journalists as news – the world must jump out as significant, as an event, or disaster perhaps. This is how journalists know what to report, and a good journalist can see an event before it reaches this point of climax. But to see and report an event is not the same thing as providing truth:

The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished. The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts and set them in relation to each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 358)

At best, the media can provide an accurate collection of facts, gathered from authoritative sources such as government reports, first-hand accounts, statistics, etc., which must then still be interpreted in order to construct a true ‘picture of reality’ which can provide the basis for wise action. It is the latter which constitutes ‘public opinion’, not the former.

More disturbingly, for Lippmann, in modern society the press is increasingly manipulated by government and business interests. Aside from the structural limitations posed by market forces, the content of the media is more and more decided by the consumer market that advertisers, who supplement or in some cases replace the income provided by readers, wish to sell their products to. Advertisers also in some cases have veto power over content if this content is seen to jeopardise the market that advertisers are selling to. Governments, on the other hand, tend to ‘manufacture consent’ through the media by manipulating ‘symbols’, which in turn manipulate our emotions and loyalties (Lippmann, 1991, p. 248). Here Lippmann relies on a crude behaviourist conception of human psychology, in which emotions can be roused and then transferred onto other triggers, so for example we may be shown images of images of terrorist atrocities and then the feelings of fear and outrage can then be transferred onto ideas of security and surveillance which can be in turn used to pass repressive laws or win conservative elections (Lippmann, 1991, p. 204-5).

However, underlying all these other challenges, which are interesting in their own right, lies an original and difficult to answer epistemological critique of democracy that has found its way, now somewhat submerged and opaque, into the world-view of neoliberalism. This critique says that the public, the agent of public opinion and democracy, has not got direct access to the knowledge required for self-rule. For Lippmann (1991, p. 402), this knowledge must be provided by an elite of ‘intelligence men’, who have ‘the skill to sort out what is real perception from what is stereotype, pattern and elaboration’:

The outsider [i.e. the private citizen], and every one of us is an outsider to all but a few aspects of modern life, has neither time, nor attention, nor interest, nor the equipment for specific judgement. It is on the man inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administration of society must rest. (Lippman, 1991, p. 400)

It is true that at times Lippmann, as in this quote, can sound like a straightforward elitist. In other places he claims that the majority of people, more people than we may like to admit, are ‘illiterate’, ‘feeble-minded’ grossly neurotic, ‘undernourished’ (I assume he means intellectually) and ‘frustrated’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 75). Yet, if we can ignore these outbursts of disdain for the masses, his argument at root is more subtle than.

Lippmann claims that in daily life we perceive the world through ‘stereotypes’. Like the news, we do not perceive the world in its raw, unmediated fullness, reality comes to us ‘already defined for us’, we perceive what has been ‘picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 81). Here ‘stereotype’ is not a positive or negative thing, but an epistemological pre-condition of being able to cope with modern existence. Lippmann identifies two reasons for holding stereotypes: ‘economy of effort’, which is to say we need stereotypes to be able to get about our daily lives quickly and efficiently, to see ‘all things freshly and in detail’ would be exhausting; and ‘defensiveness’, by which Lippmann means the comfortable familiarity that things and ideas we are used to have for us, to the point where if challenged, we feel attacked and often react harshly (Lippmann, 1991, pp. 88-103) Stereotypes are both the material for and the product of our cultural ideals and traditions, and theories can become stereotypes when they become generalised enough to absorb the desires and feelings of society as a whole – for example how the theory of evolution became generalised into an idea of progress in the late 19th century (Lippmann, 1991, p. 104).

Stereotypes, for Lippmann, are a condition of the modern world. Like never before, much of reality is invisible to us, hidden from view, happening far away and often at unimaginable distance.

The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight out of mind. It has to be explored, reported, and imagined. Man is no Aristotelian god contemplating all existence at one glance. He is the creature of an evolution who can just about span a sufficient portion of reality to manage his survival, and snatch what on the scale of time is but a few moments of insight and happiness. (Lippmann, 1991, p. 29)

What this means is that we live in what Lippmann calls a ‘pseudo-environment’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 15)– a kind of hazy mixture of direct experience, based on what we see and know in our immediate environment, but which we still don’t necessarily understand, and mediated experience which we gather from a variety of sources, but increasingly from the media, which we already know is unreliable. Mostly what guides the average person is ‘fiction’, not knowledge. This is the crux of Lippmann’s criticism of liberal theories of democracy, that citizens come ready-made with knowledge of the world and are supposed to somehow ‘spontaneously’ formulate a ‘public opinion’ which would form the basis of self-determination. All that is needed is the freedom to communicate. However, for Lippmann, this grossly over-estimates, and this is ultimately an unfair expectation (like we have of journalists), the capacities of ordinary people. Knowledge should be left to experts, the ‘intelligence men’, the researchers of the emerging modern university, who will provide policy makers, journalists and ultimately the public with the knowledge required for wise political action.

But Lippmann seems to confuse the epistemological argument that people see the world through stereotypes with normative argument that experts should be in charge of knowledge – nowhere does he explain why ‘intelligence men’ seem to be able to transcend this epistemological limitation, or why, if stereotypes are not judged to be good or bad, ordinary people are somehow more susceptible to the limiting effects of their ‘pseudo-environments’. The implication seems to be that the vocation of science, in terms of training, time and commitment, frees the ‘intelligence man’ (sic) to be able to see the world in a disinterested and therefore more objective manner – the ordinary person is far too wrapped up in daily concerns to be able to achieve such a perspective (here Lippmann seems to be arguing by analogy from the limitations of news consumption). At the end of the book, Lippmann even makes recommendations that such ‘intelligence work’ should be based on ‘tenure for life, with provision for retirement on a liberal pension, with sabbatical years set aside for advanced study and training’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 387). However, epistemologically, no justification is provided for Lippmann’s suggestions for a benevolent technocracy.

This is where Lippmann’s own theory of stereotypes can be productively used against him. It seems that Lippmann was victim to his own elitist stereotypes, bolstered by contemporary theories of crowd psychology and mass society (Reicher, 2001), which lead to a ‘blind-spot’ concerning his own prejudices about mass democratic society. Lippmann criticised Aristotle for being able to justify slavery on the basis that some people are ‘naturally’ slaves, thereby projecting a social fact onto nature. ‘This is the perfect stereotype. Its hallmark is that it precedes the use fo reason, is a form of perception, imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach intelligence.’ (Lippmann, 1991, p. 98) In Lippmann’s case, he projected his anxieties about mass democracy, prevalent at the time, onto the theory of stereotypes, which was in itself actually an important contribution to the debate. What Lippmann couldn’t see due to his fear of the masses was that his theory of stereotypes in no way logically or epistemologically entailed the elitist conclusion of rule by experts, but in fact, due to its devastating critique of liberal ideas of representation, opened up a much more radical possibility.

The real ‘blind-spot’ in Lippmann’s critique of democracy was the possibility of what could be called a ‘citizen social science’ to generate knowledge, and through it, public opinion that would inform and guide self-rule ordinary people.

Lippman, W. (1991) Public Opinion. Chicago: Transaction

John Dewey’s ‘intelligent populism’: beyond Brexit, Trump and post-truth

Donald Trump with supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Originally published on OpenDemocracy:

Neoliberalism channels vast wealth upwards, in turn supplying the financial, social and cultural capital necessary to maintain power despite enormous global economic, social and environmental instability. The 2008 financial crisis, the biggest since the 1920s, did not bring neoliberalism to its knees, it in fact strengthened its resolve. Banks in the UK and US demanded to be bailed out by the government and the ‘austerity’ agenda spread across Europe. After a period of stunned disbelief, the establishment convinced the public that it was in fact the excesses of social democracy that caused the public debt incurred as a result of this bailout.

Philip Mirowski calls this the ‘double truth doctrine’ of neoliberalism. The real cause of the crisis can be traced back to neoliberalism itself: Thatcher and Reagan’s radical deregulation of financial markets in the 1980s, for example. But cleverly, this double truth also played on the fragmentation on the left caused by the death of ‘actually existing communism’ and the defeat of militant unionism in the UK. After what Francis Fukuyama called the ‘end of history’, academics retreated into postmodernism and revolutionaries either gave up or returned to Marxist canon to find the right theory of why everything had gone wrong.

We are now living through what Colin Crouch has called the “strange non-death of neoliberalism”. Even IMF economists now agree that neoliberalism has been ‘oversold’. I won’t retread the history of neoliberalism here, but we should use the IMF definition, as it represents a somewhat shocking revelation, since all along they have been denying neoliberalism’s existence:

“The neoliberal agenda – a label used more by critics than by the architects of the policies – rests on two main planks. The first is increased competition – achieved through deregulation and the opening up of domestic markets, including financial markets, to foreign competition. The second is a smaller role for the state, achieved through privatization and limits on the ability of governments to run fiscal deficits and accumulate debt.”

Neoliberalism’s double-truth, uncovered first by Michel Foucault all the way back in 1978, is that it was founded on a realisation that ‘laissez-faire’ doesn’t work. This is the doctrine that the law of supply and demand should be left alone to do its work in organising society. Early neoliberal theorists realised that the law of supply and demand does not work ‘naturally’ in society, it must be actively created through the re-structuring of society. The perfect market does not already exist in the structure of nature, which is merely uncovered in capitalism, it must become the end of all economic and public policy reform.

Populism is a consequence of the double-truth doctrine. We have been socialised into seeing our identity in nation states, and have been convinced that neoliberalism will bring prosperity for all. Yet within globalised neoliberalism, the nation state has been ripped apart, sold off to multi-national corporations, and wealth has remained with the wealthy. The middle class, forever chasing the neoliberal carrot, wins nothing but clinical stress, anxiety and depression. The working class is lumped with insecurity and social fragmentation, while being at the same time demonised as a class of ‘chavs’and ‘scroungers’.

Representative democracy, hollowed out by neoliberalism to leave a choice between variations on a neoliberal theme, leaves the public with only a protest vote to express their anger and frustration. Brexit and Trump are votes for change, votes against the establishment, votes against neoliberalism. The establishment were subsequently shocked to discover that there is a limit to how far you can hollow out democracy. The middle class were shocked to see the ugly face of fascism always ready to pounce as the edifice of capitalism crumbles.

Populism and the public

The American philosopher John Dewey had a unique explanation for all this. In The Public and Its Problems (1954), Dewey makes a functional distinction between private and public actions and their respective private and public consequences, in order to explain the origin and meaning of ‘democracy’. All public action produces indirect consequences, which are consequences “that affect others beyond those immediately concerned”. ‘The public’, as an organised body of people, comes about through consciousness of indirect consequences and co-operative activity to control them. ‘The state’ is created as this co-operative activity becomes more organised, eventually being detached from the public as an institutional body. For Dewey, democracy, as an historical form of the state, is a technology of the public.

Democracy is a particularly well developed expression of this function of the state. As Marx and Engels argued in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist economy outstripped the political system within which it developed. The emerging and expanding middle class needed a political system that would represent their interests over that of the aristocracy. As Dewey argued, liberalism was at this point a radical political philosophy designed to gain popular support to move society beyond medieval feudalism. But once the new middle class achieved power, this radicalism was betrayed and democracy reduced to its most minimal expression.

Democracy, therefore, served a series of functions: (1) to liberate the emerging middle class from the authoritarian church state; (2) to gain populist support for this cause from the lower classes; and (3) to institutionalise the interests of the middle classes once it gained power. This last function the system of abstract rights connected to the rule of law. But the alliance with the lower classes within the ideology of liberalism and democracy opened a can of worms that the new ruling class (‘the bourgeoisie’) have struggled to keep shut since the American and French Revolutions.

For Dewey, the public is always waiting to re-assert itself as the ‘raison d’etre’ of government and state institutions. From the beginning of history, revolutionary movements have understood the power of the public in bringing about social change. As Foucault pointed out, there is only so much oppression that the public can take before revolting. Twentieth-century social philosophers such as Gramsci, Foucault and Habermas have rightly focused on the way that modern social systems rely on legitimacy rather than force for their reproduction. Therefore, in modern societies, the boundaries of legitimacy can be pushed too far.

Neoliberalism ends up undermining its two key ideological foundations, liberalism and democracy, that sustain its legitimacy. The contemporary marketisation of ‘big data’, for example, which is the mass of personal information generated as a by-product of our digital activities, has created understandably acute levels of anxiety regarding the misuse, surveillance and manipulation of such data. The inexorable march of privatisation through public services destroys what little protection the state offered against the indirect consequences of capitalism: unemployment, poverty, sickness. As the ruthless logic of neoliberalism runs its course, its public façade also gradually disappears, leaving only naked and cynical exploitation in its place.

Intelligent populism

There is good populism and bad populism. But these forms of populism cannot just be mapped on to left and right ends of the spectrum. Both left and right populism use the anger of the public for external ends, namely to gain power for whatever political party that is pitched against the ‘establishment’. As already argued, this has been the case throughout history: the public are called into being whenever a revolution is needed, and then betrayed as soon as they have served their purpose. Both left and right populism are based on a low opinion of public intelligence, an assumption, incidentally, shared with neoliberalism.

Dewey, on the other hand, thought that intelligence was based in an everyday process of problem solving. Experience is problematic, in that our routine existence regularly resists our purposes, breaks down when we try to get things done, and throws up dilemmas that we can’t ignore. Most of the time these are just hiccups that can be overcome by adjusting our habitual behaviour, but sometimes we need to reflect, to consciously create and weigh solutions. All forms of inquiry that human beings have developed – science, education, morality – have developed out of this fundamental process of reflection within ordinary experience.

Democracy was also once a form of inquiry, now forgotten through its institutionalisation and co-option by neoliberalism. For Dewey, the public was invented through the co-operative, reflective activity of groups of citizens, who aimed to reconstruct and control the indirect consequences of social life. Ancient Athenian democracy was an early and very successful attempt by the Greeks to harness the power of social intelligence to adapt to a rapidly changing world. That this experiment failed, and more importantly failed to include women and free slaves to become citizens, did not undermine the potential power of democracy as a technology of the public.

What is missing today is a mechanism that would revive the potential of democracy as a technology of the public. Ancient Athens had the theatre, where the moral capacities of citizens were exercised and politics debated. The emerging labour movement in the eighteenth century had correspondence societies, where pamphlets were read out and revolution fermented. As Jürgen Habermas argued, the ‘public sphere’, a fundamental cog in the machine of early modern democracy, was destroyed through capitalism’s commercialisation of public space and commodification of private life. What is needed is a new form of co-operative inquiry that both reconstructs democracy from within and re-creates the public in the process. What is needed is an ‘intelligent populism’.

Dewey, unfortunately, never realised the direct relevance of his other work on experience, inquiry and education to his theory of democracy presented in The Public and Its Problems. Dewey offered better public engagement with the public on behalf of social science as a solution to the ‘crisis of democracy’. But as John Holmwood has pointed out, populism is not just an expression of anger against the establishment, but also a rejection of technocratic forms of expertise. Right-wing politicians attempt, with more or less successful results, to tap into this: David Cameron’s rejection of ‘state multiculturalism’ in favour of education “in elements of a common culture and curriculum”, and in Trump’s climate change denial.

Post-truth versus intelligent populism

‘Post-truth’ has become a key concept within explanations of Brexit and Trump. Recently being declared ‘word of the year’ by both UK and US Oxford Dictionaries, it is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This phenomenon of the rejection of facts in favour of emotion described by ‘post-truth’ is actually a consequence of neoliberalism; it is the organised confusion that Mirowski described as the ‘double-truth doctrine’. It is an historical phenomenon, not something inherent to the quality of public intelligence. It is what happens when neoliberalism marketises education, privatises the public sphere and turns the mainstream media into propaganda machine.

Contrary to Andrew Calcutt’s analysis, the origins of the concept of ‘post-truth’ lie not with the academic left and postmodernism in the 1970s, but with the origins of neoliberalism in the 1920s. The abstract to an influential article called “It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy” indicates this origin:

“The familiar image of rational electoral choice has voters weighing the competing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, calculating comparative distances in issue space, and assessing the president’s management of foreign affairs and the national economy. Indeed, once or twice in a lifetime, a national or personal crisis does induce political thought. But most of the time, the voters adopt issue positions, adjust their candidate perceptions, and invent facts to rationalize decisions they have already made. The implications of this distinction between genuine thinking and its day-to-day counterfeit strike at the roots of both positive and normative theories of electoral democracy.”

This was the conclusion Walter Lippmann reached in the 1920s, which formed the basis of both subsequent forms of ‘democratic realism’ and the neoliberalism of The Mont Pelerin Society. Here we see the same premise that underpins neoliberalism and the debate around populism: the intelligence of the average person is not to be trusted (if it exists at all).

But the left must also recognise that it shares the same low opinion of everyday intelligence. Crude conceptions of ideology and ‘false consciousness’ (which were nevertheless held by very sophisticated Marxists, such as Louis Althusser), state that the truth operates ‘behind the backs’ of ordinary people, who cannot access this truth without the correct theory. It is this assumption, not culpability in developing postmodernism, which prevents the left from formulating a progressive response to populism. We must learn to see the double-truth doctrine at work again here. ‘Post-truth’, and therefore Brexit and Trump, are being blamed on the legacy of postmodernism within the academic left, just as the consequences of the financial crisis were blamed on the excesses of social democracy.

We need a new practice of ‘critical pedagogy’, based on an assumption of the equality of intelligence, not on the inevitability of false consciousness. Through co-operative social inquiry, the double-truth doctrine can be unmasked by ordinary people. As Dewey argued, political activists, academics, community organisers, all have an important role to play in helping to re-create such public spheres of inquiry, but we must not assume we own such inquiry. Intellectuals also have a political task of our own: democratising knowledge production and educational institutions so that the conditions for such co-operative inquiries are improved. Universities, for example, can be transformed into co-operative, worker-student controlled hubs of inquiry that cascade knowledge back and forth along a chain of radical-democratic decentralisation.

For Dewey, humanising technology was the most pressing task of modern society. As we have seen, technology doesn’t just mean “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry” (OED), it refers to any means for the achievement of human ends. As Alan Hickman has convincingly argued, Dewey’s entire philosophy can be summarised as a theory of ‘responsible technology’. Technology, as inquiry, is responsible when it arises out of problematic situations that are concretely felt (in the sense that all experience is primarily qualitative) by human beings. But more importantly, it can only be fully responsible when the results, values and ends that arise out of such inquiries “are brought back to the situations from which they originated in order to ascertain whether they are appropriate”.

Democracy is a technology of the public that arose out of a need to control the indirect consequences of social action. Neoliberalism co-opts democracy, and its institutions, for the manipulation of the public for private gain, and for the maintenance of power. Populism is the public expression of recognition: that this is happening, and that democracy needs to be taken back by the public. In a Deweyian sense, populism is therefore the first stage of an inquiry begun by the public for the public. Instead of dismissing this inquiry, we should get involved. We need to be a part of this inquiry, help it develop into an ‘intelligent populism’ which would found and maintain radical democracy, replace a dying neoliberalism, and as an adaptive and generative form of social problem solving, maybe even save the earth from environmental destruction.

Book Review: The Phantom Public by Walter Lippmann (1927)

In The Phantom Public, Lippmann returns to the theme of what he considers to be the ‘fiction’ at the heart of liberal democratic theory, that once the barriers to freedom are taken away, an active and intelligent public will spring into action, guiding society from the ‘bottom up’, holding elected leaders to account and engaging deliberatively in all the important decision of the day (Lippman, 1993, p. 67). For Lippmann, this fiction leads to the existence of the ‘disenchanted man’, the citizen who is told that they must have an active role in public decision making but cannot find the time, does not understand the issues, and is frankly not interested. This expectation, imposed by the idealism of liberal democrats, should be abandoned, and a full-blown ‘realism’ regarding the capacities of ordinary people should accepted. Gone is the even the limited optimism of Public Opinion, in which an elite of social scientists could provide a ‘machinery of knowledge’ to offset the ignorance of the masses by providing them with access to a true picture of reality (which the media cannot provide). We should come to accept that democracy is a myth and let rulers rule; the public can only exist as passive spectators watching shadows on the wall, blissfully ignorant of their meaning.

Familiar arguments are mobilised by Lippmann to debunk the myth of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, beginning with the complexity of the modern, globalised world that must necessarily exceed the grasp of not just the average person, but any individual. This leads to a tendency towards centralisation, not just in the governance of society, but also in increasing monopolisation in business and workers organising themselves in trade unions (Lippmann, 1993, p. 179). For Lippmann, centralisation is an inevitable move to cope with complexity, but practically, this undermines any form of democracy, as ‘the more centralisation the less can the people concerned be consulted and give conscious assent’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 174) Again, it is the fiction of a pre-existing public opinion that leads to this situation, and this fiction is used by ‘special interests’ to claim they are working in the ‘public interest’; however, for Lippmann, as he had argued at length in Public Opinion, there is no such thing as a ‘public opinion’ to inform such an idea of the public interest, and what actually happens is that the public interest is invented by manipulating public opinion through the media. Here we can see Lippmann beginning to formulate his own critique of collectivism and planning (a contribution to a growing literature at the time), a critique that would be developed in The Good Society and would become so influential with later neoliberals.

The problem for democracy, in Lippmann’s view, was how to accept ‘deep pluralism’ and still have any notion or practical possibility of a public that would constitute the idea of ‘popular government’ (Lippmann, 1993, p. 87). In The Phantom Public, Lippmann has dispensed altogether with the idea that knowledge and identity may have a social basis, expressed in Public Opinion‘s concept of ‘stereotypes’, instead subscribing to an epistemology of extreme individualism where no person can understand the point of view of another. This irreducible perspectivalism is combined with the critique of the ‘fact’ of centralisation to form what for Lippmann is both a devastating and novel dismissal of the possibility of democracy:

Critics [of democracy] have usually concluded that there was a congenital difference between the masterful few and the ignorant many. They are the victims of a superficial analysis of the evils they see so clearly. The fundamental difference which matters is that between insiders and outsiders. Their relations to a problem are radically different. Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently a better man but because he is so placed that he can understand and act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome, because he is trying to navigate the ship from dry land. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 140)

What is interesting here is that Lippmann has elevated the social-historical reality of elitism to the level of epistemological truth. It is not that existing power and class relations distort democracy by centralising power and decision making, and also by excluding the public from access to knowledge that might allow them to criticise these decisions and question this unequal structure of society, but rather that the limitations of human knowledge mean that elitism is inevitable.

In this sense Lippmann’s ‘realism’ regarding democracy is actually a sublimation of a deep pessimism towards the capabilities of the public. For some reason, ‘insiders’ can both know and cope with the complexity of modern life, and it is their job to deal with problems regarding the public, not the public like you might think. If you collect the comments Lippmann makes about the average person who is the ‘outsider’ to the management of public affairs, the barefaced elitism of this position becomes much clearer (and the epistemological basis less convincing). For Lippmann (1993), the public ‘consists of busy men reading newspapers for half an hour or so a day’ (p. 109), ‘will arrive in the middle of the third act and will leave before the last curtain, having stayed just long enough perhaps to decide who is the hero and who the villain of the piece’ (p. 54) The average member of the public must be conceived ‘in the lowest terms’: they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (p. 55).

The public must be put in its place, so that it may exercise its own powers, but no less and perhaps even more, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 145)

Little doubt remains by the end of The Phantom Public that Lippmann has succumbed to the elitism and fear of ‘the masses’ typical of the age, encapsulated in such Nietzschean descriptions of the latter as the ‘bewildered herd’. The public’s ‘exercise of its own powers’ is severely limited to two questions: is rule or a particular rule defective? If so, how can we recognise who can make it better? (Lippmann, 1993, p. 98). Notice that the public is never expected to understand how or why a system of government is failing, only to find someone who might sort the problem out for them. Lippmann (1993) suggests some way that the public might do this: they could stage a debate between competing parties and see if anyone betrays a special interest (p. 104 – even though all people are expected to follow special interests and not public interests, one of many contradictions in the book); they could demand an independent inquiry and see if those in power were willing to take part in such an inquiry, although the public wouldn’t be expected to understand what was in the inquiry (p. 122); or they could just be vigilant and see whether generally people are assenting and conforming to current system of rule, if not this is a clear sign that someone else should take over (p. 144). To sum up, the most the public can be expected to do is:

Support the Ins when things are going well; to support the Outs when [the Ins] seem to be going badly, this, in spite of all that has been said about tweedledum and tweedledee, is the essence of popular government. (Lippmann, 1993, p. 116)

Lippman, W. (1993) The Phantom Public. Chicago: Transaction

Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy

Ranciere Seminar 2016 JPEG

Image: Copyright David Ridley 2016

Stephen Cowden and I organised a very successful conference on Jacques Rancière last Friday, which will be followed up by a book. Here is the blurb:

While the work of the French social theorist Jacques Rancière is increasingly acknowledged, his contributions to the field of education and Critical Pedagogy are still largely unknown in the English speaking world. The purpose of this event is to explore the significance of Rancière’s critique of the traditional pedagogical enterprise and his ideas about the centrality of ‘equality’ in education. The conference seeks both to examine the social and political context in which Rancière carried out his work on pedagogy, as well as to consider the relevance and application of this within the contemporary ‘neoliberal’ university.

And here are the podcasts, as promised:

First Panel:

Dr Jones Irwin (St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra): ‘Alternative Genealogies of Resistance – Affinities and Disaffinities Between Lyotard and Rancière’
Mark Howard (Monash University): ‘A Question of Knowledge: Radical Social Movements and Popular Pedagogy’
Discussant: Jeremy Lane (Nottingham University)

Second Panel:

Sarah Galloway, Caroline Pelletier
Discussant: Sarah Amsler (Lincoln University)

Third Panel:

Oliver Davis (Warwick University): ‘Lessons from Rancière-Jacotot for a Critical Pedagogy of Neoliberalism’s Double Text’
David Ridley (Coventry University): ‘Flipping for Equality: A Rancièrean Critique of the Flipped Classroom’
Discussant: Stephen Cowden (Coventry University)

Neoliberalism and its Forgotten Alternative


I recently had my first article related to my PhD published on Open Democracy, this was a great day for me as this website is one of my favourite place to find articles and many people I respect and quote publish articles there. You can find the original here.

Neoliberalism and its forgotten alternative: Democracy as a way of life

Criticisms of neoliberalism are proliferating, not just within the political and academic left, but within mainstream public opinion as well. Everywhere people are beginning to seriously doubt whether markets will be able to produce another extended period of sustained growth, or whether they will solve the world’s current problems or merely exacerbate them. Liberal economists are pointing to the increasing inequality caused by 30 years of neoliberalism in the West. This analysis of rising inequality has been built upon by other critics of neoliberalism who examine the social effects of this inequality, beginning with Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, a path-breaking and hugely popular book that has lead to more important work in this area, with research focussing on inequality’s mental and even physical health effects.

Aside from inequality, other critics have focussed on how neoliberalism is incapable of solving the problem of climate change. Naomi Klein has been for a long time pointing to how climate change intensified with the deregulation of markets in the 1970s, for many people the beginning point of the rise of neoliberal hegemony in the West. Today there is an intensifying debate over the idea of ‘natural capital’, which some critics (1) (2) see as an absurd move by neoliberal policy makers to apply the logic of the market to a problem that has, as Klein argues, only made the problem worse in the first place. In what George Monbiot has referred to as the ‘the pricing, valuation, monetisation, financialisation of nature in the name of saving it’, the natural ‘commons’ is turned into a potential new source of value which can be speculated on by investors. This form of speculation, of course, is what led to the 2008 financial crisis, with risk on sub-prime mortgages hedged into more and more complex ‘derivatives’, eventually bringing the whole intertwined financial world to its knees as the housing bubble burst (3). As Monbiot and others have correctly pointed out, the move to financialise natural resources is not intended to save the world, but to create another source of capital accumulation and thus save an increasingly desperate capitalist system.

The problem is that, despite growing dissatisfaction and criticism of neoliberalism, we don’t seem to be able to shift this socio-economic structure in favour of a better one, or even just to a return to a more Keynesian inspired alternative. We seem to be stuck in what Mark Fisher has called a state of ‘capitalist realism’, somehow, despite our apparent knowledge, coming to accept in practice Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no alternative’, or Francis Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism as the ‘end of history’. However, this inability to deal with contemporary neoliberalism in practice is not due to the victory of capitalism, but comes from an under-estimation of how far neoliberalism is a long-term, and very successful, political project with a coherent and shared ‘world-view’. This world-view has its origins in a crisis of liberalism in the 1930s, as it faced what it saw as the return of authoritarianism, or ‘arbitrary rule’. Neoliberalism was an attempt by influential German economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek, and social theorists, such as Max Weber and Walter Lippmann (in the US) to rescue and reformulate liberalism in theory, a theory that had itself originated historically (in the 17th and 18th centuries) as a critique of the arbitrary power of church and state. According to these theorists, liberalism had become incapable of dealing with what they saw as the contemporary manifestation of arbitrary rule in fascist Germany and Italy and communist Russia.

In an extraordinary book, The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, Philip Mirowski et al describe how early neoliberal theorists and sympathisers came together in 1947 to form an exclusive, secretive and powerful club called the Mont Pèlerin Society. This was the beginning of ‘a transnational movement’ which accepted right from the beginning that undermining what they saw as the evils of economic planning would take a long time, lots of effort and careful coordination. As Mirowski points out in his conclusion, neoliberalism was never a conspiracy, but rather an ‘intricately structured long-term philosophical and political project’ (4). Contrary to popular belief and some academic opinion, ‘neoliberalism’ is not just a dirty word invented by left-wingers resenting the ‘victory’ of capitalism in the Western world, but a term self-consciously chosen by what Mirowski et al refer to as the international ‘thought collective’ arising out of the Mont Pèlerin Society. This neoliberal thought collective bade their time, connecting and combining ‘key spheres and institutions – academia, the media, politics and business’, creating a new knowledge apparatus for the dissemination of propaganda, the ‘neoliberal partisan think-tank’, and eventually finding power through the victories of the political right in the 1970s, Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US.

To understand the true origins of neoliberalism, and therefore be able to rescue a convincing alternative, however, we must return to the work of Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was very much influenced by the emerging critique of economic planning that was beginning to appear in the 1920s, especially in the work of Ludwig von Mises, Boris Brutzkus and F. A. von Hayek, reaching its high-point just before the outbreak of World War II. But before engaging with this critique explicitly in The Good Society, Lippmann had been mounting a devastating attack on what he considered to be the naivety of liberal democracy in two major works, Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. In these books Lippmann argued that at the heart of liberal democratic theory lies a fiction, that of the ‘sovereign and omnicompetent citizen’, which in turn leads democrats to rely uncritically on a myth of an active and responsible public, which is supposed to guarantee freedom against arbitrary rule. This myth, however, allows agents with special interests, such as the media, controlled by advertising, and the government, controlled by individuals with a desire to maintain power, to pretend that they are acting in the so-called ‘public interest’. Realising, with Lippmann, that the public does not spring up ‘spontaneously’ with free speech, these agents create and manipulate public opinion in order to achieve their own ends.

In Public Opinion, Lippmann still held out hope for social science as a mediating ‘machinery of knowledge’ to provide the truth to both decision makers and the public, a truth which the media is structurally just not able to provide (due to what might be called ‘market failure’, as people don’t want to pay for the apparatus necessary for truth, and the sociological constraints of having to report the news quickly and efficiently). But by the time he wrote The Phantom Public, Lippmann had given way to a full blown pessimism regarding the capabilities of average citizens. In a tirade of insults that runs through the book, the average member of the public is conceived ‘in the lowest terms’. According to Lippmann they ‘will not be well informed, continuously interested, non-partisan, creative or executive’, and must be assumed as ‘inexpert’, ‘intermittent’, slow to be aroused’, ‘quickly diverted’ and ‘interested only when events have been melodramatised as a conflict’ (5). Gone is the faith in science and expertise, with Lippmann’s universal scepticism forcing him to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’: ‘Modern society is not visible to anybody, nor intelligible continuously and as a whole’ (6).

Mirowski et al have shown that Lippmann had a huge influence on the early foundations of neoliberalism. Upon reading The Good Society, enthusiastic future neoliberals organised a conference in Paris in 1938, called the Colloque Walter Lippmann, which served as a precursor and inspiration for the Mont Pèlerin Society. The Good Society anticipated many of the key ideas of the emerging neoliberal world-view: the need to reinvent liberalism, to somehow create the conditions for the market to flourish and to prevent arbitrary rule and authoritarianism, and most importantly, to restrict democratic involvement in decision making and to replace the expectation of positive freedom with a completely negative ideal of the individual as an emancipated entrepreneur and/or consumer. But what linked the attack in The Good Society on economic planning to Lippmann’s earlier work on democracy, and also to the work of key neoliberal F. A. von Hayek, was the epistemological rationalisation of both the market as answer to everything and of the restriction of democracy. Both Lippmann and Hayek worked with the assumption that no individual could know society as a whole, and therefore no individual, or even a group of individuals, can have access to the information required to make economic planning work, or to rule society in the name of the ‘collective will’. The only rational way to run society, therefore, was through the ‘natural logic’ of the market.

However, the whole epistemological critique of planning and the public in Lippmann and Hayek rested on the assumption that knowledge is asocial. For ‘democratic realists’ and neoliberals alike, reality is something that the individual achieves by accurately representing, or forming a true picture in the mind of the outside world. In this case, of course, the individual has limited access to knowledge, no matter how well educated or intelligent we are. But Lippmann’s earlier work, and his public debate with John Dewey throughout the 1920s and 30s, point to an alternative view, submerged in the subsequent war between capitalism and communism. In Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that we see and understand the world primarily through ‘stereotypes’, the habits and customs of thought that guide our actions without realising, which he used to discredit ‘public opinion’. Dewey agreed with Lippmann that an individual’s capacity for knowledge was limited, and that many actions are guided by habit (7). But Dewey also believed that these habits could be made intelligent through reflection upon the consequences of our actions, and through this process we could develop ‘foresight’ which would in turn further develop the intelligence of our intuition (8). Dewey drew a far more positive conclusion than Lippmann: habits can be an incredible source of power and knowledge if we are only willing to work on ourselves.

These stereotypes and habits also give us access to social knowledge, as subconsciously we must have a deep understanding of how society works in order to act. We human beings are so much more intelligent than neoliberals give us credit for; the brain processes huge amounts of information every second, most of which we are not aware of. According to Dewey, we have access to this submerged substratum of information, or ‘qualitative’ thought, through reflection; if we look deeply into our experience, we can make the connections which turn bare facts into truth, or for Dewey, into wisdom. All our knowledge is social, everything we know is in some way derived from the shared understandings, customs and collective experience which we have come to refer to as ‘culture’. This means that everything around us is a source of exploration and knowledge. Life itself is a learning process and the world is a classroom. This is what Dewey meant when he talked about ‘democracy as a way of life’. As Josiah Ober has pointed, looking at the success of ancient Athens, democracy is a powerful way of harnessing ‘dispersed knowledge through the free choice of many people’ (9). What Lippmann and Hayek fail to see, due to their attachment to extreme individualism, is that by tapping into the social nature of knowledge through collaborative reflection, the limitations imposed on us by our individual perspectives can be overcome. And democracy, in the positive Deweyian sense, is the most effective way of putting these perspectives to work.

Ironically, neoliberalism points to the way forward. The history of neoliberalism has taught us two things: firstly that no matter how unpopular an idea is at the time (and to say that neoliberalism was ‘leaning against the wind’ during the Great Depression of the 1930s is, to use Mirowski et al‘s words, an understatement), with enough hard work, determination and above all, organisation, today’s outlier can become tomorrow’s hegemonic world-view. Secondly, the public, like the perfect market, does not just spontaneously appear with negative freedom. We can try to engage people in collaborative social inquiry, try to develop their awareness of the conditions that limit participation, to deepen our collective understanding of social and political processes and therefore increase the public’s potential for self-rule. However, without creating the material and social conditions for participation, these efforts at condescension will be rightly met with scorn. Sociologists and social scientists, such as myself, need to be a part of an active process of giving back social inquiry to the public, emancipating this deeply human and social activity first and foremost from the elitism, specialisation and instrumentalism of academia. We may need to reduce the working day/week even further to enable people to have time for community activities and public research. We certainly need to prevent education being turned a class-based, narrowly vocational process of training people to be profit-making machines.

We haven’t got all the answers yet. But if we have an idea whose time has come, as the neoliberal ‘thought-collective’ have shown, we can perhaps win the battle in the end and work it out as we go along.


(1) Boenhert, J. (2015) ‘The Green Economy: Reconceptualising the Natural Commons as Natural Capital’. Environmental Communication [online]

(2) Büscher, B. and Fletcher, M. (2015) ‘Accumulation by Conservation’. New Political Economy 10(2), pp. 273-298

(3) Chang, H-J. (2014) Economics: The User’s Guide. London: Penguin, pp. 279-313

(4) Mirowski, P. and Plehwe, D. (2009) The Road to Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 426

(5) Lippmann, W. (1927/93) The Phantom Public. London: Transaction Publishers, p. 55

(6) Ibid. p. 32

(7) Dewey, J. (1922/2002) Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Dover Publications

(8) Dewey, J. (1916/44) Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press

(9) Ober, J. (2008) Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. xiv