The ‘Useless’ Knowledge
Over two months ago
24th April 2020. Britain just passed the peak. Statistics broadcasted live at the press conference from Downing Street show an increase of over 5.500 cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours. It is lower than earlier in the week and, on top of this, more good news. The PM has made a full recovery from his encounter with the virus and is expected back in the swing of things.
Analysing newspapers’ front pages from 24th April 2020, I find headlines suggesting how a ‘grateful Britain’ (Daily Mirror) was slowly ‘taking back control’ (The Daily Telegraph), with the help of ‘mass testing to get Britain back on her feet’ (Daily Express). At the same time, hospitals were struggling with significant PPE shortages, with ‘failings in the privately run virus test centres’ (The Guardian) and were ‘running out of dialysis kits’ (The Independent).
A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ (The Scotsman) in April, when things were bad and better at the same time. The sigh of relief from governmental departments was so loud, I could almost hear it from the Midlands in the lockdown quietness. Weather was good but the angst caused by the emergency stop on economy was wearing many out. As my professional and social life moved online, days and nights blended into each other, in a confusing melange of obsessive handwashing, sleeplessness, overeating and virus paranoia. I would have believed anything as long as it brought hope.
The worst had passed and social media took comfort in the heavily quoted words of Pastor Olawale Daniel who’d prophetically anticipate the arrival of ‘a time to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the next phase of our existence’. I admit I have not heard of Pastor Olawale before the pandemic and, looking at his website, I am still unable to trust the source, but for a while his quote went viral on social media. Maybe it spoke to a yearning for social change, in a moment when, having had lockdown time for reflection, we realised that we had been going in the wrong direction even before COVID-19.
Over a month ago
25th May 2020. I’d already been introduced to the science behind the R number. The press conference in Downing Street is chaired by the PM himself who announces an increase in number of COVID-19 cases with only 1,600 in 24 hours. Britain’s records show that 36,900 people died infected with COVID-19, but I’m re-assured that things are ‘being controlled’.
Unfortunately, trust in the government’s concerted narrative ‘together against the virus’ suffers a big blow following the Cummings-gate media revelations. Newspapers’ front pages explain how the PM’s aide, ‘a cheat’ (Daily Mirror), offered ‘no apology, no explanation’ (The Guardian) for breaking the lockdown rules. While some newspapers report that ‘he acted responsibly, legally, and with integrity’ (The Daily Telegraph), others call for ‘aide’s sacking’ (The Scotsman) and the public opinion begins to split, reigniting the arguments which fuel the narrative ‘them and us’. My professional and social life is still booming online, weather is good, and then something else happens.
On 25th May 2020, George Floyd is killed in Minneapolis at 9.07pm. Britain was asleep at the time (3.07am) and about to wake up to an even newer version of the ‘new normal’; a social normality taken back to the ‘drawing board’ by the inequality and the injustice which stained our existence before the COVID-19 pandemic, and our existence before that, and even earlier than that, as back as history can remember.
Finally, the ‘useless’ knowledge
When the statue of Edward Colston is toppled and removed (7th June 2020) by protesters supporting the ‘George Floyd Movement’ in Bristol, the British Home Secretary points the finger at destructive ‘mobsters’. The debate in the House of Commons heats up with MPs recognising the urgent need to improve our education system. We have not learned enough from the past, nor thought enough about a future free from racism, discrimination and injustice. At this point, I turn up the volume in my headphones.
It is a mistake. A mistake, for I can hear Sam Terry (MP for Ilford South) saying how UK universities must be:
valued as part of the frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic, […] and recognised for the role they can play in their local economies in terms of retraining and reskilling their local workers during any recovery from the pandemic. (2020, p.1)
The hope for fresh beginning in the ‘new normal’ gets crushed. Shouldn’t universities be recognised for all their roles, for their contribution to developing critical thinking and creativity, science as well as arts and humanities? If not, then what is the point in having higher education in the first place?
With philosophy, literature and art courses being scrapped in many British universities, public libraries closing, an art sector barely surviving under the new rules of social distancing, our children’s chance to reflect on and to learn from past mistakes is significantly undermined. Not that economic recovery is irrelevant, far from it; but looking at the underlying societal disease caused by ‘outcomes’, it seems that we are moving backwards not forward. We are almost as back as 1935 when Bertrand Russell observed a similar symptomatic failure in the education system:
Educational commissions point out that fifteen hundred words are all that most people employ in business correspondence, and therefore suggest that all others should be avoided in the school curriculum. (1935, p.34)
Russell criticised the education system tasked to avoid ‘useless’ knowledge, without practical applicability and immediacy, pointing out the insurmountable value of philosophy and literature, for instance, in creating better visions for the future.
Surely, I think, in almost a century we moved beyond the fifteen hundred words; surely our world-leading higher education system looks nothing like the system described by Russell in 1935:
Knowledge everywhere is coming to be regarded not as a good in itself, or a means of creating a broader and human outlook on life in general, but as merely an ingredient in technical skill. Educational establishments are not allowed to spend their money as they like, but must satisfy the State that they are serving a useful purpose by imparting skill and instilling loyalty. (In Praise of Idleness, 1935, p.38)
As he was writing In Praise of Idleness, Russell had the experience of the Great Depression which was followed by the Stock Market Crash of 1939. Despite his opposition to war, he witnessed how the society, skilled by the education system, was unable to resolve the crisis of the 20th century in any other way but war.
As for us, things are surely different.
© Maria Stadnicka, June 2020
Russell, B. (1935) In Praise of Idleness. London: George Allen & Unwind Ltd.
Colston versus Lenin – Using the Right Channels
A statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down during an anti-racism protest in Bristol. The incident opened an ideological war in my household. We go over the pros and the cons of public disorder acts, we discuss the moral arguments which might justify or condemn these acts, while the Home Secretary, Priti Patel stands in Parliament reproving the thuggery committed by the Bristolian mob. Mayor Marvin Rees takes to national media to disapprove the protesters’ acts of violence during the past weekend. Social media is blasting. Opinion is split. Some ask for prosecution of violent mobsters, others express a sense of connection with the symbolic point made by protesters.
In Bristol, Colston’s statue went down in a matter of minutes, with the authorities’ disapproval. I remember that it took Ukraine 27 years to decide the removal of the infamous statues of Lenin from all its towns and villages. In 2017, all 1,307 statues went down, quietly and slowly, as a sign that Ukraine was finally ready to condemn its pro-soviet past, and to move on. The Ukrainian government went further and renamed streets, urban areas, parks, schools, in a national attempt to heal past injustice and loss of lives during the Soviet Era.
At my dinner table, the conversation is about the role of a peaceful protest in well-established democracies, as the Home Secretary carries on with her speech about the peaceful dialogue which needs to happen in our society. I’m reminded that we have structures in place to make peaceful changes under the common law, and following policies and procedures that safeguard equality in this country. There is a well-known corporate jargon about ‘using the right channels’ which is invoked on occasions when discrimination and inequality are at the centre of disputes between people, groups, societies, organisations.
Each private, public, voluntary, religious organisation, each workplace, each adult, teenager and child knows at least one principle of equality. And yet, the more we know, the wider the social divide feels to those who have been, at least once, at the receiving end of inequality, of discrimination or injustice.
If we were equal, we should not need to be taught equality by the Home Secretary, as it would be an inherent quality of our social actions. Yet, Power teaches equality lessons using the boot of law against ‘thugs’, ‘criminals’, ‘mobsters’. A sign that we are not ready to recognise the injustice and its roots, nor to break free from past mistakes.
© Maria Stadnicka, June 2020
The Triumph of Pity
The Small Print of Progress: Reaction to ActionEquality does not exist. It has never existed. And yet, losing it creates a sense of boiling anger that keeps me awake at night. When it gets too unbearable, I pick up a Christopher Hitchens book to feel a sense of vindication; there are people angrier than me, and things could be worse than they are. In the current socio-political context, they will probably get worse, but until then my anger is so seductive that I justify it to myself as well as to people around me.
The academic Barry Richards from Bournemouth University looks at anger against the ‘establishment’ in the context of the Brexit referendum, giving it a compelling psychosocial dimension*: anger as ‘narcissistic rage against otherness of the authority’ (2019). The social ‘rage’ felt in 2016 materialised in a rejection of the EU’s perceived authority, in an attempt to reclaim promised freedoms which, up to that point, people did not even think they had missed. The populist propaganda played an important role in mobilising that sense of anger, but it must have stemmed from somewhere else, at a far deeper level. Richards talks about a range of socio-economic conditions which nurture the collective anger; among them, the growing economic inequality, the loss of institutional sovereignty, the social tensions fitting into the equation ‘them and us’.
Although often (but not always) irrational and misunderstood, anger can become a form of projection of our own sense of humiliation and loss of dignity, a symptomatic difficulty in accepting authority. In social terms, authority can take different forms and shapes and it makes its presence felt in social organisations as well as in leadership structures. Anger projected against institutions and leaders is a weakness in democracy; it makes society receptive to manipulations from charismatic frontrunners (individuals or institutions) who/which place themselves outside the corrupt system that the public is ‘upset about.’
The issue with projected anger in complex democracies needs further attention. With multi-media types of interaction, anger is often, and easily, used as a form of social communication. At the same time, it is an inefficient, if not weak, strategy when it meets well-rehearsed discourses from leadership figures who shout loudly, clearly and repeatedly that they would ‘get things done.’ Going further, the cynical aspect of this theory is that the establishment itself knows this too. The establishment knows that anger:
a). can be projected (therefore it has little impact on the practical aspects of governance) and
b). can be manipulated (therefore people can be given ample new reasons to direct their anger at).
More than that, the establishment understands that if a reasonable proportion of the population has enough material resources to participate in the democratic exercise, the anger simmers for a while without reaching boiling point. And even if it reaches that point, the finger points at the angry, and relatively few, elements within the society, accused of flouting the public duty or the civic responsibility.
In this context, my anger confirms the fact that I am not a good citizen but a narcissistic victim of my own inability to control my feelings. My anger is a symptom of my humiliation and a result of my lack of resources. My anger makes me worthy of pity.
© Maria Stadnicka, May 2020
* Richards, B. (2019) ‘Beyond the angers of populism: a psychosocial inquiry.’ Journal of Psychosocial Studies, 12 (1-2): 171-183.
The Small Print of Progress: Reaction to Action
In 1997, Manuel Castells published The Power of Identity warning about the danger of globalisation in a world ill-equipped to control its own expansion. Castells criticised the UN, accusing the top bureaucrats of lack of action and misunderstanding of the nature of a global society facing unprecedented human migration, multi-national production chains, competition and artificial economic stimulation.
The book discusses the practical faults within our systems which promote geo-political competition on one hand, while economies are driven by inefficient externalised production chains, on another hand. Global market fragility and profit-driven progress have become realities which are now making the crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic difficult to manage.
For over two decades now, the scientific community launched repeated warning that a pandemic was inevitable, but our socio-economic systems are still taken by surprise, and are unprepared for, the current social, medical and economic challenges.
The pandemic undoubtedly offers a few lessons for us all. Lessons about what deserves to be trusted and valued, appreciated and developed in the years to come after this. The principle of ‘Après moi, le déluge’ [‘after me, the flood‘] has become a danger threatening to destabilise, if not destroy, communities. If ‘a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe’ (Edward Lorenz) then we need to accept the reality that we are as safe as the weakest among us. The way out of a crisis comes when we manage to understand the basic principles which brought up our chaos.
Governments have been fighting the COVID-19 pandemic for five months already, and the best shot at managing it is the fierce competition between research centres to produce their own test kits and vaccines. As borders shut between countries that, not long ago, had common economic interests, contracts for protective equipment are signed electronically. The higher bidder wins. Always wins.
As the race for the next Nobel in medicine takes ground, communities struggle to make sense of what constitutes a necessary journey out in town, at a time when years of prosperity have been wiped off the economic whiteboard in a matter of days. It shows how fragile the system was in the first place, how easy it can be to undermine the stability of societies that get their priorities wrong. Across Britain, the political class has given itself another year in employment, with local elections postponed until 7 May 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The employed majority finds itself at the mercy of financial rescue packages, negotiating the small print of bureaucracy.
Unprecedented times, ‘precedented’ actions.
© Maria Stadnicka, April 2020
Power to the Powerful
At some point in 2017, travelling from Germany to the UK, via France, I made an overnight stop in Calais. This is my diary note, dated 24th August:
‘Two years since I last visited the ‘jungle’ camp. I don’t see migrants around the French Docks anymore, as the temporary camp was demolished. Bulldozers flattened the tents donated by NGOs, the improvised kitchens and the food distribution points, and the school built out of cardboard and polystyrene. Silence surrounds the old site, measuring our collective dissociation from tragedy. Silence as anonymous as the stories told by Syrian refugees, as anonymous as their predicament. I wonder what happened to the Syrian people who tried crossing the European continent to reach Britain, Italy, France, and further up North.’
It seems that the refugees came and went. In and out of history, their tragedy captured the West’s attention for as long as their presence disturbed the flux of goods and tourists at the French border.
But history is unforgiving and it does not forget. Diplomats, academics, politicians, strategists are currently gathered at the Munich Security Conference, which takes place from February 14 to 16, in Germany. The conference’s agenda covers talks and debates around energy, food, climate and internet security, as well as travel, investments and foreign policies. It is an attempt to re-think the European priorities, at times marked by insecurities brought on by the Covit-19 outbreak and the economic trade volatility. I would have thought this is an important enough event to require British diplomatic presence, but unfortunately, the UK is missing the event altogether.
This morning, in an interview for BBC Radio 4, David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary, currently CEO at International Rescue Committee, expressed his disappointment at the lack of vision in British politics and the inability to work towards a wider scope rather than its own short-term goals. I can probably understand Miliband’s bitterness about the British politics. What makes me curious about the Munich Security Conference, where Miliband is representing his NGO, sits plainly in black and white on the first day’s agenda: Human Security and Westlessness.
There is a strong sense that Western democracies are beginning to see their power and influence fading, overwhelmed by complex global issues which require solutions based on vision and multi-national collaboration. To put it plainly, the West has started to understand that ‘the cold reality is not that autocracy will triumph and democracy will fail, but rather that the 500-year-long era of Western global supremacy is coming to an end’ (Barber, 2019). One could go even further and say that the West has lost it’s power with the rise of populist nationalist ideas, based on hostility to immigrants and protectionist economic interests. Francis Fukuyama (2019) sees this as a ‘fundamental mistake’ that facilitates abusive use of power and threatens the liberal order.
Populist nationalist ideology brushed under the carpet the tragedy of thousands (if not millions) of Syrians unsure about their future as they are displaced all over Europe by war, destruction and famine. In Britain, for instance, 45,255 Syrian refugees are waiting for an initial decision on their asylum applications, and more than half have waited for longer than six months already (Refugee Action, 2019). This is a symptom of a diseased bureaucratic system which serves its purpose well: to keep powerful institutions away from the citizens that they are supposed to protect and serve.
Nonetheless, the real power of the powerful is in the detail, in those small actions which make big differences. Real power means remembering, not forgetting, tragedy; it is about engaging resources to support communities, not interests. As the silence coming from top level politics is reaching epidemic proportions, I begin to understand that forthcoming governmental priorities will ignore issues concerning people, and will concentrate on managing databases. And if nobody keeps on talking about issues that are important to them, and put pressure on decisional factors to see things done, the Government’s job will soon be nothing but a walk in the park to serve its own interests. Silence gives more power to the powerful.
© Maria Stadnicka, 15 February 2020.
Published in International Times on 22 February 2020.
On 1st October 1972, having just left the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky wrote in New York Times a five-thousand words article in which he condemned the political climate in Europe, and worldwide, evaluating its dangerous principles and hunger for domination and destruction. Brodsky expressed his scepticism about all ‘political movements’ which he described as ‘structured methods used to avoid personal responsibility.’
Brodsky defended his belief in a different, and superior, system built on ‘personal movements – movements of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change.’ The article, translated from Russian by Carl Proffer, appeared tangled, verbose and aimless; it sounded like so many other disoriented voices coming from dissidents and defectors of the era, but those who managed to read it in full recognised its unswerving accuracy in describing a failing world system.
Seamus Heaney called it a moment of literary ‘vertical take-off’, crucial in establishing the capacity of language to go farther and faster than expected and thereby provide an escape from the limitations and preoccupations of the self.
It was a warning signal that politics became a psychological danger for humanity, as it engaged people in external fights with the Evil, which automatically made them begin to identify themselves with the Good. And when mankind begins to consider itself bearer of Good, it slides into self-congratulation. This is a state of complacency which Brodsky, who was stateless in 1972, saw it as the source of everything that was radically bad about people.
Brodsky carefully re-considers the role of a united writing community which is vital in opposing official points of view and which should support ‘personal movements’ by engaging with our society in real exercises of reflection and learning. This engagement, however, is built on access to books, not articles about books. Direct contact with ideas, not ‘pre-packed’ blurbs.
The latest PN Review editorial comments on the closure of nearly 800 British libraries over the past ten years. The ‘Trump era defines how we conduct literature not only politics. ‘The triumph of the tweet’ reduced our engagement with books to a suite of emoticons, in which the responsibility for personal engagement with ideas is a constant forward-re-tweet and a sum of likes. Bring me someone who sits down to read War and Peace or a five-thousand words article in New York Times. I’ll be either their friend or their follower.
© Maria Stadnicka, January 2020
Brodsky, J. (1972) ‘A writer is a lonely traveler’, New York Times, 1st October 1972.
Brodsky, J. (1997) On Grief and Reason. Essays, London: Penguin Books.
PNR, January-February 2020, vol. 46, No.3.