Our Great Irony: Market Stalinism and Jeremy Hunt
February 27, 2013 Leave a comment
By Patrick Lee
Picture it. You’re a university lecturer teaching a course on Modern American Fiction and you’re conducting your own research into, I don’t know, the conception of protest in different generations of alternative narratives. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, any example will do. OK, so you have a desire and a passion to teach. You’re looking forward to the course. Now you have to submit a ‘module specification’, listing all your ‘aims and objectives’, which will be assessed at the end of the course; then you have to provide a ‘modes and methods of assessment’ form; then at the end of the course you have to provide an assessment of your performance and the module’s strengths and weaknesses. Then you have to provide some paperwork on how the course will be improved next year. Then you have to submit your four best pieces of published research as part of the Research Assessment Exercise. This is just the start of the paperwork.
Or, as I recently was, imagine you are visiting a dying person in a state funded hospital. In my case we had to plead, and finally insist, that more morphine was given to the patient due to their agony and our distress. Morphine has to be administered by two nurses. This process has to be monitored, and recorded. The patient, dying, in bed in the middle of the night, swimming in and out of consciousness, surrounded by family, then had to be stripped naked, and re-clothed. This was a fundamental procedure, despite the fact she had less than a few hours left to live. A box had to be ticked. The change of clothes did nothing to help the patient’s physical state. The bureaucracy was of detriment to the service. The nurses who changed her were private nurses.
I’ve worked in kitchens where a tick box focusing on what to clean and how to clean it was actually damaging to the process of keeping the kitchen as clean as possible. I’ve worked in restaurants where waiters were given scripted lines to say to customers. I’ve worked in call centres where every line of conversation, every bathroom break, and every glass of water drunk, was monitored and recorded so I could assess my own performance levels.
On the surface it, a focus on bureaucracy seems antithetical to the neoliberal, free market liberal democracy of Western hegemony. The appeal of neoliberalism is that it is the opposite of Stalinist centralised government. It encourages free market growth and empowerment of the individual to achieve in a competitive workplace, rather than serve the interests of the state. Neoliberalism should therefore, theoretically, attempt to abolish Stalinist paperwork and bureaucratic procedures. In the West only the market rules, and those who participate in it are individuals who can succeed or fail as they see fit. So, the obvious question is: why all the bureaucracy? And does it benefit anyone?
Think back to the examples of the dying patient in hospital, or of a teacher wanting to lecture his students. Are these students consumers or products of a privatised education institution? This question becomes very tricky and, as you try to work it out, try to imagine you are looking at it from the perspective of free market entrepreneur: how can the education (or health) system generate as much money as possible? The difficulty comes in the fact that these forms of labour are difficult to quantify. An ideal market produces swift transactions, where demands are met directly by an institution. But now we need to monitor this institution in order to maintain that transaction. More management is needed to regulate and mediate on performance of the hospital or school. Boxes must be ticked, evaluations completed in order to preserve the illusion of all round smooth transactions. Performance of the institution must be evaluated and judging the performance of a school, or of a hospital, or a police station, where it is difficult to bracket customers and pigeonhole results, necessitates a lot of awkward, boring and possibly unnecessary questions and observation.
Please note, however, that it is only the appearance of the institutions that actually matter. You will notice that during this evaluation the needs of the customer have become secondary to the needs of the market. More effort must now go into preserving the appearance that work is being done on improving services, rather than actually improving those services themselves. And so we witness the introduction of targets, which everybody knows by now are bad for business. We can all, I’m sure, think of examples of the failure of targets. I immediately remember practising for my GCSE exams, and asking my maths teacher to explain in more detail the reason for applying a certain formula to get certain results (I think it may have been why Pythagoras’s theory worked, or why in order to find 1% of something I divided by 100). Instead of having the rule explained to me, I was just told to remember the rule, as that’s all I would need for my exam. This wasn’t necessarily bad teaching. My teacher simply had limited time to make sure his students got the best exam results possible, and to ensure that he therefore scored highly in his own assessments from management. I, however, never really learnt the truth behind certain maths problems: only the exam mattered, only the illusion that I had a grasp on Pythagoras. Targets become ends in themselves rather than empirical measurements of performance, and the customer suffers.
The result if what contemporary philosophers and social scientists refer to as market Stalinism. Stalin wanted the world to see communist industry at its best and so pushed development of projects until their progress was hampered by his goal-orientated ethos. The White Sea Canal project is the best example of this form of Stalinist industry, and is comparable to how markets are managed in the contemporary neoliberal West.
However, as work has become decentralized and the onus is on individuals to constantly re-evaluate and demonstrate their skills in ever changing work spheres, it becomes the responsibility of the worker to monitor their own performance. As Foucault described with his panopticon metaphor, when a person does not know when they are being monitored, they act as if they are being monitored constantly. As a worker in a decentralized market it is only your responsibility to continue to monitor your own performance and progress, or to fail. Consequently workers will now be expected to find something wrong with themselves, in order to have something to improve upon. Working to a “satisfactory” level is no longer actually satisfactory.
This bureaucracy, the measurement of unquantifiable data in order to try to derive profit, is the price we pay for free market liberal democracy. And what does that provide us with? The answer is ostensibly economic growth, the satisfaction of human needs, the growth of technology and victory of man over nature.
In the instance of unquantifiable and essentially humanistic or egalitarian aims, however, the bureaucratic process clearly does not work. A compromise must be found, and the first step must be in addressing what liberal democracy provides human beings. Rousseau argued that technological advancement did not make humans happier, but rather more miserable. Human needs are only very basic, according to Rousseau: food and shelter from the elements, and not much more. Technological advancement and economic growth may in fact hinder the most vital human instincts. So long as the desire for exponential growth still exists the bureaucratic procedure in the world of work will rule, as it is the way of monitoring the market. However, in the instance of the NHS, or humanistic institutions, these procedures are damaging. Compromise must be found. Jeremy Hunt’s Statutory Instrument 257 is the next step in the Tory coalition government privatising the NHS, opening up doctor’s records to the private health companies, and further adding a new layer of damaging bureaucracy onto the health system. In order to fight against bureaucracy and the damaging nature of self-evaluation, a new collective political subject must emerge. The first step is in fighting the total privatisation and bureaucratisation of the most fundamental institutions.
A petition against Hunt’s privatisation measures can be signed here