Category Archives: academia

The four Cs- Coronavirus, Capitalism, Climate and Cats (“belling of”) 

Another hot take about what may be coming. The USP for this one is that 

  • It tries to use some academic theories but in plain English
  • It admits up front – “who the hell knows?”
  • It actually foregrounds the crucial question other posts (e.g. this otherwise interesting one)  ignore – “who is going to bell the bloody cat?” 

Look, you’re in lock down, and this will kill 15 minutes or so….

Introduction

In the following essay I try to do four things. Firstly, I want to suggest some intellectual tools which might be of use to you in thinking about what is going on/will go on. There are plenty of such tools knocking about (Marxist-or-other dialectics, policy theories, conspiracy theories, economics and other poking- around-in-the-chicken-entrails). This essay only focuses on two, and some of my favourites (1) don’t make the cut.

The two in use here are sociotechnical transitions (“Multi-Level Perspective” and deep transitions)  and neo-institutional theory (both the ‘pillars’ image and ‘institutional work’). I will try to keep this first section as pithy and vivid as possible, but, you know, these things come from academia, so there are limits on their digestibility. I’ll end that section with a shout out to some ideas I’ve encountered in the last few days which look tasty but which I haven’t had time to chew on.

Secondly, I want to use these tools to make some suggestions on the sorts of behaviours we will see as the pandemic continues/wanes. This section will draw on what others have been writing of late.

Thirdly, I want to suggest the cat belling question is equivalent to the “Van Halen demand no brown M&Ms backstage”  tactic(2).  That is to say, if an article – academic or popular – isn’t clear about who has to act, and how, then it’s probably a waste of your time.  And so in order not to be a waste of your time, I give my current answer to that question.

Finally, I want to flag just how much we don’t know, and things we should look at. This is the bit where I hope someone with access to ERC funds goes “give that man – who has signally failed to get more than one of the 6 jobs he has been interviewed for in the last year – a postdoc.  Money is no object.”

First, two disclaimers –

  1. Who the hell knows?  The ball we are staring into is less limpid crystal ball and more pitch black bowling ball. And while we are talking balls, the wrecking ball of Coronavirus puts paid to many firm facts that seemed so damn solid four weeks ago. (who knew there was a magic money tree, eh?) But which of these facts have melted into air, and which of them have moved aside/fallen over, only to get up again in the near future? Who the hell knows?
  2. If I seem glib, it’s because I am glib.  I, famously, don’t have skin in this game. If I had gone done the breeding thing, I’d be going out of my gourd about now. But the glibness, well, it’s a transparent (in every sense) defence against the night terrors, innit?

 

 

Part 1: “If the only tool you have is a hammer…”

We are all of us struggling to make sense of what is going on these last few weeks.  The most easy thing to do is keep track of death rates, of where we are compared to this country or that country (Italy seems to have become the baseline for Europe at least), and curse that we aren’t living in New Zealand, where they seem to mostly have their shit together (certainly their Prime Minister talks a much better game than her Australian/UK counterparts).  That gives us a temporary sense of control, because, you know, numbers make it scientific(3).

Next along, it becomes a morality play – of who ignored what warnings, who shut down what, who stripped what public sector organisation of which crucial resources.  This is all good grist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be held in (checks notes) …2022 or so.

The slightly more sophisticated version is to decry neoliberalism, and the casual stripping of the state’s capacity to act, flogging off anything that isn’t nailed down and selling it at firesale prices to rich mates who happen to be donating to your political party and/or providing you with a job once you’ve done your years in the trenches as a party hack or a bureaucrat. That’s a morality play with footnotes, with the added advantage that it takes you closer to the systemic nature of what has been done to collective provision.  And you can bop along to REM’s Ignoreland as you read Harvey, Mirkowski, Brown, or the “much raking” about Dark Money. If you’re nimble, you might even get a couple of publications out of it.

Still, morality plays with footnotes don’t help us orient ourselves. And right now, we could seriously do with some shared situational awareness.

So, what is to be done? What tools (that I am aware of) might help us see this more systemically, but still allow us to think in a granular level about the what is to be done (WITBD) question in ways that go beyond pleasantries, platitudes and shibboleths?

I’ve got two proposals, which are, to be fair, kinda linked. The first is socio-technical transitions (mostly “Multilevel Perspective” –  I am probably overcooking it and under-referencing ‘deep transitions’  ). The second is institutional theory – especially the work of Scott (three pillars) and the whole “institutional work” thing.

First, MLP/Deep Transitions.

The MLP was first propounded in the late 1990s in the context of ‘sociotechnical transitions’. These are long, slow changes from one relatively stable state to a new relatively stable state. Shortest way to explain transitions: if Doctor Who used his/her Tardis and went to 1400 and found a sailor and took them to 1800, the sailor would be impressed but not totally freaked out. They’d see that the basics were the same – trees were cut down, turned into planks into hulls. Then some masts. Sails were made. Ropes were made. People had jobs as sailors, provisioners etc.  Sure, some new kit (astrolabes, chronometers etc) but the basics were unchanged. If the good Doctor were to scoot them forward to 1900 and it’s all metal steamships and it would blow their 1400AD minds: “wtaf?”

So, in the intervening 100 years, “everything changed”.  And there had been a prolonged battle between sail and steam, with all sorts of folks jockeying to maintain the current system or switch to a new one, based on where their money was coming from, what they thought was ‘right’.

So, one durable/popular way to talk about sociotechnical systems and their staying power/inertia has been the multilevel perspective (MLP). What follows is exceptionally crude.

The MLP three levels – landscape, regime and niche. The landscape level – this is where there are long term “big” factors which no individual actor can really shift or control – so for the rise of the steamship it might be associated developments in transport (railways), communications (telegraph), business management (see Alfred Chandler), Western expansionism/colonisation etc.

The “regime” (or “system” – there’s a lot of debate about these terms, because, well,  academics) is where the “big beasts” are trying to keep things on, ah, an even keel (sorry). Big business, trade associations, government departments, regulators.  Anyone who is likely to get quoted in the first eight paragraphs of a Financial Times “state of the sector” special feature. And in the 19th century it would be the big shipbuilders, insurers, the British Navy, the American Navy etc.

Finally, you’ve got the “niches” where lots of experiments take place – people tinkering in their proverbial garden sheds, innovators and entrepreneurs who either want to bring a new product to market to get rich (or die trying), or who want to change the way the “regime” is made up and what it does.  There’s a whole industry around “strategic niche management” and who counts as a niche actor. Obviously regime actors are paying attention and will adopt innovations from the niches in order to gain position within the regime or else kill an innovation that would threaten their position (think of the Japanese state versus Western tech, up until 1853).

What happens is that eventually the technology (and behaviours which enable and are enabled by that technology become more ‘efficient’/obvious and a new regime is formed from the wreckage of the old.  Wars can speed this up (Johnstone and McLeish, 2020). Pandemics? Well, we shall see….

There are many many criticisms of the Multi-Level Perspective, many of them compelling , and all of them outside the scope of this particular article.  Recently, there’s been a repurposing of the MLP, or subsuming of it into the notion of “Deep Transitions (DT).” DT covers the idea that the kind of transition we need to cope with climate change – a massive, rapid decarbonisation of the interlocked systems which mean we can move about, feed ourselves and live in warm-enough houses – can/must be accelerated, and that we can learn some tricks to do that from looking at history.

The MLP and DT are useful tools, perhaps (but certainly not on their own).  Where coronavirus fits in is in the sense of “landscape shocks”. This pandemic, long predicted (Garrett, 1994) is, as the person who kindly phoned me the other week (4) put it, the mother of all “landscape shocks”, which destabilise and possibly delegitimise the regime. The regime relies on the consent (cognitive capture, if you want to go full Gramsci) of those participating. This last few weeks beats the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, 911 and so on as the ultimate “wtaf?” moment.  We are in the earliest days, and it already has unfathomable implications for many industries (newspapers, restaurant industry, insurance, you name it). With many “normal” things now stigmatised, what might emerge in its place?

As Johann Schott says

“The key question is whether the new practices, that generate positive impact, can be continued over the longer term when the shock disappears.  After all, ‘cancel everything’ can’t be a motto for the longer term, but perhaps cancelling the commute to work to attend just one face-to-face meeting that could be conducted online instead, may become the norm. ”

And – more importantly which of these new behaviours/norms might stick around and which will be gone like a fist when you open your palm?

Which brings me to the second useful intellectual tool: institutional theory.  There’s a basic confusion in English between organisations and institutions, with the latter term being used to describe the former.  But organisational theory is something else (and quite fun – especially if you get off on understanding just how horrifically unfit for purpose most outfits (in the Richard Stark sense) are: Pournelle’s Law, the Peter Principle, Parkinson’s Law, Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, the Tyranny of Structurelessness etc etc).

Institutional theory is more about “institutions” in the sense that, in the words of Peter Cook that mawwiage, is an institution. So, the two ways I find particularly useful (again, see (1)) for thinking about “institutions” defined as

“ … social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts. Institutions operate at different levels of jurisdiction, from the world system to localized interpersonal relationships. Institutions by definition connote stability but are subject to change processes, both incremental and discontinuous.”

are (drumroll please) these.

  1. Scott’s Three Pillars and
  2. Institutional work (creative, maintenance, defensive, disruptive)

Scott (1995) suggests we think of institutions as held up by three pillars.

  • Cultural-Cognitive Pillar – “how the world works, according to my culture, what I should think of as proper and commonsensical
  • Normative Pillar – what seems “right” and proper
    (side-note: Bourdieu kind of went here with his ‘habitus’)
  • Regulatory – what are the rules (both legal and otherwise) of the game (yes, in The Wire sense).

The crucial point is that although these are “pillars” they can (and do) change over time. When I was growing up in Australia in the 1980s it was a ‘fact’ that homosexual men were perverts, and child abusers.  Well, common sense changed…

The pillars/norms around “the market” and “neoliberalism” were contested from their birth, but gained dominance in the early 1980s and endured until 2008.  Zombie-like, they have staggered on. In the coming months and years there will be an intense battle over not the existence of the magic money tree, but who gets to shake it and who gets to gather what falls from that tree…  There will be all sorts of battles…

This brings us to institutional work, first propounded by Lawrence and Suddaby (2006). It is

“the broad category of purposive action aimed at creating, maintaining, and disrupting institutions and businesses .”

So, those pillars are being built, shored up, chipped away at all the time.  One of the most intriguing papers on this is about how DDT went from wonder-chemical to pariah in the space of ten years (Maguire and Hardy, 2009).  We will be seeing a hella lotta defensive and disruptive institutional work over the coming years, and also concerted efforts at creative institutional work – trying to create new norms and common senses around new behaviours.

Before I try to deploy the MLP and institutional work to ‘what next’, I want to shout out to two other tools which don’t make the cut but have the potential to be seriously interesting.

Firstly, within psychoanalysis – the Claustrum (Fife and Hines, 2020)

“When experiencing an environment which is intensely punitive, has little to provide, but upon which one’s survival depends, people develop predictable defenses—fantasies of how their environments work—and in various ways retreat into these fantasies, which filter their perceptions of the world and can provide a sense of safety. Or, if not safety, at least predictability—the truly new being far scarier than repeated contact with the evils one is familiar with. Psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer described the resulting subjective reality as the “claustrum.” These defensive fantasy-lenses are structured around three primary themes: 1) a dreamy apathetic denial of problems, 2) a compulsive need to convert everything into a bacchanalian party, and 3) a preoccupation with exposing and unmasking “falseness.” What draws one into the claustrum is the need to replace the confusion of reality with some kind of predictable, repeating experience that will reduce anxiety or at least provide a familiar cast of characters.”

Secondly, Peter Mair’s “hollow but hard” states.

Part 2: If I had a hammer

There are already a bunch of quite good “what comes next?” posts out there about how the pandemic ends  (Yong, 2020) and what might come next (Mair, 2020 ) and how climate change action ain’t gonna happen (Bordoff, 2020)

Fwiw, I should probably map the Mair one

“From an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: a descent into barbarism, a robust state capitalism, a radical state socialism, and a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid. Versions of all of these futures are perfectly possible, if not equally desirable.”

onto David Holmgren’s peak oil/climate matrix at some point… But not today.

Pretty much everyone is alive to the danger of the status quo getting shored up. See Mazzucato (2020) and also Lombrana 2020-

“There’s a risk that countries and companies will  revert back to what they know works, Mountford says. Shovel-ready coal or fossil fuel projects that were halted in recent years on environmental concerns could easily be reactivated”

Let’s take the two intellectual tools I banged on about in the first part of this essay – MLP and Institutional Theory – and see if there are any rough (5) thoughts we can sketch out.

MLP

Well, there has been a landscape shock.  So, the regime actors will be looking to either maintain the status quo OR ELSE push towards a new stable system they think they can dominate.

That is to say, there is not and will not be a single “they”.  Some current incumbents and incumbencies (we need to think of this processually. Get me another time on the whole “T-800 versus T-1000″ thing) will want to return to a recognisable version of the good old days. Others may think that they are more likely to be able to dominate a NEW system, and put their energies into creating that.

Maybe we should start thinking in terms of “status-quo-seeking incumbents” and “change-the-world-to-get-rich-from-the-change incumbents.”  It will depend on what assets they have, what absorptive capacity, what cognitive capacity and appetite for risk the decision makers have, how they can communicate that, how constrained/embedded they are in other relationships (can they get their shareholders/investors to take a punt?)

When it comes to mobility and energy, Elon Musk, presumably, will be in the latter category, as will electric scooter makers.  Car manufacturers with enormous sunk costs and interests in something that looks and sounds like an internal combustion engine maybe less able to be nimble, for a host of reasons (6).  This battle, clearly one that was coming, just got accelerated by a very small bug. So it goes.

In terms of consumer goods, new “zero infection risk” products will be promoted.  There will be an emphasis on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘ease of disinfecting.’ These will be advertised with a seal of approval from this or that official sounding body (some legit and desperate for cash or needing to burnish their own cred, others little more than front groups).

What will incumbents do in defence of their incumbent position? The glib answer – “whatever they think they can get away with”. The more interesting question is how they will go about doing it.

We are of course already seeing massive bailouts being garnered already (Tienhaara, 2020;  Dayen, 2020). Simultaneously, we are seeing a bonfire of ‘red’ and ‘green’ tape (environmental regulations.

ustoannounce

Matt Lubchansky

Niche actors

All sorts of niche actors will either believe in their own ‘technology’ as the rightful one (and there is, as you would expect, a tendency to moralism among the niche actors, many of whom are motivated by disgust and despair at the behaviour of the regime actors).  Others will be hoping for a quick buck, to form a marriage of convenience with existing incumbents. To the dismay of many, the Sustainability Transitions Research Network, on the morning of Wednesday 1st April, announced some kind of sleazy sponsorship deal with the Bilderberg Group.

However, before we get too bogged down in incumbents and niche actors, I would argue that the best way to think of this is through MLP and Deep Transitions PLUS institutional theory.    It’s a bit clunky, because this is a first pass. See section 4 for more about this…

Work which  incumbents/incumbency might do. Work which ‘niche’ actors, and “change the world to get rich from the change” incumbents  will do
Cultural cognitive pillar Maintain and defend by finding new partners to burnish selves (as per STRN). More tie-ins/sponsorships of charities/worthy causes

Highlighting the the work it did during the crisis (donations of stock/expertise)

Defend by delegitimising niche actors as unproven, dangerous, ‘dirty’.

Create new common sense by showing  customers that new products and behaviours are easy, clean, pro-social.
Disrupt existing incumbents by emphasising their bad behaviour, their need for taxpayer bailouts, labelling them dirty old dinosaurs.
Normative pillar Create and maintenance work by states and security apparatus attempting to (further) habituate consumers and citizens into a) handing over their data automatically as an act of civic-mindedness and b) delegitimise citizen questioning of states as ‘carping’ or ‘a resource drain during an emergency’ (already we’re seeing in the UK various public bodies delaying answering Freedom of Information Act requests) (7) and Agamben, (2020). Disrupt by delegitimising previously ‘normal’ technologies and behaviours (the improvements in air quality in cities will be latched onto by EV makers, as soon as it doesn’t look opportunistic. They will try to kill off the legitimacy of the Internal Combustion Engine.  Someone will go too early, others will learn, hold back. Then there will be a flood)

Legitimise “sharing,” but in ways that allow capital accumulation (they’ll try, but personally I don’t see AirBnB making a big comeback anytime soon).

Regulatory pillar Using the state to maintain the status quo, via using “safety” and “cleanliness” rhetoric to raise bar for new entrants  (especially likely in food production/retail) Try to disrupt by getting new rules attached to bailouts for “status quo seeking incumbents”

Try to get wiggle room in regulations and laws for ‘experiments’ (ideally with the tax payer picking up the tab/acting as insurer or last resort).

What will happen when the emergency “ends”?

If you asked me to bet, I’d say  we will see “corporate liberalism as Gabriel Kolko called it or The Thing as Cobbett called it ever further entrenched. Obviously I could be wrong, and I hope I am. (But hope is not a strategy – as we shall come back to.)

Some new practices will last only for the period of emergency, only to be undermined by wily incumbents, exploiting and amplifying the enormous and understandable desire to return to something like “normality”.  Presumably some new infrastructures (such as they are) and new social and moral norms will persist. Who knows which ones?

Part 3: Give me a long enough damn hammer and I will move the world, aka “who is gonna bell the bloody cat?”

In which I argue that if the worthy “our post-coronavirus world needs to look like this” article by the worthy person/people you are reading is not explicit and specific about WHO IS  GONNA MAKE IT HAPPEN, then it is not worth your time (8).

For those who don’t know the story

Conseil_Tenu_par_les_RatsA group of mice get together to discuss ‘what is to be done?’  A new cat has been gobbling them up at will. They debate various plans to nullify the threat of the marauding cat. Various stupid ideas are put forward (e.g. “ask the cat to be socially responsible”). Finally one of the mice proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are all warned of its approach.

The plan is applauded by the other mice, and the meeting is about to break up, ‘job done’.

Then one of the elderly mice raises his little mouse paw and asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat.

Tumbleweed….

All of the applauders make excuses about why it can’t be them…

 

Look, we bring our baggage with us, to new towns, new places. I may as well put my baggage on the table: I have (terminal?) ennui, a dread of (and inability not to go on?) making the same mistakes.  And I go to meetings – be they activist or academic where smart and/or brave people reel off shopping lists of Good Things that Should Happen.

But it isn’t real.  We’re deserting the real, most of the time, for understandable (and sometimes forgivable) reasons.  For me, the question is not “what needs to happen?” but – and sorry for shouting-  Who. Is Going. To. Make. It. Happen? What constellation of actors are we talking about – Activists locking themselves to things? Academics whispering in policymakers ears? CEOs driving change from above?

So, I agree with David Osland

“Coronavirus will likely see a transformation in popular political consciousness on a par with 9/11 and the financial crisis. If the left cannot harness that shift behind an egalitarian agenda, the right will use it to ram home its nationalist and authoritarian vision.”

I also agree with the skepticism of  Chris Shaw

“I wish I could believe that the millions of impoverished and the bourgeois will together use this crisis to waken to a new consciousness of the oneness of all existence and the suffering caused by grasping.”

With regards to “last chance to save the earth”, we have been here before.  I know I am a stuck record on this, but there have been three previous waves of concern about ‘the fate of the planet’ in relation to (gradual) environmental degradation – in the late 1960s to early 1970s (Blueprint for Survival, Limits to Growth, Earth Day), the late 1980s to early 1990s (Amazon, Ozone, Greenhouse, Rio), and then the late 2006s (Inconvenient Truth, IPCC 4AR, Copenhagen) one.

Now we are (or were?) in another, thanks to the obvious failure of Paris, Greta, XR, 1.5 degrees report, COP26.

But (and it is a big but)

Social movement organisations and “left populism” (I cannot speak highly enough of Fife and Hines, 2020, btw) are generally unable to sustain their anger, their energy. It’s too easily captured, corralled (see Barlow 2010 on this) and commodified. And on climate – well, we’re staring into the abyss here, folks, and the Nietzsche had some advice for niche actors who do that.

We sociotechnical transitions scholars know this.  We know how hard it is to create a sustained and sustainable market for ideas, technologies, how easy it is for incumbents to disrupt or purchase them.

And look, the COVID19 thing MIGHT be an enormous opportunity but

  1. If green groups go too early, they will look opportunistic and suffer a backlash.
  2. There will be an enormous amount of money spent on PR to burnish the status quo or funnel it to a new accumulation-friendly regime.
  3. Captured states (and all of them are) will pass all sorts of hellacious laws against dissent.
  4. There will be a desperation among grieving impoverished populations (so many businesses shut down, so much domestic violence – mostly by men, so much education interrupted, so much PTSD,  many hopes and dreams shattered) to ‘return to normal’.  Yes, even when that normal was in every available sense ‘unsustainable.’

So, what is needed is the following.

Citizens’ groups which are capable of

  • sustaining themselves, emotionally, financially, cognitively – avoiding the temptations of being co-opted, the dangers of being repressed, the lure of the smugosphere/and enacting or being enacted by emotacycles
  • Linking with other groups for mutual aid
  • Forcing the state (local, national) to be less horrifically a captive of the incumbents
  • Figuring out how to have sustained alliances with people who don’t look like, talk like, think like them
  • Figuring out how the incumbents will try to crack them (see above) and devising effective countermeasures

Here is something – CEM says – What’s going on, what’s going wrong (and why), and what is to be done? – I mostly wrote, with input from my colleagues in Climate Emergency Manchester. It’s seven weeks old and feels like it is from another century. But it kinda stands up as a program. Kinda…

Oh, and there’s that climate change thing from a few years ago. (ONION)

I am not saying this is doable. I am not saying it isn’t doable. I am saying that if we allow the intellectuals who enjoy our attention, in meatspace and cyberspace to

  1. Keep it all in the realm of Shopping List Politics,
  2. Decline to answer the basic question “what have we been doing wrong in the past?”

then we are wasting the last of the last chances our species has for some sort of comfortable non-barbarism life on this planet. (8)

Section 4: Gizza postdoc

Here’s what – imho – needs studying, using MLP/Deep Transitions, Institutional Pillars/Work and whatever other intellectual tools I find down the side of the sofa…

  1. How will the incumbents in [insert sector here – transport, mobility, food, politics] use the COVID19 pandemic to reinforce their position?  What coalitions and constellations will they mobilise (industry bodies, relations with political parties). What discourses (around cleanliness, safety, reliability, care) will be mobilised. Under what circumstances are challengers (be they niche actors or incumbents from competing/overlapping systems) able to force system change?  In what ways will the state be a primary arena for struggle? How will civil society actors be tactically incorporated? What are the fracture and fissure points? (How) will the need to decarbonise economies and institutions be imbricated into these battles? Methods – Interviews with participants, keeping tabs on the industry associations and the revolting door – sorry, revolving door – with the state, and intra-state battles.
  2. How will existing NGOs and SMOs seeking to force a transition/transformation at the socio-technical/socio-material level actually stuff it up, (because they will).  What strategic alliances will they be unable, unwilling to create and maintain? What lacks – of operational capacity, of credibility and legitimacy- will doom them to ongoing irrelevance?  Methods – Participant observation, attending sage-on-the-stage meetings (aka “the meatspace equivalent of clicktivism”), going on marches, interviewing “strategic” leads of NGOs/SMOs.
  3. What scope is there for new actors (entrepreneurs morally, politically, economically) to repurpose existing discourses (safety, responsibility, justice) and forge (in every sense) alliances and constellations of actors which can accelerate (ah, that bloody word again) the delegitimisation of fossil fuel-centric incumbencies and give birth to some new rough beast, as we all slouch towards Armageddon?  Methods –  Participant observation, interviews, getting nicked, that sort of thing.

Have PhD, will travel. Not great at quantitative, but I do a mean interview. Reasonable general knowledge.

References (may not be complete, and may include some stuff that I didn’t reference. So it goes).

Agamben, G. 2020. Clarifications. Itself, 17 March.

Applebaum, A. 2020. The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff. The Atlantic.

Baker, P. 2020. ‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?The Guardian, 31 March

Bordoff, J. 2020. Coronavirus pandemic shows why no global progress on climate change. Foreign Policy

Dayen, D. 2020. Unsanitized: Bailouts, A Tradition Unlike Any Other. The American Prospect,

Fife, B.  and Hines, T. 2020. I can’t relate. Damage, 9 March

Garrett, L. 1994. The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance.

Ghosh, B. Bloomfield, G. and Schot, J. 2020. Conversations on COVID-19: Consequences for the Second Deep Transition and the Sustainability Revolution.  TIP Consortium, 27 March

Johnstone, P. and McLeish, C. 2020 The Role of War in Deep Transitions: Exploring Mechanisms, Imprints and Rules in Sociotechnical Systems. SPRU working paper.

Joshi, K. 2020. Watch out for this symptom of Coronavirus: lazy ecofascism. Ketan Joshi. Co. 20th March.

Lawrence, T. B.; Suddaby, R. (2006). “Institutions and Institutional work”. In Clegg, S; Hardy, C; Lawrence, T (eds.). Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.). London: Sage. pp. 215–254.

Lombrana, L. 2020. The Post-Virus Economic Recovery Could Be a Green One. Bloomberg

Maguire, S. and Hardy, C. 2009. Discourse and Deinstitutionalization: The Decline of DDT. The Academy of Management Journal Vol. 52, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 148-178

Mair, 2013. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing out of Western Democracy. Verso

Mair, S. 2020. What will the world be like after coronavirus. Four possible futures. The Conversation

Mazzucato, M. 2020. Covid 19 Crisis is a chance to do capitalism differently. The Guardian, 18th March.

Meadway, J.  The Anti-wartime economy. Tribune

Tienhaara, K. 2020. Coronavirus and the economy: we need green stimulus, not fossil fuel bailouts. The Conversation

Yong, E. 2020. How the Pandemic Will End. The Atlantic, March 25

 

Of codes of silence, workshops and egos

And you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say
Billy Joel, Code of Silence

A while back I went to a “workshop” that I thought would be not very good. Why go then? Purely and simply (and I said this to the wife and she said it was a very bad idea and I totally agreed with her before I even went) because of… ego. I had been invited to be on the closing roundtable, for reasons that remain mysterious to me.

The day panned out as these days always do. A total lack of imagination in format, followed by piss-poor wet lettuce ‘chairing’ that allowed gasbags to do what gasbags do (not all of them men, btw), and the tea breaks and lunch break curtailed/squeezed, meaning that you couldn’t even do any proper seeking out and schmoozing of interesting people. The people present were not encouraged to engage with each other, but merely with whatever “sage” (in the loosest sense imaginable) happened to be on the stage. Ego-fodderfication galore.

Finally, at the end of the day, there I was: one of the soi-disant sages. Well, I (think I) had novel, useful and possibly important things to say about the topic of the day. But (I felt) I couldn’t say them because the format of the event had been so very very offensive. I was presented with the choice of

a) Going with what everyone else had been doing and was doing and treating the audience as ego-fodder for my own ‘benefit’. This is attractive, in some way, but also, fatally, means that I am a hypocrite in my own eyes, breaking my own code (yes, I am quite aware of how pompous and addicted-to-saviour-narratives that makes me sound. Bite me.)
b) Forgoing what I was going to say to turn (most of) my session into the kind of interaction that most of the event should have been. “Taking one for the team,” when there is in fact no team and the non-existent team has no fucking clue of what game it should be playing, and no ability to ever learn: Groundhog Day without Bill Murray being able to reflect. Yum..

I went with b), as I have in the past, and it lifted the mood, for what that is worth. But the event was by then beyond salvaging, and I doubt very very much that anyone present will ever go for option b), or do the kind of disrupting, transrupting that we need. I could be wrong. I would actually love to be wrong.

Maybe I should stop doing b), or stop going to events altogether.

The third option is if/when invited explaining that I am not going to fucking come unless the organisers do SOME of what they should do for their “workshop” to escape the soul-crushing boredom-fests and ego-fodderfication that we all put up with in academia or activism.  I may even send an email something like this.

Dear x,

Thanks for the invitation to present. My ego is suitably puffed up. However, it needs to be kept on a strict diet. So, before a yes or no to attending, could you please explain a bit more – as detailed as you can/you like – about how you intend to make the event one at which people who attend can engage with each other, and find kindred spirits. If it’s all about sitting in rows listening to speakers and then sharp-elbowing to ask questions in the Q and A, before hunting out old acquaintances during the drinks break/lunch break, sorry, but ‘thanks but no thanks’.
Yours sincerely
That asshole.

Beginnings of an “undercovers” fiction list

So, recently I reviewed two books “about” infiltration/undercovers, and asked for suggestions. I got loads of really helpful pointers. Here is the first very rough list of additions (there were some others, mentioned in the blog post.  I’ve kept track of the various people I have to thank for these tips too, but decided not to include that info here.

I need to integrate it/alphabeticise/annotate etc.  Oh, and actually read some more of them and produce the paper for the conference and the activists… should keep me off the streets…

 

Books “about” undercovers

Book Author(s) Description Suggested by (for thanks)
Q Luther Blissett Q is a novel by Luther Blissett first published in Italian in 1999. The novel is set in Europe during the 16th century, and deals with Protestant reformation movements. Jonathan Atkinson
Orkney Twilight Clare Carson https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/alix-long/clare-carsons-orkney-twilight_b_7233992.html? @UndercoverNet

 

Stealing The Future @MaxHertzberg Alt Future East Germany @UndercoverNet
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare G. K. Chesterton @UndercoverNet
Naming the Dead Ian Rankin G8 Gleneagles shenanigans
The Terrorists Sjöwall and Wahlöö
Javelin Roger Pearce @BristolKRS
Sweet Tooth Ian McEwan Sweet Tooth is a novel by the English writer Ian McEwan, published on 21 August 2012. It deals with the experiences of its protagonist, Serena Frome, during the early 1970s. After graduating from Cambridge she is recruited by MI5, and becomes involved in a covert program to combat communism by infiltrating the intellectual world. When she becomes romantically involved with her mark, complications ensue. @UndercoverNet
A Legacy of Spies John le Carré https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Legacy_of_Spies @UndercoverNet
Guest SJ Bradley, @BradleyBooks An authentic look at anarcho-greens, anti-globalisation, the squatter movement and punk bands by someone who was clearly there @MaxHertzberg
Cold Island @MaxHertzberg It’s over twenty-five years since Mara arrived in Britain, yet today she no longer feels safe in the country she thought she knew.

Threatened with deportation, Mara goes underground. She meets others who have made their home in the UK but are now leading lives in the half-shadows of society.

Together they embark on a journey across the moors of northern England, hoping to reach relative safety in Scotland—but the officers of Immigration Enforcement are never far behind.

@MaxHertzberg
Demo Richard Allen OH GOD AVOID THIS BOOK.
The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad Excellent, gripping, thought-provoking
Under Western Eyes Joseph Conrad Sadly, no
Vida Marge Piercy READ THIS BOOK
My Revolutions Hari Kunzru

 

Really good 70s/90s stuff. Very well written, thought provoking
The Invisible Circus Jenny Egan Also good on the consequences of violence, but not actually so much about undercovers as memory, activism etc
Invisible Armies Jon Evans Highly competent thriller, with a corporate spying on activists thread throughout.
The Weatherman Guy Jon Burmeister Dunno yet, but looks lurid af.

 

 

Films (documentaries and live action)

Documentary- “In the inner circle”

 

The documentary “Im inneren Kreis” (English: “In the inner circle“) by Hannes Obens and Claudia Morar, which will be distributed from now on UCM.ONE (NONFY Documentaries), describes the already almost unbelievable twists of the undercover employments of Iris P. in Hamburg and Simon B. in Heidelberg. Both assignments combine fundamental ethical and political topics and questions in themselves Sarah Arens
Film – Police, Adjective  2009 Romanian drama film directed by Corneliu Porumboiu. The movie focuses on policeman Cristi, who is investigating a teenage boy who has been smoking hashish. Over time, Cristi begins to question the ethical ramifications of his task. Sarah Arens
Film – Ummah – among friends
 
After killing two skinheads in a failed operation against neo-Nazis, young undercover intelligence agent Daniel finds a hiding place and new friends in Berlin’s Turkish Arab community. In a realistic and witty way, the German director of Turkish origin shows the rapprochement of two worlds which seem violently opposed. Sarah Arens

TV Shows

TV Shows- Between the Lines season 3 interesting stuff about the intersection of private sector & state actors as both attempt to undermine civil society (animal rights, anti-Pinochet, anti-fascism) through infiltrators, agents & touts.
TV Show
Ghost Squad
“Whilst superficially the focus is on CIB2/CIB3-style police-investigating-police storylines (similar to start of BTL), ‘The Ghost Squad’ (2005) is largely interested on the cumulative effect of UC work on an officer’s sense of self “

 

Ghost Squad is an unofficial top secret Internal Affairs unit that recruits former police officers who’ve proved their honesty during their service and sends them undercover to investigate and root out corruption within the police.

TV Show Spooks Season 1 ‘Spooks’ S1 has the ‘Traitor’s Gate’ episode, with veteran MI5 field officer Peter Salter infiltrating dastardly anarchist/anti-capitalist terrorists, but falling in love, etc etc
TV Show Undercover – BBC drama https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b076vdbc/episodes/guide

 

 

Plays

Any Means Necessary Kefi Chadwick

 

 

Event report: PIECES of advice about (energy) policy engagement #EnergyPIECES

On Monday 10th December about 60 PhD students and ECRs (early career researchers) gathered in Cambridge for an interesting event, with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin title “Engaging with energy policy: a masterclass for Social Sciences & Humanities PhD and early-career researchers.

Hosted by the Centre for Science and Policy (Cambridge University) and the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, this was an event of two halves.  In the first we heard sat in a tiered lecture theatre hearing from various people with perspectives and advice that could/would be useful to a career in energy policy engagement (aka green confucianism). In the second we got to pick each others’ brains, primarily for the benefit of some people who will be doing secondments with outfits such as the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Energy Saving Trust and Practical Action.

Chris Foulds of the GSI and Robert Doubleday of CSaP opened with a defence of the importance of the Social Sciences and Humanities in offering broader perspectives on energy policy and the rationale of the “PIECES” project (I do sometimes wonder if there could be an annual prize for the best retronym). This was followed by Neil Simcock of Liverpool John Moores talking about the Energy Geographies Research Group and, well, energy geographies and Kate Jones, speaking on Vitae, which has developed several handy tools for personal and career development.

In the Q and A the good point was made that focus on an individual (female researcher’s) ‘resilience and need to be ‘more assertive’ can simply be compensatory for bad systems (nobody, though, dropped the P b-bomb – Patriarchy).

After a refreshments break, a panel discussion on “what makes the Social Sciences & Humanities unique when engaging with energy policy(makers)?”  There were four panellists

  • Alena Fielding, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
  • Liz Hooper, Practical Action
  • Amber Sharick, UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC)
  • Tom Hargreaves, Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group, UEA

Since it was never made clear if the meeting was happening under the Chatham House Rule, I’ll not ascribe any specific advice to any individual.

  • Think of the three Rs –  Rigour – (sine qua non); Relevance – timing, and luck, Opportunities may pass and not come back; Relationships
  • Be aware that there are specific individuals – who will be very busy and have their own mental frames of reference – who you need to convince
  • Engineers do clever things that don’t resonate with policymakers…(question of politics priorities/personalities, resource constraints/time constraints, context/consensus)
  • Be clear, structured, let go of being pure.
  • Don’t take people who support you (more senior, less senior) for granted.
  • There was a reference to work around four key questions; where are we going with energy transition?, who wins loses and how?, is this desirable?,  what should be done?  STEM avoids asking these questions, ESS doesn’t
  • Policy space has existing momentum
  • SSH provides answers/evidence that don’t fit with existing assumptions/patterns etc
  • As an academic you may produce things that policymakers actively don’t want to engage with
  • Engaging with policymakers can be very disruptive of work patterns, and throw a lot of stress into a group, as other people end up picking up slack at short notice while you go off to (interminable and short-notice) meetings.
  • Stand up for the value of SSH
  • Don’t bow to pressure to simplify or reduce complexity to realise short term impact
  • Don’t focus only on policy decisions, but look across and  engage across multiple actors in the energy system
  • Don’t just focus on decision-moments, seek longer-term learning
  • Consider using “Trojan Horses” – approaches which get you into closed cultures and then stimulate reflection
  • Provide constructive alternatives
  • Don’t just sling mud and criticise – provide additive alternatives
  • Be diverse
  • Engage multiple audiences, play multiple roles, experiment with different techniques
  • Don’t just shout louder, but also know when to dig your heels in and kick off
  • Get experience on the ground
  • Work in partnership
  • Enhance your skillset (e.g. excel, GIS): Think about the things you can’t get away with not knowing.

The afternoon was given over to small group work about policy engagement (who, how, when, why etc) and brainstorming for the upcoming internships. I blathered about sustainability socio-technical transitions, the multilevel perspective and a few other things. This was apparently useful.

So, a good day – exposed to some new ideas, met some new people…. Finally,  thanks to the organisers for the travel bursary and the enough-detail-but-not-too-much emails beforehand

Ehre heads. On the (f)utility of theory

Short post but hopefully not a shitpost.

Went to a thing recently.  There was a good ‘sweeping overview’ history of the twentieth century around Keynesianism/neoliberalism (though it undersold the importance of ICT and containerisation for my taste).

Halfway through I scrawled to a colleague “Five quid says he says nothing/has nothing to say about ‘what is to be done?’. ” I later added ‘hundred’ and then ‘thousand’ between the five and the quid.

Safe bets.

Yes, Paris is dead/worthless. Apparently small nations might be able to do something by appealing to local ‘patriotism’  and ‘honour’  (in German, that’s Ehre) around carbon emissions reductions.

(They haven’t, and, um, free-rider, but never mind).

My actual question would be – How can you give a forty five minute lecture about the future – and specifically ‘the breakdown of systems’ – without mentioning environmental degradation and pressures even once?  Why is that a good and productive thing to sit through.

Answers on a postcard to the usual place

Spiders, trouble, students, decentering…

I am the TA (teaching assistant) on a rather excellent course called ‘Wildlife in the Age of Humans’.  It’s a delight to be a) engaging with cool ideas b) helping smart students engage with cool ideas.

The latest seminar was on ‘conviviality’.  The lecture had dealt with scorpions coming up through shower grates and what to do about it, troublesome baboon troops in Cape Town and penguins in Sydney.  The students were asked to do some reading (most had) and then we gathered. This powerpoint tells a bit about the conversation that ensued (but obvs, no names).

Started out with this meme

spider four memes

I gave everyone one vote, and the bottom right one was a clear winner (it’s also my favourite).

I then asked their attitude to spiders-in-da-house, giving the options
Who is ‘contract out the squashing’?
Who is ‘do the squashing myself’?
Who is ‘catch and release’?
Who is ‘meh, welcome’?

Most everyone was a ‘catch and release’ person.

The task that had been set was

Read the articles and focus on how borders figure in these accounts and the type of politics they give rise to in relation to conviviality and co-habitation.
What type of practices is this “conviviality-paradigm” suggesting? Will conviviality be a borderless world?
How can we understand “affective ecologies” as something that moves beyond human-centric forms of nature conservation and conviviality?
You should all be able to present 2-3 observations from one or all three of the articles

I asked for volunteers to read out each of the three. I made sure we were all on the same page about the word ‘conviviality’ (it’s a less common word than you’d think. I forgot to give Illich a shout out. Doh!)

A couple could give a definition of affective (to do with emotions) and I had someone read out this quote I’d found –

“Affective Ecology is a new branch of ecology concerned with emotional relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world. The basic instinct that guides the evolution and maturation of a well-tuned relationship with the living world seems to be biophilia, our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally (The Biophilia Hypothesis). ”

http://www.biourbanism.org/biophilia-and-gaia-two-hypotheses-for-an-affective-ecology/

I then showed, without sound, the first minute of this

And pointed back to the earliest lecture, on Romantic notions of nature. I threw in some comments about neoteny and anime, because I was showing off could.

I asked for any French speakers – there were none, so pointed out that monstre means ‘to show’ and its where we get both the words demonstration and monster – the latter being something that shows us something (about ourselves) that we’d rather not see, not acknowledge.  I have a reputation for throwing in the pop culture references, so went this time for “The Tempest”,  Some people had seen it, but not recently to recall the plot, so  gave a super quick recap and explained that you can do a convincing coloniality-reading of it.  Prospero’s  “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” got a quotecheck.

Then, finally, (it was now quarter past the hour), on to … working in pairs for a few minutes, generating thoughts on baboons, scorpions and penguins.  Someone had to leave at half past the hour, so  let her choose.  We went with scorpions.  Good discussion about where in a house they appear, senses of vulnerability and violation etc.

Showed this from a very reliable news source.

spider sitting on shower wall

 

Then useful discussions about penguins (charismatic, harmless, how to balance their needs and the tourism dollar – some robust opinions!).  This, on Australia, led to some discussion of the acclimatisation societies and the introduction of species to Australia because Shakespeare (him again!) had name-checked them, and how this had stopped because of the economic damage.   One student noted (perceptively!) how much of the contacts between Old World and New were shaped by powerful white men going off what they’d read in the Bible or whatever.  I threw in a brief (and probably inaccurate) bit on Aristotle and the Great Chain of Being,

We had a bit on baboons and their moral agency (debatable) and what they would do if they lived near such troops.

Time was moving on, and I wanted to throw some Haraway in (as always). First  I asked them about McDonalds and the touchscreen thing – turns out, bacteria get everywhere, eh? Some new about it, all were grossed out.

So, the Haraway. I had someone read out the quote. Which quote? This quote (and I pointed out beforehand that some unkind souls, referring to the repetition in the latest book, feel it should have been called ‘Staying with the Tedium’.)

‘Staying with the Trouble’ insists on working, playing and thinking in multispecies cosmopolitics in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’

Nobody could guess at unpacking it (it’s not as bad as Butler though), so I gave a push on what ‘play’ is about – finding your capacities, how you affect the world, are effected by it etc- then what cosmopoliticss are (and yes, Godwin’s Law blah blah, I talked about the Nazis and their hatred for rootless cosmopolitans).  There were really good comments then on the killing of entire ways of being (victories, defeats, negotiations) and the meaning of the word cunningly.  [See an account from a tutorial last academic year].

Time almost up, so then suggested that further decentering of humans could be seen in two concepts

Symbiont /ˈsɪmbɪɒnt,ˈsɪmbʌɪɒnt/

Noun an organism living in symbiosis with another.
Holobionts are assemblages of different species that form ecological unitsLynn Margulis proposed that any physical association between individuals of different species for significant portions of their life history is a symbiosis. All participants in the symbiosis are bionts, and therefore the resulting assemblage was first coined a holobiont by Lynn Margulis in 1991 in the book Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation.[1] Holo is derived from the Ancient Greek word ὅλος (hólos) for “whole”. The entire assemblage of genomes in the holobiont is termed a hologenome.

And recommended, if they wanted their worlds turned upside down –

  • Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World
  • Tsing, et al. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene

Book Proposal – “Anthropocenism, or the Ecological Logic of it’s-later-than-you-think Capitalism”

Went to a reading group. The article under discussion was Jason “Capitalism in the Web of Life” Moore’s 2014 article on the End of Cheap Nature..

It got a bit of a kicking from a couple of people (me, I thought it was okay).

The convenor of the group introduced the paper and pointed out that the LRB reviewer of Moore’s book had mentioned that Anthropocene had replaced “post-modernism” as the (my words) object of longing/trendy term to spray onto pre-existing research proposals for self-styled intellectuals (aka academics).

[The actual quote is – “What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”]

And it occurred to me that somebody (not me) should put together a spoof/pastiche with the title of this blog post. Substitute a big COP for the Bonaventure Hotel and the lost-ness it evokes and provokes. Substitute pictures of “nature” and Disneyfied nature for the Van Gogh/Warhol shoes,  and bish bosh, you’re there. Academic careers have probably been built on thinner mash-ups.

And as an added bonus you can justifiably cite that line about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism