By Oliver Philpott
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Despite the best intentions of academics it remains the case that certain institutional and ideological controls prevent true analysis of the state-corporate system which typifies our society. In fact in the majority of cases, despite the tacit awareness of political and institutional barriers, scholars within the social sciences are neglecting their position of responsibility. In short, we are not asking the right kind of questions, the kind of questions that can help foster a more egalitarian society where power is placed firmly in the hands of the people.
There are a huge range of social ills which permeate our society, as well as societies abroad. Take for instance the widening economic divide, the housing crisis, continuing troubles in the middle-east, environmental disasters and the increasing threat of nuclear war. Such issues should be seen as global concerns. Indeed, there is an overt relationship, for example, between economic instability at home and the increasing threat of nuclear holocaust. As academics we should be doing more to inform the public of the causes of such issues, for our very survival may depend on challenging existing forms of power and coercion. This brief article discusses the essential features of the state-corporate system and the role that education and the social sciences play in subverting public awareness. It is recognised that in order to understand how the world works we have to look at it from the viewpoint of those who make the decisions. A view from the top will help us better understand oppression and our complicit involvement in it.
An Unjust Alliance
Although I am aware that socio-economic inequality is rife, I do not want to turn this into a debate about class. The current class system results from an unequal distribution of power. Corporations, business leaders and politicians seek to preserve their authority, control, prestige and wealth. More specifically, when ownership and decision making rests in the hands of the few a serious undermining of democratic principles may follow. So when our Government decides to go to war, against our wishes, killing thousands of innocent men, women and children we have a right to challenge. Power, authority and violence, ‘unless you can justify it, which is not easy’, must be dismantled (Chomsky: 2002). Writers such as Adam Smith would no doubt be appalled with the actions of corporations and politicians who are overwhelmingly silencing true public involvement within society (Bakan: 2004). The manufacturing of consent through the media, advertising and education is an unspoken violence, with very harmful consequences (Herman: 1994). Many classical liberalists and libertarian socialists believed that industry, commerce, banking and other key societal features should be controlled by the citizens. The same people who work in the institutions and the communities. Therefore, foreign policy will be based on the interests of the communal majority.
What Would Dewey Say?
Educational reformer, John Dewey, believed that learning should not be restrictive. If a student is to reach their full potential then they must be allowed to find their own way, stand on their own two feet and think independently (Dewey: 1944). Upon first thought it may seem like education does foster independent, free thinking students. A colleague of mine recently discussed her experiences in both the Russian and British educational systems. In a comparative overview she believed that there are vast differences between the two. She noted that in a Russian literature class students were required to memorize poems and were graded according to how accurately they recited them. There was very little actual understanding and time for reflection. In contrast she considered that UK education was a lot more critical, encouraging the student to research independently. Whilst I agreed to an extent, in my experience any major diversion from the essential ideas being taught is highly frowned upon. In fact rather than be rewarded for such an endeavour students often find their grades to be ‘less than perfect’. However, it is not always the case. Some really good teachers recognise free thinkers. I mean why be restricted by what you are told? Why not challenge opinion? Why not make your own links to social ‘theory’? Independent minds are fine, as long as they do not challenge the existing model. That would be ludicrous. Of course, many may just choose not to listen.
The Social ‘Sciences’
Both corporate and Government sponsors realise the importance of the social sciences. After all, it’s a human world which subjects like economics, sociology and history explore. Academics have a rich knowledge of human affairs and spend a considerable amount of time researching social life. However, it is clear that these subjects are advancing the corporate agenda. Departmental websites frequently note that students will learn skills which employers are looking for. But, one concerned anthropology graduate writing in the Financial Times points out that, ‘some academics are uneasy about the trend’. She asks, ‘is it valid for anthropologists to use their skills to serve giant corporations and governments?’ Perhaps not but increasingly ‘in the UK, the “people watchers” can be found not just pacing the corridors of blue-chip companies, but also the Ministry of Defence, Immigration Services, National Health Service and Foreign Office’ (Financial Times : 2005). Basically, sooner or later graduates need to realize that they have to go out there and get a job. Maybe it will be a job like marketing, teaching or the police which utilizes many key skills learnt. Or maybe it will be a job crunching numbers for a major trans-national firm. Either way the Universities are serving their primary function as socialisers of the (capitalist) thinkers, workers and managers of the future. Social sciences are also an important tool in subversion. If academics say that something is true then it must be. Scholars are well aware that their research, institutions and subjects tend to favour big business.
The one major concern that I personally have with social science is its obsession with theory. Social life is complex enough as it is. What is the point in theorizing whether something does or doesn’t exist? The hatred of ‘common sense’ is blinding us from the obvious, namely that sociology is mostly based on a series of truisms. Moreover, there is a tendency to treat ‘data’ as lifeless. I am not suggesting that this creates a divide between people and academics but it can be easy to forget that there is a world out there beyond the confines of one’s office, a world that we are part of.
People are extremely complex. Beyond the surface we know very little. It seems to me that if we are to truly understand why humans do the things we do then we have to consider more consciously innate features of the mind. There is a growing awareness within the discipline that innate modules play an important role in action (Bone : 2005). Sociologists are slowly overcoming their fear of the psychological. In assessing life beyond the individual it is clear that we must start to look a lot more within the individual.
It can be all too easy to forget that, as social scientists, we have a very close relationship to our subject matter. Such are the demands of modern academia that a deadline is always looming, whilst the constant stream of students’ essays distract our attention from other immediate concerns such as journal writing, peer reviews or research projects. Meanwhile we also have to maintain an appropriate balancing act between our homelife and work life. Life as an academic, it seems, has never been harder. Yet we chose this role, we made this commitment and as social researchers we have a responsibility to report back on what is really happening in the world and how it is affecting the lives of individuals. We may very well have careerist aspirations, which is absolutely understandable. However, let us not forget our commitment to people. We have the tools, resources and most importantly the time to assess social life. In short, as social scientists we have a relative degree of power which allows us to criticise the various features of state-corporate capitalism. We do little to challenge the institutional orthodoxy, which ultimately serves elitist interests. For the sake of nations, let us do our job properly.
Bakan, J., The Corporation, (2004); Bone, J., The Social Map & The Problem of Order: A Re-evaluation of ‘Homo Sociologicus’, Theory & Science, Vol.6:1 (2005); Chomsky, N., ‘Activism, Anarchism, and Power’ (2002); Dewey, J., Democracy and Education (1944); Herman, E., Chomsky, N., Manufacturing Consent (1994); Financial Times, ‘Office culture’ http://www.ft.com/ (2005)