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Knowledge Now: Its Unintended Consequences

Geoff Sharp identifies the university as the new engine of neo-liberal capitalism and asks if we are in touch with the unintended consequences of this historic alliance.

Just a few weeks ago at the University of Melbourne Robert Manne presented twenty essays entitled Dear Mr Rudd (Black Inc. 2008) to Glyn Davis, the Vice-Chancellor of the University. Glyn Davis, readers will recall, once worked in close association with Kevin Rudd in Queensland government circles. One expression of a certain mutuality may be their co-chairing of the great Canberra consultation, which began on 19 April. Another, more questionable, reason for Davis’ role could be his other chairmanship — of the Group of Eight leading universities (G8).

While some of the contributors to Dear Mr Rudd attended the Canberra meeting this was no guarantee that the prime ministerial ear was turned in their direction. When the publication of these essays was announced the Prime Minister was quick to say that if this group, in particular, now thought they might have special access, ‘they had elected the wrong guy’. That reservation is less likely to relate to the Chairman of the G8. As this article will argue, higher education is now quite central to a bipartisan understanding of the future prospects of the Australian economy. How its role should enter public discussion, however, is itself a debatable issue, one which has not been canvassed in the lead-up to this event.

The Arena editors have long argued that while scholars should contribute to democratic debate, the university, as an institution, should stand at arm’s length from particular political alignments. This is particularly the case when party policies appear to converge. If Australians are not to march half blindly into their future, there must be a basic questioning of open-ended growth as a central plank of the current convergence of policies. The unintended consequences of ignoring that issue could have devastating implications for the future of Australian democracy.

The first sections of this article outline the way the unintended effects of neo-liberal economic assumptions could contribute to that outcome. The later sections discuss the problematic engagement of universities with government policies.

Just how open to democratic process the Canberra meeting was, remains full of ambiguity. While at least in the short term one should welcome such initiatives, the populist hoopla which announced this one was in some tension with the top-down control of the selection process. Even so, the whole event may well have helped to consolidate the step back from the creeping authoritarianism of the Coalition’s version of neo-liberalism. Among a minority it may even stimulate the reflection that, while Rudd is espousing a softer approach to the neo-liberal endorsement of open-ended growth, his basic economic policies are continuous with those of the Coalition. In short, unless Labor can dig far deeper into the particular conjunction of circumstances that produced the neo-liberal infatuation with ‘market rules’, no reform of particular policies can guarantee Australia’s future.

This underlying issue had no clear place on the agenda of the recent meeting in Canberra. To have placed it there would have been to question the growth and development fixations of the new government. Nevertheless, any move towards stirring up the public realm, even to the degree meetings such as this might achieve, just could lead to unintended consequences.

Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences. No, we don’t know half of what we are often ready to think we do and the consequences of our actions can cut both ways. Friedrich Hayek, as patriarch of neo-liberalism, was within a tradition that made that a central theme. But the way he did so distinguished between two sources of unintended consequences. For him the effects of participation in the market can turn out to be more satisfying than was anticipated even if they were in no sense intended. On the other hand, as he also affirmed, if we seek to plan for public well-being, unintended consequences can be devastating.

In Hayek’s neo-liberal philosophy the doctrine of unintended consequences is first turned towards the economy. Let the self-interest of those engaged in the market — as entrepreneurs or those selling their labour power — run free, and over time the unplanned consequence of the interplay of individual interests will be an overall increase in common well-being. So runs the central doctrine of ‘let the market rule’. None of the self-interested participants actually planned a contribution to the common good but a ‘hidden hand’ ensured that it happened anyway — it was an unintended consequence. On the other hand, so Hayek argued, if well-intentioned people seek to moderate the often harsh consequences of market activity the results are not likely to be an enduring welfare state. Quite the contrary. A second unintended consequence is likely to ensue: the intervention is likely to introduce a devastating loss of freedom. The planning of welfare can be the thin end of the wedge in the transition to a totalitarian social order.

The policies Howard pursued on work choices were a recent example of policies stemming from Hayek’s doctrine, but there is little to suggest that the ex-prime minister actually grasped the way Hayek’s particular view of freedom might come to contribute to neo-authoritarian outcomes. Hayek’s contributions to economic theory were integral with a tradition with deep roots. It builds on Adam Smith’s earlier doctrine of the ‘hidden hand’ of the market (its unintended contribution to the common good), and Hayek goes out of his way to emphasise the ties of his own approach to Adam Smith’s precursor Bernard de Mandeville. As a defence of private greed de Mandeville’s early eighteenth-century work, Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices; Publick Benefits, created a scandal, an odd response, it would seem now, when greed has become even more deeply ingrained.

Hayek’s foundation text, The Road to Serfdom, is marked by a pervasive totalitarian anxiety. Nominally he was expressing his dismay at the surge towards welfarist democracy in the United Kingdom in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, but just a little in the background of his ruminations on welfarist planning was the massive figure of the Soviet Union. Its exemplary defeat of Nazi Germany contributed to the continuing credibility of the hopes for the common good stirred by that purportedly socialist but profoundly ambiguous regime.

As the conflict between the two systems triggered the Cold War, Hayek played a significant role in elaborating the economic philosophy that eventually sidelined Keynesian welfarism as it framed the neo-liberal surge of recent decades. It is now well known that in due course a series of national leaders — Thatcher and Reagan, John Howard too, had become devotees of Hayek’s particular definition of freedom.

That is, of freedom with a special twist — negative freedom — the freedom of the interplay of self-interested individuals negated only by the role of the law as guarantor of that free play. The implication is that public policy should be ‘negative’ as well — non-interventionist. The broad spectrum of institutions should be constituted so that the market provides the guiding principle for the conduct of their affairs. Clearly this is in some contrast to non-Hayekian and more ethically purposive conceptions of institutional arrangements conceived as outside the direct reach of the market. Obviously, within a morally purposive approach every institution had to take account of the costs of its activities but objectives that were relatively independent of market principles guided what they were about. The shift associated with the market reaching out to far more directly encompass other spheres of life has meant that the market principle moves to the forefront of institutional concerns while cost accountability becomes the criterion for their more detailed operations.

Framing this shift, as it gradually pervades every institution, is the neo-liberal imperative of growth and the widespread belief that growth is the condition for expanded freedom and the self-development of individuals. The profound appeal of this belief depends upon that same assumption of the centrality of self-interest that grounds the whole neo-liberal project. As it expands in its reach to encompass more general norms of conduct, it screens out the deeper reality that individual interests are always constrained by the need to consider the well-being of others. While arguments about the ‘hidden hand’ may readily obscure that underlying reality in periods of growth, they are even more likely to do so when a deep sense of the realisation of new freedoms turns public attention away from the possibilities of unintended consequences.

Conquest or Reconstitution?

Even as expanding productivity continues to sustain the public enchantment with growth as a condition of freedom, a contrary reality begins to intrude. Are we reaching the limits of that conquest of nature of which capitalism has been seen as the most active expression? While the conditions of that end point reach back into the earlier history of capitalism, I am suggesting that the special surge in productivity of recent decades is not primarily grounded in capitalist enterprise at all. That impulse now works in conjunction with the constitutive and reconstitutive power of the technosciences as these tap into the more deeply grounded hopes of individual and social well-being. Hence, continuing to speak as if ‘capitalism’ and a global, as well as the institutional expansion of its market, is the main agent of change, may become highly questionable. What once was obvious may turn into a misrepresentation.

When left unrevised, the notion of ‘capitalist’ agency for the hopes of expanded freedom obscures the reality that the institutional framework which served as a prominent carrier of those hopes is itself being transformed. It, along with the particular imprint it contributed to the notion of human nature, is being reconstituted within the current trajectory of the technosciences. This issue was broached in an earlier essay (‘From Here to Eternity’,  Arena Magazine 88 and 89) which noted that the conjunction of the technosciences with capital is not only expressed in a surge of productivity.  New technologies, whether supporting information processing or by contributing to new modes of social interchange, have profound effects. They remake the social world so as to enhance the individual’s sense of creative agency and extended freedom.

Of central importance within this unprecedented break in social continuity, is the way the market extends its reach so as to reconstruct a whole range of institutions. Market criteria become the measure both of the overall role of an institution and the peformance of its participants. Economic performance begins to supersede purposes which previously had maintained their own integrity at arm’s length from the market. This shift may be readily observed, whether one turns to the care of children, the support of the aged, the redirection of sporting organisations or even to the role universities as centres of research and the elaboration of meanings.

The comprehensiveness of this shift and the rhetoric of individual freedom which helps to sustain it both contribute to the deferral of any sustained consideration of whether what is taken to be an open-ended process of growth is in fact producing its own limit. How would that limit be recognised: by climate change, by unrestrained consumption of the earth’s resources, by unsustainable population growth or even through the transformation of the biological conditions of human nature? Such questions invite a return to Hayek’s own central precept. Is the neo-liberal prospect to which he contributed also the carrier of an unintended consequence, one seldom envisaged by those gripped by the spirit of the Enlightenment?

Negative Freedom and Higher Education

Although this new reality has been slow to come into focus, a basic impetus for the neo-liberal project is now provided by higher education institutions. They deserve special attention as an example of the penetration of market principles into a sphere which was once only indirectly influenced by them. Even though ‘the idea of the university’ as a quasi-independent institution never established more than a tenuous hold, in Australia, it nevertheless contributed to the humanist ideal of the disinterested pursuit of the common good. That ethic was reinforced by way of the professions while, in a broader perspective, the quasi-autonomous relation of the universities to the policies of the state allowed a significant, even if restricted scope, for the discussion of different conceptions of public well-being and the role of government.

The scope for discussion of alternative philosophies and policies was underpinned by the differences among a wide range of groupings — especially those of religion and politics — within the broader community.

The argument I propose to mention here is that while scope for such interchange still retains elements of its vigour and relevance, its longer term prospects are seriously in question. In effect the norms of public life are being increasingly dominated by the self-interested individualism propagated by the extended reach of the market. Moreover, this is abundantly clear within the terms of higher education policy as it now takes in the convergence between political programs as a guide.

A convergence between the policies of right and left trends in Australian politics was first illustrated as the Cold War drew to a close. It was as if the generations of struggle in the name of the political freedoms of the liberal tradition within capitalism had been suppressing awareness that a more extended freedom, grounded in a surge of prosperity, was now available.

While long in preparation at least in Australia, the conditions of this new perspective were publicly declared by John Dawkins as Minister for Education, Training and Employment. As Prime Minister Hawke was moving towards a convergence between Right and Left in political life, he launched the Accord between the interests of working people and capital. Dawkins in turn was gripped by a closely related awareness: that the new energies of the technological revolution foreshadowed profound changes.

In 1987 the Minister asserted that:

More clearly than at any time in our history Australia is now an integral part of the international community. The barriers to contact, communication and trade generated in the past by our remoteness have been removed over the last quarter of a century as cultural, technological and economic revolutions have swept the globe (Higher Education: a Policy Discussion Paper, 1987, p. iii).

Dawkins went on to emphasise that while all sectors and levels of the Australian community would be affected, ‘The education sector in our higher education system in particular must play a leading role in promoting these changes’.

Twenty years on the Rudd Government has picked up the ball and a conjunction of a vice-chancellor and a prime minister in chairing the Canberra consultation could well be taken as confirmation of Dawkins’ affirmation that the higher education system ‘must play a leading role’. But twenty years on one might ask whether its leading figures have reflected sufficiently upon the direction of that leadership. The available evidence suggests they have not.

The New Paradigm

When addressing the National Press Club in June 2007, Glyn Davis based his remarks upon Seizing the Opportunities, a document subtitled as ‘A Group of Eight Policy Discussion Paper’. With a confident awareness of the pivotal role of the higher education system its first line introduces its sweeping scope. ‘This paper concerns Australia’s future and the well-being of the Australian Community.’ In its Foreword the paper seeks to move on from the Dawkins agenda. Its reworking of the higher education system ‘can no longer underpin an internationally competitive Australia’. Yet the difference is one of tactics rather than strategy. When the Hawke government sought to move on beyond the class antagonisms of classical capitalism by launching the Accord, there was no full grasp of the implications of the revolution that had inspired Dawkins. There was no developed sense of the way increasing prosperity would allow the market principle to permeate institutions that previously had stood at arm’s length from the economy. The revolution that had inspired Dawkins had yet to manifest its scope.

The eight vice-chancellors comprising the G8 are faced with a less challenging situation. They do not see their task as launching a Dawkins-style revolution. Rather it is one of continuing the turn towards ‘market rules’ in different circumstances. Moving on from the Dawkins era they recognise an extended accord as displayed in the ‘renewed bipartisan interest in higher education’ (Seizing the Opportunities, p. 1). The G8 vice-chancellors in fact recognise five bipartisan convergences defining the new situation. Outstanding within this list is the statement that: ‘Both sides are looking more to market mechanisms to shape a responsive and diverse system of high-quality and high standards’.

These references to the G8’s policy discussion paper cannot be extended in this context to a consideration of the seventy pages in which they elaborate the perspective, but the basic standpoint is clear enough. It provides the perspective for future policy. In the present context one illustration of the basic framing of the diversity the new policies are intended to introduce will have to suffice.

Knowledge in the Melbourne Model

It would be interesting to know whether any of the members of G8 question the proposition that throughout the history of our civilisation interpretation has been a primary aspect of knowledge. Clearly interpretations have always had their practical uses. Their ‘instrumental’ potential, whether in defining government policies or in ethical framing, could also help to close down the elaboration of alternatives. While the Melbourne Model as one example of projected reforms of higher education does suggest that broadly conceived undergraduate courses will frame postgraduate specialisations, there are noticeable omissions in its overall conception. No doubt it is still a model that will undergo further development, but at least at this stage there have been no clear signs of a collegial framework wherein the overall significance of open-ended growth is to be discussed. That absence is confirmed by the way the contribution of the technosciences to that growth process is envisaged. As the accompanying boxed digest of the approach to ‘knowledge transfer’ conveys them, the assumptions that underpin the Melbourne Model tend to foreclose the consideration of alternatives.

One clear sign of that effect was the recent appointment of a philosopher as inaugural Knowledge Transfer Fellow. That after the briefest span of time he then became Philosopher-in-Residence in the School of Business may appear to speak for itself. Nevertheless circumstances do change and with that, meanings — in schools of business as well as elsewhere. Perhaps there is some reason to be gratified that those who initiated these moves recognised that basic issues of philosophical import could be associated with knowledge transfer. Nevertheless, that response must be qualified. Given the declared micro-economic orientation of the G8, one may readily anticipate that only the narrowest conception of a philosophical approach could lead to it being placed within the administrative context of knowledge transfer. The absence of any more broadly conceived public account suggests that the market-directed perspectives of the ‘higher educational’ institutions have imprinted the meaning of the knowledge to be transferred in an excessively techno-instrumental mode.

The underlying problem is that current developments in the technosciences, and to a degree in the humanities as well, still go forward within the humanist perspective of the ‘conquest of nature’. A deeply ingrained assumption still persists that this project can continue to open up freedom from the limitations of the biological and social conditions of our lives. Yet there is abundant evidence that, while these same conditions can no longer be simply taken for granted, there is intense resistance to accepting the implications of that shift.

If indeed the prospect has emerged of passing beyond the conquest of nature and towards its reconstitution, the perennial questions of philosophy are placed in doubt. The place of the philosopher in ‘higher education’ and the way philosophy itself is conceived can no longer be simply left in abeyance. The need is more pressing for an institutional setting which frames its activities within the traditional ‘idea of the university’. If that initiative is not to be expected from the G8 in the immediate future, any lethargy is likely to relate to an inability to recognise that their definition of knowledge as such is constructed with a distinct bias.

As indicated earlier, there is a resistance to any adequate recognition of the increasing import of that bias. In effect, as a resistance it is also a denial of the transcendental quality of a faith that the ‘conquest of nature’ can best contribute to the dilemmas of human existence. As many have suggested, it may be that only a practical confrontation with the consequences of current policies can shake the convictions of that order.

Climate change is obviously at the forefront of those encroaching consequences but, as noted in a previous article (‘Climate Change is Not the Basic Issue’, Arena Magazine 93), this is only the most prominent among a whole cluster of consequences associated with the present way of living.

From a philosophical perspective, any shift in ontology occasioned by reconstitution must have consequences for epistemology, as the theory of the knowledge of the meaning of human life.  While this is highbrow terminology, it should not conceal the fact that the ‘meaning of our lives’ refers to the lives of the common people. In direct experience they too encounter ‘philosophical problems’. Within the ‘idea of the university’ the scholars have the responsibility and the privilege of contributing to liveable answers for us all.

The convergence of political policies is certainly unmistakeable. The argument I have set out in this essay is not intended to question the import of the technosciences as such, but it does question many of the consequences of their orientation. One cannot rule out the possibility that, as the overall meaning of these consequences work their way into fuller public awareness, the assumption of ‘market rules’ will be far more actively questioned — even increasingly within business circles. Such a development would be integral with the growth of a new political division in relation to which the current convergence would lose its power to direct policy. Key figures within the G8 might consider how that prospect should figure in their next discussion paper.

In present circumstances the issue of why both the general public, as well as many leading figures, are so slow to respond to the consequences of our way of living is a problem in its own right. Could it be that the resistance lies in confronting a paradox which for the present is ‘beyond imagination’? That, too, is a philosophically relevant question which has yet to come into focus among those directing the Melbourne Model. If that situation is to change then the primary orientation of knowledge to the economy will need to undergo a step-by-step revision. Whether that is likely to occur within a higher educational institution must remain an open question. At least it would be a sign of return of the relation to society carried by the ‘idea of the university’ if the vice-chancellor stood one step back from direct involvement in a politics of convergence resting upon foundations of open-ended growth.

Geoff Sharp is General Editor of Arena publications.

Knowledge Transfer

Knowledge transfer at the University of Melbourne calls for some explanation. As a key element of a revised conception of what the university is about it is important to recognise that the current approach — summarised by the initials KT — redefines knowledge as such. With a strong bias towards the role of the technosciences, it tends to screen out any active place for knowledge as interpretation of the meaning of our lives and how we might conduct them. For the present, KT simply assumes that an acceptable way of living depends upon economic growth and that technosciences must now serve that end. The possibility that they might assist the exploration of a different way of living in which the economic primacy of growth is intentionally limited.

The vice-chancellors of the eight leading universities — the G8 — assert with good reason, that received approaches to university policy have become redundant. A different situation calls for ‘a new policy paradigm’ (Seizing the Opportunities,  p. 1).

At the University of Melbourne, a more active response to the demands of the market was in preparation long before the present vice-chancellor was appointed. Under his leadership it gathered momentum within the Growing Esteem Strategy. Teaching and learning, research as well, were to be coordinated, with KT as the lynch pin. The university’s publicity is not backward on this. Try looking up ‘knowledge transfer’ on its website and you will get the picture. It notes that ‘The most recognisable form is the transfer of technology’ for commercial purposes but goes on to add that ‘there are numerous other examples which are not directly commercial’. True enough, but the framing conception is economic growth. The presentation of ‘knowledge transfer’ is saturated with the language of commerce, with ‘intellectual capital’ its underlying motif.

This particular view of the quest for ‘growing esteem’ falls within the administrative scope of a deputy vice-chancellor with considerable experience in ‘brand positioning and knowledge transfer’. With a background in nanotechnology and the holder of twenty patents, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor is no doubt a well-intentioned person of outstanding ability. That is not in question. It is the blinkered focus of university policy that calls for more public discussion.

Knowledge transfer can have various orientations, to economic growth, or to developing a way of living that recognises that ‘the question concerning technology’ need not necessarily be tied to growth. It might equally be tied to viability in a time when growth is threatening to undermine the conditions of human existence. Readers of the G8 policy paper will look in vain for even-handed attention to knowledge transfer in that domain.