Surprisingly disappointed: thoughts on the UK election

Yesterday was my first opportunity to vote as a UK citizen. As someone coming from the United States, I am well versed in electoral disappointment. Yet, just as the election of Trump felt different than previous political events, so too does the ascension of Boris Johnson seem to indicate something more significant that the triumph of one political party over the others.

There are many reasons for this sense of political frustration: the absurd behavior of a politician hiding in a fridge or snatching a reporter’s phone; the obvious and well tracked effort of political parties to lie to or mislead the public; the vacuity of debates in which many sounds are made but very little said; and the failure of long-standing media institutions to comment on this state of affairs from a variety of critical perspectives. Nothing new, of course, just a little salt in wound that never quite heals.

Fortunately, I long ago abandoned hope that any political party in either my country of birth or my adopted home has the capacity to enact meaningful political change. I am a pessimist. I (like most people who read this blog) don’t think the major problems confronting the UK or the rest of the world—staggering inequality, climate change and the inability for people to peacefully coexist despite a wide range of differences—are a matter of who is in power. The problem is the systems of power themselves. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between the parties. I’d much rather live in a country that is strengthening the social safety net rather than severing its last remaining strands. I just don’t think anyone is bringing answers or solutions.

So, I find my remnants of hope surprising. Last night, I waited for the exit poll results with a small, but nonetheless existent hope that somehow Labour would do ok. I went to bed shortly after the exit polls were announced, still hoping that they would be wrong. I don’t know where this hope comes from, but it is an unwelcome guest. It is a reminder that my effort to disinvest from the world (as Taubes might say) is incomplete.

I think that this hope is not really a hope that one party will win over the other, but a hope in other people (maybe the most dangerous). A hope that confronted with the images of children on hospital floors, a lifetime of racist statements and Donald fucking Trump’s endorsement, people might be persuaded to think twice. It’s a hope that a nation of people who have suffered through years of austerity, watching as public institutions crumble under increased pressure, might look at the blustering embodiment of every form of privilege and be repulsed. That they are not means I must confront the fact that there may be nothing I can do to persuade these people that a more equal, kind and caring society is better than what we have now.

Already people are calling for unity. We must respect each other as British citizens and be careful not to let hate slip in along with the disappointment. Rage is unproductive. I’m not so sure (not that productivity has to be the criteria for judging our feelings). These pleas for the nation to come together are rooted in a conviction that we Britons are all (or mostly), deep down, decent people. We may differ about who should lead the country, tax policy or membership in the EU, but at the end of the day we can all have a pint together down at the local pub. The desire to reunite post-election continues to invest in the hope that if we look at the facts carefully and discuss them politely, we’ll eventually arrive at a better society.

I see little historical evidence that this is a rational hope. The ability to overlook differences in views about immigration or inequality is an indication of how important those issues are to you in the first place. If leaving the EU is enough of a reason to vote for someone whose racism has been on full display for decades, that is another way of saying that racism doesn’t matter that much to you. If you find that you can’t overlook those issues, either in voting or in conversation, then you are beginning to acknowledge a deeper form of division. There are some people I have no interest in meeting down at the pub.

I’ve spent much of the last year reflecting on Schmitt’s theory of the enemy. I don’t think Schmitt gives us a sufficient understanding of enmity, but he’s a natural enough place to start for someone working on political theology. What Schmitt helps us start to think is that there are real differences that matter. There are lines that must be drawn. There is no deep-down common humanity that unites us as a nation or a species. As long as we continue to invest in that cruel hope, we will be distracted from the real political work of refusing to accept injustice in the name of unity.

Climate Change and Apocalypticism: A Hope Indistinguishable from Nihilism

The following is a paper I gave at the AAR. It was part of a panel on ‘Thinking Critically About the Future(s) of the Human’ with Anthony Paul Smith, Marika Rose and Eric Daryl Meyer.

In the course of addressing climate change, like so many other crises, we are confronted with the demand to hope. We must hope in the future, for without the future we are lost. Refusing to hope, in the form of pessimism or resignation, is to not only abandon the myth of perpetual progress, but to throw into question the fabric of society. Against this demand for hope, I am going to argue for an apocalyptic response. In what follows, I’ll briefly outline a definition of apocalypticism, drawing primarily on the work of Jacob Taubes and Catherine Malabou, before moving on to discuss this approach as a response to climate change. I’ll conclude by discussing why this apocalyptic perspective is incompatible with the idea of the Anthropocene, an increasingly popular way of framing the issue of climate change. Continue reading “Climate Change and Apocalypticism: A Hope Indistinguishable from Nihilism”

The Price of Education

Last year I finished a one-year MA by research at the University of Nottingham.  The tuition for this single year was about £9,000.  That’s ludicrous.  Even the £3,000 required of students from the UK or EU seems a bit steep.

For my £9,000 I got the following: my student ID card; access to a library and electronic library resources that probably had, generously, 60% of the books and journals I required; £25 worth of copying and printing at the library (the research room at the department also had a printer, so it was mostly for copying); £40 of interlibrary loan vouchers (which did help in procuring the other 40% of books and journals I needed); ten supervisions with my supervisor; and my graduation certificate.  Admittedly there are incidental things along the way: the cost of holding departmental lunches, printing out packets for new postgraduates during welcome week, etc.  The department offers travel money for students going to give papers.  I also understand that the tuition postgraduates pay goes to pay for the university’s advertising, the hosting of events, remodelling and maintenance of the campus, and so forth.  I accept that there is some cost incurred by the university in me being a student.

But, really, there isn’t much.  The professors are already all there teaching undergraduates.  The library is already there.  All the buildings are there.  As an individual, each postgraduate costs the university very little.

And it’s not like we sit around doing nothing.  In my one year, I presented three papers and wrote two for publication.  In each of those instances I am, in a sense, working for the university.  Each time I gave a paper, I represented the university.  The university’s name will appear alongside mine in publications.

Postgraduates, particularly research students, should be expected to work.  They should be expected to produce publishable material.  They should be expected to teach courses.  They should be expected to assist professors with research.  They should not be expected to go broke paying for their education.  Most universities make most their money from undergraduate enrolment (I’m tempted to say all universities, but you never know…).  That doesn’t even take into consideration the money they make by doing research for everything from Speedo swimsuits to pharmaceutical companies to anything else of commercial interest.

Given the size of a university like Nottingham, there is no reason that departments shouldn’t be able to support 20 or so research students.  Let funding provide stipends for the most competitive applicants and allow the rest to manage the financial obligations of study (rent, books, beer money) through loans, working, or appeal to their parents. At the same time, universities shouldn’t allow their researchers to get off without doing work.  Students half way through their Ph.D. should be submitting proposals to conferences and journals.

I don’t expect a free ride.  I just think that the burden placed on postgraduates should be academic not financial.