(2018) Decoding the Market Destruction of Public Knowledge, The European Legacy,
Decoding the Market Destruction of Public Knowledge
Aeron Davis(ed), THE DEATH OF PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE? How Free Markets Destroy the General Intellect. London: Goldsmiths Press, University of London, 2017 (i-xi, 262 pages with Index)
By John McMurtry
The title and subtitle of this book tell the untold story of the neo-liberal era – a cumulative destruction of foundational institutions of public knowledge. This ‘free markets destruction of the general intellect’ (subtitle) is described in 15 chapters by 20 authors. Its method is empirical and copiously referenced, but with no second order level of theory to join the dots. Yet every chapter provides a significant substantiation for a yes answer to the title’s arresting question.
The degeneration of ‘the general intellect’ of society across borders does not delve into what draws increasing attention concern today and supports the book’s case – the growing incapacitation of the millennial generation to perform operations of thinking through on their own. While research increasingly indicates that the wireless generation are cognitively/affectively locked into their i-phones, facebook, twitter, computer games, and ever more non-stop exchanges and hits from separated life places – oxymoronically called ‘social media’ – this is not an issue of this study. That attention spans measurably decline in substance and length by electronic-screen captivity is certainly relevant to the decline of ‘the general intellect’ of society, but is only a silent background to what is examined case by case in this collection – the destruction of institutional public knowledge. The authors refer to the “privileging of speed, technology and homogeneity – – [in] recycling journalistic content on BBC online services”, for example (p. 55). Yet the electronic revolution itself is only glancingly taken into account. The question is thus not posed of whether the electronic-media revolution itself has propelled the marketizing degradation of public knowledge.
One might argue on the work’s behalf, however, that market totalization has selected forever more velocities and volumes of commodities and commodifications with no limit, and so the electronic media revolution has fitted like a glove to the marketing invasions everywhere in the public sector – which is the book’s main concern. But this underlying line of inquiry does not arise. Nor, relatedly, does the issue that hard copy foundations themselves disappear in the pervasive marketing electrification. Most profoundly, as the commodification of society’s civil commons advances – even of language as commercial property – any common life-ground is eliminated. As social communication becomes more dominated by advertising and corporate sellers invading ever more of society’s policy discussions, information sources, sports, arts and news as marketing sites, citizens are reduced to atomic consumers rather than joint participants in understanding and effecting the common life good. Beneath notice, the very bases of public choice are erased.
The destruction of public knowledge on which this study is focused is not, however, on system-structural abolition of the public world itself. Nor does it conceive of the marketing elimination of any common life ground at all. More specifically, the degraded downstream effects are addressed in regard to instituted public knowledge. The privately-owned communications technology enabling super speeds and volumes of messages and data to spellbind higher public offices themselves is not a causal mechanism that is examined – even as it advances into control of citizens’ every move and decision. For example, my Apple i-phone (just given to me by my children) travels by publicly owned electro-magnetic spectrum and bandwidths, but locks on me again and again demanding it “can only help you if you choose home apps”. One must connect to some marketing repertoire, or the phone turns off – until a fuss is made. The future here shows itself at another level of the ‘market destruction of the general intellect’ – a total market-computerization of citizens in which every life choice and function is reduced to commercial-machine control, changing prices, and one-dimensional options.
While most people may sense that capitalist marketing lies behind the systemic loss of social and planetary life bearings on many levels, this dissolution of shared life coordinates through time is heretical to examine at its base. The ‘general intellect’ is blocked across siloes, expertises and narratives ruling out any comprehensive life frame of reference. The notion of any unifying meaning is has come to be repelled within even the academy as an oppressive thought. Marxism remains essentially stuck inside industrial mechanics with no determining life-ground or life capital base. What this book’s analyses show is the pervasive drivers of total marketing and privatization destroy the public institutional environment so that all reliable public bearings are lost. What is destroyed is the once sovereign state upon whose facts, findings and evolved public-policy parameters were once authoritatively available, reliable and above private-interest selection, slanting and erasure.
Two historic examples come to mind. A British public scientist reporting hard facts that called into question the UK rush to war against Iraq (with obvious payoffs to transnational weapons, oil, engineering, and agribusiness corporations) was driven to suicide for doing so. Public-service scientific report of established facts of life-and-death importance to society and the world was now prohibited; and any scientist in the public service not obeying the gag was, however truthful and diffident in report, to be publicly persecuted by the PMO and the corporate mass media to the point of death to the victim. The second historical example in this relentless process of destroying public knowledge produced by the public service of the greatest social importance occurred in Canada’s renowned “deficit slaying” by massive cuts to social spending. Canada’s government was praised to the sky by all the corporate media and the IMF, but officially repressed was the multi-refereed Statistics Canada report that up to 95% of the deficit was not due to social spending, but private bank compounding-interest charges and tax-cuts to corporate incomes. Even this destruction of public knowledge was not sufficient for the transnational corporate marketing interests now in control of governments themselves. The subsequent Conservative government slashed the budget of Statistics Canada by up to 50% and forbade any public scientist speaking publicly about anything, especially the environment whose own ministry was savagely and permanently cut at the same time.
These are standout cases which have since become a pattern far more extensive and pervasive in contemporary ‘free market societies’, and it is the purpose of this book to document them in connected analyses which expose the now ruling pattern across domains and jurisdictions of powerful private market interests and methods invading and debasing the public knowledge entire public sector across continents. With the captive state thus reduced out of public notice to a servant of dominant market forces, not even able to truthfully advise its citizens what is safe for children to eat and drink.
The Age of Disconnection from the Common Life Ground
We might call this the Age of Disconnection from the Common Life Ground. The planetary and social life commons are commodified so fast and furiously as private market ‘growth’ that few connect the most basic facts and degenerate trends. Public oversight, knowledge and control have been cumulatively usurped with the corporate press by and large demanding it. Elected and responsible government is a-priori equated to “politicians”, and public services once leading the society’s evolution to life-coherent organisation are blanket decried as “red-tape” and “swollen bureaucracies”, with Ronald Reagan and successors targeting social and environmental life-protective regulations as “a claw-hold in our backs”.
Yet the destruction of public knowledge runs into everyday life as well. Consider the thousand-fold increase in the rate of species extinctions since the last ice age which no mass media reports. Consider that not even the lauded Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate models takes into account permafrost emissions as they melt at up to a 74% higher rate than 10 years ago. Consider all the conditioned falsehoods treated as factual projects: such as ‘space colonies’ for a collapsing life system on earth and extraterrestrial life’ as humanity’s most important future prospect when the most that been shown as possible is microbes with no breathable air. Or governments ‘reducing carbon pollution’ causing climate destabilization by carbon markets granting free transnational corporate pollution rights to trade for profit while at the same time making transcontinental trade deals to fly and ship ever more unneeded commodities across oceans that multiply carbon miles. Are such marketing projects and visions clinically insane? Yet it is called ‘the knowledge economy’ with none in public naming the tragically absurd.
No-one evidently notices even in economic science that this ‘knowledge economy’ has no standard for ‘knowledge’. This epistemic ignorance rules without a blink. More deeply, its presupposed value system assumes a-priori that all that sells, from junk foods to deadly weapons, are goods with no-one objecting.
All of these facts fit well to the The Death of Public Knowledge? How Free Markets Destroy the General Intellect. Yet none can be detected from the parameters of empirical studies. The carcinomic nature of the self-multiplying private money-sequencing through social and planetary life is linguistically masked a-priori as society’s ‘well-being’ and ‘growth’, the very metric of this economic pseudo-science. It is here that the ultimate breakdown of public knowledge occurs, within the academic ‘sciences’ themselves. The free market model which governments slavishly follow is life-blind in principle, with no coordinates but nineteenth-century liquid mechanics mapped onto market money-sequences of priced commodities for private profit.1
What this text shows is the downstream effects on the public sector in recent decades and the market despoliation of the capacities of public institutions to know what is going on. In case study after case study, the ‘free market’ panacea is tracked in its effects of marketing and privatizing public institutional bases of knowledge to replace society’s collective capacities to know anything in common at all. The central concepts of the chapter titles tell the rich array of public knowledge sectors covered (reviewer’s selection without capital letters) – “public knowledge in Britain”, “the impact of austerity on Greek news”; “impoverishing the mediated public sphere in New Zealand”; “ “the treasury view of higher education”; “investment banks and information flows”; “the press; market ideologies and the Irish housing crash”; “the corporate takeover of public discourse in Korea”; public-commercial hybridity at the BBC”; “meet the new American influence elites” controlling public policy formation; “private interest encroachments on public-policy making” (the general pattern of the book’s analyses); and perhaps most revealingly, “the tropes of unlearning: UK responses to outsourcing fiascos”. Together they show how completely untested and failed private-market solutions continue on uncorrected, but do not directly connect the dots of the insanity at work. The remaining chapter titles of this work are initial and concluding overviews, and they as well fit to the underlying pattern of the limitless marketing dispossession of public-knowledge capacities – including public health, education, libraries and legal aid.
This many-sided examination of the undeclared war against social understanding by neo-liberal market forces reveals in the end what is not concluded – a reverse of social evolution silently in motion. As ever more domains of instituted social infrastructures and secure funding are privatized, defunded and degraded – public and higher education, healthcare and medical knowledge, public broadcasting and housing – the unifying pattern is non-proprietary knowledge of every form is step by step eliminated or corrupted. The very essence of human society’s evolution, the shared intelligence and knowledge of its members, is dismantled into ever more market sites for profit where the truth is what sells. Yet this book itself has no criterion of knowledge on the basis of which to challenge this totalizing free-market takeover of society’s knowledge base and the collective evolutionary defences it provides.
What is Knowledge?
As a longtime researcher into the grounds and principles of logical validity, scientific method, pseudo-science and propaganda, and, at the most general level, social epistemology, I have been tracking this corporate-market war on public knowledge since the late 1980’s. What is undeniable is that any knowledge claim must meet three standards of veracity – consistency with the relevant evidence, consistency with its own claims, and – most ignored – life coherence (consistency with the universal life necessities enabling any claim at all).
Market epistemology does not exist, but its underlying defining principle can be deduced: the truth is what sells, and what sells most is truest. No market precept is inconsistent with this unstated first principle. Yet what is not recognised is that this underlying ruling principle violates standards of knowledge at every turn. Wherever its claims are inconsistent with the known facts, with its own other claims, and – most importantly – with sustainable social and ecological life on the planet, they are in fact false.2 The question is, where are they not false? The market’s destruction of public knowledge is built-in. John Locke is an epoch-defining example. His famed Second Treatise on Government explains in grandiose language what is, in logical fact, nowhere laid bare in market culture: the unlimited justification of slavery of violently conquered peoples for money profit as an absolute right. There is no denying of this underlying logic of the true and the good. But it has lasted through centuries as a basis of Western constitutions and an academic classic of political and moral studies. Locke’s word are cited in both US and French Revolutions, and England’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ almost a century before is led by its logic. Behind the scenes, Locke made his own fortune from investment in the Royal Africa Company which had a monopoly of the slave trade. His example reveals how public knowledge has long been under siege by ‘free market’ interests under cover of ringing sentences and slogans.
Why do so many people still know in their experience that the free corporate market works for them? If they have the enough money demand, they can buy ever more commodities and conveniences for themselves, a pragmatic proof it seems. Yet all the low-paid workers and ecocidal extractions, mass industrial production, and material wastes throughout are all “externalities” to this seemingly beneficial exchange. This follows from the market’s first principles. So it is perfectly consistent with its logic that life-coherent understanding of social and ecological reality do not register as a concern. Those profiting most and with most money demand cannot be deterred from certitude of ‘the free market’ working for them since it endows them with royal demand. In general, there is no validity but private commodity satisfaction. Conversely, war is made on those who oppose the disorder as against ‘freedom’ itself. The staggering life costs of a system that is life-blind in principle do not factor into the market value calculus.The first founder of the doctrine, we might recall, justified capturing Africans as slaves to profit him by their own preference for life over death. They could kill themselves any time.
Life-blind market logic still rules absent such slavery. Think of climate destabilization and oceanic acidification by the fossil fuel magnates, and wars against ‘enemies’ resisting it. “The military-industrial-congress complex”, as Eisenhower originally called it, keeps the world secure from any alternative to it. Eco-genocidal wakes follow, but no public knowledge is allowed to connect the dots. Yet did not the evolution of social economies work better in fact in providing citizens with the life goods required for a human existence in the post-1945 period? Did not decolonization with social, socialist and human rights reforms begin a post-predatory capitalist world order of life over profit? But then step by step, corporate public relations, social defunding by bank debt, and armed force rule reversed the tide from 1973 on (beginning in elected socialist Chile on as the US was driven from socialist Vietnam). This may be knowledge among those who pay attention, but no media or discipline reports it. At the same time, NATO governments threaten any society that resists spreading private corporate market rule into its evolved society as special forces destabilize it from within. The reason public knowledge is so scarce is not that it is useless in the face of power. It is what brings down every life-incoherent system humanity’s social evolution – the ultimate species advantage of homo sapiens.
As the authors of this book know, modern social successes since 1930-1945 had evolved by the steering of impartial, professional civil services instituting civil commons of public health, education, social security, and – underlying all – sound universal sciences and knowledge bases across the world. But then the ‘Reagan-Thatcher’ reversal swept into corporate-market world power based on the private wants of selves with money, with newly allowed monopoly corporations increasingly in control of mass communications and research institutes. With public knowledge institutions and infrastructures cumulatively defunded and privatized, how was the public to know? The rest is history. The very foundations of life-protective laws and regulations independent of private corporate forces and profit are forced to deregulate, defund and de-govern. Even the safety of narcotics and of workplaces, of pervading commodities of noise and pollution, of carcinogenic processes and products, of what people know about the degenerate trends afflicting all of them are decided by private corporations in and out of government through revolving electoral doors.
This many-sided study reports the effects far downstream. There is ever more public money transferring to private hands by tax reductions going over 90% to the top 1%; by privatizations that have never once improved public costs and services; by outsourcing of evidence and policy to for-profit corporations; by ever more licensed corporate commodities, junk throwaways and life-polluting machines overrunning and occupying public and private life spaces and ecosystems; by corporate mass communications never reporting any of these general facts; and by market prescriptions invading every public site from universities, schools, hospitals, sports and public broadcasting to sovereign ministries of state.
Editor Aeron Davis explains the private market corruption of impartial knowledge at all moments of the public policy and legislation process. For-profit financial firms “advise policies for governments and tax inspectors. Investment bank managers get commanding roles in government treasuries and regulatory institutions, and the same esteemed economists write authoritative reports used in decision-making that are paid for by vested interests” (p. 10). All of this “allows tax avoidance by big business and the super-rich on a massive scale and – – continuing transfer of capital from the poorest to the richest one percent.” Editor Davis with sourcing information for all of these assertions (a general method of the book) continues: “The financial sector has provided over 50% of the Conservative Party’s funds in recent years”, and the public-policy-making and analysis not so directly suborned has been “contracted out” (p.11). Brexit is named from the start (pp.1-2) as just such a marketing takeover of the plenary powers of the state. The selling of Brexit to the British occurred by off-shore PR and big lies – with massive environmental and financial de-regulation as the big prize still not recognised.3
Under the subtitle, The institutional foundations of the public sphere, Colin Leys is perhaps clearest of all on what is being destroyed. He spells out the social evolution of the public sector free from powerful corporate and profit interests, the only true success of modernity, a civil commons of sound impartial knowledge as ideal and reality at once:
“The public sphere was above all a construct of the institutions through which social, economic and political knowledge was produced and assessed and policies were endorsed, independently of private interests. This was the very title to legitimacy of knowledge institutions in all of these spheres. It still is in public regulatory and administrative law that is constitutionally based. These institutions were [and remain with the rule of knowledge over private profits and consumer preferences] the professions, insulated from both commercial pressures and from government: the universities, funded through arms length arrangement to preserve their freedom to engage in disinterested teaching and research, the press with freedom to allow for the exposure of official dissimulation or lies, public service broadcasting to give the electorate valid information and a platform for public debate on how the information for public debate on how the information should be interpreted, judges, funded from the civil list to make them able to stand up to governments, and the senior civil servants, dedicated to ensuring that policy was made in light of the public knowledge made possible by these arrangements”(p. 232).
The opposite now reigns. Ever more public treasure and public knowledge-bases are defunded or outsourced to private for-profit parties. The only issue for the new rule over public governance is how it is done to obey market’s laws in converting public money into private hands. The National Audit Office of Great Britain now prescribes how social and public services must be outsourced to private market entities in accordance with market “supply and demand”. For any coherent rationality, known failures of market supply and demand to provide public goods and social services requires their public management to meet common life needs which the market by definition cannot do. It is capable only of responding to private money demand with private goods produced for private profits as its law of motion. The public sector, in contrast, is the historic evolution of an objective, trained and professional civil service in publicly-won non-profit institutions of health, law, education, works safety, environmental protection, and other collective life goods.
Yet the opposite is now prescribed by the financial regulator of the UK government itself. Public servants and managers are required to understand not the common interest, nor the universal life necessities of citizens, nor any requirement for sustainability of social and ecological systems. They must instead, says the National Audit Office of Great Britain, “understand national supply and demand” which – being only of privately priced commodities and private money demand for them – necessarily excludes what all people’s lives in fact need for their well-being as human and as citizens of an historic society. It is better that “market failures” are, at last, acknowledged in this long infallibilist doctrine. Yet without any criterion of these ‘failures’ of the market, their admission covertly allows more public wealth going out to private corporations to fix them, even when market failures to serve the common life good are built into its private value system and metric. Universal life needs of organic, social and ecological hosts do not exist for the market thought system. There are no categories for any. There is no social relation beyond private monetised exchanges, no collective life needs or common interests, and no life capital or ground. The vicious circle closes. There are only market solutions to market failures and more public money to private corporations.
This text does not decode the deep logical fraud at work – a modern twist on the justice of slavery. This is how the thought system continues to defraud the general intellect beneath empirical demonstration. The cumulatively fatal cycle of unfalsifiable doctrine and its totalizing rule controls ever more public wealth and tax revenues to enforce it (including by armed-force budgets that multiply public investment in society’s health, environment and education). With no public knowledge base to corroborate, challenge or question any step of this fanatic override of fact, test, proof and the common life interest a-priori, public intelligence is eliminated in principle. With ever less organised knowledge in the public sector to stop transnational private-profit operations from perpetrating with no accountability ever more systemic deaths, diseases and life ruins – from the junks poisoning people in masses to the elimination of evolved life-protective work and environmental regulations, to foreign wars against poorer societies who form a social alternative – how is this not a war on evolving human society itself?
Once the government’s starting point is that the sovereign people is a “purchaser of market services”, the production of any collective good is ruled out in principle. It follows that knowledge formation to produce for the collective good is a hostile act. This is why it is cool to hate government, why the universal is abhorrent to postmodernism, why public facts cease to exist in endless narratives, why politics becomes the rule of dominant images, and why domestic as well foreign wars against the public economy are the meta-program of this end-game global regime.
It is also why unseen the real, the true and the good become matters of global marketing techniques. Behind all, private money profit drives world catastrophe beneath all the cave-wall phenomena concealing it. Thus the greatest single step forward of social intelligence in history – the universally life-serving public sector – is liquidated into private control as fast as possible. The only process whereby a stop will be put to this destruction of public knowledge at the core of species evolution is public knowledge of it.
J M August /2018
John McMurtry Ph.D (University College London)
Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
Professor of Philosophy
University Professor Emeritus
University of Guelph Ontario, Canada NIG2W1
Philosophy and World Problems
Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS)
- This life-blind logic of the ruling neo-classical economics is spelled out in my “Behind Global System Collapse: The Life-Blind Logic of Economic Rationality”, Journal of Business Ethics (2012) Volume 108: No. 1:49-60, and analysed within the larger world-historical and onto-axiological context of human evolution in the multiply translated The Cancer Stage of Capitalism/ From Crisis to Cure. London: Pluto Press, 2013 (enlarged edition of the 1999 original).
- The full argument for this life-coherence principle of validity and truth is in the two volumes of What is Good, and What is Bad? The Value of all Values across Time, Place and Theories, UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems: Oxford, Eolss Publishers, 2004-11.
- See “Is Brexit a Neo-Liberal Coup Against 45 Years of Life-Protective Law and Regulation?”, World Financial Review, Critical Analysis, August 14, 2017, http://www.worldfinancialreview.com/?p=20895