Labour shenanigans and metric power

David Beer opens Metric Power by recalling that, in the mid‑1990s, he ‘worked in a panopticon of sorts’, a call centre; Foucault ‘would have had a field day’ observing what must now seem quite primitive methods of surveillance as employers started using workplace networks to track what employees were doing.[1] Well, one imagines Foucault would also have taken more than a passing interest in recent stories about the leaked Labour Party report, The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014-2019 (hereafter LPGLU, first covered in the news media here). For this report is a fascinating case study of an organisation becoming more effectively neoliberal, more securely bound by the logics of metric power: what we might now call ‘new’ Labour here has discovered the virtues of number-crunching to distance itself from what we might call ‘old’ Labour. LPGLU constructs this version of old Labour as an organisation where those disgruntled Blairites who make up the bureaucracy can safely subvert the party’s aim to elect a Labour government because no one is tracking their behaviour. On TyskySour (here) Aaron Bastani suggested that revelations concerning secret WhatsApp conversations, far and away the most interesting part of the story at that point, must have been downloaded to one of the participants’ work email account, an observation echoed subsequently by Shehab Khan for ITV (here). So – if we do know what happened, it’s because someone transferred data from a medium that allows actors to evade employer scrutiny (WhatsApp) to one that gives ownership to the employer (email). The workplace has come a long way since the 1990s.

There are two aspects to be discussed here: firstly, the management (and self‑management) of workplace performance and, secondly, the trusting faith placed in metrics to measuring something supposedly worth measuring. Unfortunately, Labour is no closer to a strategy for dealing with the propaganda offensive that has sought to discredit it as an electoral force.

Guerrilla warfare in the workplace

Thinking about the management of workplace performance in the WhatsApp age first brought me to this example of the kind of legal advice solicitors might give to employers, not least problems arising from the private nature of WhatsApp communications: can employers intervene to moderate or even prevent the use of this technology? Clearly there’s a tension between employees hoping to evade surveillance and the employers looking to exert workplace control, as also discussed in a somewhat prescient Financial Times story from 2017 (here). According to LPGLU, Labour’s WhatsAppers, at the time of the June 2017 election, thought they could evade scrutiny; a few months later, in October, the Financial Times was pointing out that workplace cultures should take on board the dangers of technology that, promising privacy, might encourage ‘gossiping and bitching’ or even ‘bullying’.

Understandably, revelations of anti-Corbyn factionalism drew a lot of attention.[2] Also of interest is the way this story has exposed good, old-fashioned workplace resistance as an example of what, borrowing from the sociology of education, might be called guerrilla warfare, doing what you can get away with, doing it because you can get away with it. Notwithstanding the puerile humour on display, if LPGLU is anything to go by, Labour HQ’s anti-Corbyn brigade cannot pretend they were naughty schoolkids subverting classroom authority, but their group identity was based on doing what they did in order to get away with it. An Independent story (here) includes, as an example of anti-Corbyn factionalism, ‘hostile staff creat[ing] a chat so they could pretend to work while actually speaking to each other, with one participant stating that “tap tap tapping away will make us look v busy”’. Well yes – you do it, and then you record what you have done for someone else to read later. A message relayed in a helpful episode of Panorama, Is Labour Anti-Semitic? (July 2019), is that they were ‘trying to do the job properly’ but were handicapped by the leader’s office.

Media reports of factionalism and a canteen culture among party bureaucrats that can only be described as unsavoury, even evidence that officials attempted to sabotage Labour’s 2017 general election campaign – there is little here that should come as a surprise to anyone following Labour politics since 2015; but the content reported is, at times shocking. One might compare the Independent story already mentioned with one in The Guardian (here); the former is rather more sensitive in redacting names, while the latter, having noted Len McClusky’s call for a redacted version of the report to be published, goes on, a few lines down, to share with its readers quotations about people who are, indeed, named. In the quotation above from the Independent story, note the reference to ‘one participant’: even the accused should remain anonymous.

But we’re so much better now – and we have the numbers to prove it

It is unfortunate that LPGLU has come into the public domain in the way it has. Nonetheless, it is the way new Labour has focused on the measurement of difference that might continue to make it vulnerable to attack, even when it boasts of improvement. A gleeful Guardian attack on the Labour leadership (here), ahead of the Panorama broadcast in July, ends with a spokesperson saying: ‘Our records show that after these officials left and after Jennie Formby became general secretary, the rate at which antisemitism cases have been dealt with, increased fourfold.’ This programme now functions as an introduction to LPGLU, and there is nothing in the leaked report that does not corroborate the party’s earlier statement regarding performance. Labour wants to be able to say the GLU has upped its game; criticisms you might have made a year or two years ago are no longer valid because we are now working so much harder, so much more effectively. However, implicit in this defence, is the assumption that there has always been a serious problem, defined in quantitative terms, to be addressed; and yes, Labour is institutionally racist, only now starting to put its house in order. Ignored is the possibility that, considering the size of the party membership, there has been an increase in cases and expulsions from one small number to another slightly less-small number, and what we have witnessed is, as demonstrated many times, a propaganda offensive based on the weaponisation of antisemitism.[3]

What Beer calls ‘the data imaginary’ is those processes exposing what has been hidden: perhaps, depending on your point of view, evidence of antisemitism within Labour’s membership or evidence of GLU performance.[4] This is the way the neoliberal organisation works, all is reduced to the kind of data analysis that claims omniscience. In LPGLU the language of data analytics has been adopted to imply modernity and rigor. One might just as easily argue that what should be visible, anything but hidden, has been obscured. It is difficult to see how new Labour expects to benefit in the immediate future.

Back to metric power

The validity of statistics is easily challenged: do they measure what they set out to measure? What is measured is either the number of members punished for antisemitism, or the party’s increased efforts from April 2018 onwards, not necessarily the same thing. Understandably, Labour wishes to be able to show it is doing something, it is conforming to expectations; that is, not just acting but being seen to act. However, that strategy means accepting as given the scale of the problem to be addressed; and the impression of a party ‘taken over’ by antisemitism, after all, has been reinforced by media story after media story.

Beer makes the point that what is measured (for example the performance of Labour’s GLU before and after Formby replaced McNicol) is only part of the story, metric power ‘is also reliant on certain pathways of circulation and how these metrics become part of everyday and organisational lives’.[5] For example, Labour’s erstwhile not-schoolboys, their attempt at guerrilla warfare rumbled, have discovered they are now data, that is, evidence. That first Sky report quotes Iain McNicol hoping to mock the idea of someone ‘trawling 10,000 emails’, to which the simplest response is – why wouldn’t they? The party is being investigated by the EHRC, and any serious investigation is going to laugh at the idea that individuals can opt out, decide what to share and what not to share. An email you cannot remember sending has now become part of the you being scrutinised.[6] The logic of McNicol’s criticism, however, lies in the juxtaposition of the number (big!) and the items studied (emails are trivial), a value judgement; not so long ago Labour HQ was busy trawling social media to find evidence that would justify the suspension and/or expulsion of Corbyn supporters, producing another big number you might approve or disapprove of, find meaningful or scoff at.

The concept of metric power, then, reinforced by an understanding of the data imaginary, is one way of understanding why new Labour, having allowed itself to be backed into a corner by complaint-as-measurement, will struggle to extricate itself from this mess by playing the case-as-measurement card.

Old and new Labour – really?

To speak in this way of a transition from old to new is quite flippant, and I ought to apologise (I won’t, of course). What I am left with is the thought that changes to the way the party as a bureaucratic organisation goes about its business, surely recognisable to people in most workplaces, remind me of the ‘data-driven’ reform of education, begun by Thatcherite league tables, happily embraced by Blair and Blunkett in 1997, carried on by Gove when he emerged to trash state education after 2010. Doubtless other areas (one thinks straightaway of the NHS) could tell a similar story. And now, given that we always do something because we can, we might even anticipate, as an example of affective measures, league tables comparing CLPs …

[1] Metric Power (2016, 1). Chapter 3, Circulation, begins by suggesting that ‘[a]ny mention of [this book] on Twitter or in a blog post will potentially contribute to its almetric score and its relative impact ranking’ (77). Well, if anyone bothers reading this blog post – unlikely, I know – it has been a pleasure.

[2] A good example of the left’s early response to the report is Bastani’s account for Novara Media (here).

[3] In the light of LPGLU, Jonathan Cook (here) and MediaLens (here) provide important summaries of the political context for this propaganda offensive. See also an earlier MediaLens article dated just ahead of the 2019 general election (here). And there is no shortage of important texts tracking the recent weaponisation of antisemitism against Corbyn’s Labour Party – those published in 2019 include: Bad News For Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief (Philo, Berry, Schlosberg, Lerman and Miller), Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality (Edwards and Cromwell), and Antisemitism and the Labour Party (Stern‑Weiner, ed).

[4] The Data Gaze (2018).

[5] Metric Power, 71-72.

[6] Metric Power ends (210-212) with a brief discussion of affective measures (a topic picked up in The Data Gaze) – the way in which individuals are encouraged to improve their performance. As already indicated, Panorama and LPGLU are linked by the way they focus on individual – that is, not just party – performance. The engaged worker, after all, is central to the functioning of neoliberal organisations. But more on that later.

And so it has come to pass, the UK Government has been forced – or persuaded, perhaps nudged – into what the Telegraph (here) calls ‘measures … [going] far beyond anything seen in wartime’, which, conceivably turns Johnson into some kind of uber-Churchill. What has been interesting in the last few days is the extent to which the Government has been told to get on with it, maybe ‘get it done’; we the British public want martial law, but don’t call it that, not yet. And yes, one might agree that martial law is a tad extreme, an over‑reaction of sorts; the police might be empowered to hand out fines if they suspect someone of dodgy behaviour, but we don’t yet have tanks on the street.

The Government has, repeatedly, been accused of inaction; we are way behind what other countries have done to confront the ongoing crisis. It might be better to say such commentators need to learn how to read the activities of ministers. Jonathan Cook puts it well when he points out (here) that ‘so many major countries – meaning major economies – are today run by the very men least equipped ideologically, emotionally and spiritually to deal with the virus’. Whether or not Dominic Cummings said anything even remotely resembling the ‘defamatory’ remarks attributed to him over the weekend, one can easily see that ‘inaction’ is the default position for politicians who think activity obscene. You might do it in private, but not in public. It’s an oft‑repeated mistake to claim that neoliberal governments are non‑interventionist and prefer a small state; they happily intervene to legislate against, for example, workers and trade unions. As the past days have shown, Johnson and Sunak will support businesses and landlords, while remaining reluctant to do anything that might benefit workers and tenants. To do the latter, they fear, would set the wrong kind of precedent.

Remember Cameron (here) arguing for the so-called ‘deregulation agenda’? He later said (here) he wanted to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’; his Government was  ‘waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses; and he wanted ‘2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we get a lot of this pointless time-wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all’. Given that we could use some health and safety at the moment, those comments haven’t aged well. For an earlier stage in the development of this kind of government, one can go back to the 1980s and Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, a blatant attempt to intervene on behalf of capital at a time of overt class conflict;[1] but the Cameron Government, with the helpful assistance of Liberal Democrats, went further by seeking to disguise government intervention. William Davies in the London Review of Books last week (here) suggests that an over‑dependence on the ‘nudge unit’ meant the Johnson Government adopted a ‘comparatively relaxed approach’ to dealing with coronavirus; if the crisis requires the kind of intervention associated with a war economy,[2] then, one might infer the Keynesianism of World War 2 was both anathema to the current Government and also an approach they were unable to adopt, even had they wanted to (unlikely – pretty much the point made by Cook).

And yet: one should at least pause to contemplate the unintended – or not really intended, not intentionally intended – consequences of any act. Those of us on the left who think it a good idea to recognise the importance of essential workers (many of whom would have been derided, not that long ago, as unskilled or, at best, low‑skilled) might be encouraged to think that the old Clause 4 is on its way back. However, we ought to better understand how the current Government might be able to exploit the situation. If World War 2 supposedly educated the nation in the need for some kind of social democracy (hardly socialism), one should not infer a straightforward rerun. Marx, of course, began (here) by quoting Hegel, ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice’ and then added ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. He continued: ‘Men (sic) make their own history, but they do not make it as they please,’ a reminder of the role played by unintended consequences. It might, indeed, be tempting to ‘anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to [our] service’ and think some kind of Corbynesque government will soon be elected when voters, as in 1945, learn the lesson of co-operation, casting off decades of training in selfishness; yet the ongoing rerun of ‘the war’ might well see us, not just stuck with Johnson, voters rejecting Attleeism this time round. A Johnson, moreover, who represents a kind of fascism we think ourselves too civilised for. Writing this time in The Guardian, Davies (here) rightly emphasises that we ‘inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs’; and he goes on to say that the current crisis is less to do with ideology than with capitalism per se. Arguably the crisis is always to do with capitalism, and capitalism means crisis, and always has, but the point is well made: it is possible that what is ‘up for grabs’ is the nature of the world, or global society, rather than the best way of managing capitalism within the nation state (and that, after all, is what Conservative and Labour parties have always contested).

Thatcher famously benefited from the 1982 Falkland’s War; she became a Prime Minister people took seriously, even if that doesn’t mean we should forget the ongoing opposition to her politics.[3] Similarly, one can see Johnson coming out of this crisis smelling of roses. He might well be disinclined to the kind of gravitas that, supposedly, characterises the ‘serious’ politician; he and his Government might nonetheless benefit from the calls for authoritarianism. In recent days the news has reminded me of what Hobbes wrote in the seventeenth century; living in a state of nature that sees us likely to destroy each other because we can’t co‑operate, we’re prepared to concede power to a strong leader. This isn’t, I hasten to add, an argument that Hobbes ‘was right’; or that Johnson is the chap Hobbes had in mind; it is simply to say that public discourse has tapped into the Hobbesian.

In conclusion I return to the list of approved activities. Apparently, I’m allowed to leave home once a day for exercise. Will anyone be spying on me to count the number of times per day, or week, I go out running? If I vary my route, how long might I expect to get away with it? Time to read some Foucault, methinks; we’ve plenty of spare time on our hands.

[1] See, eg: James Fulcher, 1995. British Capitalism in the 1980s: Old Times or New Times? British Journal of Sociology, 46, 2, 326-338.

[2] Misleadingly so. See James Meadway’s recent article in Tribune (here).

[3] An interesting contemporary article is Ralph Miliband’s, linking the new concern, perhaps obsession, with identity politics to the idea that Thatcherism had won over the working class. Not least, his view that ‘what the Left confronts is not a surge to Conservatism and reaction but a very marked alienation of workers from the Labour Party’ (18) is perhaps pertinent in the months after the 2019 General Election. See: Ralph Miliband, 1985. The New Revisionism in Britain. New Left Review, March‑April, 5-26.

My last post outlined the work done by Cahalan’s The Great Pretender to expose Rosenhan’s deceits in On Being Sane in Insane Places. Highlighted was the question of misdiagnosis and the emergent conflict between Rosenhan and Spitzer.

Before continuing, it should be clear that, as regards pseudopatients being admitted to hospital, diagnosis was reliable; the system did work here, and doctors had no option (see the description of Rosenhan’s own committal, 184‑186).[1] Later, of course, the system didn’t work as well, exposed by Rosenhan’s subterfuge in telling hospitals to expect pseudopatients (120‑121). One can infer that diagnosis was likely a hit‑and‑miss affair; and even Spitzer, recognising a good career opportunity when he sees it, no misdiagnosis on his part there, is quoted as praising Rosenhan’s contribution to an important debate (193).[2] On 125 Cahalan has already commented on the impact Rosenhan’s revelations had, at a time (‘[i]t was no coincidence’) when the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder was finally being challenged, and this aspect of Rosenhan’s research readily lent itself to quantification, that is, the measurement of misdiagnosis.

He had reasons, then, to favour the experimental side of the study at the expense, perhaps, of those non-experimental aspects that might have proven more rewarding. In a short paper, he could get away with inflating the number of pseudopatients, for example (if that is what he did, The Great Pretender inconclusive here); however, when faced with the need to produce a book‑length study, mere number-crunching was never going to suffice.

Consequently, in The Great Pretender, the pages devoted to the experiences of pseudopatients in hospital – Rosenhan himself (86-105), Bill (142-147, 156‑161, and Harry (222-233) – are easily the most interesting, even though Cahalan, having concluded Rosenhan can only be untrustworthy, often misreads or ignores their significance.

The hole Rosenhan dug for himself

The Great Pretender is at its best when it offers a sometimes detailed description of Rosenhan’s own writing, fieldnotes from his time as the first pseudopatient, or draft versions of various chapters in the unfinished book‑length study his publisher would subsequently sue him for not completing. As published, the original paper is slight, presenting evidence that fits in with contemporary concerns, and perhaps its author failed to predict the impact it would have. Moreover, Rosenhan would not be the first researcher who undertook and published research to further his career (which is not to say others have necessarily served up bogus data). Cahalan alludes to the difficulties he might have had, and been aware of, in gaining a tenured post (268). For whatever reason, this expert on abnormality wanted to be a normal – that is, mainstream – experimental researcher. A wasted opportunity.

The road not taken – because it would have taken far too long?

So where did Rosenhan go wrong? The 1960s had opened with the publications of Goffman’s Asylums, Szasz’s The Myth of Mental Illness, Becker’s Outsiders, and Laing’s The Divided Self, all major texts referenced at the beginning of Rosenhan’s paper; he clearly wanted to signal straightaway the context for his own modest empirical study. However, given his selection, it’s striking that none of those texts would have claimed to be experimental. Goffman, for example, makes it quite clear at the beginning of Asylums that his approach was the precise opposite of Rosenhan’s: he was not committed as a patient and he prioritised ‘ethnographic detail regarding selected aspects of patient social life’, ignoring the ‘usual kinds of measurements and controls’; going after ‘statistical evidence for a few statements would preclude my gathering data on the tissue and fabric of patient life’.[3] Did Rosenhan read and think about that opening methodological statement?

Rosenhan does use the phrase ‘total institution’ in passing,[4] but appears less interested in basing his research on Goffman’s insights. Throughout, even when attempting to describe interactions, findings have to be presented reductively in statistical form – see, for example, the comparison of interactions as experienced by pseudopatients and the ‘young lady’ at Stanford;[5] or the passage, ‘[a]verage daily contact with psychiatrists, psychologists, residents, and physicians combined ranged from 3.9 to 25.1 minutes, with an overall mean of 6.8’.[6] Beyond the broadest of generalisations (‘not much time’), any attempt to ‘objectively’ measure the time nurses spent with patients is ridiculous: even were it possible to use a stop-watch and time the action reliably, such measures would still have no meaning (other than that some are so foolish as to think presentation of statistical data alone signals scientific rigour).

Goffman, by way of contrast, explains in detail how space is divided to reinforce the way patients interact with staff and with each other, the careful delineation of off-limits space from surveillance space, where patients might expect to have no or little freedom; or those spaces from free places, which are, in turn, not the same as group territories, which might, again, be distinguished from personal territories.[7] The meanings attached to space are inseparable from status and identity; as such, these meanings cannot be quantified in the way Rosenhan’s statistical data would have us believe. One simple illustration of personal territories will underscore their precarious nature:

… a few patients would carry their blankets around with them during the day and, in an act thought to be highly regressive, each would curl up on the floor with his blanket completely covering him; within this covered space each had some margin of control.[8]

This demonstration of the way ethnographic research might unfold has been chosen for two reasons. Firstly, it takes time. Secondly, this passage in Goffman’s book can be likened to the way, in Doing the Business, Hobbs divides the pub (a ‘rigidly stratified institution’) into four different sections, all as a prelude to the story of Keith, whose career as a failed entrepreneur begins and ends in the least prestigious part of the pub, section 4.[9] These examples, from Goffman and Hobbs, illustrate clearly what the sociologist means by the social construction of reality, or the subjective meanings actors attach to behaviour: whatever Rosenhan himself might have understood, and both his published and unpublished writing makes it clear he does get the sociology here, none of it is comprehensible to his critic Spitzer. So fixated is Spitzer on Rosenhan’s erroneous use of ‘in remission’, he ignores the more obviously bogus data.

What might have been – Rosenhan on the tissue and fabric of patient life

When looking at the parts of The Great Pretender that do offer tantalising glimpses into what an ethnographic version of Rosenhan’s published study might have looked like, it is possible to highlight passages that would provide substance.[10]

Rosenhan’s first impression comes with the, as reported, criticism of Szasz and the anti-psychiatry movement, when he notes: ‘They [patients] really are different from me’ (89). If his hypothesis, going in, is that hospitals cannot detect pseudopatients, he remains, nonetheless, committed to his belief in something, here called ‘sanity’, as distinct from something else, here called ‘insanity’. This observation would then help explain his reaction to Harris, who first offers an ‘unexpected intimacy’ (96) when treating Rosenhan as ‘a person, not a leper’ (97); and then rejects him.[11] On 99 Rosenhan, as quoted, ‘behaved like a patient’.

Think about it for a moment: if the confident, charismatic, middle-class professional Rosenhan can be so affected, a good example of what depersonalisation feels like, what might it be like for others, less confident, less assured in their social status?

From here it is easy to see how, over-compensating, Rosenhan would then ‘ham it up’ at the party described by Staub: ‘mesmerising the crowd with his dramatic tale’ (188). That he claimed to have worn a wig that did more than just change his appearance, which Cahalan finds ‘bewildering’ (189), makes perfect sense for someone who wants to live off the experience while, simultaneously, distancing himself from the shame he evidently felt when letting Harris put him in his place (and an understanding of what Goffman had written about space would have come in handy here, of course).

It also becomes easier to see the missed opportunity provided by Harry’s story. By this stage of the book, Rosenhan is a lost cause for Cahalan, who can only see how he has trashed poor Harry’s experience because it doesn’t fit in with what he wants to say. Yet, on 224, Harry is reminded that he is still a patient, and his response when the psychiatrist says, ‘It’s up to you’ – ‘Having that thrown back at me wasn’t entirely pleasant’ – is remarkably similar to Rosenhan’s feeling when Harris turns on him.

See also, in this vein, Bill’s account of the attendant, ‘as if seeing Bill as a human being for the first time’ (159). All three pseudopatients, then, provide compelling evidence of depersonalisation.

For Harry, there is also the moment a nurse gives him his own file: Cahalan can say this is ‘an unusual moment in any hospital, let alone a psychiatric one’ (224-225), while ignoring its similarity to Rosenhan’s description of the nurse unbuttoning her uniform to adjust her bra (95).[12] In each case, it matters little what the patient, a non-person, thinks.

Later, Harry, who has done all he can to ingratiate himself, is refused a pass: the unintentional irony of the older Harry’s recollection (‘… the most surreal experience. Here I am, I’m in a psychiatric institution and I can’t convince them that it’s safe to let me go’) is, of course, missed by Cahalan (225). Rosenhan’s take on Harry (‘HE LIKES IT’) is, supposedly, incredible: Cahalan seems to think Rosenhan is saying he cannot understand why anyone would not hate being in a hospital (224). But perhaps Rosenhan has seen the extent to which Harry, in embracing the role of patient, has failed to understand what is happening to him.

Conclusion – still defending Rosenhan

Rereading On Being Sane in Insane Places alongside The Great Pretender, I have been reminded of long-time reservations but one can only be impressed by how much Rosenhan did include about labelling, power relations, and depersonalisation. The experiences of Rosenhan himself, Bill, and Harry – that is what’s important, and the few examples given above will have to suffice as indicators of how much better a full-length sociological account might have been.

As for Cahalan – it’s clear, in so many places, that she cannot see beyond the label: stickiness, anyone?

Finally, this review has been an attempt to defend Rosenhan against the likely onslaught that will follow publication of The Great Pretender. In particular, to defend him as someone on the brink of producing a major research study when all people will want to talk about now are the lies. It’s only just, then, to end with a quotation from The Divided Self, Laing noting that ‘one frequently encounters “merely” before subjective, whereas it is almost inconceivable to speak of anyone being “merely” objective’.[13] Indeed.

[1] And don’t forget Rosenhan’s own regard, as published, for medical staff: ‘… our overwhelming impression of them was of people who really cared, who were committed and who were uncommonly intelligent. Where they failed, as they sometimes did painfully, it would be more accurate to attribute those failures to the environment in which they, too, found themselves than to personal callousness’ (On Being Sane, 399).

[2] One should also consider Rosenhan’s own career prospects at Stanford, as outlined, 117ff.

[3] Erving Goffman, 1991. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situations of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (first published 1961), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 7-8.

[4] On Being Sane, 399.

[5] Ibid, 393-394.

[6] Ibid, 396.

[7] Asylums, 203-220.

[8] Ibid, 219.

[9] Dick Hobbs, 1988. Doing the Business: Entrepreneurship, the Working Class, and Detectives in the East End of London, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 142-147.

[10] It’s important to note here that the gloss provided by Cahalan’s text is never an adequate substitute for Rosenhan’s own version, no matter how ‘faithful’ she has been to the ‘original’.

[11] In On Being Sane, Rosenhan writes: ‘The mentally ill are society’s lepers’ (390).

[12] A scene included in On Being Sane (395).

[13] RD Laing, 1965. The Divided Self (first published 1960), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 25.


I have always had reservations about David Rosenhan’s On Being Sane in Insane Places; its inferiority to the way a (qualitative) sociologist might have approached the same topic is evident.[1] And now Susannah Cahalan’s The Great Pretender has exposed Rosenhan as a fake: he made it all up (well – some of it).[2] However, reading her account of Rosenhan’s unpublished writing, fieldnotes in particular, has been more interesting. He should have had the courage to follow through his insights into power relations and produce a rich ethnographic account of life in a mental hospital. His inability to do so, and what that tells us about the doing of research, rather than any dishonesty on Rosenhan’s part is what we might more usefully take away from this sorry tale.

There’s at least one good review out there (if you ignore the headline)

I discovered this new book when reading a Guardian review, one that, predictably, failed even to summarise the case accurately.[3] Rosenhan describes the experience of pseudopatients, a small group of people admitted to hospital as schizophrenics when they claimed to be hearing voices. However, in its first paragraph, the Guardian review says they were institutionalised against their will, an odd mistake for even the most careless reader to make. A bit later we’re told Rosenhan’s study led to the first edition of the DSM, the classification system still used in the United States for diagnosing disorders. However, the first edition dates back to the 1950s; and so it’s left to a far better review in The Spectator to indicate the damage done by DSM-III. According to Andrew Scull, there is now a ‘rigidly biologically reductionist psychiatry, one that (falsely) claimed that the “diseases” the DSM identified and listed were akin to those that mainstream medicine diagnosed and treated’. Scull calls the case ‘a fraud whose real-world consequences still resonate today’, a conclusion the magazine then distorts for its misleading headline – ‘How a fraudulent experiment set psychiatry back decades’.[4]

If Rosenhan did set out to highlight misdiagnosis, such errors remain problematic today, and one might do better than blame the messenger whose message remains valid.[5]

Further, it’s worth pointing out here that Rosenhan’s modest little paper would have had a lesser impact had it not seemed to reinforce criticisms going back a decade or more.

Rosenhan’s nemesis?

On Being Sane in Insane Places was clearly of its time, the anti-psychiatry movement boldly dismissive of the pretensions of mainstream mental healthcare (summarised by Cahalan, 56-61). Nonetheless, Rosenhan’s study was rejected by the research community, ‘a chorus of hostile voices’ (175). By now Cahalan has anointed Robert Spitzer her hero and Rosenhan’s nemesis:[6] pouncing on Rosenhan’s claim that pseudopatients were released ‘in remission’, Spitzer points out that this term is seldom used – to do so would imply no symptoms of schizophrenia were being displayed.[7] Hence, the conclusion that, if pseudopatients were judged to be in remission, it must have been ‘a function of [their] behaviors and not of the setting (psychiatric hospital) in which the diagnoses were made’.[8] Rosenhan claims that, once the person has been labelled, all behaviours will be interpreted as evidence of their illness; Spitzer, pointing out that this cannot be so, questions the logic of Rosenhan’s argument – hence the sneering refrain, ‘logic in remission’.[9]

So far it is a conventional case of one professional researcher challenging the work of another, policing disciplinary boundaries, what Spitzer must have thought he was doing. However, he remains blissfully unaware that he has, inadvertently, done Rosenhan a favour. Cahalan makes the same mistake. When she starts to outline ‘sloppiness that seemed unprofessional and possibly unethical’ (173), she refers to pseudopatient Bill’s doubt that he had been released ‘in remission’ (see also Bill’s hospital record, reproduced on 160). On 231 another pseudopatient, Harry, also denies that he left hospital ‘in remission’, Cahalan again drawing attention to Rosenhan’s ‘outright fabrications’. Well, untruthful he might have been, but the absence of any ‘in remission’ statements here undermines, at the very least, Spitzer’s line of attack and suggests Rosenhan was right after all. If this is the case, why he chose to lie about it remains a matter for speculation (to be discussed later).

With the dismantling of Rosenhan’s study and reputation now underway, Cahalan appears to side with Spitzer when Rosenhan refuses to identify the hospitals pseudopatients had been admitted to (179). Spitzer can do little wrong.[10] However, one might pause here for thought. Ethical considerations would have to ensure that no participants were identifiable; it’s puzzling that anyone would expect Rosenhan to freely surrender such details, and this same reservation would cover some if not all ‘outright fabrications’. When Harry is quoted as saying ‘there are some basic factual inaccuracies that, I mean, don’t advance anything’ (231), one again wonders if, or how far, such ‘inaccuracies’ might legitimately be claimed as an attempt to maintain confidentiality. If a statement ‘doesn’t advance anything’, can it be said to be a significant distortion of research findings? At the very least, this is a question worth asking.

It’s certainly reasonable to ask for evidence that a researcher hasn’t lied – if legitimate suspicions have been raised. But is it also reasonable for the researcher to change details that don’t matter? With a strong emphasis on details that don’t matter – perhaps, if that means participants are protected. Cahalan says Rosenhan lied about the safeguards put in place to help pseudopatients if they were unable to get themselves released from hospital (145, 249). That would indeed be serious.[11] Changing details here and there might well be a lesser crime. I began by saying I have always had reservations about Rosenhan’s claim that his research could be called an experiment; and this, I suspect, the adherence to conventional methodological procedure, even when it means playing fast and loose with ‘the facts’, when he might have chosen a quite different route, is where Rosenhan got himself deeper into trouble.

To be concluded.

[1] David Rosenhan, 1973. Symposium: On Being Sane In Insane Places, Santa Clara Lawyer, 13/3, 379-399. Online:

[2] Susannah Cahalan, 2020. The Great Pretender, Edinburgh: Canongate Books. On the ‘replication crisis’ see 270-274.

[3] Stephen Poole, 2020. The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan review – psychiatry’s dubious past, The Guardian, 10 January. Online:

[4] Andrew Scull, 2020. How a fraudulent experiment set psychiatry back decades, The Spectator, 25 January. Online:

[5] Since the 1970s research has continued to appear highlighting the problems of misdiagnosis and the role played by different kinds of bias; the problem isn’t going away. See:

Maureen R. Ford and Thomas A. Widiger, 1989. Sex bias in the diagnosis of histrionic and antisocial personality disorders, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57/2, 301-305.

Rebecca Pinto, Mark Ashworth and Roger Jones, 2008. Schizophrenia in black Caribbeans living in the UK: an exploration of underlying causes of the high incidence rate, British Journal of General Practice, June, 429-434.

Jolynn L. Haney, 2016. Autism, females, and the DSM-5: Gender bias in autism diagnosis, Social Work in Mental Health, 14/4, 396-407.

Michael A. Gara, Shula Minsky, Steven M Silverstein, Theresa Miskimen, and Stephen M. Strakowski, 2019. A Naturalistic Study of Racial Disparities in Diagnoses at an Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic, Psychiatric Services, 70/2,: 130-134.

On gender bias one might also note that the only pseudopatient (supposedly) diagnosed as manic depressive was a female painter, Laura.

[6] Robert L Spitzer, 1975. On Pseudoscience in Science, Logic in Remission, and Psychiatric Diagnosis: A Critique of Rosenhan’s ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 84/5, 442-452.

[7] Ibid, 444.

[8] Ibid, 445.

[9] On 200 an erstwhile colleague is found quoting Spitzer, basking in reflected glory. One wonders how long Spitzer himself dined out on his own recycled witticism. As I point out below, blinded by his own methodological assumptions, he missed a more obvious opportunity to put the boot in. Hubris, indeed.

[10] See for example the passage at the bottom of 178: ‘the drollest piece of academic literature I’ve ever read’ etc. Really?

[11] Rosenhan’s own take: ‘I was not sensitive to these difficulties at the outset of the project, nor to the personal and situational emergencies that can arise, but later a writ of habeas corpus was prepared for each of the entering pseudopatients and an attorney was kept “on call” during every hospitalization. I am grateful to John Kaplan and Robert Bartels for legal advice and assistance in these matters’ (On Being Insane, 382, fn6). According to Cahalan, when she spoke to him, ‘Bartels [Kaplan’s assistant] was a bit hazy on details’ (145); and there is nothing from Kaplan. Sometimes Cahalan’s witnesses readily recall events in detail; sometimes they just don’t remember.

People bloody people just won’t do as they’re told, or think what they’re supposed to think. If there is a crisis in the Labour party, and if it is a crisis of leadership, it’s a crisis that brings to mind The Emperor’s New Clothes – Hans Christian Andersen’s story of pomposity and self-delusion ending with a child, who hasn’t learned to be blind, pointing the finger:

‘But he has nothing on at all,’ said a little child at last. ‘Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,’ said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. ‘But he has nothing on at all,’ cried at last the whole people.



Necessary to the denigration of Corbyn’s leadership and prospects has been the dismissal – by now routine – of his supporters, those who would point the finger and say the emperor is stark bollock naked. In December Tom Watson referred to Momentum as ‘a bit of a rabble’, a precursor to his more recent intervention claiming entrism/entryism. In all likelihood, in December, there must still have been the expectation that Corbyn would, sooner or later, be forced to resign; the PLP veto would prove effective, and business as normal would happily resume. When that proved not to be the case, attacks on his supporters could only intensify. In particular, Margaret Beckett has spoken of ‘members of a fan club’; while, not to be outdone, John McTernan has offered ‘cult’ and ‘sect’.

Such attacks smack of desperation. The emperor in question, of course, isn’t any of the individuals named in the paragraph above, or even Tony Blair (who appears below), but a belief system, one based on a particular version of authority. The authority of the political class has been challenged; and the only response is a charge of abnormality. Andersen’s story makes the point well, since his child hasn’t been socialised into the need to defer to social power; they see differently. This version of childhood, moreover, is at odds with the one a contemporary society is more familiar with, one that underpins the attacks on Labour members. Here, Beckett et al draw on discourses of childhood/youth in which ‘innocence’ signifies weakness and the need for protection by adults whose own superior status depends on a dismissal of the not-yet-adult as somehow inferior, to be patronised. (Given that this is a power relationship, it matters little that it involves different age groups, of course.) However, there is a twist (albeit one with no arms involved): the trope doesn’t quite fit as comfortably as Corbyn’s critics would hope for.


In July, as a leadership election became unavoidable, and Owen Smith was handed the seemingly thankless role of challenger, the unpopularity of so-called ‘extremist’ policies gave way to a renewed focus on the wrong kind of support. Smith, after all, has shamelessly adopted many Corbyn policies and has just had to insist he won’t drop them once he becomes leader. What happens under a Smith leadership between now and the next general election, whenever it takes place, of course, is open to conjecture. For the time being, it has become expedient to pay less attention to policies by focusing on personal qualities.

It has been said (so many times) that Labour couldn’t win an election by being ‘too left-wing’; the myth of ‘the longest suicide note in history’ lives on and, more than a year ago, when Corbyn’s leadership bid was still in its early stages, Tony Blair rejected ‘radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary’ (complementing his earlier criticism of Ed Miliband’s leadership ahead of the 2015 general election). What is undeniable, however, is that both candidates in the current leadership contest are promoting policies to the left of anything on offer previously. Perhaps, then, Corbyn can be defeated because of his dodgy supporters. Hence the talk of fan clubs and cults, a continuation of the theme that, as party members don’t know what it’s like to be an MP, professional politicians are grown-ups who do know the business and should be allowed to get on with the serious business of running the country.

To develop the point, one might recall Weber’s observation that modernity is characterised by bureaucracy and the management of affairs by professionals who owe their status to competence – all of which replaced, supposedly, an earlier (in the present context, one might add less mature) time when charisma had a role to play and leadership might be based on personal (even ‘supernatural’) qualities. Hence the narrative of infantilisation, one at odds with the Andersen story cited above: for the critics of Corbyn’s supporters, just as young children might believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so do those who refuse to grow up and face ‘reality’ believe in Jeremy Corbyn.


At such times – and Beckett and McTernan are by no means the only Labour figures to express themselves in this way – the speaker must necessarily belittle those they criticise in order to assert authority. Invariably polling is mentioned, if now ‘unelectability’ has less to do with policies than with personal qualities – although it must be impossible to say how far, at any given time, polls report reality (‘an anti‑Corbyn majority’) rather than constructing it. Nonetheless, Corbyn’s support within Labour continues to strengthen, whatever the electorate generally might or might not think. That Blair’s interventions – and those of so many others, granted media platforms at frequent intervals to warn of inevitable failure – have apparently had little effect on the party membership can only be explained by an irrational fixation on the part of Corbyn supporters. Told time and again that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, they refuse to give up on him.

Thus, when Watson spoke of ‘old hands twisting young arms’, he damned with faint praise those he considered too idealistic to resist manipulation, an attempt to divide Corbyn’s support; perhaps the intention was that younger supporters would become instantly suspicious of older supporters (in turn, the latter would become suspicious of the former as weak and untrustworthy because impressionable, and on and on). Similarly, to speak of ‘a fan club’ or ‘sect’ is to ask some to distance themselves from those others who are less serious. The individual who thinks I’m not like that is encouraged to look round and identify others who do fit the description. Whether or not this strategy (‘divide and conquer’) can succeed remains, of course, to be seen.


Of more interest here is the way in which the language of fandom betrays a deep unease on the part of those who feel they are, or should be, in control. When Beckett referred to ‘a fan club’ she dismissed political engagement as no more substantial than attachment to a pop star. Using fan – an abbreviation of fanatic, with connotations of mental disorder and/or irrational behaviour – as a term of abuse, of course, both avoids engagement with the substance of the issue and also positions the speaker as someone with the authority to pass judgement. Fandom is a phase one should navigate on the way to being grown-up (here, listening to Blair; perhaps, if reluctantly, accepting his advice to ‘get a [heart] transplant’). Research into fandom has become prominent in the last two or three decades, and it is worth citing, as an early example, The Adoring Audience, where it becomes clear that a focus on audiences and group behaviour is inseparable from the need to allow those without a voice to speak.[1] In particular, the chapter by Joli Jensen remains a fine introduction to the topic and one can easily see how it might be applied to Labour’s ongoing struggles between PLP and membership.[2] Specifically, Jenson noted that ‘the concept of fan involves images of social and psychological pathology’ (9) and went on to describe the way mass society has been seen to lead to alienation and vulnerability; at fault, of course, are dysfunctional mass media and advertising weakening community relations. Thinking is replaced by an emotional attachment. There is ‘a smug superiority’ (25) on the part of those whose status allows them to judge (which surely sounds familiar to anyone keeping up with the pronouncements of anti‑Corbyn Labour).

The argument does begin to get complicated, however. The description provided by Jensen, of course, based on elite anxieties regarding the manipulation of the working class, has points of contact with, for example, FR Leavis’ disdain for mass culture, or Richard Hoggart’s rejection of American pop culture: this is a twentieth-century narrative that remains powerful because of the interests vested in it.[3] Leavis and Hoggart – and many others who might have been mentioned here – spoke of a lack of discrimination on the part of those who are easily manipulated by advertising or mass media. One might think it was now, well over 20 years after the publication of The Adoring Audience, acceptable to be a fan; but Zubermis and Larsen, for example, begin their study by acknowledging that there is still something shameful about fandom.[4] Undeniably so.


As far as it goes, of course, this twentieth-century narrative is a little anachronistic. What must be considered is the way Corbyn has – cleverly? – been able to circumvent the traditional media, in the process no doubt offending those Westminster-based not‑journalists whose central role in day-to-day political discourse has been threatened. If his supporters insist on ignoring the wisdom of the Labour establishment, and remain immune to media bias, the ready availability of counternarratives is surely a factor. When Beckett speaks of fan clubs she taps into fears of dysfunctional media. This might well be the case, but the people in question – like Andersen’s child – are having none of it.

At the start of this week, Newsnight offered a discussion of anti-Corbyn media bias and this issue was raised.[5] Not least, the idea that online media sources might be taken as seriously as traditional print and broadcast media was greeted with some incredulity. However, what fandom research has shown is that audiences – those designated fans – are not incapable of rational judgement. To be a fan is to participate actively in the production of meaning; to be, in short, an expert. Perhaps those Labour members who will be allowed to contribute to policymaking under Corbyn – and, it seems, or so he claims, Smith – are the experts in question.

[1] The Adoring Audience, ed Lisa Lewis, 1992.

[2] Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterisation, in Lewis (ed), 9-29.

[3] Mass civilisation and minority culture, FR Leavis, 1930; and The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart, 1957.

[4] Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, Lynn Zubermis and Katherine Larsen, 2012.

[5] Irony will always enjoy rude health when the BBC discusses political bias against Corbyn – on this occasion, all that was missing was Evan Davis chairing the discussion, but one can’t have everything. Update … and then, having drafted this article, and this footnote, I made the mistake of watching Tuesday’s episode of Newsnight, when Davis presided over the ludicrous #traingate piece. Yes OK – be careful what you wish for.

Currently, the reporting of Labour politics necessarily includes a construction of Jeremy Corbyn as one who can no longer be easily ignored by the mainstream media when, ideally, they would much rather pretend he didn’t exist. Sometimes described as an embarrassment to the Labour Party, he rather exposes the establishment to ridicule. That Corbyn must be made to appear unattractive is, of course, nothing new; this is how leftist arguments and those who voice them are conventionally marginalised. However, given that Corbyn (unlike, for example, Tony Benn before him) is party leader and what he has to say must be addressed, the role played by demonisation – as Goffman would have it, stigmatisation – is slightly different. In this week’s conference speech, for example, David Cameron was reduced to a soundbite attack on Corbyn: that he was somewhat economical with the truth is probably less important than the fact that he produced a series of media‑friendly snippets, but attention paid elsewhere to Corbyn makes it a little less likely that the spun version will stick (which, of course, doesn’t mean the Conservatives won’t continue with this line of attack).[1]

Another example of the problem presented by a left-wing leader (rather than a ‘mere’ rebellious backbencher) is shown by the ongoing ‘will-he-won’t-he’ story of Corbyn joining the Privy Council. The Telegraph desperately wants to consider it a snub to the Queen, and this might well be the view of some, or even many; but Corbyn has successfully drawn attention to a procedure that more often remains hidden, far from public scrutiny. At the time of writing, there remains some doubt as to whether or not he will go through the motions of participating in a medieval ritual that, viewed charitably, might just about be regarded as comical (descriptions invoke the kind of tacky tourist trap most likely located next door to a church where you can be married by Elvis). Either way, the point has been well made: the more the issue is raised, the greater the risk that, when all is said and done, this tradition will be regarded a nonsense. To put it differently, #piggate it isn’t; but when was the last time the political elite was exposed as just another subculture with arcane rituals? This story is a stage further than the annual circus that surrounds Black Rod and the Queen’s Speech. Similarly, Corbyn has, from the time he first emerged as a leadership candidate, successfully exposed lazy truisms about ‘the way things are’ simply by challenging them. Since June the austerity myth has been exposed as empty rhetoric and now Osborne and Cameron have tried to relaunch the government as the worker’s friend. Further, attention has now shifted to defence when, last week, Corbyn decided Trident would have to be discussed after all.

In the aftermath of party conferences, one might begin by noting their main function as a spectacle, one typically micro-managed to within an inch of its life. The party is advertising itself, so the argument goes, and must ‘put on a show’ for ‘voters’ (that is, consumers who might or might not opt for this or that ‘brand’). Until the 1980s the Conservatives were probably better than Labour at this kind of conference, for the simple reason that open discussion was integral to Labour culture but not that of the Conservative party. The ‘wisdom’ (or ‘media speak’) that parties must present a united front was produced as a way of differentiating the two main parties and favouring a Conservative approach to top-down policymaking with little if any discussion. Any thought that policy is necessarily produced by discussion became irrelevant; and the fiction of party unity was similar, for example, to the fiction of cabinet responsibility. We all have to speak with one voice. Consequently, for 30 years or so, Labour has moved away from the belief that a conference should involve discussion of policy options because that would lead to negative reporting and headlines that focused on ‘party disunity’. Discussion became disunity; and reporting drew attention to a Labour back region that, by implication, has no counterpart in the Conservative party.[2]

And so to last week’s Labour conference in Brighton, and the expectation of a quite different affair when open discussion might, given hostile media looking for anything they might turn into what passes for a story, provide a different kind of spectacle. To simply identify areas where discussion is taking place is to suggest a process of rational inquiry and perhaps imply that there are alternatives, even alternatives to what has been carefully presented as ‘common sense’.

Most likely this will take the form of a ‘civil war’ narrative. On Channel 4 News, for example, there was Michael Crick’s pathetic attempt to ‘doorstep’ John McDonnell and Peter Mandelson, hoping one of them would give him a story he had done nothing to deserve.[3] Apparently, Crick is a master of the art but, if he hoped to provoke something as glorious as Godfrey Bloom’s assault, he was left disappointed. It transpired that neither McDonnell nor Mandelson had learned their lines, and the man best described as a Poundland Nick Broomfield became the only one laughing at his own ‘joke’.[4] In that earlier case, perhaps, Bloom had simply been ‘himself’ (as the current buzzword has it, ‘authentic’); or perhaps he took advantage of the platform he had been given to draw attention to himself. Either way the performance could be seen as an embarrassment for his party leader; in what passes for journalism, Crick would claim to have given the viewer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of political reality. This wasn’t the case at Brighton.

In the event, the efforts of Crick et al notwithstanding, the dominant narrative went something as follows. Labour’s conference was successful, kind of, for Corbyn as ‘the party at least avoided a bloodbath’. However, before everyone had gone home Corbyn had let slip a refusal to use nuclear weapons if he were prime minister, leading to inevitable criticism from within the party, including Maria Eagle and other shadow ministers. The wording here (‘let slip’) implies a gaffe on Corbyn’s part, of course: if only he had kept his mouth shut! However, the story of his emergence as leader and potential prime minister has been the way in which he has been able to force his rivals to discuss (or at least wander in the general direction of) policy or risk being exposed as having nothing to say. Over a three-month leadership campaign the so-called ABC candidates were weakened by their failure to offer a coherent alternative to Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies. Beyond Labour, it is now possible to hear conservative voices saying government policy has more to do with politics than with economics, all without the sky falling in. The same has been, and will continue to be, the case with discussion of an independent (supposedly) nuclear deterrent (again, supposedly). Yes, Corbyn has been challenged, but it is the anti-Trident argument that has, and is seen to have, substance. Even The Guardian, hardly a Corbyn newspaper, immediately published articles (by Diane Abbott and, for anyone who thinks the left-wing Abbott has nothing to say worth hearing, Simon Jenkins) that competently demolished the pro-Trident argument (cf John Prescott in the Mirror more than two years ago). As with economic policy, the politics of defence have been exposed because Corbyn insisted on it. Time and again, the problem for Corbyn’s opponents (in government or the media, or within Labour itself) is that discussion simply allows the rehearsal of alternatives to received wisdom. On Trident, any competent A-level politics student could drive a bus through the argument that ‘we need it because’ and, in the coming weeks and months, it will become less difficult to offer that justification for defence policy.

For the most part, since June, there has been some limited attempt to challenge the policies Corbyn advocates, yet such challenges have been evasive: within Labour, his ‘electability’ is questioned while, elsewhere, he has been dismissed as ‘a threat’, Conservative ministers repeating the same slogan, word-for-word, as often as possible (a dry-run for Cameron’s conference speech). This, of course, is the politics of negative advertising based on the principles of classical conditioning: the hope is that, once struck, an arbitrary link between ‘Corbyn’ and ‘threat’ will hinder any engagement with ideas. At the same time, of course, the requirement to offer the new leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition a platform, one his office cannot be denied, means it is possible for Corbyn to ‘make a good impression’. Even those critical of his politics often admit that he is ‘a nice chap’ and ‘sincere’ (with, perhaps, an implication that other politicians might not exhibit those qualities, of course). There is a tension here between the need to trash Corbyn’s politics while also acknowledging his status as Labour leader. It has been said that he ‘came from nowhere’, having been an obscure backbencher for 32 years; possibly many people had not even heard of him before the summer of 2015, or would recognise him walking down the street. The point is that, marginal to what is considered mainstream politics – that is, the tiny part of politics that media workers, knowing little if anything, can ask MPs and other media workers about – no one ever had to worry about Corbyn. It is a long time since, in Tony Benn, the left had a leading figure who could be denounced as mad or the most dangerous man in Britain. That Margaret Beckett and her fellow morons allowed him to take part in the leadership election, all in the name of a ‘wider debate’ that terrified them when it became reality, was an attempt to patronise Corbyn as, more or less, harmless. Once his success in attracting widespread support meant he could no longer be ignored, of course, there has been a perceived need to ‘deal with him’. Labour right, media and government are all still working out how to do so effectively.

[1] The editing of what Corbyn has said can be turned against Cameron (more accurately, his speechwriters) as in this response.

[2] The fact that Conservatives occasionally fail to keep up the act, as with John Major’s Eurosceptic bastards in the 1990s, simply confirms the general principle.

[3] Monday 28 September.

[4] I should acknowledge the theft of a joke here: Russell Brand called Nigel Farage ‘a Poundland Enoch Powell’, of course.

Since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious candidate for the Labour leadership, media coverage has been governed by a politics of fear and the language of catastrophe. The Guardian’s recent ‘long read’ – long, perhaps, for any who have a limited attention span, admittedly the kind of reader the media usually prefer to contemplate – has described les événements as ‘an earthquake’ and ‘the political shock of a generation’; and this same newspaper had managed, earlier, to follow Corbyn’s successful debut at Prime Minister’s Questions with a note of caution, describing an ‘era of political disaggregation, [in which] Labour is fragmenting more than most’ – all before ending with the apocalypse, citing a ‘cabinet minister’ who spoke of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’. When Corbyn became party leader, government ministers lined up to mimic speak-your-weight machines, repeating word-for-word (one we prepared earlier) a message about the ‘threat to national security’. Within the Labour party itself, of course, there have been forecasts aplenty that this is the end, we’re all doomed (for Margaret Beckett, ‘the worst political mistake I have ever made’). However, anyone who does wish to be serious about Corbyn’s leadership will acknowledge that he and John McDonnell have simply moved the debate a little to the left. Even Lord Turnbull, a former Osborne supporter, now says the government’s economic policy has been politically motived (as 2015 winds down and the days get shorter, it hardly needs Yanis Varoufakis to make that particular claim). To defend the increasingly indefensible, then, the politics of fear risks risible melodrama, but that is the form it must take.

It should be of some interest that political discourse can only be presented as fear and melodrama. It is not simply a question of ‘biased reporting’ (evident though distortion and, often, blatant lies have been in most print and broadcast media output). Rather, the issue has become the way in which the speaker must affirm their allegiance to a norm, one that designates Corbyn as, not only marginal to the political consensus, but representative of the unsayable. One might refer to a dominant ideology or the Overton window and call this norm ‘neoliberalism’, which quickly becomes ‘common sense’ and must be defended with what might come across as religious zeal: Thatcher’s ‘no alternative’ 30+ years on. Not least, it is significant that popular support for Corbyn soon attracted the dismissive term Corbynmania, as though dismissing it as irrational was the only way to cope with the possibility that such a candidate might, just might have widespread support (and opinion polls must be spun to suggest that the opposite is the case). This New Statesman article, for example, describes the process in terms of some kind of psychological determinism: if the words ‘mob’ and ‘fanatic’ don’t appear, they can be easily inferred.

It is evident that Corbyn has ‘moved political debate leftwards’; but that form of words fails to fully capture the simple fact that the language of politics-as-is has become demonstrably inadequate. One might easily mock the government’s (or, perhaps, to be as precise as Downing Street would wish it, that should read the Conservative Party’s) rhetoric about national security; although it might not appear so amusing when a military coup scheduled for 2020 is taken into account. This is the politics of fear and nothing new, of course (how many times have the tabloid press so bravely exposed ‘the most dangerous man/woman in Britain’?); and it makes for a convenient tactic for those who wish to pre-empt discussion. However, any discussion of political discourse should go further to ask how language not only describes but also constructs consensus. To illustrate this point, consider France’s ‘Je suis Charlie’ phenomenon. Two recent books describe the aftermath to the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015, when there was a desperate need to produce and advertise a consensus on free speech and opposition to terrorism, even if it meant closing down discussion.[1] Given the hypocrisy involved, it was not just about ‘a defence of free speech’; and there was a perceived need to redefine French national identity in such a way that it precluded any questioning of ‘Je Suis Charlie’. The issue was reduced to a simplistic ‘with us or against us’ (as George Bush put it following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001).

Melodramatic gibes and empty rhetoric about a threat to national security notwithstanding, none of this means that Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has become, somehow, the equivalent of a terrorist attack involving loss of life. Further, it is pretty obvious that ‘Je Suis Not Jeremy’ has proven less successful as a marketing campaign than ‘Je Suis Charlie’, even if the need for a disclaimer probably makes the point: the construction of these cases rests on an assumption that ‘we are at war’. Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem becomes almost treasonable, even when that anthem can be so easily ridiculed and that story has been followed by one suggesting he would fail to kneel before the Queen when joining the Privy Council. However, the latter story might have no more substance than many that have been written about Corbyn. If French national identity is based on some kind of post-Revolution ‘equality and fraternity’, British national identity (still) includes a notion of politics-as-tradition; and so a fear that Corbyn and the so-called ‘new politics’ might be about to tear up the rule book is what generates this particular case of ‘with us or against us’.

The hysterical language of the so-called War on Terror can be adopted and adapted without ridicule and might pass without comment, so established is it as common sense. And so, by way of conclusion, it is worth thinking here about Thomas Pynchon’s take on the manufactured response to the attack on the World Trade Centre (aka ‘9/11’, nothing if not a branding exercise, arguably the reason why he refused to use that term in Bleeding Edge). In his 2003 Foreword to a new edition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty‑Four, Pynchon addressed precisely this issue when he wrote of the modern surveillance state (part of what Foucault would call a disciplinary society) and ‘social control on a scale those quaint old twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about’.[2] He is making a point that invokes the enforced conformity Delphy and Todd describe when they discuss ‘Je Suis Charlie’: the kind of totalitarian society that we might have in mind when we think of ‘quaint old … tyrants’ isn’t what we should expect to see today. If Conservatives do currently dream of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’, their fantasy is given substance by the logic of advertising: the Labour Party could disappear as easily as did Woolworth’s if, indeed, it is no more than just another brand.

Nonsense about national security might be no more than we should expect from David Cameron; and talk about overthrowing an elected government might be no more than we should expect from Murdoch newspapers (quoting an ‘unnamed general’ who, like The Guardian’s cabinet minister, might or might not exist – the purpose of the story is to ‘get it out there’). The point is that the debate – instead of confronting head-on the supposed inadequacies of Corbyn’s politics, and his opponents cannot claim they haven’t been the time and space – must necessarily position the speaker in relation to politics-as-is, as though the alternative is a step into the abyss. It is problematic for the anti-Corbyn front (both within and without Labour) that he cannot be denied, as Thatcher might have put it, the oxygen of publicity. Both Corbyn and McDonnell as shadow chancellor have roles that mean they must be allowed a platform; and so the unsayable quickly becomes both sayable and, perhaps, common sense. If that isn’t enough to make voters fearful, something might well be happening.

[1] Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, Verso, 2015; Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie?, Polity Press, 2015.

[2] Thomas Pynchon, Foreword, in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Plume Centennial Edition, 2003, xvi.

It is all of a week since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, and The Guardian has an opinion poll which can be read several ways: that Corbyn remains behind Cameron as a likely prime minister is, perhaps, less interesting, given the propaganda offensive of the past week, than the simple fact that Labour has not lost ground. Insofar as we can accept the validity of such exercises, the ‘Corbyn factor’ has not, thus far, cost Labour. There is nothing to report. In the past week the media have been forced to give space to Corbyn (interviewed properly by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News – cf the earlier attempt at a hatchet-job from Krishnan Guru-Murthy, back in August; or praised for his performance at Prime Minister’s Questions) as well as John McDonnell (the Labour left is finally represented on Question Time). However, any progress made has been in spite of a relentless attack on Corbyn from some quarters, none of which should have been surprising (most obviously, hysterical nonsense written by Dan Hodges for the entertainment of Telegraph readers, but any list of the usual suspects would range far and wide).

Sometimes an attack on Corbyn has worked in his favour, simply because it gave him the hearing no one expected when he was first nominated by Margaret Beckett’s morons. For example, in the final leadership debate, on Sky, Adam Boulton must have thought he could help the other candidates by challenging Corbyn at every opportunity (Owen Jones said it had turned into ‘grill Jeremy time’). In the event, of course, Corbyn was simply able outline views that are usually ignored. More common have been the attacks that have nothing to do with reporting ideas. The Sky functionary (should he be called a journalist?) Darren McCaffrey has evidently decided that Corbyn’s leadership will be his meal ticket. There have also been men with cameras (again, should they be called photographers?) harassing Corbyn at every opportunity. A helpful hint, guys: we know what Corbyn looks like, and even what he looks like when walking through a doorway, and even what he looks like when walking to a car and trying to get in. None of this needs to be recorded over and over; if he ever decides to do it walking on his hands, he might agree to issue a press release so you can go and take pictures of that, of course. The purpose of this tactic, let there be no doubt, is to draw Corbyn into some kind of reaction that all of a sudden becomes newsworthy because it reflects badly on him. This is the story they thought they had when, mid‑week, a Man With Camera was injured, but the story failed to unfold as they had wished. Some journalists are worthy of the title, of course, and Norman Smith has spoken intelligently on the way Corbyn has forced journalists to think about what they are doing. He did not use these words, but he raised the possibility that what we are seeing is a paradigm shift when received wisdom is challenged and what counts as ‘normal’ is open to fundamental revision. On the one hand there is the BBC’s pathetic response when asked to describe Cameron as ‘the right-wing prime minister’; on the other hand there is Smith, and individuals like him, and constructive thinking. The institution and those happy to do its bidding verses the individual prepared to be reflective, examples of what Foucault called governmentality in a disciplinary society.

Since Corbyn’s candidacy was declared and became a serious proposition, and particularly since he became leader, the neoliberal consensus has been interrogated, and so has the way politics is performed. Corbyn has been put under the kind of intense scrutiny one might think more appropriate to something placed under a microscope in a laboratory. Up to a point, this might be what any new leader would have to expect: think of Chukka Umunna’s early withdrawal from the leadership contest, supposedly because he saw the way media intrusion, even then, was going. However, Corbyn is not what anyone has expected a political leader to be like. His success has seen forecasts of a Labour split as the ideological battle over hearts and minds goes on. Moreover, on a more personal level, Corbyn uses public transport (or did);[1] and he has an allotment (Tory landowners who think feudalism a good idea might even be able to relate to this, in a patrician kind of way). If this, indeed, is part of a paradigm shift, there is resistance in the form of a perceived need to ‘understand’ Corbyn (‘the new’) in conventional (‘old’) terms. One might think here of Foucault’s argument that power can only be exercised over free subjects, which necessarily includes the freedom to resist. For all concerned (media workers and journalists, Labour figures speaking out against Corbyn, his supporters, the wider electorate, Corbyn himself modifying what he says and does to find a workable compromise) there is a need to learn a new script. A perhaps trivial example of this process is offered by David Cameron’s attempt to follow Corbyn’s lead in PMQs: he soon forgot his lines (as he, a few minutes earlier, had accused the Opposition back benches of forgetting their lines).

There has, then, been an attempt to identify a ‘new politics’ which can be incorporated in what we already know: ‘this year’s fashion’. Here, Corbyn can be linked, effortlessly, not just to Bernie Sanders, but also Donald Trump, not to mention Marine Le Pen: all this from the Financial Times yesterday, in an article which, I kid you not, tries to highlight ‘authenticity’. Forget about politics, it’s all a question of style: as Michael White wrote in The Guardian, in August, after a brief moment ‘in the sun’, such individuals and movements soon fade away. In the week just ended, a Guardian article has quoted an unnamed cabinet minister saying they want to ‘destroy the Labour brand’. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is the soundbite politics based on nothing changing, a variant on White’s talk of fashion.

As White’s wishful thinking had it, ‘the elite absorbs their message and recovers’. Since becoming leader, Corbyn has had to backtrack (or so it has been presented) on policy, but also on singing the national anthem (an issue of some concern, it seems, to those who believe in feudalism). This should have been a non-story (initially denounced by the Corbyn team as ‘tittle-tattle’) but the symbolism was important. The photograph published showed others apparently not singing, but Corbyn was the main subject of the image. The story was about him singing or not singing, not what others were doing. This might have been an event to honour those who served in World War 2; it was also a photo-opportunity, one embraced by Michael Fallon, who gave the impression he was singing his heart out. The rugby match Corbyn missed because he thought meeting constituents more important (by my reckoning, the so-called ‘snub’ was only corrected, in the Mirror, on Saturday evening) was similarly a photo-opportunity that requires actors who know their lines and how to hit their mark when the cameras roll.[2]

As part of his work on governmentality and its successor biopolitics, all of which is to do with the way the individual is integrated in society and manipulated to that end while having the freedom to exercise agency, Foucault described the way sovereign power changed as society evolved. Given that the fuss over the national anthem has reminded one and all of the fiction that is Her Majesty’s government (including the bizarre requirement, apparently, that new privy councillors have to kneel before her), this does seem a good note to end on. Sovereign power is no longer confined, simply to life and death; in a modern society it is more concerned with the establishment and policing of norms. With the decline of the idea of an all-seeing god, surveillance is a rather more mundane affair, be it CCTV cameras or the tracking of what we do online. Or the treatment of a political leader who can be accused of ‘going back to the 1980s’ even while he represents a movement that cannot be adequately described as yet. If the ‘new politics’ includes the Occupy movement and the anti-capitalist protests that go back, at least, to Seattle in 1999, ‘we’ are still trying to work out what it looks like.

[1] Perhaps a political culture in which anyone and everyone used public transport would be welcome.

[2] I would like to think Corbyn will continue to resist these pressures to conform, but that is easy for me to say from a safe distance.

In 2010, speaking to the Conservative Party Conference, Michael Gove gave an early indication of plans for a new national curriculum. Since then, one can say his attempts to reshape school curricula have been, to put it mildly, controversial. Most recently, there have been responses reported here and here, and Gove’s own response to those criticisms, and then this response to Govian name-calling. It is clear that, in Bernstein’s terms, both classification and framing are contested. In my last post (starting with Bernstein’s1970 article, ‘Education Cannot Compensate For Society’) I discussed a relationship between Bernstein’s rejection of cultural deprivation/compensatory education and the way Gove has constructed current government policy as, specifically, an attack on low expectations on the part of schools and teachers. However, to better understand the class forces that underpin education policy, we might consider the way Bernstein’s writing evolved from the late-1960s.[1]

In ‘School Cannot Compensate For Society’, Bernstein (1976) deconstructed compensatory education as the necessary response of social democracy, one that depended on the notion of cultural deprivation. Further, he suggested that research might have contributed to the stigmatisation of working-class culture, and acknowledged that his own research, by ‘focusing on the subculture and forms of family socialisation’, might be culpable in this respect, ‘distract[ing] attention from the conditions and contexts of learning in school’ (Bernstein, 1976: 172).He noted that ‘[t]he concept, “restricted code”, to describe working-class speech, has been equated with “linguistic deprivation” or even with the “non-verbal” child’ (ibid). Then, following his account of two groups of five-year-old children telling a story differently, he concluded that, rather than a working-class lack, ‘what we have here are differences in the use of language arising out of a specific context’ (173).

Hence, Bernstein related the elaborated code to universalistic meanings and the restricted code to particularistic meanings: the latter are context-bound. By the time of Bernstein (1999) this discussion of context had seen, firstly, a distinction between vertical and horizontal discourse; and then, secondly, a distinction between hierarchical and horizontal knowledge structures that illuminates the current contrast between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’. In the work I discuss here Bernstein first addressed the implicit, class-based assumptions of school curricula; and then developed a better understanding of context. For example, in the1975 version of his paper on visible and invisible pedagogies there is a clear expression of the perceived relationship between school and family, given that ‘[t]he weak classification and the weak framing of the invisible pedagogy potentially makes possible the inclusion of the culture of the family and the community’ (Bernstein, 2003a:127). There is nonetheless a difference between class-cultures of middle-class and working-class families, with continuity from the former to the classroom, discontinuity from the later. In 1975 Bernstein referred to old and new middle classes; the immediate context here was the emergence of social democracy’s mixed economy and, as a consequence, a significant public sector. Subsequently, in a revised account, he discussed the significance of an emergent education market (Bernstein, 2003b: 86‑89).

Evident here is one of the key developments in Bernstein’s work. In the 1970s both visible and invisible pedagogies were seen to express middle‑class concerns, and ‘the conflict between visible and invisible pedagogies, … between strong and weak classification and frames, [wa]s an ideological conflict within the middle class’(Bernstein, 2003a: 121). A few pages later in this latter paper, there is a distinction between the middle-class child, for whom there is ‘socialisation into the textbook’; and a working-class child, for whom ‘[t]he weakening of classification and frames reduces the significance of the textbook and transforms the impersonal past into a personalized present’ (127). By the time of Bernstein (2003b), the invisible pedagogy had been associated with the slow learner and/or working-class low achiever, for whom such an approach would not be abandoned by the end of primary school. In particular, in secondary school, the importance of ‘strong pacing [that] will tend to reduce pupils’ speech and privilege teachers’ talk’ (77-78) brings to mind the emphasis that Gove has put on content and rote-learning. Moreover, there is a distinction between autonomous (‘justified by the intrinsic possibilities of knowledge itself’) and dependent (‘justified by their market relevance’) visible pedagogies (86): this certainly underpins the current obsession with both a core curriculum, as constructed by English baccalaureate and facilitating subjects, and also the restructuring of an academic/vocational divide. Thus far, we have seen illustrated Gove’s preference for strong classification and framing. Subsequently, in the discussion of different kinds of knowledge structure, Bernstein (1999), shows how school curricula confused vertical and horizontal discourses; and one might conclude that this paper echoes Bernstein’s earlier (1976) concern with the limits of reformism.

Proposals for the history curriculum are illustrative. In his 2010 conference speech Gove claimed that, currently, school history ‘denies children the opportunity to hear our island story’. Here, the unproblematic construction of ‘one of the most inspiring stories I know’ is inseparable from its presentation as an ‘opportunity’. Since then, discussion of the new history curriculum has addressed both content (classification) and pacing (framing), echoing arguments over a contested history that were rehearsed in the late-1980s.[2] It is apparent that Gove objects to both non-academic discourse, what Bernstein (1999) calls ‘local knowledge’, and also some aspects of academic discourse, for example, the content of the history curriculum. In the terms outlined in Bernstein (1999) the academic discourse that meets with Gove’s approval is defined by a hierarchical knowledge structure, one that cannot acknowledge the contested nature of knowledge. That history might be seen to be a construct (even if, in practice, methodological issues have been reduced to ‘skills’ designed to detect something called ‘bias’) would give the discipline a horizontal knowledge structure and align it to the non-academic or vocational knowledge that has been associated with a lowering of standards. Local knowledge is made up of ‘competences [that] are segmentally related’, juxtaposed by Bernstein to the generalising tendencies of vertical discourses (160); and it is segmentation that draws attention to the contested nature of knowledge, the controversy that attends any claim to know what is and is not important. This is where a distinction between hierarchical and horizontal knowledge structures is important (162ff), for it is the generalisation made possible by hierarchical knowledge structures (166-168) that allows Gove to effectively render history invisible, replacing it with ‘our island story’.

[1] One can identify a narrative here, and Bernstein’s (1999) late paper begins with his own summary of this process (157-158); while Arnot & Reay (The framing of pedagogic encounters: Regulating the social order in classroom learning, in Reading Bernstein, Researching Bernstein, Muller, Davis & Morais eds, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, 137-150) offer a similar account by way of introduction to their research report (137-138). Here I shall use ‘Class and Pedagogies: Visible and Invisible’ from Class, Codes and Control: Volume 3 (first published 1975; references here to the 2003 edition, as Bernstein, 2003a); and a revised version, ‘Social Class and Pedagogic Practice’ (in The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse, Class, Codes and Control: Volume 4, first published 1990; references here to the 2003 edition, as Bernstein, 2003b). The first version follows on from the early association of home‑&‑school and in-school research issues as developed by Bernstein in ‘On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge’ (in Young ed, Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education, 1971; reprinted in Class, Codes and Control: Volume 3).

[2] For contemporary responses to post-1988 changes see Husbands, What is History Teaching? Language, Ideas, and Meaning in Learning about the Past,1996; or Lowe, Schooling and Social Change, 1964-1990, 1997, in particular Chapter 3 on ‘Contested Pedagogies’; or Raphael Samuel’s 1990 account in History Workshop Journal 29/30 for more detail.

In 1970, Basil Bernstein published ‘School Cannot Compensate for Society’, an article in which he questioned prevailing notions of cultural deprivation and compensatory education.[i] The latter, he argued, ‘implies that something is lacking in the family, and so in the child’ (Bernstein, 170), all of which ‘serves to direct attention away from the internal organisation and the educational context of the school’ (ibid). For Bernstein, then, the fault lay within schools, with ‘delicate overt and covert streaming arrangements [that] neatly lower the expectations and motivations of both teachers and taught’ (ibid), even though policymakers held families responsible for low aspirations and achievement.

More recently, Education Secretary Michael Gove has emphasised that schools and teachers must be held responsible for working-class underachievement; it is unacceptable to use home background as an excuse for low aspirations and so, in the words of one report, ‘Gove has attacked an English culture that accepts poverty limits the achievements of poor children’. Hence, in this Brighton speech:

… some in this country still argue that pupil achievement is overwhelmingly dictated by socio-economic factors. They say that deprivation means destiny – that schools are essentially impotent in the face of overwhelming force of circumstance – and that we can’t expect children to succeed if they have been born into poverty, disability or disadvantage.

On the contrary, Gove insists there is evidence, from abroad and from schools here, that

there need be no difference in performance – none whatsoever – between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from wealthier homes. They show us that a difficult start in life can be overcome, with hard work and good teaching.

Socio-economic factors are, therefore, irrelevant; and school league tables no longer take account of Context Value Added (CVA) data (see here and here; for more reasoned critiques of these statistical constructs see this summary and Gorard, 2010a) that would, according to Gove, have been used to justify working-class underachievement. On the face of it, then, Gove has given those he describes as ‘pessimists and fatalists’ nowhere to hide; and he might even be said to have adopted some if not all of the arguments put forward by Bernstein’s sociology.

However, consider now this second speech, in which Gove’s target is ‘soft qualifications’. He begins by describing a Gladstone speech from 1879:

The public were paid the compliment of assuming they were intellectually curious. They weren’t patronised by being treated as rude mechanicals.

In this Cambridge speech, Gove tracks a decline in public discourse (‘you might consider how far standards of oratory had fallen’) as politicians are now much more inclined to use popular culture to appeal to voters. This is a form of dumbing-down, as though anything more substantial than references to television (Blair) or popular music (Brown) would go over their heads. Similarly, education has been guilty of dumbing-down: Following Arnold, Gove ‘want[s] to argue that introducing the young minds of the future to the great minds of the past is our duty’; and he is quite sure that ‘there is such a thing as the best’. Again, Gove cites the fine example of those in education – here the Harris academies – who are giving working-class children ‘the opportunity to transcend the circumstances of their birth, just as the grammar schools of the past gave an, admittedly smaller, proportion of their predecessors similar opportunities’.

At this point one might ask why, if grammar schools of the 1950s were so successful, writers and policymakers of the 1960s needed to develop the concept of cultural deprivation. One might also ask if Gove’s disdain for popular culture, his casual dismissal of any alternative to the literary canon he describes, might contradict his view that ‘any society is a better society for taking intellectual effort more seriously, for rewarding intellectual ambition, for indulging curiosity, for supporting scholarship’. One might even consider it complacent, lazy thinking to assume that ‘the best’ can always be taken for granted, the learner’s role no more than that of a sponge, for ‘all of us are heir to the amazing intellectual achievements of our ancestors’. Finally, one might wonder at the ironies within Gove’s speech, the reference to Gladstone ‘addressing a crowd of landless agricultural workers and coal miners’ as Gove himself speaks to Cambridge academics invited to exert intellectual authority; or the reference to Jade Goody’s ‘hugely successful modern media career’ following mockery of other politicians’ use of popular culture. One might even conclude that he has little understanding of what constitutes a cultural text.

No matter, Gove’s rejection of what he calls excuse-making does bring to mind the argument unpacked by Bernstein (even if Bernstein’s critical take on selection would be less to Gove’s liking). Does Gove, then, simply recycle Bernstein’s ideas with a little neo-liberal spin?

The context for Bernstein’s article would include studies (for example, Education and the Working Class, Jackson & Marsden, 1962; or The Home and the School, Douglas, 1964) that helped construct cultural deprivation, given the need to explain working-class underachievement after the 1944 Education Act supposedly introduced a meritocratic system (one that, according to Gove, did benefit children from working-class backgrounds). Bernstein’s article, then, was a direct response to contemporary education policy, specifically programmes of compensatory education as introduced in the mid-1960s by a Labour government (for a recent overview of compensatory education through successive governments, see Power, 2008). The problem was a failure of social democracy to go far enough to redress class inequality, hardly a sentiment to find favour with Gove.

Further, by the end of the 1960s, it was clear that labelling theory had helped shape a new direction in education research, as evidenced by Social Relations in a Secondary School (Hargreaves, 1967) and Hightown Grammar (Lacey, 1970). In these latter studies there is a concern with the production of failure and working-class disaffection through, for example, streaming, and it was the relationship between different research traditions that interested Bernstein: ‘If children are labelled “culturally deprived” … [t]eachers will have lower expectations …, which the children will undoubtedly fulfil’ (Bernstein, 170).[ii]

If that brief quotation is taken out of context one can certainly imagine Gove nodding in agreement. However, it might be said that he has more in common with the theorists of cultural deprivation, for Education and the Working Class, say, is just as complacent about what goes on in schools as Gove is about knowledge as a given: he has tried to return to ‘an age before structuralism, relativism and post-modernism’, as he puts it in the Cambridge speech. For that reason, perhaps, one might not expect him to bother reading the following passage, in which Bernstein addresses the construction of ‘valid knowledge’ through research:

Research proceeds by assessing the criteria of attainment that schools hold, and then measures the competence of different social groups in reaching these criteria. We take one group of children, whom we know beforehand possess attributes favourable to school achievement; and a second group of children, whom we know beforehand lack these attributes. Then we evaluate one group in terms of what it lacks when compared with another. In this way research, unwittingly, underscores the notion of deficit and confirms the status quo of a given organisation, transmission and, in particular, evaluation of knowledge. Research very rarely challenges or exposes the social assumptions underlying what counts as valid knowledge, or what counts as a valid realisation of that knowledge. (Bernstein, 172)

For Bernstein the lack in question was a construct, whatever might come under the heading of cultural deprivation, inseparable from the perceived role of a reformist government. For Gove, the lack is the right kind of books, as though only Middlemarch might offer an appropriate intellectual challenge. It is here that Gove’s ideological project is made transparent, the two parts of his dumbing-down argument (expectations and the curriculum) brought together. If cultural deprivation and compensatory education are inseparable for social democracy, then, for Gove, denial of class differences is inseparable from denial of contested knowledge. As the Cambridge speech has it,

I believe man is born with a thirst for free inquiry and is nearly everywhere held back by chains of low expectation. I am convinced there is an unsatisfied hunger for seriousness and an unfulfilled yearning for the demanding among our citizens.

Note the ease with which this passage moves from innate qualities (‘born with a thirst …’) to participation in society (‘… among our citizens’) without any regard for the nature of that society. Elsewhere in this speech he links ‘good looks’ and ‘great houses’ as advantages to be inherited, as though physical appearance and material wealth are interchangeable attributes, before insisting ‘all of us are heir to the amazing intellectual achievements of our ancestors’. If Bernstein’s central theme is cultural power, Gove’s speeches are remarkable for the way in which they flaunt that power while denying its existence.

[i] References here to a reprinted version, in Butterworth & Weir eds, The Sociology of Modern Britain, Fontana/Collins, Glasgow, 1976, 2nd edition, 169-177.

[ii] One can, therefore, see this article as a prologue to his subsequent work on classification and framing (in Young, ed, Knowledge and Control, 1971). Moreover, more than 40 years later, this article continues to speak to the assumptions of education policy. The title alone remains an inspiration, given the number of recent papers that directly cite it in relation to both Labour and Conservative education policy: see, for example, Power (2008); Pring (2009, 2011); Gorard (2010b); and Young (2011). This is a topic I discuss later.