Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Friday, 4 December 2009

When doing nothing is an option

Dubai World's troubled projects


Living in a democracy can be trying, says Clive James in his weekly column. Until you think of the alternatives.

In my share of these columns I've placed a lot of emphasis on democracy, and on how it can never be a perfect system, but by the mere fact that no tyrant or oligarchy can ever count on remaining in power unchallenged, democracy can hope to avoid some of the abuses that even less perfect systems are guaranteed to generate.

As somebody once said - I think it was Winston Churchill, but it could have been my Uncle Harold - democracy is the worst political system you can imagine, except for all the others. If it was Uncle Harold, it was generous of him to say this, because during the Great Depression he spent a lot of time out of work. Some of the competing political systems sounded quite persuasive in that period, but Uncle Harold didn't like the sound of a lot of people all shouting at once.

Clive James
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He himself was a man of few words. When I was very small the longest speech I ever heard from him was "Go away". After he came back from the war he sat down on the back veranda and spent 30 years reading the papers. He only ever got up to go and vote, and if voting hadn't been compulsory in Australia he wouldn't even have done that.

He was the living refutation of the fond idea that democracy should be participatory. The first duty of a government, in his view, was to leave people alone. More than half a century later I feel the same way myself. My last sparks of fiery radicalism have long been quenched. Privately I define democracy as that political system which leaves me free not to care about it. About that, I care passionately.

Boom to bust

The first trouble with my view of democracy is that it tends to sound complacent. When the dizzy level of greed which is free to operate in the democratic countries leads to something as ridiculous as the so-called bonus culture in which bankers are rewarded for gambling with your money, and then the banks are bailed out with more of your money so that they can re-establish the very same bonus culture while they gamble with your money all over again, it does sound complacent to say: yes, it looks bad, but it would be even worse if there were no democratically elected government to intervene. The government did intervene, and look what happened.

Work on a new skyscraper in Dubai
Workers toil to build another skyscraper in Dubai

But think what might have happened if it hadn't intervened at all. Last week, Dubai hit the economic buffers largely because it was one vast playground for the rich that had no other asset except the virtual slave labour of the workers who built it. Will there be any government agency in Dubai to get those workers home to the countries they left in the doomed hope that Dubai would make them less poor? Probably not.

A democracy would feel obliged to at least make noises about doing something to ease the suffering, and almost certainly it would never have allowed a situation in the first place by which workers would have toiled all day with 15 minutes for lunch. There would have been questions in parliament, and the lunch break would have been extended to 30 minutes.

At almost the same moment in history as Dubai's debt crisis mounted, the American film star Nicholas Cage went broke too. He went broke because he had bought too many castles, too many yachts, too many cars, too many everything. He was a one-man Dubai, but that was the point: he was just one man. In a liberal democracy he was free to go mad with his cheque book but he couldn't turn himself into a whole city and hire builders to slave all day trying to earn their passports back.

Even in the supposedly unchecked Darwinian struggle of American capitalism, there are mechanisms in place, as the modern saying goes, to ensure that the collapse of Nicolas Cage injures only those people who were left holding his IOUs. There won't be a shanty town of indentured labourers who worked for nearly nothing and now have nothing at all.

Nick Cage in 2001's Windtalkers
Mr James is not a fan

Nobody will be left desperate by the career of Nicolas Cage except those who have been unfortunate enough to see his movies, in all of which he pops his eyes with his wet mouth half open, looking exactly like a man who wants to buy Windsor castle and employ the tenants as ground staff. A Western liberal democracy has institutions that limit damage.

But just by saying that, I edge into a second stage of complacency that I have to watch out for, and we all have to watch out for. They have to be the right institutions. Many of them grow automatically, by the operation of the free market, but some of the most vital of them have to be imposed. In fact that's what a democratic government does: it intervenes in the free market for the benefit of all.

Publish or be damned

The intervention, however, sometimes defeats its object. As the apocryphal Hollywood producer once said, "There'll be a meeting Monday to delete the improvements." There is a new, or revised, institution on the way which already has many good people in our universities worried about how it might turn out.

Dials on a relica Bombe decryption machine, used during the war to decode German messages
Turing developed this device to decode Germany's wartime messages

The present system of allocating university funds to support research has been known, for the last 20 years, as the RAE, standing for Research Assessment Exercises: more than one exercise because there have been several systems, all of which have been troublesome enough, because they have all laid great stress on the number of publications per member of staff, which led to the possibility that staff members might be thought of as not performing if they weren't publishing.

If that system had been operating in the time of the Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing, for example, he might have been thought of as a drag on the funding of his department because he had produced only one paper. His work eventually led to the code-breaking triumph at Bletchley Park and the development of the computer, but not even he knew that at the time, and if he had had to spend much time explaining to the assessment board what he was on about he might never have got his work done.

The cumbersome RAE system is now to be streamlined but there is a question of whether the improvements might not lead to paralysis, especially in the humanities. The new system will be called the REF, standing for Research Excellence Framework. Excellence is always a bad word in such a context because it presupposes the result at which it aims, but there are stronger reasons than that for being suspicious.

Prince Charles at Cambridge, 1969
Universities offer time to think

Under the new system, a quarter of the rating scores which will affect the funding will be awarded for "impact", meaning a verifiable effect of the research in the outside world. Traditionally the humanities have defined themselves as those learned activities which are pursued for their own sake, but pursuing them for impact is plainly something else.

As Stefan Collini outlines in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement, impact could be achieved when you write a scholarly work about a secondary 19th Century Scottish poet and someone decides to make a TV programme about him. But you score for impact only if you yourself, or a representative of your department, makes the contact with the television producer. It isn't enough to wait for the outside world to find you. You have to market your work in what the new guidelines (another bad word) call the wider economy and society (five more bad words).

Thinking allowed

The philosopher Wittgenstein often turns up in these columns because when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge he was my ideal example of what a thinker should be.

Cambridge University
Seat of learning

When he was teaching at Cambridge he made zero impact in this new sense. Even under the outgoing Research Assessment system he would have been a liability to his department, because he published only one philosophical book in his lifetime. The book was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and it had a huge influence in the long run, but it might not have scored many funding points after he told the assessment board they were a bunch of dummies. He wasn't just incapable of diplomacy, he disapproved of it.

If he were teaching now under the incoming Research Excellence system he would be a disaster for his department. You couldn't imagine him making contact with a television producer and saying "Look, I've got this terrific idea for a programme about a man obsessed with language and it's perfect for Daniel Day Lewis."

At PR, Wittgenstein would have been hopeless.

But that was just what I liked about him. It was what I liked about all the dons, even the crazy ones. There was one guy who was given a fellowship in about 1923 and spent the rest of his life walking around town with a bundle of newspapers under his arm. But that was the price a great university was willing to pay for extending to its scholars the freedom to pursue an interest for its own sake.

In the years I spent pretending to study for a PhD, I would sit in the Copper Kettle cafe opposite King's College and read Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Occasionally I would look up to make a philosophical investigation of a passing undergraduette.

Then I looked down again to puzzle at another brilliantly compressed paragraph. Wittgenstein was having his impact, and it was an impact that couldn't be measured. A university is, or should be, a place where you can't yet tell what will be useful to the outside world, because it deals with the inside world, the most inside of all worlds, the mind.

For all I know, that was what my Uncle Harold was doing. He had done his time in the outside world, fighting for democracy against Japanese soldiers on the Kokoda trail, and now he was gazing within.

Below is a selection of your comments.

On the other hand, Wittgenstein's only expense was a deck chair, so he'd probably have got by even under the new guidelines. That's not quite the same thing as spending billions on a particle accelerator which will only prove that we're going to need a bigger particle accelerator.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade

It's amazing how many people with money and comfort think the government's job is to leave people alone. It's also amazing how quickly and universally that changes when the money and comfort go away. The general belief seems to be that government should leave people alone unless the person speaking needs help. In that case no expense should be spared - but only for the speaker, because he or she deserves it. Everyone else is lazy and stupid.
Charlene, Winnipeg, Canada

Isn't it nice that working taxpayers can support Academics to pursue what ever it is they wish to pursue without any accountability. Academia also seems to think that their pursuits are loftier than most and are entitled to funding. I don't get it.
Dave Bales, Vancouver, Canada

No, your opinion that we (US, GB etc) would be worse off doesn't make sense if the Gov didn't intervene. They (Gov) did and gave money to the banks like you stated and we know. Regulations (GS Act) were put into place that were removed by politicians over the course of the last 15 years. Banks are a business and like any business they can and should fail if the BOD allows stupid moves by the management. IS my business going to get a bailout? No. But the banks get a free handout for being greedy. How is that democracy? That is political favouritism. Your article sucks.
Drew, Chicago, US

In an era of political correctness this commentary is something new, refreshingly beautiful and insightful. As a struggling clinician who has had to negotiate academic obstacles and as a reviewer to three medical journals in three continents I relate with the futility of associating publication volume with contribution to the body of knowledge particularly in medicine. I have had to spend many days trying to unravel carefully woven mediocrity in the guise of originality with the intent of deceiving journal editors and reviewers to pass it on and earn the writer a promotion. This is the price paid for counting eggs rather than chicken embryos. It is time to evaluate content rather than titles.
Robert Sanda, Drumheller AB, Canada

A lov-er-ly essay. James nicely puts into words what civil-service-style guidelines couldn't define in 500 years or 50,000 words.
Jim Garner, Ottawa, Canada

Actually, I quite like Nicolas Cage. And if I lived anywhere near Bath, I'd have been there to watch him turn on the Christmas lights this year.
Russ Willey, London, UK

Touche! It is a sad day when research and discovery are measured on 'impact'. The result is 'strategy and marketing for funding' versus inquiry, exploration, and discovery. Is it not strategy and marketing that brought us to the greedy bonus culture and bailout of the day? Might we consider a new approach that juxtaposes our context: what is useful in our inside world is always useful in our outside world. They are inextricably linked.... forever.
KathleenT, Vancouver, Canada

A nice view. However, before one turns to its inside world, sufficient materials must be obtained from the outside world. Otherwise, such an inside world may never exist.
Siming Liu, Glasgow

This is about freedom of the mind. Allowing people to be individuals and not just part of a collective group. If we had more freedom in our mind there would be less second hand human beings, others telling us how and what to think, and we would have a much better world.
Randy Lauseng, Houston, Texas, US

Hang on a second - it was our democracy allowed the "so-called bonus culture in which bankers are rewarded for gambling with your money", which resulted in thousands of UK citizens losing their money and their homes. And it is this very same "democracy" which is still allowing the excess of the city to continue while three million people are out of work. Yes, it could have been worse, but in a more egalitarian society it could have been so much better! Defending the status quo by criticising the obvious alternatives is easy but meaningless. We can and should strive to make our so called democracies more equal.
Byron Jones, Southsea

I agree with what Mr James said in the article, but it seems a complex way of stating that education for its own sake, should be welcomed at all levels in society.
John Glennon, Manchester

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