Are radical journals selling out?

Well, they’re not doing badly. But in a world in which capitalism is in crisis, the Left is moribund, activists are slick professionals and rebellion drives sales, Alastair Bonnett envisages a new type of dissident institution

November 3, 2011

There are a lot of radical academic journals. Beyond the small grove of explicitly revolutionary titles lies a vast forest of critical publications. From Action Research to Anarchist Studies, from Race and Class to Review of Radical Political Economics, an impressive array of dissident ventures appears to be thriving.

As Western capitalism jabs repeatedly at the auto-destruct button, it may seem only logical that rebel voices are getting louder. But logic has nothing to do it with it. Out in the real world, the Left is moribund. Socialism has become a heritage item. Public institutions, including UK universities, are ever more marketised. Alternatives seem in short supply.

So, far from being obvious, the success of radical journals is a bit of a puzzle. And they have proved they have staying power. The past few years have seen a clutch of titles entering late middle age, including those in the Marxist tradition, such as New Left Review (founded 1960), Critique (1973) and Capital and Class (1977), as well as more broadly critical ventures, such as Transition (1961) and Critical Inquiry (1974). Numerous other titles have emerged in the intervening years. And they are still coming. Recent titles include Power and Education, Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies and Human Geography: A New Radical Journal (see box below). Of course, some disciplines provide more fertile soil for such ventures than others. In cultural studies, politics, geography and sociology, radicalism has entered the mainstream. But even the more stony ground of economics nurtures a wide assortment of dissident titles.

So how have they survived, and can they continue to? The answer opens up another paradox: radicalism has survived by becoming institutionalised. This has allowed academic radicalism to become culturally self-sufficient, with little need to seek popular approval. This is not quite the same thing as claiming, like Russell Jacoby, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, that “it was not the new Left intellectuals who invaded the universities but the reverse”. Institutionalisation does not mean evisceration. But it does have consequences. One of these is having to dance to the tune of an increasingly managerial academic culture.

Continuous research assessment exercises present some formidable challenges to these periodicals. In many of the social sciences and humanities, they form a penumbra firmly outside the golden circle of top rankers. Frederick Lee, professor of economics at the University of Missouri, has crunched some numbers from the 2008 research assessment exercise in the UK and found that “of the 2,676 journal articles submitted for the 2008 RAE in economics” only 3 per cent were from what Lee calls “heterodox” journals and “none was from Marxist/radical journals”.

Lee’s analysis also suggests that papers in the 26 “mainstream” economics journals tend not to cite work published in the 62 “heterodox” ones. He concludes by lamenting that “heterodox economics is no longer a visible part of the academic community of British economists”. This seems a little sweeping. After all, a variety of journals that give plenty of space to heterodox opinion are based in the UK (such as the Cambridge Journal of Economics and the International Journal of Green Economics). Another sceptical reaction to Lee’s conclusion might be to wonder how the unorthodox contingent manages to be more than twice as large as the supposed mainstream.

In fact, in a number of disciplines the boundary between radical and mainstream has become blurry. Noel Castree, one-time editor of the radical geography journal Antipode (founded in 1969), suggests that “Leftist geography has insinuated itself into the very heart of the discipline”.

A similar point has been made by Sean Sayers, one of the founders of Radical Philosophy (founded in 1972): “Much of what was originally demanded by radical philosophy has been achieved. Marxism, continental philosophy and psychoanalysis are now respectable subjects of study in most British universities.”

Yet this happy state of affairs is at odds with the wider political picture. Writing in 2000, Castree, professor of geography at the University of Manchester, offered a pointed contrast: “Few can ignore the fact that the expansion of the academic Left has been coincident, in ways both striking and seemingly contradictory, with the precipitous contraction of the non-academic Left in the domains of business, government and civil society.”

The year 2000 also saw Perry Anderson accompany the relaunch of New Left Review with a frank admission that the Left had been defeated: “For the first time since the Reformation there are no longer any significant oppositions - that is, systematic rival outlooks - within the thought-world of the West: and scarcely any on a world-scale.”

This gloomy outlook makes the continued success of journals such as New Left Review even more intriguing.

One favoured explanation refers to the intellectual creativity of the Left-critical tradition. The idea is that feminism, post-colonialism, environmentalism and queer theory have come along and rejuvenated the Left. If radical journals had stayed the same, they wouldn’t still be with us. Some would also have us believe that, over the past few decades, academics have been “proletarianised” and, hence, radicalised. However, both of these arguments are a little too self-serving to be convincing. The image of the permanently pioneering proletarian professor is more akin to wishful thinking than plausible diagnosis.

In any case, in the wider world, the meaning of radicalism has changed beyond recognition. Today the term is more likely to be applied to religious fundamentalism or corporate asset stripping than to the comparatively comforting visions of the Left. The Left has lost the copyright on radicalism and is unlikely to get it back.

Perhaps, then, we should turn to a more prosaic explanation: the mundane reality is that academic journals are kept afloat because they have writers and editors willing to work for free. During my own amateurish foray into radical publishing in the early 1990s, I edited an independent magazine with a tiny print run of 250 copies (our output was an avant-garde urban studies venture called Transgressions). Our only cost was printing, which was about £1,000. We made that back quite easily because we had a hefty institutional subscription price and, happily for us, several US libraries appear to subscribe to everything. That was two decades ago. Today virtual publishing means that we could do the same thing for next to nothing. Our journal ran into the sand because we ran out of enthusiasm. However, for professional publishers there is every incentive to keep a title going. The input costs are low and, if you know your market, the profits can be large.

While the combination of cheap input and high-value output may help clarify the survival of some dissident titles, there are other factors at work. Most of the important ones return us to the concept of institutionalisation. Its impact is pretty obvious. What start out as rag-tag operations run by young activists turn into professional outfits with slick products. It is a trajectory that provokes a certain amount of nostalgia for the old days. But it also creates a sense of pride, and an institution with staying power.

Different journals have taken different institutional routes. Some cling to their independence, while others look to one of the major publishing houses as a way of outsourcing costs and widening the readership. Antipode was started by activists at Clark University in the US but joined Blackwell in 1986. One of the journal’s founders, Richard Peet, reminisced: “We believed it better to publish semi-developed ideas than to wait, like true professionals, for staid maturity.” Today, Antipode has a professional niche and a respectable “impact factor”. However, its website is full of references to its revolutionary heritage as well as to the wider activist community. The activist past both disrupts and sustains its professional present. This odd combination appears to consolidate the journal’s institutional capacities, developing its traditions and networks.

Yet the power of institutionalisation goes much further, absorbing the radical project into the modern idea of the university. One of the clearest signs of this process is the popularisation of the notion that universities are centres of critical enquiry. I do not think I have ever been to a university seminar in which the speaker did not claim to be overturning current convention. The fact that critique is now compulsory legitimises radical academic journals but it also shapes their reception. If being critical is what scholars do, then the fact that they are attacking the status quo becomes entirely predictable and, hence, politically inconsequential.

In their book on the commercialisation of dissent, The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2005), Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue that “it is rebellion, not conformity, that has for decades been the driving force of the marketplace”. Seen from this perspective, far from being endangered, the market for radical journals is probably under-exploited. In commercial terms the transgressive is sexy, the mainstream dull, and rebellion a hot property.

This process creates a crisis of authenticity. The drift toward dystopianism seen over recent years may be symptomatic of this existential predicament. Radical academics, especially those who have come to understand themselves as at odds with their entire age, are facing a peculiar fate. Their deepening alienation receives ritual nods of approval from audiences for whom the self-lacerations of the West are a very familiar pleasure.

It seems that radical journals can survive and thrive in a conservative era. It is good news. Many of them have intrinsic academic merit. Without them higher education would be impoverished. But it is time to return to some fundamental questions. Are journals the right institutions to pour so much radical time and effort into? What are they trying to achieve? Are they capable of offering alternatives that people can believe in? Today it is harder than ever to bat these questions away with talk of revolutionary negation or the necessity of analysis. People are desperate for solutions, for pathways out of the dilemmas of a failing system.

I believe that, over the coming decades, the radical tradition will be reoriented and reimagined in institution-building of another kind. It is towards institutions that deliver housing, jobs, services or even higher education that the radical compass is pointing. The journals will carry on the good fight, questioning and provoking. But we will learn to expect less of them.

So I’II conclude with a different type of dissident institution. Although it has the rather grand title of The Social Science Centre, Lincoln, it is tiny. This not-for-profit co-operative, founded only this year, is attempting to establish “a new model for higher and co-operative education”. More specifically, the centre is “designed for students who do not wish to take on the burden of debt currently imposed by the government, but do wish to receive a higher level of education”. So far it has members and £360 in the bank. Harvard it ain’t. But no matter their scale, such ventures do something important. They show us how things can be done differently.

Well red: building a proudly political publication

Human Geography: A New Radical Journal covers topics ranging from geopolitics through cultural and economic issues, to political ecology.

We started it for two reasons. The first was the need to retain control of the value produced by academic labour. Over the past 20 years, a growing number of journals that once were owned and produced by academic and professional associations have been taken over by large publishers.

The surplus monetary value produced by the academic workers who write, edit and review the journals’ content ends up as profit for multinationals. Such publishers charge libraries annual subscription rates in the range of $350 to $5,000 (£220 to £3,170) or more, and journals can generate millions of dollars a year in profit. We want to control this income so we can finance research that is really radical, as opposed to pseudo-radical or disguised-radical.

The second reason is that we saw a need for a new publishing outlet for articles on topics of political significance, conceived from critical perspectives. In our experience, articles written from deeply critical positions, such as Marxism, face a difficult time getting published, with young academics having to deny their radical politics to survive in the publish-or-perish world. This includes discrimination by editors who favour post-structuralist or postmodernist approaches, as well as those who hold to the conventional notion that Marxists write politics while everyone else does “science”. So we started a journal that consciously favours politically based articles, written from various Left positions, including socialism.

Many traditional academic journals publish boring, obscure material that has a very limited readership, and often only a few experts working in the same field read an article. Consequently, a wide range of urgent social and political issues - imperial wars, global financial crisis, environmental catastrophe - are hardly mentioned in those journals. We wanted to create a new, more expansive and politically inclusive journal.

So we began in 2008, financed by donations from a few committed people and drawing on the contributions of unpaid, dedicated workers. It is hard work, but the journal is doing fine in terms of submissions and subscriptions. We are determined to remain independent of corporate publishers, although the internet, citation reports and impact factors make this difficult. We also fill our editorial board with people who have proven their dedication to Left causes - it’s our way of countering institutional creep, in both senses of the word.

This month, we are sponsoring an international conference of critical geographers at Clark University in Massachusetts. This is only the beginning of a long-term project that we are convinced will remain deeply critical to the very end. It’s a case of practising radical politics, no matter what.

Richard Peet is professor of geography at Clark University and editor of Human Geography: A New Radical Journal.

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