Long live heresy

April 16, 2004

Geoff Andrews urges academics to take part in rekindling the spirit of our dissident heritage

The late Roy Porter, describing the development of what he called the "British Enlightenment" in the late 18th century, picked out the vibrant culture of dissent as the defining feature of the age. This was made possible by the expansion of public life, including not only libraries and museums but also a proliferation of coffee shops, where many of the heresies were heard. The existing education system, meanwhile, was being challenged by the "Rational Dissenters", whose "Dissenting Academies" offered alternative ideas to the prevailing orthodoxies. In the years following the French Revolution, the influence of these Rational Dissenters was at its strongest, the seditious libel laws and gagging acts of the 1790s confirming a country that was uneasy with dissent.

Nevertheless, in Britain the impact of dissidents such as Tom Paine, and later intellectuals such as John Stuart Mill, and R. H. Tawney, was crucial in defining the core principles of public life, namely tolerance, diversity, pluralism and civic consciousness. The variety of opinion was to be encouraged in the interests of social reform, enlightenment and progress. These values were clearly distinguished from the profit-making spheres of the marketplace.

Yet Britain is once again a country uneasy with dissent, and a state of anxiety is well entrenched in universities. Fears over terrorism and the need for heightened security always provide a challenge for heretics and a test of the democratic health of a country. At the recent Political Studies Association conference, a leading authority on intelligence argued that academics had a responsibility to inform security services of students they had suspicions about. This worrying scenario, of academics themselves conniving with authorities on issues of national security, is not the most serious contemporary threat to dissent, however.

This comes from the rise of managerial populism, Labour's governing philosophy. From the BBC to education and culture, we have seen the government steamrolling vital areas of public life, replacing professionalism with managerialism and increasingly contemptuous of those who question its motives. According to David Marquand, in his timely new book Decline of the Public , the public domain is in crisis, brought to its knees by "incessant marketisation... that has generated a culture of distrust, corroding the values of professionalism, citizenship, equity and service, like acid in the water supply".

Universities are deeply embedded in this marketisation and managerialism, and are just about the last place where you might encounter dissenting opinions. Do the corporate elites that run universities really care for the right of their members to express opposition to, for example, an illegal war? Will they guarantee the freedom of academics, concerned about the financial plight of their students, to speak out against the introduction of tuition fees?

Of course not. Universities, now run as corporate businesses and, imbibing the managerialist culture of consumerism, are no longer sources of heresy and free inquiry. All aspects of academic life are now subject to financial regulation and brainless audit schemes.

This is confirmed by the transformation of the role of academics themselves. The "career academic" now has two choices: either become a research hermit, busily writing for journals nobody reads, or become a career bureaucrat, devoid of any intellectual role but with a faster route to the vice-chancellor's expense account.

Managerial populism has eroded much of what was distinctive about public culture, including dissent. A major consequence of populism is the collapse into compliance and dull conformism. The rebuilding of public life will need to recapture the spirit of our dissident heritage, a process in which academics could play a part - or will it be heads down for the research assessment exercise?

Geoff Andrews is lecturer and staff tutor in politics at the Open University and a co-editor of Soundings . His book Endgames and New Times ; The Final Years of British Communism will be published in May by Lawrence and Wishart.

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