Universities’ Soviet-style bullshit is not an antidote to Covid’s grim reality

Living in a parallel universe of perfect systems and obedient citizens could blow up in vice-chancellors’ faces like Chernobyl, warns Craig Brandist 

October 13, 2020
Close up of face with eyes painted circles yellow and black
Source: Reuters

In HBO’s recent dramatisation of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the leading scientist, Valery Legasov, gives a fictionalised but inspiring speech: “When the truth offends, we lie and lie…Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Big lies certainly lay behind the disaster, but the real problem was a more dangerous phenomenon: bullshit.

As the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt puts it, where the liar defies the authority of the truth and “refuses to meet its demands”, the “bullshitter ignores these demands altogether”. Where lies are vulnerable to evidence that disproves them, bullshit remains blithely indifferent to evidence because it operates within a self-enclosed parallel reality.

The late anthropologist David Graeber illustrated how jobs have been refashioned to produce and service bullshit. And that is very much true in higher education: witness the myriad pointless administrative roles created by bullshit exercises such as the research or teaching excellence frameworks.

I have argued before that UK universities now resemble the Soviet command economy; the Covid-19 crisis only offers further sorry evidence. Stalin’s USSR, for all its official communist ideology, was saturated by the imperatives of competition, rankings and the evident absurdities of proxy metrics. It made bullshit a fine art, called “socialist realism”. Verisimilitude was irrelevant. The truth value of sentences was replaced by the performative value of affirming bureaucratic proxies that stood in for a much harsher reality. 

By the 1970s, Soviet “socialism” was a mature administrative and ideological system serving and overlaying military competition with the West. People did not have to believe in it, just articulate it and give it flesh. Those running Chernobyl did precisely what was expected of them, but the “debt to truth” accrued a lot of interest. 

Satire and critical thinking thrive between (lack of) conviction and performance. We write about bullshit while continuing to perform its rituals. But woe betide those who challenge it directly: to expose our own institutions publicly leads to threats of disciplinary action or being forced out

Like the USSR, universities are, in the words of HBO’s version of deputy chairman of the council of ministers, Boris Shcherbina, “obsessed with not being humiliated”. Why? First, because they fear being undermined in a competitive struggle that they cannot opt out of. Second, because the authority of bullshit, although intimidating and apparently robust, is actually fragile – as captured in the title of anthropologist Alexei Yurchak’s 2005 study of the last Soviet generation, Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More

Covid-19, like Chernobyl, shows the deadly effects that bullshit can have. UK universities are terrified of being compelled to return tuition and accommodation fees because they have not delivered “product” to their “customers”. Campuses must remain physically open until officially obliged to close (blunting any student claims for compensation); senior managers have developed herd immunity to scientific evidence that conflicts awkwardly with this commitment.

When unions adduce cautionary advice issued by scientific bodies such as Independent Sage, those managers, like their Chernobyl counterparts, see only official guidelines that they know to be inadequate. “I prefer my opinion to yours,” a complacent bureaucrat tells one alarmed nuclear physicist in the HBO series. 

When the inevitable Covid crises break, managers respond in Chernobyl fashion: “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labour.” UK students are now sealed into their halls of residence – potentially even through Christmas – and told to remove signs from their windows and, in some cases, not to speak to the media. “Disciplinary action” looms large.

Claims to prioritise the health and safety of staff and students on “Covid-secure” campuses are not lies, but bullshit. “Safety first, always,” says Anatoly Dyatlov, the engineer whose order triggered the Chernobyl explosion, to a reluctant operator. “I’ve been saying that for 25 years. Raise the power”.

Covid risk assessments relate to the situation on the ground like socialist realist novels related to Soviet reality. In this alternative universe, test-and-trace systems operate satisfactorily, all students follow all instructions and the regime never falters. “Health and safety” assessments meet universities’ legal obligations and so avoid potential litigation. When all the precautions fail because they do not correspond to how institutions actually function, “irresponsible” individuals are blamed.

Mikhail Gorbachev exaggerated when he argued that Chernobyl was “the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union”, but it certainly administered a major shock to the edifice of bullshit. After Chernobyl, to paraphrase Lenin, not only did the lower classes not want to live in the old way, the upper classes could no longer rule in the old way. 

Covid-19 may be having a similar effect on UK universities. Many are approaching meltdown. The potentially deadly bullshit regime is being revealed to staff and students alike. The financial core is exposed and increasingly unstable. Never has an alternative vision of higher education as a social good been more important.

But we should be cautious. In post-Communist Russia, the upper classes succeeded in implementing an alternative way of ruling – an authoritarian gangster capitalism – and the lower classes paid a heavy price. If we do not translate our brighter vision into a mass campaign to change the financialised basis of higher education, we too may find ourselves at the mercy of something even worse.

Craig Brandist is professor of cultural theory and intellectual history at the University of Sheffield.


Print headline: Soviet-style bullshit won’t loosen Covid’s grim hold

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Reader's comments (9)

Yeah, but no, but yeah, but ... everyone's been complicit.
Not in my name.
You missed 'lying by omission', something the P.R. driven seem very prone to do...
I agree that the current university landscape resembles the USSR but take issue with the interpretation of the reaction to the pandemic. If we are forced to return fees, it will be an existential threat to some institutions as I cannot see the government or the public supporting a bailout. Also, for many of us in engineering and technology, there is no alternative to practical work in the absence of a total lockdown. I have been to my office to meet students and it did not feel dangerous as distancing and face-covering rules were followed. I do not live in fear despite being in my late 50s and we should not blight the futures of those who will be paying for this mess long after we have departed any more than necessary.
If University leaders united to move all non-essential teaching online, to reduce the numbers in halls of residence in a planned and safe manner, to invest in systems and training to maximise the effectiveness of online education and developed a campaign to be financially supported by government neither staff, students or the wider community would need to be placed at risk as they are today.
Splendidly put. Spot on Sir!
Lee Jones's term "market Stalinism" is a more accurate characterisation of universities today than pure Stalinism. See his recent report for Cieo entitled "Saving Britain's Universities".
Of course it is market Stalinism. This short article is only pointing out continuities between the two systems.