Monday, 17 January 2011

The Future For Sale; or, How Jules Verne Predicted the Browne Report

“It must be confessed that the study of belles lettres and of ancient languages (including French) was at this time virtually obsolete; Latin and Greek were not only dead languages but buried as well; for form's sake, some classes in literature were still taught, though these were sparsely attended and inappreciable – indeed anything but appreciated.” So we read in a prophecy by Jules Verne of Paris in the Twentieth Century, discovered just a decade and a half ago, yet written a century and a half ago, since locked away in a vault for safe-keeping.

Amongst the ubiquitous electric lighting, horseless carriages, and other marvels anticipated in Verne's tales of the future, we are informed of the Academic Credit Union – a national education system operated according to the principles of the Crédit Mobilier and other national banking concerns run as joint stock operations, still relatively new to France at the time the book was written. Proportional to the collapse in literary studies the Academic Credit Union precipitates, we find a boom time for civil engineering, mechanics, physics, and finance; “whatever,” Verne tells us, “concerned the market tendencies of the day.”

In the 1860s it was an absurdist satire to suggest the conquest of education by the norms of the banking trade – today it seems increasingly to be accepted common sense. From the Browne Report's recommendation of stripping funding to the arts and humanities, to new plans from universities in Leicester, Durham and London to award students for their 'corporate skills', business is increasingly the paradigm for academia. And as Verne's nightmare becomes a reality, any qualification not immediately conducive to turning a profit seems destined to beg the question, from press and public alike, of why the state should be asked to foot the bill.

In its time, Jules Verne's dystopia was a rare voice of despair – rejected by his publisher as implausible - in a century characterised by the overwhelming optimism of its literary predictions. For the utopian writers of Victorian times, the nation's responsibility towards the life and culture of its citizens, quite apart from any considerations of profit or business sense, was pivotal. From Richard Wagner's demand for a state-financed opera theatre, free to all comers, to Edward Bellamy's promise of a citizen's credit allowance, corresponding to an equal share of the nation's annual product; the futurists of the industrial age would regard the modern belief in individualism as little short of barbarism.

“There is no such thing in a civilized society as self-support,” insists Bellamy's man of the future. “Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support.” Looking Backward, written in 1887 but set in the year 2000, was enormously popular at the time, spawning dozens of sequels and responses, and even a number of intentional communities.

Though it may be tempting to scoff at yesterday's dreams of a bright future, it is worth recalling that it is precisely this utopian impulse that led to the establishment in Britain, not just of universal free education, but also - and at a time when the nation's finances were far worse off than they are now - a national health service and welfare system.

Since the twin nihilisms of punk's 'no future' and Thatcher's 'no such thing as society', utopian thought has been thin on the ground. Where we do find glints of optimism in the mainstream media, it is a faith, not in any national or international state, conceived as a community of common interest, but in private corporations and individuals to provide for us. This is the message both of David Cameron's 'Big Society' and Wired editor Chris Anderson's book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. What is new about Anderson's 'free' is not its gratuitousness, but the question of who is to foot the bill.

For the internet's techno-utopians, everything can be free, paid for not by a redistributive tax system but by advertising. The price we pay is that our most intimate discourse - chatting on Facebook or Gmail, making mixtapes for friends on Spotify - is thoroughly permeated by direct marketing, as though our mobile phone calls were constantly being interrupted by targeted radio ads. So yesterday's dystopia becomes today's supposed utopia, and hope for the future becomes a commodity to be sold at market price.

[image: Gilles Roman, from this website]