How the humanities have become a new enemy inside
The strain of conservatism that has now taken up residence in Downing Street is tireless in its identification of enemies. The BBC and Channel 4 were put on notice during the latter stages of the election campaign, and the government is now openly pursuing the termination of the BBC licence fee. Dominic Cummings’ long-harboured resentment towards civil service mandarins is driving Whitehall reform, imperilling its independence.
The vanguard of rightwing thinktanks and newspapers is redoubling its attacks on universities, with a pitifully thin Policy Exchange report on the topic this week earning a Times headline decrying these “sneering” institutions. Meanwhile, a bogey-ideology known as “wokeness”, constructed by conservative commentators and “free speech” advocates, now serves as an all-purpose bin into which any form of activism, complaint or critical theory can be thrown.
These various hostilities are often lumped together as symptoms of a culture war, in which the demographic and educational divisions that came to light around Brexit are amplified and exploited for political gain. But we can be more specific than that. The new conservative ideology coalesces around one theme in particular: hostility towards the modern humanities, and their elevated status in British public life.
The 20th century witnessed a distinctive model of interlocking political, educational and artistic institutions, with the humanities at their core. Public bodies such as the British Academy and the BBC set the template for the optimistic, post-1945 era of public investment in the arts and humanities. The state actively supported their expansion after the war via such icons of mass cultural modernity as the Arts Council, BBC2, the Open University and the new redbrick universities. By the 1980s, this project had borne such fruits as the South Bank Show, the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies and Channel 4. Threaded through all of this was the principle that there was a public interest in understanding ideas, artefacts and events.
Cummings has never hidden his contempt for humanities subjects, forged partly out of his own experience of studying history at Oxford. He has been a long-term advocate for an expansion of Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) in the school curriculum, and for attracting more Stem graduates into the civil service. His notorious blog-cum-recruitment ad, which sought to attract data scientists and “weirdos” to Whitehall, was also notable for its dismissal of “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers”.
More fundamentally, the humanities play a pivotal ideological role for contemporary conservatism: they sit in the crosshairs of both Thatcherite neoliberals and nationalists. It is often difficult for free marketeers to find common ground with nationalists, especially on issues such as immigration. The possession of a shared enemy provides coherence to an otherwise unwieldy coalition. The figure of the publicly funded humanities graduate, whose cultural privilege grants them access to the London elite, fuels a paranoid fantasy that is now central to conservative ideology.
The neoliberal position is that a humanities degree is a simple waste of money, as revealed in the earnings of graduates. To people of this mindset, the benefit of the post-2010 tuition fee regime, allied to a host of league tables and audits, is that it exposes latent inequalities in higher education that were previously concealed by public funding. If somebody chooses to study art history (and not, say, computer science), then this is a high-risk investment, which they should be personally liable for. The recent announcement by the University of Sunderland that it would be terminating all its history, languages and politics courses, and replacing them with vocational alternatives, therefore represents progress.
The nationalist concern is very different, and stems especially from the perceived influence of continental philosophy over the past 50 years. For those who buy into rightwing conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism” or the milder anxiety surrounding postmodernism, humanities graduates are an enemy within, a segment of the liberal elite that lacks national loyalty.
Opposition to public institutions such as the BBC has been incubated by Rupert Murdoch and his newspapers for many years. More recently, Brexit has given nationalists the confidence to cast suspicions upon a wide array of independent public bodies, from universities to the Bank of England. One thing that neoliberals and nationalists can agree on is that anyone whose education and career has been spent in publicly funded liberal institutions, telling a story about “the public interest” is a fraud. The popular appeal of Johnsonism lies in its antipathy to this elite.
But in favour of what exactly? The Cummings plan is for esoteric forms of rationalism to topple the humanities: not just data scientists but game theorists, cognitive scientists, software developers and “people who never went to university” should shape government thinking. This is a vision of society as a programmable machine, a form of post-humanism, which denies that culture or history require any specialist interpretation, but merely provide more data to be fed into predictive mathematical models. The social sciences and humanities will eventually be taken over by physicists.
If Cummings wants to accelerate away from the 20th century, then conservative traditionalists want to reverse it. If, as the economics professor Thomas Piketty argues, we are returning to a form of oligarchy last seen prior to the first world war, one can easily envisage how the arts and humanities will be sustained: via the patronage of the rich and the indulgences of their children. The brief historical period, when learning about literature or, yes, Lacan, was a gift from the state, accessible to all regardless of background, is firmly over.
It is telling that, while Cummings wants to hire people who use “analytical languages: eg Python, SQL, R”, Boris Johnson is just as likely to lapse into Latin. The liberal humanities are being caught in a pincer movement, between hyper-modern futurism and pre-modern classicism. Taken to extremes, the dream of wiping away modern culture in the name of some distant future and some primordial past has inspired the most hideous of rightwing regimes. Even at its mildest, this is a project that sees little intrinsic value in a public library, a primetime documentary or a history degree.
The 20th-century cultural establishment has plenty of failings, which are readily exposed by its opponents. It has never been as inclusive as its rhetoric pretends, and it is far from democratic. Resentment towards cultural and political elites has clearly been brewing for decades, especially among non-Londoners and non-graduates – an electoral goldmine for Johnson. Too often, these elites have reflexively countered the attacks of Thatcherites and the Murdoch press by closing ranks, relying on the power of their contact books, free tickets and charm, but only deepening the sense of metropolitan luvvies doing favours for each other. The defence of universities and the BBC is going to be an important test case for how much of that establishment survives this government.