Philosophical clownery of late modernity

Is there an old giving way to a new? Are we at the end and at the beginning of an epoch? What is an epoch?

I sense we are at the point of change or we are in a period of change. But change is almost guaranteed as a human experience. Well, that is my assumption, that our experience is one where we exist in an environment that is unknowable. That doesn’t mean we can’t know it. But the unknowability, unpredictability of the context in which conscious things exist is an experience of change. Beings managing, acting in response to change, changing (or being compelled to change) or resisting change.

Seven AM. Bob Dylan playing on Spotify.

Stabilized by the cycles of daily life, the routines, the sequenced scripts, the habituations; revolving experiences. Amongst the unpredictability and unknowability, I need the drumbeat of time, multiple beats, rhythms: onbeat, offbeat. And out of time, at times. Time is played out only through the collective ticks and chimes of the global clock. The hand progresses, turning linear mechanisms into rotation, or drawing on the resonances of a crystal or (sub) atomic particles. Repetitions. Listen and repeat.

We can pretend that these cycles are not there or are so long that they are linear. That they don’t fall back on themselves, that we are making progress, that we are moving forward instead of going back and around and back into ourselves and things. In a Newtonian universe circular motion is a particular case of linear mechanisms, it is just the linear ‘trapped’ in orbit, in a loop, restrained to a point at the centre. Reverse this: circular motion, repetition, cycles are the generality of linear mechanisms and simple (first order – this causes that etc) causality. Oscillation is at the core of an interpretation of being. A wave-particle duality.

Kinder Scout, Derbyshire, UK. Christmas 2019-2020

The preservation of things is the preservation of those iterations, because it is the preservation of those cycles and iterations that preserves things. A tree only falls in the forest if we are witness to it. Is this true? It is and it isn’t. Should we use a colon or semicolon (or a comma or a full stop)? Ambiguous, there are alternatives, that may not be equal, there are other possible worlds. But those worlds we must make and bring into the world by remaking them, by believing in them. They become ritualized. We perform their existence. We forget that they come into the world amongst a world of possibilities. At least this is a characteristic of the passing epoch. Yes, there is epochal change. One where we have ignored the circularity, the recursion and concerned ourselves with the properties of and causes of things rather than the repetition of things. (it is not the things themselves but the thing and its representation). We have tried to ignore the paradox.

The bitter struggle for the soul of education

I am not under any romantic illusion about the strike, about striking even. Sure, the sense of solidarity and the camaraderie of colleagues and supporters are fantastic. As is the chance to reimagine the way we do things in higher education. But we are in dispute with our employers. Our professional working relationship is disputed and this is disruptive and leaves strikers deeply conflicted. Striking involves much considerable emotional labour.

After six days on strike there is a sense that this is going to be a long struggle. I began to feel this way at the end of last week. The strikers I have spoken to suggest a similar reading of the situation.

That is not to say that there has not been some shift by the employers’ representatives, Universities UK (UUK) and UCEA, both have offered to reopen talks. This has been achieved as a result of strong strike action by UCU members across 60 institutions in the UK. Last time we struck in February 2018, the feel of the action was one of nervous energy, of excitement. Many of us were new to this kind of action. We didn’t know how the strike would go and what impact we would have. We did have an effect though, we forced the establishment of a Joint Expert Panel to improve the transparency and accountability of the pension scheme. The fact that USS and UUK then backtracked from the findings approved by the JEP is a big part of why we are back out on strike. The character of the current strike is one of gravity; activists, strikers and supporters are increasingly clear about the scale of the struggle ahead. This is matched by growing belief that this fight can be won.

The other part of why we are on strike is pay: pay and the gender and ethnic pay gap. What the (University and College Union) UCU has exposed at both a national level and within individual universities is the shocking level of precarity in the sector. I don’t think I have had a sense of the scale of it until our General Secretary, Jo Grady, came to speak to Cambridge UCU before the end of the strike ballot. But more importantly from the local work done by the CUCU Raise the Bar campaign on casualisation. The scale of the problem in Cambridge is much more considerable than the University of Cambridge would have us think. What we see is a picture of higher education as a vast army of precarious and casualised staff, with a decreasing proportion of permanent tenured position. According to the UCU, around 70% of the 49,000 researchers in the sector remain on fixed-term contracts, with many more living precariously on contracts which are nominally open-ended but which build in redundancy dates. There are 37,000 teaching staff on fixed-term contracts, the majority of them hourly paid. In Cambridge, almost half the undergraduate teaching is undertaken by people in precarious employment.

The accounts of precarious working in Cambridge have been heard on strike rallies and in teach outs during the recent strike action. They have been shocking and are at odds with the University’s projected image. Reputation has become all for Cambridge. The vast expenditure on selling, preserving and extracting value from the University’s brand cannot disguise the deceit. For UK higher education is now a part of the gig economy, a sweatshop of precarious workers. Many precarious workers are lured by misrepresentations about the quality and reputation of the UK higher education. There have been some truly heartbreaking accounts of people thinking they have got a job at a world-leading university only to find that they are working for a temporary employment service that disbars them from putting the University of Cambridge on their CV, they have no holidays and no sick pay. If they factor all the things they do in trying to make a sustainable living like applying for jobs or making grant applications then their pay falls woefully short of what is needed to live on. Mangers’ justification in terms of the advantages of flexible working or when senior tenured university office holders characterise precarious staffs’ experience as a normal rite of passage, they sound really empty and out of touch to the individuals who experience the harsh reality and indignity of precarious working.

Let us see it for what it really is: UK Higher Education is now operating as a pyramid scheme.

So why is this turning into such major dispute? The reason for this (and I have written about this previously) is that pay and pensions are really on the symptom of underlying causes. The primary issue is in the role of the state in education. Or we should say lack of state involvement. The sector relies on debt funding, from students but also in raising capital. It relies on contract research or third-stream income, like from Cambridge Assessment here in Cambridge. The calculation and minimisation of risk in each institution is an essential feature where the state no longer underwrites public institutions. Naturally, there is a drive to reduce risk, one way of doing this is to make increasing numbers of staff bear the risk through precarious employment. The injustice is that this falls on new and junior staff, while established staff can enjoy quite a good secure and privileged existence. I do not wish to create antagonism between precarious and tenured staff but I do encourage senior staff with secure employment to show some solidarity with the precarious university worker. Please join staff and students on the picket line, join the UCU if you are not a member.

The current dispute between the UCU and universities is a battle for the heart of higher education. I would say it goes beyond that, it is a struggle to sustain the principle of a universal right to free lifelong learning and academic freedoms.

Why am I going on strike?

I am not going to begin by saying that I found it a difficult decision to take strike action. I didn’t struggle over the decision at all. That is not to say that I have no consideration for my students and colleagues, but that there is an urgent imperative in regard to defending the future of a public higher education system. I am on strike, sure, for my pay (which has shrunk in real terms) and my pension (with diminished benefits and more expensive contributions), but these are just the symptoms, the apparitions, of the effects of higher education and economic policy over recent decades. And It has all rather come to a head. 

Over the last decade a higher education market has emerged. In England this has featured an economy of (private) student debt, competing institutions and financialisation. As part of the financialisation process and to improve their competitive edge, institutions must reduce their exposure to risk. And part of this is the discipline in regard to pay and working conditions. There has been a considerable increase in fixed-term contracts and increasing numbers of precarious roles and zero-hours working. 

The state has a very important role in this. Instead of a state-backed higher education system, buffered from market vagaries by the state, in the marketised system, institutions must trade on their own financial value, status and reputation. The relevant feature of this is that each institution must engage in ongoing conscious assessment of organisational risk. It follows then that organisation’s decision making prioritises risk reduction. And hence we see an attack on staff pay, an attack on pensions and this dramatic increase in precarious working in the higher education sector. Marketised institutions tend to socialise their risk exposure to the people in the organisation. This means that students have a very financialised contractual relationship with the university and staff experience reduced pay and job security. 

These are not good conditions for effective education because it creates perverse incentives related to measurable indicators factored in to the university’s sense of its own risk exposure. This is further amplified by an excessively competitive graduate jobs market with many graduates going for few quality and secure positions. While there are plenty of low paid, precarious jobs for graduates, especially in the gig economy. It is for the same reasons that there are fewer permanent posts in universities as it is elsewhere. All businesses become preoccupied with risk in conditions of austerity, or another way of looking at austerity is as the state withdraws from managing the economy. The condition of austerity is when we move toward a point at which each individual is competing with everyone else for resources that are artificially made scarce. And it is this, the pressures of debt and particularly the limited jobs market that are major factors, I am sure, in students’ declining mental health. They put themselves under so much pressure in order to try and get ahead and it can become unhealthily overly competitive.

You can see that for me this strike is much more political. I believe it is a political struggle for what others have called the soul of higher education. The choice is between a privatised, marketised system featuring an elitist and unequal system funded by student debt. Or, a public education system that is based on the principle that each individual can freely access lifelong learning. The principle that education is for the public good and not serving reductive economic objectives. And this strike is one further aspect of the growing struggle to define the future social, political and economic direction of the UK. Because, as it happens, if you may not have noticed, there is a general election on also. Where the political divisions are much clearer than they have been for decades. Do you want a small state, financialised, rentier economy with a privatised public sector? Or do you want the state to use its power to support and help manage the economy and public services in a coherent way? I’ll make no apologies about being so partisan in this regard but I wholeheartedly believe the latter. The principle of universalism in respect to health and education is the only reasonable basis for a civilised society. 

But questions of affordability have vexed the debate about the state’s support for public services, whether we can afford, for example, free universal access to lifelong learning. In fact investing in public services stimulates demand in the economy. There is a fiscal stimulus which encourages longer term investment in the economy, which translates to higher quality and more secure employment (and improved productivity).

This strike is really about the defence of public education and it feels like a last line of defence. It is taking place in universities because in schools and colleges there has been such fragmentation that organising co-ordinated resistance is much more difficult than it used to be. After many years of dismantling public higher education, we now just have fragments of a public project and now it is the principles and values public education that must be defended.

And while the case to strike for me is clear and compelling, I like many colleagues feel deeply conflicted about having to take strike action. I feel a strong sense of vocation, a sense of duty as a public servant and out of a sense of responsibility to my students. But I also believe that action is necessary and justified.

Cybernetics, economics, thermodynamics and information

I had a really thought-provoking visit to Liverpool last Friday to talk with Mark Johnson and visit the Stafford Beer archive at the Liverpool John Moores University. That left me thinking about organisational cybernetics and the Viable System Model but also prompted much discussion about the use of machine learning with Adaptive Comparative Judgement – more of that later.

A lot to think about, and a lot to read.

But early this morning I started to think about Steve Keen, the post-Keynesian economist. It had been at the back of my mind that – and this is probably because he frequently references Hyman Minsky’s economic instability theory – Steve Keen’s approach is based on dynamic systems.

It was before 5 AM that I began searching YouTube for some of Steve Keen’s lectures. And there it was a reminder that his approach is underpinned by dynamic systems and though he doesn’t reference it, cybernetics. My recent introduction to economics has been through Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Which is a very useful way of understanding the economy through a combination of sectoral balances and the circulation of government-created money. It is a very valuable framework for understanding money, finance and tax, but where I think it has limitations is in its lack of sociology and political praxis. And importantly it is not underpinned by the philosophy of dynamic systems, though it does model the behaviour of economic systems very effectively but in specific conditions. Steve Keen’s dynamic systems approach is a more sophisticated model but does not deny the validity of MMT.

As I was thinking about economic modelling from a dynamic systems approach while I was listening to Steve Keen’s lectures, there came a point in 2016 where he began to introduce energy into his modelling. That output is not just a function of labour and capital, but a function of labour, capital and energy. This at once does two things it introduces the first law of thermodynamics into his economic analysis but also incorporates environmental issues i.e. the use of resources.

The first law of thermodynamics states that in a closed-system (and Keen points out that there are a number of closed-system models in economics), energy can neither be created or destroyed. In cycles of production, therefore, we must constantly input energy. This is overlooked by economists according to Keen.

In more recent work, Steve Keen has introduced the second and third law of thermodynamics. He points out that these truly are physical laws unlike laws that are proffered in the social sciences. The second law states that in a system entropy is always increasing. Entropy is a measure of disorder; it is the number of possible states that each element in that system can be in. Thermodynamically, this can be interpreted as the transfer of ‘useful’ energy or work like mechanical energy into heat. It’s a slippery idea, I know. But it can be thought of as a shift from order to chaos. Information theory characterises information as ‘negentropy’ – the information is creating order. Information is an ordering process.

The following is a speculation then – a hypothesis:

  • in any production process – whether that be physical, or the provision of services – then energy is wasted (by releasing it as heat). And while entropy might be reduced (as the ordering process of production) within the waste, entropy is increasing.

Bringing these together then we have the possibility of bringing together economics, value theory, environment (climate change) and information (technology and platform capitalism).

Is consciousness – by that I mean self-awareness or even life – counter entropy? Is life the means by which order (information) is created? Is life the cybernetic response to an expanding universe?



Cybernetic decision making in the classroom

I spent the last eight years observing teachers in mathematics classrooms, trying to work out the relationship between their thought and action, and before that I spent eight years in the classroom myself. Where, I gave some thought to what I was doing the classroom.

It is trite to say that the classroom is a complex place, but it is no less true to say it. Learning is perplexing. Mathematics education in a state school is mystifying. It is no surprise then that theorists in education have all but given up theorising it all, but prefer to take a partial view – to look at aspects, elements or cases within the totality.

A popular explanation in mathematics education research is that teachers’ actions and behaviours are underpinned by their knowledge and beliefs. It follows then, that to change teachers’ behaviours in the classroom, one might deploy professional development that is designed to develop the teachers’ knowledge and that changes beliefs. There are many things wrong with this approach, not least is that in many cases it doesn’t lead to lasting changes. Fundamentally, it is the treatment of the teacher as deficient with little value is given to teacher autonomy and agency. There are theoretical problems too. Theory is based on knowledge and beliefs have many associations with constructivist perspectives on the psychology of learning. Knowledge and beliefs, in relation to teachers’ thoughts and actions, suggest that the teacher constructs, mentally, a guide fraction and then they follow it. What this disregards, is the effect of in-the-moment responses and decisions by the teacher. A teacher’s thinking is much more dynamic than the constructivist view might suggest.

While critical now, it was against this theoretical backdrop that I begin my research into mathematics teacher professional learning in 2010 as part of my PhD research.

Mathematics teachers’ beliefs were the preferred explanation of my funders and supervisors of teachers’ thinking and their classroom practices. It was also their preferred explanation of how teachers learn new practices and approaches. I had an extended period where I was critically engaged with research and theory around teachers’ beliefs.

While the popular account of mathematics teachers’ actions was based on their knowledge and beliefs, there were competing views coming from a ‘social’ perspective on learning. In this teacher learning involves a process of becoming socialised into a ‘community of practice’. It is an indoctrination into practices and ‘ways of doing things’ – adopting the principles, language and ideas of the mathematics teaching profession, especially as it is in the locality. ‘Change’ or teacher learning must involve some change in the community to permit the individual teacher to change.

As I began to collect data, I felt that the ‘constructivist’ (that based on knowledge and beliefs) and the sociocultural both were valid but partial explanations of what was happening. The research literature appeared to show that the constructivist and sociocultural views of teacher learning were mostly in an ideological conflictual impasse.

My classroom observations revealed another aspect of professional action, which where non-cognitive factors such as motivation and confidence. These appeared to have a considerable impact on the way in which teachers taught, whether they would implement ambitious teaching approaches as opposed to whether they would stick more resolutely to the orthodox teacher explanation, followed by student practice. Ambitious teaching (Stylianides & Stylianides, 2014) is where greater mathematical authority and authorship (Povey & Burton, 1999) is given to the students. It is more demanding on teachers since the lesson becomes less predictable, the teacher devolves control. And while this can offer a positive learning experience for students, they can actually experience what it is like to be a mathematician, it can also substantially increase the level of anxiety in the classroom. This also makes the teacher anxious. This increased anxiety can encourage the teacher to return to well-established routines, routines like traditional chalk-‘n’-talk followed by student practice.

Earlier this year I presented a paper at the Congress of the European Society for Research in Utrecht. In this paper, I revisit the research into teacher thinking, or particularly, teacher decision making and the nature of the choices they make in the classroom (Watson, 2019). Based on my research (I have actually spent about four years looking at one teacher do one lesson and his reflections on his thinking during the lesson), I believed that the character of the lesson was heavily influenced by the momentary decisions that teachers make. They constantly have a choice to follow well-established routines or to open the learning up and give more mathematical author/ship/ity to the students.

The research into classroom decision-making revealed that a primary aim of the teacher was to maintain the ‘flow’ of the lesson (Clark & Peterson, 1986), that is to maintain it as a socially smooth-running experience. If you imagine a middle-class dinner party with a degree of formality, there are a number of social routines and passages of discourse that fill the time without creating an awkward situation in which someone might feel ‘uncomfortable’. In such a situation the level of discomfort might lead to an unpredictable or ‘controversial’ response. The ‘smooth running’ of the dinner is destroyed (I don’t say that this is a good or bad thing, least to say that such things are the inspiration for Mike Leigh e.g. Abigail’s Party).


While the teacher in a mathematics classroom might have less interest in middle class aspirations as the basis for wanting to maintain flow and smooth runningness in their class, there is a similar motive for affective containment – for staying in comfort zones.

And I am not the only one to deploy the analogy of dinner. Stigler and Hiebert, in their video study of practice in the USA, Germany and Japan, observed a culturally-specific ‘script’ in the mathematics lessons they observed. They suggested that the routines in mathematics classrooms were culturally embedded and that they were smooth running because teachers and students all knew the parameters of the script that they were expected to follow.

Family dinner is a cultural activity. Cultural activities are represented in cultural scripts, generalized knowledge about an event that resides in the heads of participants. These scripts guide behavior and also tell participants what to expect. Within a culture, these scripts are widely shared, and therefore they are hard to see. Family dinner is such a familiar activity that it sounds strange to point out all its customary features. We rarely think about how it might be different from what it is. On the other hand, we certainly would notice if a feature were violated; we’d be surprised, for example, to be offered a menu at a family dinner, or to be presented with a check at the end of the meal (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999, Kindle locations 1098-1103).

In my recent work on teacher decision making, I have created an integrated model of teacher decision making which incorporates cognitive psychology and social psychology: it reflects the cognitive, affective, social and cultural aspects of human action. I sketch this out in a little more detail in the conference paper I mentioned earlier (Watson, 2019), but to summarise the key ideas around teacher decision making in the classroom: decisions begin with the senses. The teacher observes a class’s and individuals’ behaviours. The teacher continues to implement their lesson plan (a mental model or script of the lesson) until there is something that draws their attention, it might be a student having difficulty with the activities or tasks or some other behaviour that is raising the level of anxiety in the classroom. The effect of this is that the teacher’s attention turns to the phenomena and the teacher’s level of anxiety might increase. All this is taking place unconsciously using the autonomic nervous system (the limbic system). It might be that the teacher responds unconsciously, there might be a routine or ‘script’ in the teacher’s memory that they might deploy because it is a fairly routine situation to deal with. An experienced teacher does not need to do lot of conscious deliberation over the situations they meet, they have experienced many similar patterns of behaviour and are able to use this embedded knowledge to respond without thinking. This is a useful thing in demanding situations, since conscious reasoning is demanding on the body’s resources. Yet, there are situations in which the teacher might meet a difficult situation in which they have to think more deeply about a possible course of action. And while meditation on an issue is often of value, in fast-moving and demanding environments like the maths classroom, it is an indulgence that has limited opportunity to be enjoyed. The teacher is very much relying on culturally embedded scripts and pre-thought routines to guide their actions in the lesson.

The cybernetics of teacher decision making

I want to examine teacher decision making using cybernetics. Because, I think it will tell us more about the classroom environment rather than just focussing on individuals. I am going to treat the mathematics classroom (or any classroom) as a dynamic system. This deemphasises the individuals in the classroom and incorporates all objects and matter. We therefore have a complex dynamic system, within which there are other complex dynamic systems i.e. the teacher and the individual students. You will note that I am not treating them as ‘black boxes’ but as dynamic systems that co-exist.

A surviving dynamic system

The classroom as a part of an institution, as part of an education system, must endure as system. It has to be contained and ‘productive’ whatever that might mean in this context. If it ends up out of control at least it is time limited (and I have had some classes that have gone out of control and observed classes that have been close to degenerating into an out-of-control state). The state of being out-of-control ends with the end of the lesson. The condition that the individuals leave the class might have an effect on other classes, but the instability of the system has ended with the buzzer or bell. Stafford Beer points out that institutions and organisations have to be surviving dynamic systems, they have to adapt to their contexts and internal and external perturbations in order to remain stable.

A central law in the stability of dynamic systems is Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety. This tells us that the only way in which variety can be absorbed by a dynamic system is through matching it with the system’s variety. This is to say that whatever the number of possible states of the environment or the context, the only way a dynamic system can maintain stability is by having a matching number of possible states. It is not always possible to design systems so that they have enough variety to counter their environment or context’s variety. A mathematics classroom is a complex context and to control or attenuate the variety, the system is regulated by introducing rules and practices. The teacher provides the regulatory function by applying and enforcing rules and controlling behaviour. The ‘variety’ in respect to the individual and collective students is attenuated to match the variety available, not only in the class but also in the school. Schools have limited resources and limited flexibility, so there is a great need for students to conform in order that they do not exceed the variety available in the school and create instability.

If students are not from school-oriented backgrounds then the level of variety increases a further few notches and the school with its finite resources and organisational inflexibility must introduce further regulation. However, in many cases though, this scope for regulation is not possible and the law of requisite variety is not met and you get a ‘troubled’ school.

While regulation has the effect of maintaining the stability of the classroom it has an effect on the learning that is taking place in the lesson. Part of the regulation process leads to a ‘traditional’ approach to learning, the teacher explanation followed by student practice. All this is inhibiting variety to keep the classroom ‘stable’.

There is dissonance here, a tension or a conflict; regulation of variety to match the limited variety of the school and the education system and other hand this regulation has an impact on the learning process. Let us think here of individuals as dynamic systems engaged in learning a complex subject like mathematics. The curriculum is determinate, it is a body of knowledge and practices, but represents a regulated version of what mathematics is as a dynamic system. The mathematics curriculum is determinate while mathematics is an indeterminate dynamic system.

In cybernetic terms the learning of a dynamic system is developing adaptability: to develop the capacity to survive amongst complexity and unknowability. Yet, the attenuation that takes place in the classroom, in the school and in the education system does not provide an environment in which students can develop and use ‘variety’. As a society we tend to ignore the indeterminacy and accept the assumption that learning must be determinate and that the society we live in is determinate. Effectively, our education system is attenuative of variety, which is the process of social reproduction that Marxists refer to.

The mathematics classroom as ontological theatre

But I am drawing myself into a cybernetic analysis of the education system – something that I don’t quite want to do quite yet. I just remark that the education system is significant in the work of the teacher as a dynamic system. But where I need to get back to presently is the ontological theatre of the mathematics classroom.

Ontological theatre is a term used by Andrew Pickering in the opening of his book, The Cybernetic Brain – a book that tells the story of the British Cyberneticians.

Cybernetics presents a view of the world as ‘theatre’. These are performances, rather than Enlightenment representations. The philosophical basis of cybernetics is ontological, it is performance that creates a reality, that gives the world form. This is weird if one thinks of it in terms of entities. External objects ‘exist’, they are not formed through performance, they are already there. But don’t think of entities, don’t think of the world as the object of our thought, think how it is brought into being by being a product of the formation and interaction of dynamic systems. This is not agents bringing the world into being, but about dynamic systems interacting with agency as an ‘output’ of the processes. That is not to say we don’t have control i.e. free will. Our free will is the capacity to assert our adaptability and not, as it is often considered to be us asserting ourselves on the future. No! We can’t do that.

An ontological theater […] a vision of the world in which fluid and dynamic entities evolve together in a decentred fashion, exploring each other’s properties in a performative back-and-forth dance of agency (Pickering, 2010, p. 106).

This is from the chapter on Ross Ashby, we see the suggestion that ‘entities’ are dynamic systems in equilibrium in a complex and unknowable environment.

In order to consider the ontological theatre of the classroom, we have to dig deeper and think about what we mean by thinking (and learning) in cybernetic terms. You will see some links not just now but in what I have already written that there are some shared concerns that are raised by the new materialists and even the object-oriented ontologists.


Clark, C. M., & Peterson, P. L. (1986). Teachers’ thought processes. In M. C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (3rd ed., pp. 255–296). New York: Macmillan.

Pickering, A. (2010). The cybernetic brain: sketches of another future. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Povey, H., & Burton, L. (1999). Learners as authors in the mathematics classroom. In L. Burton (Ed.), Learning mathematics: from hierarchies to networks (pp. 232–245). London: Falmer.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

Stylianides, G. J., & Stylianides, A. J. (2014). The role of instructional engineering in reducing the uncertainties of ambitious teaching. Cognition and Instruction, 32(4), 374–415.

Watson, S. (2019). Revisiting teacher decision making in the mathematics classroom: a multidisciplinary approach. Presented at the Eleventh Congress of the European Society for Research in Mathematics Education (CERME11), Utrecht University.


Designing freedom – principles for a cybernetic university

I feel it necessary to begin with a reminder of what I’m talking about when I refer to cybernetics. Since ‘cybernetic’ can evoke a range of ideas which might include cyborgs (human-machine hybrids), systems and control, general technology and the Internet, robots or perhaps just a replacement of human interaction by machines. But when I’m talking about cybernetics what I mean is a view of the world as interactions of complex dynamic systems. Some of those dynamic systems are man-made and artificial, much of our environment is ‘natural’ and populated by evolved (and evolving) living things.

What I’m getting towards in this post is to consider what a university might be like if it were designed using cybernetic principles. But before doing that I need to put forward some of the underlying principles and ideas of cybernetics to help you to think in a cybernetic way and key to this is the dynamic system.

Dynamic Systems

A very general account of what a dynamic system involves considering the universal system, i.e. the universe, as a dynamic system of matter and energy. The universe consists of subsystems which are not only dynamic systems of matter and energy in their own right, through the universal dynamic system they are in a constant state of interaction with the universe and other systems. The subsystem can be characterised as an entity, as having form, but in cybernetic thinking these are the outputs of the subsystem and not its processes.

Stafford Beer highlighted this distinction: that dynamic systems can be seen as an entity, that is its ‘form’ in terms of its outputs, or it can be seen as a ‘dynamic system’ of behaviours and processes (Beer, 1974). The dynamic system view emphasises more strongly the relationships and interactions between systems since they are part of a universal dynamic system of matter and energy. The classical view of entities seeks to understand the relationship between the form of those entities, this is the case with Newtonian physics. Quantum theory presents us with a dynamic and stochastic system.

So far, I have described what we could call the ‘natural’ world or at least insofar as to say the parts of the world that are not alive. Living things are special kinds of dynamic systems. They have evolved to become self-conscious and self-aware – I don’t profess to say that all living things are self-conscious and self-aware, I just want to present a definition of living things as a process. The process leads to agency and that is an ability to perceive self-control and a claim to have some degree of conscious control over the natural world and environment.

Consciousness also leads to production, to manufacture and fabrication; we are able to make tools and imbue in the form of those tools a design. Tools are artefacts with purpose. As well as the significant material tools such as the wheel or the pulley system, humanity has created the immaterial and intangible tools and systems to organise and systematise language, thought and society. We have created an artificial world based on our collective experience of living in that world, but one that has become increasingly abstract and alien to dynamic systems, but which remains, paradoxically, – because it is part of the natural world – a dynamic system.

I have classified the world into three types of dynamic systems: the natural world, the living world and the artificial world.

Dynamic systems must adapt to the changing environment in which they exist, otherwise they do not survive, they do not remain viable. Stafford Beer illustrates a non-surviving dynamic system as a wave approaching a beach. It demonstrates the principles of fluid dynamics, it might be said that the wave obeys the principles of hydrodynamics, but ultimately it becomes unstable and ‘breaks’.

Organisations and institutions must remain viable, while also being dynamic systems. Here, I am going to consider Stafford Beer’s idea of the viable system model (VSM) to consider how a university might remain viable within a changing environment.

Viable systems model (VSM) and human society

A VSM is a dynamic system that is capable of adaptation to a changing, complex or unpredictable environment. Living things are demonstrably consistent with VSMs, that is they can adapt to and respond to a complex social and physical environment. Dynamic systems are viable because they can deal with and respond to complexity. It is no surprise that Beer developed the VSM with reference to living things.

Human beings use a culturally compiled and genetically embedded capacity to identify patterns in complexity to help them respond to their environments – to allow them to steer their way. Humanity, for something of the order of 10,000 generations, has been psychologically, anatomically and physiologically adapting in response to its environment. It has passed on information genetically and socially to allow the next generation to adapt more effectively (Harries-Jones, 2010). As civilisation has emerged, this adaptation has also had to respond to a world created by the imagination of humanity, the dynamics systems of government and institutions: the hierarchies, structures and systems of society and its organisations, institutions and firms.

The capacity for pattern matching to guide individual action relies on the 100 billion neurons in the human body. What we sense is an incomplete picture of the world, it is the excess or redundancy of neural networks that allow the construction of an excess of different patterns which may complete the partial picture of reality and match that to what is in memory and embedded in our DNA. Pioneering cybernetician, Warren McCulloch, developed an account along the following lines:

Redundancy ensures that any element in the neural network is repeated, and repeated, and repeated. Instead of being a supernumerary feature of the neural network, the very primacy of its redundancy ensures an extremely high chance that whatever information the nervous system receives is coincident with something in the world… (Harries-Jones, 2010, p. 2368).

The individual human being is equipped to be a VSM with their capacity to respond to a complex and changing environment. Collectively, human beings with even a primitive form of communication, have a greater collective power as a VSM. The implementation of a system of power and hierarchy results in structures that potentially limit the viability of subjugated individuals or groups, because they are then subject to abstract rules. We can see here how a Hobbesian social contract emerges, where the individual concedes a degree of liberty in order to accept the security of the state. This also assumes that the ‘untamed’ human is a savage and it is a necessity that order prevails. Hobbes sees the exchange of liberty as natural and necessary. From a cybernetics perspective we can see civilisation and belonging to a state compromises the VSM. While people living in civilised society can do so healthily and productively, there are groups and individuals that will become unstable. Contrast this with Rousseau who believed in the creative completeness of the free individual, that humankind is not savage au naturel.

According to Marx, it was the division of labour, the artificial formatting of society in response to the dynamics of capitalism that leads to alienation.

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature (Marx, Comments on James Mill, 1844).

The compromise of individual viability as a result of our attempts to organise society in abstract ways represents a cybernetic account of alienation. Instead of using our intuitions to navigate our place in the world we are subject to an artificial hierarchy in which we are engaged in a rational puzzle, where the rules of the game are defined by those with privilege and power. When we get to the subunits of society, departments and institution, we see the same system of hierarchy and control.

VSM in organisational design

Beer was a successful post war operational researcher in the UK’s newly nationalised industries. It was in the steel industry under an economy actively managed by the state, broadly under the principles put forward by Keynes, that Beer began to develop a cybernetic model of organisational design.

An important observation for Beer was that it was not the steel rolling mill’s output that was the defining feature of the mill, it was its processes and the way in which it could respond to external changes. His interest in developing ‘variety’ to respond to the context led him to some early experiments in biocomputing. He attempted to use iron filings to act as an interface with pond life to provide a living neural network. This failed but was pioneering work in the field.

The VSM was a later iteration for Beer, his model for the organisation of a firm was based on the human body. It had five hierarchical systems, but not hierarchical in the same sense as many organisations are currently formatted, where there is a system of rules and controls. The hierarchy in Beer’s cybernetic design was based on information flows rather than rules or constraints.

Figure 1 Metaphorum’s simple VSM

System 1

System 1 represents the operational aspects of the organisation. In the above example, this is a commercial enterprise involving the buying and selling of commodities (there may be some transformation as part of that process).

For the two decades or more, we have increasingly seen the student and the researcher as funder, as a customer. Whatever the framing the university’s primary function is to provide education, scholarship and research for the benefit of society. Metrics have become increasingly important in a marketized higher education system. This metrification and datafication of complex systems like health and education can create really perverse incentives in the operation of university departments. While there are industries whose operations are reasonably quantified, the information about the process in a university must primarily be qualitative to reflect the complexity. There is a need to manage spending of course but to what extent does this need to be related directly to the process of research and teaching, apart from to say how much each programme is allocated?

System 2

System 2 represents the information channels and bodies that allow the primary activities in System 1 to communicate between each other and which allow System 3 to monitor and co-ordinate the activities within System 1.

A small faculty or department can have informal channels of communication and systems of communication. The social life of the department is hugely important in allowing these channels. Communication must have face-to-face embodied engagements to allow individuals the opportunity to communicate at an emotional level as well as in communicating rational detail. System 1 and 2 are operational and should be autonomous. It is the perspective of proximity that individuals and groups in localised operations that make them best placed to make decisions about their operations. The point at which information must go to system 3 is when there are events and experiences that are outside the usual range of operation. This is the cue for systems 3, 4 and 5 to compare this experience with what is happening across the organisation and in the wider context.

As with system 1 there is an increasing datafication of these communications, a range of indicators and performance figures must be compared with other departments and benchmarks. The performance in system 1 operations becomes limited to the targets and benchmarks, rather than attending to the more open-ended operations of teaching and research. In England we have the REF (research excellence framework) and more recently the TEF (teaching excellence framework). These ‘performance-related’ measures present a narrow definition of research and teaching and in respect to the REF, research funding is allocated on the basis of performance in it. It is of little wonder that the faculty or department discuss targets, performance indicators, unit costs and quantifiable outputs at length but pay little attention to the actual processes or in understanding the organisation. Strategy in the contemporary institution is about hitting targets rather than developing an adaptable institution. Metaphorum make some further observations about system 2.

System 2 deals with the inevitable problems which emerge as a number of autonomous, self-organising operational parts interact.  There will be conflicts of interest which must be resolved. System 2 is there to harmonise the interactions, to keep the peace, to deal with the problems (

It is possible to imagine a university department or faculty made up of a number of teaching and research system 1 sub-units and system 2 providing the links and organisation between them. The emphasis in Stafford Beer’s work is that system 1 operations must have maximum autonomy. These are self-organising and self-managing units but linked together through system 2 communications.

System 3

System 3 is the first layer of management and is concerned with synergy. It surveys the interacting operational units from a more detached position, it is looking to find ways in which operational units might collaborate more effectively. It is not looking to manage performance but to seek opportunities in which operational units can collaborate or work together more effectively.

System 4

Has an outward looking perspective, it is looking to provide information about changes to the environment, i.e. threats and opportunities. System 4 provides the means to cope with a changing environment.

System 5

Is the highest level of management in an institutional subunit. Its role is to develop the values and vision of the system through the development of policy. It creates identity, ethos, ground rules under which everyone operates. In my own faculty, this would likely be the Faculty Board.

The recursive university

The VSM is a recursive model where viable systems contain viable systems which use the same principles. So in the University of Cambridge, we might see a faculty or department as a system 1 to 5 VSM. At school level, as a collection of departments and faculties, a higher-level VSM with a system 1 to 5 model, where system 1 operational units are the faculties and departments. A further layer is required at university level. A university involves at least three tiers of VSM.

The politics of VSM

Before contrasting this proposed cybernetic design for education with the current model, I want to deviate into the political perspectives. Because the way in which I have presented the VSM is as hierarchical, that is in spite of me stressing the autonomy of operations, it is fundamentally about rules and subordination. Or at least that’s how it might look. Swann sets out to rehabilitate cybernetics to consider (as I am attempting to do here) the potential for radical and alternative forms of organisation (Swann, 2018). Swann looks to an anarchist cybernetic, but first distances anarchism from characterisations of chaos and disorder, but as a doctrine that seeks emancipation. Moreover, anarchism became established as an emancipatory movement but contrasting with statist socialism that was a significant interpretation of Marx. There is in anarchism a strand that emphasises the self-determination of the individual and small groups, which rather resonates with the cybernetic empowerment of the adaptive individual. The question is, how do we build systems of government and institutional organisation to maximise the liberties of the individual? For Hayek, this was largely an impossibility and that market exchange should be the organising principle. Since this exchange deals at a stroke with uncertainty and unknowability. We have been through a forty-year period where this ideology has been dominant and we now, hopefully, see it at an end; as the scale of inequality, fraud, corruption and damage to society and communities becomes increasingly evident. The cybernetic view is that individuals can and do know, just not in the abstract sense of a pure knowledge, but in the process of action and decision-making within contexts, much as in the tradition of the pragmatists, C S Peirce, William James and John Dewey.

In Chantal Mouffe’s recent book Toward a Left Populism, she repeats an earlier motivation she held with her collaborator Ernesto Laclau:

…to question the belief held by some people on the left, that to move towards a more just society, it was necessary to relinquish liberal-democratic institutions and to build a completely new politeia, a new political community from scratch. We asserted that, in democratic societies, in our view could be carried out through a critical engagement with the existing institutions (Mouffe, 2018, p. 39).

What Mouffe is putting forward is to use both the raw political force of direct action and left populism but to build within this a radical redesign of existing institutions, to give them a strong democratic foundation and that promotes human flourishing. It is likely that the design work has been initiated and developed by Stafford Beer. And it is a good point to be reminded that Beer’s hierarchy is a structure of communication and not a structure of power and control.

Beer tells the story of his first meeting with Salvador Allende, elected President of Chile in 1970 and the world’s first elected democratic socialist. Beer presented his VSM model to Allende, who had trained as pathologist. Beer explained how Allende understood completely the analogy of human physiology in organisational design. When Beer pointed to the system 5 element, he said he expected Allende to say “El Presidente” but instead he said, “El pueblo” – the village. Allende perhaps envisaged the inclusive democratic and community orientation of the VSM. It is likely that instead of seeing the VSM as a top-down autocratic and bureaucratic, it was a model driven by people for the people. At least this is how Beer recalled it. Beer went on to develop Cybersyn to manage the economy in Chile, this was halted when Allende was murdered in a coup in 1973 which was supported and most likely orchestrated by the CIA.

But on Mouffe’s principle of populism, direct action and radically reforming institutions, what is there in this as a political project? There are two dimensions to this the first to push back against the existing capitalist hegemony, since this is the system that provides the conditions in which our institutions become increasingly hierarchical and underpinned by power and control. Populism has the force to highlight this as an injustice and to expand a social movement, direct action can be used to force negotiations by using a mass force to redress the imbalances of power that would want to retain the status quo. But beyond this we do need to construct possible futures and the key one is how we organise our institutions and workplaces.

About two years ago I was thinking about what the key features should be in political action in our institutions to force change. I came up with three themes: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity (Watson, 2017). Thinking about cybernetics has allowed me to develop these themes further:

  • Democracy – is the participation of individuals in society and their contribution to shared decisions. The VSM provides a blueprint for an organisation of not just institutions and firms, but also of society.
  • Scholarship – this is the intellectual engagement; a cybernetic view of the world lights up all sorts of possibilities in terms of scholarship. While this might continue to be basic research, the practical, the real-time and the applied become live and real.
  • Activism – one can be an even more motivated activist when there are possibilities and those possibilities are realisable.
  • Solidarity – just as with activism, there is a sense that these four aspects of political action are all connected and none of these processes can work without a deep sense of solidarity and collectivism.

Concluding remarks

It has been a long and speculative journey for a blog post. In its writing, I have clarified some of my thinking and left some areas unexplored, notably I have not yet endeavoured to contrast the current operations of the University of Cambridge, for example, with the cybernetic views. That became too big a project for this post. This might be because, I couldn’t get away from thinking about the institution in wider society, there felt something unreasonable in trying to redesign an already privileged institution. However, there is an opportunity to think about what Cambridge does in leading society and part of what it must do is think about how its institutions might use VSM to model this for society and be a part of radical changes in society and the world. But at the moment it is ground down by the risk averse culture that is being used as a disciplining force, which in my view is making it less stable and limiting its genuine contribution to making the world a better place.


Beer, S. (1974). Designing freedom. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Harries-Jones, P. (2010). Bioentropy, aesthetics and meta-dualism: the transdisciplinary ecology of Gregory Bateson. Entropy, 12(12), 2359–2385.

Mouffe, C. (2018). For a left populism. London ; New York: Verso.

Swann, T. (2018). Towards an anarchist cybernetics: Stafford Beer, self-organisation and radical social movements. Ephemera: Theory, Politics and Organization, 18(3), 427–456.

Watson, S. (2017). A manifesto for control: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity. In L. Rycroft-Smith & J.-L. Dutaut (Eds.), Flip the system UK: a teachers’ manifesto (pp. 68–75). London: Routledge.


Designing freedom – cybernetics and the fallacy of de-risking in Higher Education

Having completed an analysis of the systemic problems with my own institution(s), it is now time to think about what needs to be done. Much of what I have been doing follows a rather orthodox approach of labour-capital antagonism – a so-called ‘class struggle’. While this is an important political motivation, it is not enough. It was a reasonable strategy in nineteenth century industrial capitalism, where the working class as a homogenous group were engaged in a struggle against industrial capital. And to some degree, this approach was successful in delivering social justice.

However, as Marx predicted capital adapts; the system of capitalism adapts and takes on new and more complex forms integrating consumption, finance, credit, risk and derivative capitalism. The ‘system’ – the global system (which I am not going to go into here) – has become complex. The kind of capital and labour formulations of the early twenty-first century can no longer be characterised as a system of two groups: bourgeoisie and proletariat. Arguably, each of us has some stake in capitalism, as much as we might have an aspiration for social democracy or democratic socialism.

This then is my starting point, a complex system of capital, humanity, institutions, technology, environment and culture. Let us subject this to the cybernetic thought of Stafford Beer, primarily drawing on the six radio broadcasts given in 1973 as the thirteenth series of Massey Lectures (Beer, 1973), this was brought to my attention, as was Stafford Beer, by the podcast, General Intellect Unit (General Intellect Unit, n.d.)

Dynamic systems and institutions

Let me begin by illustrating what Beer means by a dynamic system. In his first lecture he uses the example of a wave on the ocean, a wave approaching the beach, with its ‘happy white crest’. The wave is a dynamic system (Beer, 1973). Beer contrasts dynamic systems with entities, a dynamic system is defined by its behaviour and an entity is defined by its characteristics. The wave, Beer explains

…consists of flows of water, which are its parts, and the relations between those flows, which are governed by the natural laws of systems of water that are investigated by the science of hydrodynamics. The appearances of the wave, its shape and the happy white crest, are actually outputs of this system (Beer, 1974, p. 4).

It is the outputs of the system that are the characteristics of that system if it is treated as an entity. In the wave, it is the way that the system is organised that results in its behaviour.

Social systems and institutions (I am thinking here of universities and their subunits, faculties and departments) are also dynamic systems, where their outputs are a result of the behaviour of those dynamics systems in a complex environment. Figure 1 illustrates a simple model of an institution as a dynamic system. The poles with guy ropes represent the formal propositions that people hold in that institution. The ball represents a point that at any moment is the net output state of a system. The cat represents the effects of a complex and uncertain environment (Beer, 1974).

Figure 1 Beer’s model of an institution as a simple system

The assumption is in a risk averse institutional culture (see my previous post), the institutional propositions define the output, they ignore the perturbations introduced by an uncertain environment (the cat in Figure 1). Beer goes on to define relaxation time, which is the time it takes for the representative point (the position of the ball in Figure 1) to reach stability after a perturbation.

In Figure 2, Beer shows how in larger organisations relaxation time is likely to take longer. If everyone in that organisation, Beer says, has complete freedom then instability is likely to amplify and lead to catastrophe.

Figure 2 Complexity of the larger organisation

How organisations de-risk in Beer’s terms

How do institutions cope with complexity, uncertainty or as Beer calls them ‘arbitrary interferences’ (i.e. the cat)? In my previous post I demonstrated the mechanisms of control through de-risking at the University of Cambridge. I am not going to entirely resolve the characterisation I presented there with Beer’s observations here. I am just going to set things up, in order that I can proceed in a future blog.

According to Beer – and remember, of course, he is of-his-time in reflecting on organisations, culture and economy – there are three main ways in which institutions try to defend against instability as a result of complex organisations in complex environments.

  1. The boss controls the freedom of his subordinates – in Figure 3 this is shown by the manager with control ropes connecting to his subordinates.
  2. Another method is to introduce ‘rules’. These are rigid connections that connect the threads operated by individuals in the organisation (it looks like a spider’s web).
  3. The institution does not accept interference and exerts control over those with whom it interacts. In Figure 3 someone has shot the cat.

Figure 3 How institutions attempt to mitigate for complexity and uncertainty

Ashby’s law of requisite variety

This is a relatively simple notion. Although Beer pointed out that if there are many individuals in an organisation, all with complete freedom, then perturbations can lead to greater instability. So an institution does need some kind of organisational system, cybernetics tells us that we should treat it as a dynamic system. The strong temptation for managers is to treat the institution as an entity, defined by its outputs, and then to introduce constraints (as in Figure 3) to preserve the characteristics – to preserve the entity.

The law of requisite variety tells us that for dynamic systems it is only ‘variety’ that can absorb ‘variety’. This means that where there is complexity and arbitrary perturbations, the institution needs to preserve variety – its capacity to respond creatively – in order to respond to the external variety i.e. the complexity of the environment.

The problem is with the methods of mitigating for external ‘variety’ using hierarchical control or rules, is that variety is reduced within the institution as a system. This, counter intuitively, creates potential instability because these approaches are likely to be catastrophic, the institution renders itself incapable of responding to external perturbations. In fact, the University of Cambridge found itself in this kind of situation in the first half of the nineteenth century. The governance approach allowed the right of individual veto (one of the most conservatising systems of governance), which meant the university was incapable of responding to a changing external environment. In the end the state had to intervene with a Royal Commission in 1852, followed by one in 1872 and a third in 1920.

Let me look at variety in a different way. Gregory Bateson equates redundancy with variety to explain our capacity to manage and make sense of sensory inputs. We have an excess of neurons which are able to configure and pattern in numerous ways to fill in the gaps and make sense of our experiences (Harries-Jones, 2010). It is this pattern matching process that is central to a dynamic system’s capacity to respond to a complex and changing environment, where there is uncertainty and missing information. The same system redundancy and variety is required in an organisation in order that the system can adapt, learn and respond. Ashby’s law of requisite variety restates this, that there must be variety in the system to match the variety of the environment to allow adaptation. This is how dynamic systems survive and also why ‘happy white crests’ which are governed by the laws of hydrodynamics represent an instability and the onset of a ‘personal’ catastrophe.

Final comment

In this post, I have explained the ideas of dynamic systems operating in uncertainty and complexity. It leads to the conclusion that is a requirement that an institution must preserve variety in order to adapt to a changing context. This suggests that the Higher Education sector is being lured into strategic error by responding with de-risking and organisational conservatism. The next question is what can be done? We are faced with a capital labour-struggle within a complex system. Therefore, what we must do is use the established forms of direct labour action but also look toward how universities must be re-designed to facilitate variety, freedom and adaptability. This I will address in my next post.



Beer, S. (1973). Designing freedom. CBC Massey Lectures. Retrieved from

Beer, S. (1974). Designing freedom. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

General Intellect Unit. (n.d.). Designing freedom. Retrieved from

Harries-Jones, P. (2010). Bioentropy, aesthetics and meta-dualism: the transdisciplinary ecology of Gregory Bateson. Entropy, 12(12), 2359–2385.


Higher Education – a risky business

It was the universities pension strike in England last year that drew my attention to financial risk as a feature of the landscape in higher education. I was aware of risk in relation to private sector markets and business. Something that was brought to the public’s attention during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. The film, The Big Short, dramatized the risk taking and fraudulent modelling that led up to the GFC .

The pensions strike was prompted by universities wanting to – or at least some did (and especially mine) – ‘de-risk’. That is, they wanted to reduce their exposure to losses in case the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) became unviable. The question is then, why the imperative to de-risk, and why now?

Public spending restrained – credit unleashed

The question is best answered by considering the political economic trajectory that advanced economies have been following in recent decades. In the UK, an important point of transition was in 1976, when the then Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey took out a loan, on the UK’s behalf, from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). And as a condition of that loan, the UK had to reduce public spending. Although Healey was not the major villain here, the real villainy was from the subsequent Conservative governments and to some degree the New Labour government. The primary objective of the Thatcher government between 1979 and 1992 was to reduce the size of the state and roll back public spending. The New Labour government continued fiscal conservatism but promoted income distribution.

Most voters accepted this and accepted the analogy that the national economy was like their own personal finances. That a reduction in outgoings is, on the whole, sound economic practice and represents prudence. It is an application of the Micawber Principle at the macro level.

The problem is, of course, that unlike a household economy, income and expenditure are dependent on each other in a national economy. A nation state with a sovereign currency is a closed fiscal system. If there is a reduction in state spending, then this reduces the amount of state-created money within that system. The only means by which money can be created is through private-sector banking, though a mixture of secured and unsecured loans. A reduction in state spending depresses demand because people have less cash in their pockets, that is unless you encourage people to take on loans. This is exactly what happened in the UK from the 1970s onwards.

In 1971 reforms were made to the banking sector which liberalised credit; further deregulation took place in the 1980s making it much easier for anyone to get credit. The introduction of right-to-buy marked the expansion of secured debt. It had the effect of coupling consumer spending and economic growth increasingly to debt and inflating house prices. Figure 1 (by Steve Keen) illustrates this (and I have a print of this on A3 on my office wall because it is so significant). We see an unprecedented expansion of private-sector created money (the red line) or “money created from nothing”. The blue line, credit, is the annual change in debt.

Figure 1 UK Debt and Credit from

Risk and speculation

Private credit is but one way of seeing the character of capitalism that we have experienced in the UK for the last forty or so years. Another way of framing this is through considering value extraction through speculation.

Speculation, originally a word to denote the sensory experience of sight and vision, has also come to mean seeing into the future or drawing abstract conclusions about what might happen. In the Netherlands in the early seventeenth Century, there was one of the world’s first speculative economic events – Tulip Mania. This was a result of advances in the Dutch financial and banking system and the introduction of futures trading rather than the existing existential bills of exchange. This meant that buyers could buy produce that had not already been grown or commodities that had not already been made and it was possible to sell that contract before the goods had been received. This permitted a speculative market based on what something might be worth in the future. The value of futures contracts was dependent on the confidence that traders had in the valuations of future worth.

Tulip Mania resulted in a speculative bubble in which investors obsessively speculated on the price of tulip bulbs and it is believed, at the peak, prized bulbs were equivalent to the price of a family home in Amsterdam. Whether this is true or not, we do know that in the end the bubble burst and many people lost everything and more.

What we see here is an emergent relationship between risk and capital, or at least the emergent practices for financial speculation. Like all subsequent bubbles it is those with the most accurate and most up-to-date information who can extract value. The ‘punters’ are easily left without shirts, or homes or with debts.

Future value and risk

Humans, as conscious beings, have a propensity to become preoccupied with the future.

Hundreds of millennia before cities, agriculture and the other civilisational trappings with which we presently identify the human, Palaeolithic humans ‘awoke to the predicament of ourselves in time’ (Frank 2011: xviii). This predicament marks the realisation that irrespective of what we do in life, death marks the finitude of earthly existence. Our inherent ‘being-towards-death’ (Heidegger 2010) is the inevitable context of all human action and the driving force behind ‘our determination to live in such a fashion that we transcend our tragic limitation’ (McManners 1981: 2). (Stevens, 2015, p. 44).

The preoccupation with future outcomes becomes increasingly pronounced at the same time as capitalism develops during the early part of the modern period. A little later, mathematical grounding was developed by the Bernoulli brothers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The new theory considered both probability and consequences – that is, not just the likelihood of something happening but also what might happen, or the utility of outcomes. And here we see the beginnings of risk modelling, and alongside the emergence of humanistic Enlightenment rationality: a seduction into the belief that world can be tamed by an abstract model. The flip side of the coin to risk (as it were) is uncertainty – which is the reality that we really don’t know what will happen in the future.

Frank Knight’s 1921 book, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, makes the distinction between calculable predictions and the incalculable unpredictable. This locates a site of entrepreneurship, where risk can be modelled. And much of the latter half of the twentieth century has strongly featured risk models as part of financialization: sophisticated insurance products, hedges, swaps and spread betting. These are the means by which ‘risk’ is monetised or in Marxian terms how the means by which value can be extracted.

Risk modelling can be compared to land enclosure, primitive accumulation or in David Harvey’s terms accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2004) but at an abstract level. We are dispossessed of agency on abstract matters where a proprietary model can be used to quantify risk. Effectively we pay rent on these functions: any financial transaction we are engaged in has a risk valuation attached to it, so there is a rent or interest to charged to us. Uncertainty is like a wilderness beyond the ‘enclosed’ risk, it is ignored because profit cannot be made from it, in the same way the rents cannot be charged for the wilderness that is beyond that which is enclosed.

We have seen then an expansion of financial risk modelling as part of daily life in an advanced economy. However, a latter turn has been the socialisation of risk as identified by Giddens amongst others (Reddy, 1996).

While the socialisation of risk suggests that we are sharing risk, what it really means is that the state is not underwriting risk as a result of fiscal conservatism and austerity. The state is no longer, as Francis Baring put it, the lender of last resort in the sense that quantifiable modelled risk has been appropriated by the private sector. Yet, the state is the lender of last resort in regard to uncertainty. The response of the UK and US governments to the collapse of banks during the Global Financial Crisis illustrates this. Leading up to this the state allowed the banking and financial sector to model, monitor, manage and self-regulate society’s risk. When it was found that they couldn’t, and hadn’t, the state then had to underwrite the consequences of the uncertainty that the financial sector had ignored. And they had ignored it because uncertainty unlike risk offers no opportunity for value to be extracted. Subsequently the UK government socialised the losses.

The valorisation of risk and higher education as a derivative market

Value extraction from risk is reminiscent of Marx’s conceptualisation of value extraction through M-M’ – money begets money (Marx, 1867/1981) i.e. through transformation and transactions relating to money. The calculation and modelling of risk does itself become a kind of commodity (I am not going to delve into this here, but it does have the characteristics of money too, as an exchangeable representation of worth). It is also dependent on who calculates the risk (power, authority and trustworthiness) that influences ‘worth’ of the risk. From this then we have a market for risk, venture capital and credit, with margins of relative worth, of different financial products, and therefore a means of extracting value by brokering the sale and purchase derivative financial products.

For example, when a wealthy and well-established university (or one of its colleges) decides to issue a bond to raise capital, it is not just a credit transaction, but a credit transaction that has with it a quantification or model of associated risk. What financial institutions are looking for is low risk loans to balance up riskier loans. The financial institution can then offset low-risk lending with higher-risk speculation and venture. The overall assessment of the financial institution’s viability is used then to attract investors and raise capital. For a university raising capital having a low-risk (or high credit rating) means that they can borrow at a low rate. In turn, the university can construct buildings with the capital and secure rents from their operations e.g. teaching and research.

Effectively, the 1988 Education Reform Act and subsequent policy has transformed England’s university into a derivatives market from previously being a public provision. And the risk of this enterprise is socialised amongst staff and students. Indeed, uncertainty is also socialised, because it will be staff and students that will make the personal and financial sacrifice when higher education institutions fail.

The discipline of de-risking in the University

De-risking presents a new form of disciplinary regime within public institutions. The socialisation of risk involves workers having to manage the contribution to perceived organisational risk. Risk is passed down, individuals within the organisation, as much as they might be seen as a unit of entrepreneurship, are also a unit of risk. In higher education this manifests as casualisation – an army of precarious post-docs, research assistants, zero-hours contract teachers, temporary workers and precarious support staff. They can be hired and fired and short notice. The hiring institution can limit the variability of labour capital and avoid over capacity. It can maximise income from branding, intellectual property and, as I have already pointed out, the securing of rent from capital investment in buildings. The central university is taking a rent for all the teaching and research activity, as a return on capital investment.

De-risking in the Faculty of Education

The riskier (the uncertain aspects of the university operations) that is the actual teaching and research has increasingly seen the risk underwritten by the staff and students. The initial teacher education programme (the postgraduate certificate in education, PGCE), is highly regarded. It recently received the highest grading by the inspectorate, Ofsted, who took the unusual step of not making any recommendations on how to improve the programme. The current and previous Vice Chancellors have heaped praise on the PGCE programme, it aligns closely with University’ mission of ‘doing good things’. It is one of the few areas in which scholarship and teaching are directly engaged with disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people. Consequently, the programme is complex, it involves managing partnerships with schools and having working relationships with individuals across institutions. It relies heavily on establishing and maintaining mutual understanding, resolving disputes and conflict, managing competing priorities and different purposes and ensuring there is a shared understanding of the programme. Inherently, it is risky, or to be consistent with the definitions that I have already used, it is uncertain. Necessarily, with such complexity and uncertainty, the PGCE requires financial support and a long-term commitment to it from the faculty and the university. However, within the risk-averse practices of university of administration, it is not forthcoming. What is experienced then by the staff is an allusion toward possible closure of the course (unless you make it successful). It is not what the university is going to do support the programme, the question is put to the staff – what are you going to do to make the programme a success? This is the institutional socialisation of risk. Of course the University is happy to enhance the worth of its brand with such a programme, but only if the staff working on it are prepared to take the responsibility for it. Responsibilities which include large workloads, managing complex relationships and presenting the programme in its best light to the government’s inspectorate. And over time we have seen the number of academics working on the PGCE diminish and replaced by part time teaching associates who are on more precarious teaching-only contracts.

There is a similar story to be told with the undergraduate education ‘tripos’ programme. A rich and complex interdisciplinary bachelors degree course. There are similar ongoing questions about its viability or how it can be simplified and rationalised. There are significant numbers of hourly paid supervisors and teaching-only contract lecturers.

There is a danger that the discipline of de-risking could result in the Education Faculty being a rarefied grad school, and with increasingly more evaluative research, research contracts with business, governments and the third sector, rather than asking the fundamental questions about education and its role in society.

I will conclude with Susan Robertson and Chris Muellerleile’s conclusion in their book chapter Universities, the risk industry and capitalism: a political economy critique:

… we need a different conceptual grammar to talk about the transformation of the university in the 21st Century; one that has the potential to recover the revolutionary potential of the academy in creating knowledge – without reverting to a script that romances the pre-1970s academy. This means also putting risk in its place socially, politically and economically. It means resisting the temptation to talk of the calculating university, as if this was an ontological state of being. Instead we need to see risk imaginaries, technologies and tools, as either wittingly or unwittingly being promoted or legitimated by those who benefit from the growth of the risk industry (Robertson & Muellerleile, 2016, p. 20).


Harvey, D. (2004). The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession. Socialist Register, 40 The new imperial challenge, 63–85.

Marx, K. (1981). Capital: a critique of political economy. (D. Fernbach, Trans.) (Vol. 1). London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review. (Original work published 1867)

Reddy, S. G. (1996). Claims to expert knowledge and the subversion of democracy: the triumph of risk over uncertainty. Economy and Society, 25(2), 222–254.

Robertson, S. L., & Muellerleile, C. (2016). Universities, the risk industry and capitalism: a political economy critique. In R. Normand & J.-L. Derouet (Eds.), A European politics of education: perspectives from sociology, policy studies and politics (submitted manuscript, pp. 122–139). New York, NY: Routledge.

Stevens, T. (2015). Cyber security and the politics of time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Notes from a rural pub

My daughter was playing badminton in an under-16 county match. I have spent enough time being the parent-on-the tramline, getting frustrated and trying not to coach her and interfere. After five of six years of badminton tournaments, I tend to make sure she is OK and then go and find a coffee shop and do some writing or reading. A couple of weeks ago I ended up in Costa in an artificial retail park somewhere near Ipswich (it could have been anywhere, a soulless and meaningless place). A few days later I received a bill from Euro Car Parks Limited for £90 for breaking some parking rule on ‘private’ land. Yet another for-fuck-sake moment, another site for exploitation and I hear David Harvey on YouTube telling me about accumulation by dispossession and rents.

But that’s not what I want to go on about, though it would be worthy of a post. No, what I want to talk about is the pub I went to in small-town Suffolk, not so far from Bury St Edmunds – where you can smell the boiling beet at this time of year. Like sweet public mash potato.

I didn’t want to go to a pub actually. My preference was for a safe sterile manufactured faux continental coffee shop. But the nearest one of those was in Bury St Edmunds about 4 miles away. I thought it was unnecessarily a bit far for a coffee and generic soullessness. When just 0.7 miles from the Badminton venue was a pub.

When I say small town, I guess this was a big village really. It has a secondary school, a Londis and within that, Google Maps tells me, is a Post Office. There are few new housing developments and a former council estate. The pub was a country pub, a village kind of pub, a rural pub. I knew these hostelries from my youth.

I have spent many years walking into pubs and bars on my own, but I have not done that much of it in the last 15 years, just occasionally though. But from the age of 15 to 26 I was a public house flaneur, not truly a flaneur. I would usually enter the pub as flaneur, after a few drinks I was voyeur, and then, often or not, I would strike up a conversation. A few drinks, community and conviviality, and I would be in conversation with someone or other. My brand of philosophy is forged amongst the wisdom and observation of ale drinkers on bar stools. True public philosophers, almost in the Socratic tradition.

I was more anxious today. I am out of practice. I am no longer familiar with the country pub, or indeed any pub, as I once was. As I drove into the carpark, I was trying to work out who would be in there. It is difficult to tell, everyone has newish cars these days because of the lease-buy credit racket and legislation that make it difficult to run old cars.

I felt awkward walking into the pub, what was it going to be like? Who would be in there? If it was a rural pub of my youth, it would be a mixture: could be landowning farmers, horsey types, the rural middle class. Young couples out for a quiet drink out of town. Blokes playing darts and dominoes. People at the bar. This is what I imagined.

This pub was more like a community centre with Sunday lunch-dining for families. I went into the community centre side of the pub. A father and his 8-(or so)-year-old son (weekend access arrangement?), playing pool eating chips with cheese melted on top. An older gent who seemingly came regularly for his Sunday lunch. A youngish man who put the England football match on the flat screen TV and then went off for a smoke.

I ordered a coffee and chips ‘n’ cheese. The women at the bar was very charming, very friendly and welcoming without any pretence. She was to have an important role in the pub as I will come to explain. The coffee tasted of cooking fat. A few more people arrived; alone, in couples and in groups, they had fairly strong Suffolk accents. It wasn’t the socially diverse rural pub that I remembered from my youth, but working class, with no pretence and no aspirations. That is, no aspirations to be anything other than who they were. I was a voyeur, with the cover of reading Will Davies’ new book Nervous States, looking at social media (the big psychodrama of the EU Withdrawal Agreement) and looking up at the flat screen as England played Croatia.

I considered my middle-class habitus – it must be so fucking obvious – I spend most of my life now at college dinners and engaged in academic conversation within the academy. I don’t know if I can relate to these people anymore. I spend so much time explaining to the liberal middle class about the limitations of rationality and politeness and what drove things like the Brexit vote was a resurgence of affectivity, the need for people to fulfil and to act upon their emotions and not to be afraid of their feelings. I was feeling really awkward in the situation. These weren’t the mores I was accustomed to. I wondered if I could every be part of this community.

It is poignant that I am reading Will Davies’ Nervous States.

As I say part of the pub has the characteristics of a community centre, where people can come along and have a drink and not feel too inhibited about who they are. I think I presented myself as something of an anomaly and curiosity in this setting. Who sits in a pub and reads a book, they might have thought? One of them was curious enough to ask me while we were urinating just before I left. “Out walking, are you?” Another man caught my eye in the pub and asked about my well-being out of friendliness and curiosity.

The main drama unfolded. The older guy was brought his roast dinner, which he began to eat at a low table by the fireplace. A middle-aged man at the bar was provoking him, clearly not trying to be friendly but not really trying to be unfriendly. It was just an ongoing: “Grandad, grandad, grandad …” baiting him. It was harassment, but also in a kind of covert and invasive way. ‘Grandad’ was getting increasingly agitated by it and protested.

The barwoman was excellent, in the way that women are often expected to be in these kinds of situation. She recognised that David, who was baiting grandad, needed attention. She knew that if she engaged with him, no matter how irritating and unpleasant he was, he would leave grandad alone. Again, this is something that women are often expected to do in order to diffuse domestic tensions. Men are likely to use force, not necessarily physical force, but confrontation. The barwoman used emotional labour, but I can’t imagine that she would get anything more than minimum wage for handling a difficult situation with such skill and intelligence. David, though, continued to harass grandad. Grandad eventually asked for his dinner to be wrapped up, so he could take it home. He was clearly distressed.

This was an everyday drama, there was nothing unusual about this in this pub.

Thirty to forty years ago I was spending a lot of time in pubs, many rural pubs. What struck me today was the class homogeneity, the middle class no longer want to be around a struggling emotionally unrestrained working class? The pub is in poor shape, it is basic. Much infrastructure remains from the past, but it is tired. Things have been replaced by cheap oddments. It’s all done on a budget. No lines of pumps with exotic ales, but a basic offering. The people are not looking toward good jobs and opportunities to enhance their lives. They are hanging on, holding on, creating and carving out a community and some form of relaxation amongst a very limited number of things to look forward to. It is really a stark monument to forty years of economic and social policy which has meant decline for so many (increased consumption and debt is not a healthy and sustainable way out of poverty). The devastation of pubs through Wetherspoonification; corporate welfare, through in-work benefits; the free market which has left behind a clear stratification of haves and have nots; and the all-round destruction of inclusive and diverse public life.

For so many people the last forty years, in terms of work opportunities, standards of living, quality of health and education, it must have felt like they have been going backward. I will give it its due, the New Labour government did try and mitigate for this decline – what was criminal is that it didn’t tackle the underlying causes.

If you really want to understand Brexit, then you should visit a pub like this. There must be thousands across the UK. Go in there, sit there and sense what is going on and wonder why we got to this.

A critique of the University of Cambridge’s external financing approach from the perspective of modern money theory

Remarks for the discussion at the Senate House, University of Cambridge on 6 November on the use of funds from £600 million bond issue

Deputy Vice Chancellor.

The Council has already approved of raising external finance by issuing bonds of up to £600 million. And I understand that this discussion is about the use of the funds raised. But I thought it important to explain that there are potential societal affects as a result of this kind of debt financing, since no Regent or any other person has done so previously, and that a stated aim of the University is to benefit society and not to act in a way that is detrimental to it.

I will try and explain as briefly as I can.

My starting point is a simple incontrovertible truth about a national economy, that is, the sum of individual deficits must equal the sum of individual surpluses. To illustrate this, if there was just me and the Deputy Vice Chancellor on a desert island where we agreed on an issued currency, if I was in deficit, that is earning less than I spent, necessarily the Deputy Vice Chancellor would be in surplus, earning more than he or she spent.

Within the closed monetary system of a national economy no one other than the state can create or destroy currency. Therefore, the sum of deficits must equal the sum of surpluses.

Let us now aggregate. If we consider three aggregations, as is the practice in national accounting, public, private and overseas: ‘public’ represents government spending and revenues, ‘private’ represents household and business spending and income, and ‘overseas’ represents imports and exports. Using the same reasoning about individual deficits and surpluses, the sum of public, private and overseas deficits and surpluses must be zero.

The UK economy generally has an overseas deficit, we import more than we export. Therefore, the rest of the world is in surplus with the UK economy. In managing an economy, a government should ensure that the private sector is running a surplus so that people, households and businesses can accumulate savings to cope with changes in the economy. The normal operating condition of public finances is in deficit. This ‘sectoral balance’, as it is called, reveals that a national economy is nothing like the economy of a household or business.

But UK governments over the last forty years have become preoccupied with treating the national economy as a household and a key economic mission has been in balancing the books or reducing the deficit or recently in its more extreme form, ‘austerity’.

What is the effect of this? Overseas deficits have remained broadly constant, so reductions in public sector deficits have resulted in the reduction in private sector surpluses. This reduction in private sector surpluses does not affect the sector evenly. The poorest households become increasingly indebted and the credit is provided by the wealthiest in the private sector. Austerity exacerbates a private debt-based or rentier economy, where existing wealth is expanded through debt interest and rent. As the state withdraws from using fiscal policy, in other words, as it stops investing, private debt and credit become the dominant economic form.

So, as government attempts to reduce public deficits, by cutting spending on things like higher education the poorest in society are under increasing financial pressure. Meanwhile universities are forced to raise finance in other ways and this simply adds to the problem.

There is a further consequence of public deficit reduction that was recognised by both Marx and Keynes. When conditions lead to a private debt-based economy or rentier economy, the investor is less likely to invest in the productive economy. That is in enterprises that deliver the things that we need as a society. In a debt economy demand is fickle, it is reliant on household debt and inflated assets. The risk of making profits from lending is much less than investing in the productive economy. Investing in manufacturing, for example, becomes much less attractive, it is much more attractive to live off interest and rents. This has an impact on jobs and on the creation of long-term meaningful work. This contributes to undermining liberal democracy (see for example the EU referendum result, or the US presidential elections in 2016).

So, there is a great deal of demand for debt, it is bought and sold and traded like a commodity. Financialization is the business of using low-risk low-return debts such as that generated by the University’s bond scheme and using it to construct portfolios that feature a balance of high-risk speculative investments and safer investments such as government bonds. Financialization involves securing marginal profits from speculating on debt, interest and risk using sophisticated financial products. This kind of financialization led to global and political crises in the 1920s and a major financial crisis in 2008 (among others). By entering the debt economy, the University contributes to the problem.

It may seem expedient to the Council to proceed with this proposal since the University must sustain its work. I accept that the decision has been made. However, I just wanted to explain that this is not a politically or economically neutral endeavour. From our privileged position we have a duty to offer moral and intellectual leadership and must at least be aware of what we are complicit to in issuing over £0.5 billion of bonds. I welcome the Vice Chancellor’s commitment to more robustly challenging government’s higher education policy, but we must match this with our actions.

Dr Steven Watson

Faculty of Education and Wolfson College

For further reading on modern money theory:

Mitchell, W. F. (2016). Modern Monetary Theory and Practice: An Introductory text. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Nersisyan, Y., & Wray, L. R. (2016). Modern Money Theory and the facts of experience. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 40(5), 1297–1316.

Wray, L. R. (2012). Introduction to an alternative history of money. Working paper, Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Wray, L. R. (2015). Modern money theory: a primer on macroeconomics for sovereign monetary systems (2nd edition). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.