Dr Nathan Hollier is Director of Monash University Publishing. He has worked in academia and academic publishing since the mid-1990s, including as editor of Overland magazine (2002–2007), and is the founding President and a current board member of SPUNC Inc., the representative body for small and independent publishers in Australia.
This piece was published in a slightly modified form in The Conversation of 3 Jan 2013, with the title ‘In praise of the printed book: the value of concentration in the digital age’. Some of the discussion that ensued read this as taking a ‘side’ in a ‘print versus digital’ argument, which I did not intend. I do think though that print and digital publications are different products with different strengths and weaknesses
Don’t throw your print books out yet
There is an old saying that anxiety is the enemy of concentration. One of the best pieces of sports journalism I ever read was by Gene Tunney, world heavyweight champion of the 1920s, speaking of how reading books helped him stay calm and focused in the lead-up to his most famous fight, against former champion Jack Dempsey. While members of Dempsey’s camp ridiculed Tunney for his bookishness, Tunney kept calm, and went on to win.
Most of us would feel stressed at the prospect of stepping into the ring, but stress-related illnesses, especially depression and forms of anxiety and attention disorder, are increasingly prevalent, in wealthy societies especially. According to a major 2006 projection of global mortality by Mathers and Loncar, unipolar depression will by 2030 be almost 40% more likely to cause death or disability in wealthy societies than heart disease and over 50% more likely to cause these than either alcohol abuse or diabetes.
Stress can of course have many causes but in the most general sense emanates from things which impact negatively on focus and concentration: interruption and the fear of interruption or a surplus of tasks, responsibilities or activity options. As E.M. Hallowell identified in a 2005 edition of Harvard Business Review, an emergent ‘Attention Deficit Trait’ and low-level feelings of guilt and panic are endemic to ‘hyperkinetic’ environments, such as those in which electronic connectedness results in a superfluity of information being directed towards us. In many contemporary contexts, including workplaces, we are never ‘offline’; we are always open, and expected to be open, to new requests for interaction or sources of information, however vital, from email, twitter, facebook, the web, text and potentially many other electronically connected sources.
The digital age is an age of distraction; and distraction causes stress and weakens concentration. Concentration, as the philosopher William James argued in his classic 1890 work Principles of Philosophy, is the most fundamental element of intellectual development: ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will ... An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’
Concentration is equally important emotionally, as is being increasingly revealed by new research into ‘mindfulness’ and meditation (examples from this article are taken from a presentation by Dr Craig Hassed, author of The Essence of Health: The Seven Pillars of Wellbeing). The inability to focus is associated with depression and anxiety and, amongst other things, an underdeveloped sociability and human empathy. Tests have revealed that people report a greater happiness from being effectively focused on what they are doing than from daydreaming on even pleasant topics.
How many memoirs include stories of the author surreptitiously reading books by torchlight underneath the blankets, with parents fearful of the child ... now famous and successful ... reading too much? (In my case I was reading The Hardy Boys so my mother’s objections were probably justified.)
It seems likely that the concentration required and encouraged by books is extremely valuable. Reading books is good for one. And this seems especially so in the case of print books, where a reader is most completely free from distraction.
Ebooks, and more pertinently perhaps, the digital reading environment, are unquestionably transformative in the opportunities and experiences they offer to readers. Great oceans of knowledge otherwise obtainable only through tracking down print books or physical archives and records, have become available and, through widespread tagging up, much more easily searchable. Hyperlinks mean readers no longer have to read in a straight line, as it were, but can follow innumerable paths of interest. Web2 technologies enable ‘talking back’ to publishers and media, the formation of groups of readers with common interests, easy (sometimes too easy) sharing of files and other information. Stories can be enriched by animated graphics and interactivity. And so on.
No-one in their right mind would imagine that the e-reading environment can or should somehow be wound back.
Nonetheless it is interesting to consider, in light of this possibility that the greatest benefit of reading may come from its capacity to assist in the development of focus and concentration, that the print book may not actually have been superseded or, indeed, be supersede-able. This, I think, is what the novelist, critic, philosopher and communications historian Umberto Eco means when he argues: ‘The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved’.
On 14 September I spoke at a forum at the University of Melbourne, organised by Gary Pearce and the Caval Reference Interest Group. (It was a very stimulating research day, with excellent presentations from Gavin Moodie, Rebecca Parker and Inger Mewburn.)
As I now think my paper for the upcoming SPUNC Inc. publishing conference (8 Nov) will be substantially different, and 22–28 October is Open Access week, I thought it worth publishing a slightly edited version of my talk, here ...
Open-access publishing: panacea or problem?
I wanted to take the opportunity, afforded by having been asked to speak at this forum, to get a better grasp of the issues around open-access publishing, and of the arguments for and against it. In my abstract I set out this issue of whether open-access publishing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a fairly open-ended way, as if the jury is still out on this question. Now that I have actually looked into this issue a bit, I don’t believe that the jury is or at least should still be out. Open-access scholarly publishing, of one kind or another, is desirable and should be achievable. I will talk briefly of existing arguments against open-access, while noting also the benefits of this model of publishing, as I see them. But I will mainly focus on a question that I think is more interesting and to which the answer does not appear as clear-cut. That is the question of whether or not there continues to be a value or a compelling argument for scholarly open-access publishers publishing into bookstores and / or selling rather than giving away ebook content. In answering this question I will be discussing the contemporary scholarly-publishing sector, especially in Australia, and drawing in part on my own experience as a participant within that sector. I have tried to put on my scholar’s or researcher’s hat in putting this paper together, but am not deluding myself or seeking to delude anyone else that I am able to be as free of commercial and political pressures as Habermas, amongst others, has stipulated that intellectuals should aspire at least to be. Inevitably my own interests and the business decisions I’ve already taken have influenced my perceptions. One final point to note, before launching in to what I have to say, is that I’m indebted to my tireless and – by-me-at-least – unpaid research assistant Colin Steele, who, since I was lucky enough to have moved into his email circle, has kept me up to date with new developments, statements, documents and arguments in this field.
Open-access publishing is good for scholars. It maximises the visibility and, evidence suggests, even the research impact, of research. An open-access article is most likely to be used and cited. Open-access also enables more timely publication. As they spend most of their ‘scholarly’ time reading, open-access is of course also good for scholars in this sense, and the open availability of research encourages or at the least enables cross-disciplinary thought and engagement.
Governments, which fund research and much of the infrastructure around it, have much to gain both from that research being made as broadly available as possible and from avoiding having to buy research, or buy it back, from commercial organisations driven, for the most part, by commercial imperatives.
The same basic logic applies to recipients of that government research investment, such as universities and their libraries, though as universities – in Australia especially – come under pressure to seek specifically commercial sources of funding, this can encourage them to participate in the commercialisation and privatisation of research. It needs also to be acknowledged that there are quite different levels of government research funding, from country to country, and that Australia and New Zealand are at the high end of that funding (only 10% of research is government funded in Japan and Switzerland cf. roughly 80% in Aust & NZ).
It is often pointed out that library finances currently being paid in subscriptions could otherwise be spent supporting open-access publishing, of a ‘gold’ (author-pays) or even a ‘green’ (institutionally supported) variety. This observation lies at the root of the innovative business models proposed in recent years by Frances Pinter of Bloomsbury Publishing and now Knowledge Unlatched. Libraries, needless to say, have been amongst the most active institutional advocates of open-access publishing, especially since the so-called ‘serials crisis’, and librarians have been at the forefront of attempts to expose and undermine the apparent profiteering of private journal-publishing behemoths Reed Elsevier and Springer. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), established in 1997 by the Association of Research Libraries, is an expression of this commitment, as is the expanding tranche of library-based scholarly publishers. In Australia, the Council of Australian University Libraries (CAUL) has established a subcommittee to represent and coordinate its members’ publishing activities, all of which include open-access publishing of some variety.
Members of the general public also benefit from open-access publishing, in direct and indirect ways. A publishing colleague (at a company that has not embraced open-access publishing) told me recently of his friend’s father, who was able to research his own medical circumstances and, as a result, find a doctor who, against the professional advice he had so far received, gave him hope of restoring his sight and, in time, delivered on this promise. Of less immediate but perhaps even more profound public benefit is the increasing availability of scholarship – including whole courses – online, through initiatives such as OpenCourseWare at MIT. The public moreover pay taxes and, with government, can probably expect to receive better return on their investment in research from an open-access publishing environment than from a privatised, commercial one based on permissions payments and fees-for-access. (With this in mind the decision of the UK Government to support a commercially oriented gold open-access policy seems to me unfortunate.)
Critics argue that open-access publishing is either unnecessary or likely to be harmful to the public good.
Most scientific literature, it is contended, is available for researchers via inter-library loan at the very least, where a researcher’s home institution does not itself subscribe to a particular publication. Thus outgoing Australian Research Council CEO Margaret Sheil stated in April this year ‘[I]nformation has never been more accessible to the research community than it is now ... I just don’t believe that argument that the research community can’t get access to research.’ (Justin Norrie, ‘Open access not as simple as it sounds: outgoing ARC boss’, The Conversation, 23 April 2012)
This seems less certain when viewed from an international perspective which, admittedly, the head of an Australian Government research body may be under no compunction to do. In poorer countries access to information and the communications technology that makes it available, is more scarce and expensive, in relative terms; facts which have underpinned the rationale for developing open source publishing software, such as that of the Canadian-based Public Knowledge Project.
Open-access publishing has been criticised, by journal publishers especially (such as the DC Principles Group in the US), as constituting unwarranted government intrusion into private commercial activity, and as deadening, through this, individual initiative and entrepreneurialism. These arguments, based on the discredited notion of economic ‘trickle down’, seem driven more by ideology than evidence. Nonetheless, more testing questions, in relation to open-access publishing, have been raised.
Perhaps the likelihood that commercial companies, like pharmaceutical manufacturers, will spend less on paying for others’ research, in an open-access world, while being no more likely to share their own research, is a second-order issue when viewed alongside the benefits of and savings from open access. And it may not matter greatly that research-intensive institutions, in a ‘gold’ open-access environment especially, might end up paying more for journal publication than they did previously, while teaching-focused institutions pay less, especially since research publication also yields payment from government research-funding bodies. But what will be the effect of mandatory open-access publishing policies on the great many not-for-profit journal publishing associations? Will they be able to adjust their business models and attain sufficient revenue to do all that they currently do, without charging a journal-subscription fee?
These are conversations I’ve had a number of times with the two journals Monash University Publishing publishes. So far an ideal solution hasn’t materialised, although I would guess that if government legislated that the research it funds should be published in an institutional repository within, say, two years, and this was built into contracts between authors and journal-publishing associations, this would not significantly affect the financial viability of these associations. Such legislation would be likely to affect the profitability of commercial journal publishing operations, but that seems an acceptable price for government and society to pay.
Sheil has stated ‘[T]here are many, many examples of where protecting intellectual property actually makes it more readily available, because then someone is prepared to commercialise it and make it accessible’ (Norrie).This is easy to imagine, though I wonder if such problems could not also be sorted out legislatively, by for example stipulating that certain published research can only be commercially developed by the company with whom its author has a contract. Often a student will publish his or her PhD in a repository, for instance, but still obtain a contract for the thesis to be turned into a book. If the publisher is adding value to the work, through the editing process, design and packaging, marketing and so on, the published original version of the research is not likely to be a significant financial factor; it is only if the publisher is not adding genuine value to the work that the financial value of that work might be at all likely to be comprised by its being available open access in its original form. Would not the same hold true for other forms of intellectual output?
Writing in Research Fortnight in July this year, Peter Webster has argued that as humanities scholars ‘[b]y and large ... do not need large capital equipment and facilities, beyond a good library ... scholars outside universities – in museums, libraries, archives, across the professions and not least among the retired—regularly publish world-leading research. Universal gold open access funded by the author would wipe much of this work out.’ This seems to be a strong argument against gold open-access funding models, which – to me – only points to the superiority of green open-access. (The payment-to-publish model, it is worth noting, is now being taken up quite enthusiastically by Elsevier and Springer, who charge roughly 15,000 euros per book, prior to its publication.) As noted earlier, in relation to possible open-access policies that would be compatible with not-for-profit journal-association publishing, legislation that would require government-funded research to be published in institutional repositories would be unlikely to adversely affect these not-for-profit journal publishers and wouldn’t affect independent scholars either.
More troublingly, for me, Webster also argued ‘So far, there is little sign of [an open-access] business model for book publishing.’ Mostly this was troubling for me because I thought we’d developed such a business model, at Monash University Publishing, and had been operating that model since the launch of the business in September 2010. When we put our model together we were influenced most strongly by the example of the ANU E Press, which since 2003 has published 400 titles, including some journals, open-access. The University of Adelaide Press also looked to the ANU E Press in developing its model. Since its establishment in 2009 it has published over 20 books open access. Monash University Publishing, launching in September 2010, is now publishing around 20 books a year.
These three Australian university presses, each based physically or administratively in the library of its host institution, have developed successful open-access book-publishing business models, and a number of other Australian university libraries are planning to enter this open-access book-publishing environment. Sydney University Press also does some open-access publishing and Sydney University itself has an open-access policy. Of these presses Monash University Publishing is the only one that distributes its titles actively into bookstores, via professional distributors operating around the world, so I will admit to an element of the rhetorical when I ask whether it is worth open-access scholarly publishers publishing into bookstores and / or selling rather than giving away ebook content; clearly we do think there is a value in doing so, though we haven’t yet moved to sell our ebook content.
In reaching this decision to operate as an open-access scholarly publisher in the commercial realm, and to face the very considerable administrative and financial pressures this entailed, a number of considerations came into play: Could we produce books that looked good enough – which is to say, were individualised enough – to go into bookstores and attract readers, at a cost-effective price? What did our readers want? How important was design to them? And would they buy print versions of our books if they were available online open-access? If so, would they prefer to buy them from bookstores, and pay a relatively higher price for them, or would they prefer to simply buy them from our site or from another online channel? Is professional distribution important to book reviewers and to review organs, from broadsheets and popular magazines and journals of review to specialist journals, many of which are online? And to prize committees? Does that print-revenue stream matter, in the context of HERDC payments? What did our authors want? What did our host institution want? (As you can imagine, rather an important question.)
Most fundamentally we were driven by a desire to maximise the cultural impact of our titles – this has been written into our Charter – partly on the basis of the belief that cultural standing will, in time, lead to economic standing or, put another way, that a prestigious brand will translate in a positive way to sales and sales revenue (which of course is also affected by price). We thought that for the moment at least it is worth individually designing books, selling them into bookstores and marketing them in traditional as well as ‘new’ online ways; that all of this is necessary, at this point in time, to maximise the cultural impact and standing of the press and its titles, to stand properly within, or at the centre of, the Australian public sphere.
The example of the ANU E Press, which was selling print books in the thousands each year, across its list, in spite of their titles being published simultaneously on the web in pdf and other (epub and now mobi) formats and not being really marketed in a traditional way, suggested that e- and p-books were different things with different readerships and, I suppose, markets. This was backed up by the experience of re-press, a Melbourne-based private publisher of philosophy texts, that used the same open-access model with (at that time) more developed international print distribution channels than that ANU E Press. As the re.press publisher Paul Ashton wrote on his site: ‘We do not consider the digital version a replacement for the physical book. On the contrary, we believe that the two mediums perform different functions, offering the best of both worlds. In fact, it is our hope that open access publishing will strengthen traditional publishing and scholarship more broadly’ (http://re-press.org/about/open-access/ accessed 13 Sept 2012).
Not all of our titles, I hasten to add, are available open access. Some of the more commercial titles we have deliberately delayed online publication of; and we’ve tried to be flexible and accommodate authors that for one reason or another – often an emotional reason – don’t want their book available online for free. We also don’t put pdfs online, unlike the ANU E Press, the University of Adelaide Press and re.press. We publish in html and epub format, for downloading to an e-reader. In this we’ve followed the example of the National Academies Press, publisher for the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, and other arms of the National Academies in the US, which has found that these formats, at least, do not discourage print book sales (AAUP Task Force on Economic Models for Scholarly Publishing, ‘Sustaining Scholarly Publishing: New Business Models for University Presses’, March 2011). We were conscious of not wanting to cannibalise print sales (and our distributors and booksellers were not happy with the prospect of us putting pdfs online) and we were also of the view that publishing pdfs online makes piracy simply too easy.
Nonetheless we are hopeful that through open-access electronic publishing in conjunction with print publishing and professional distribution we will not only be maximising cultural impact but visibility, readership and the exchange of knowledge, as well. With the ANU E Press Monash University Publishing has paid for the development of a web-asset statistics collection and reporting system that will provide very robust data on visits to our two sites, and readership of our titles.
In politics, as a former Politics professor at my alma mater once wrote, victory is the great legitimator. In business, I suppose the great legitimator is revenue, and I’m pleased that the business model of Monash University Publishing does appear to be working: we are on track to hit our revenue and other budget targets for this year, for example. We’re also pleased with the media and other attention the press’s titles have received, and the critical response to them. The marketing concept of Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE) (the science of which I will now defend to the death) is very useful for us, and we’re confident the press is heading in the right direction. But as stated at the outset, I recognise that I am not exactly an unbiased voice.
The point is that open-access publishing may not be a panacea but it is far from a problem. In my view it is possible, and indeed desirable, to combine the public benefits of open-access publishing, thinking especially of ‘green’ open-access publishing, with the essentially private benefits – for consumers and publishers – of commercial publishing, and not just in relation to journals and the ‘hard’ sciences, but books and the social sciences and humanities, also. Because scholarly- and trade-, print- and e-books, are all different things.
Setting the record straight
I was interested to read in The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education Supplement this morning of ‘a new “warts and all” book’ which ‘claims universities in Australia are “haemorrhaging expertise” and “finding it increasingly difficult to recruit first-class home-grown talent”, blaming the Dawkins reforms and the governments that have perpetuated them.’ This is Dr Donald Meyers’ Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline.
The name of the author and the book itself were starting to ring some bells. Didn’t I get this submission some time back?
Reading on, my interest was pricked further by news that ‘Dr Meyers notes “a large number” of publishers declined to publish his book … Non-university presses said it wouldn’t sell, the university presses “indicated they didn’t publish this sort of work or … had similar work in the pipeline”. Melbourne University Press cited “too many questionable assertions, generalisations and too few direct examples with … detailed explanation”.’ I found myself nodding. That accorded roughly with what my reaction had been.
When I looked in my ‘sent’ file to check, though, I realised those words actually accorded exactly with what my reaction had been. They were my words.
Below is the full email I sent to Dr Meyers’ agent on 9 May 2011. This offers a more extended explanation of why I thought the submission needed more work. I suppose I also hope this will set the record straight. If I’m going to be quoted rejecting a work, I’d at least like myself and Monash University Publishing to be given the ‘credit’ for this.
Hi [author’s agent],
Thanks for sending through the manuscript of Nitwit Nation.
Unfortunately, while I think Myers [sic] makes some very important points, I also think the argument needs some re-thinking and a different mode of expression before it could be seriously considered for publication.
In my view (again) the main problem with this manuscript is that the points made are generally not backed up by evidence. There are too many questionable assertions, generalisations and distinctions and too few direct examples with documentation and detailed explanation.
In the course of documenting these examples and explaining them at greater length there would also – hopefully – be a different tone emerging. While it is good to condemn things that need condemning (such as falling academic standards and the increasing managerialisation and bureaucratisation of the university), it is also good to be aware of why people – including those with views different from your own – think and act in the way they do. Generally, I would suggest, people in the tertiary sector are operating within a complex system which, like the society of which it is part, faces various pressures from within and without. A more extended consideration of these pressures would enable a reading of what has happened and is happening within the sector, including the negative parts of this, that does not wrest [sic] on the assumption that large groups of people are either stupid or ‘bad’.
In the e-corner ...
Ding! Ding! Ding!
In today’s Australian newspaper, Melbourne University Publishing CEO and Publisher-in-Chief Louise Adler is quoted saying that Australia’s university-based scholarly e-presses ‘are not professionally edited, and are not published, marketed or distributed in the ways (traditionally or electronically) recognised by the industry as a whole or the scholarly publishing sector. They have almost no impact internationally.’
It’s obviously time to put the gloves back on. Or take them off. Or something.
ANU E Press, Sydney University Publishing, Adelaide University Press and Monash University Publishing titles are professionally edited, to a greater or lesser degree. What I gather Adler is referring to here is that these presses don’t generally employ editors to work closely with authors and turn their manuscripts into books that will sell a sufficient quantity in the retail sector to break even or make a profit. That is because, at risk of speaking for others, they are generally not trying to sell their books to ‘general’ bookstore-going readers; they are producing them primarily for academics, students and libraries and rely on reports from other scholars, as part of a rigorous peer-reviewing process, to ensure that these are original and readable. It is certainly the case, however, that some Sydney and Monash titles, at least, are produced with a general readership in mind, and where that is the case these titles are edited for that readership.
What does it mean that these e-press titles are not ‘published, marketed or distributed in the ways (traditionally or electronically) recognised by the industry as a whole or the scholarly publishing sector’? I think what Adler means here is that these e-press titles are not professionally distributed into the bookshop trade, marketed to that trade or sold in their electronic versions to consumers via e-book vendors such as Kobo.
For the most part this is true, though it is not true of Monash University Publishing (or MonUP), whose titles are distributed professionally into the bookshop trade in Australia and New Zealand, the UK and Europe, the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and North America, via agreements with Footprint, Eurospan and ISBS. As Andrew Trounson, the author of the piece Adler is quoted in, pleasingly noted, MonUP has a hybrid model, which we hope brings together the best of both (traditional and new) worlds. But is it necessarily a bad thing that the e-presses Adler refers to have rejected traditional and created for themselves new business models that combine some form of open-access online publication with print-on-demand facilities that (as with the ANU E Press) make the print versions of their titles available for purchase around the world, including through Amazon? If they can do this economically and disseminate knowledge for free and reach a readership which in all likelihood is much larger than that they could reach via traditional bookshop distribution, does it matter that this model is not ‘recognised’ by the trade publishing industry? In 2010, to grab the figures most readily to hand, the ANU E Press reported over three million downloads of its titles. (MonUP, with the ANU E Press, incidentally, is in the process of acquiring a website statistics package that will produce very firm figures on online readership of these two presses’ titles.)
Without professional bookshop distribution and conventional marketing, it is true, it is difficult to be taken seriously by established review organs and make the social and cultural impact a press might hope for (which is why MonUP has such distribution and marketing), but if the cost of these things is an unworkable business model and comparatively low readership, is it worth it? What kind of an impact can you make if you go broke or are not actually read except by those people who purchase a copy of your title during the few months a store will generally stock your book (which is why MonUP titles are also available online open-access)?
These e-presses are taken seriously by the scholarly publishing sector; indeed, as Agata Mrva-Montoya noted in a 19 Jan 2012 SUP blog which was then published in The Australian, this e-press grouping, in Australia at any rate, to a substantial extent is the scholarly publishing sector. Where publishing specifically for the scholarly market in Australia has traditionally not been possible, because the market is so small, these e-presses have found a way of doing it, and their output is fully accepted as scholarly by Federal Government research measurement and recording agencies. The traditional university-based scholarly publishers, on the other hand, have always had to focus on reaching a popular audience where they have been required to maximise their financial return on investment (because of that small scholarly market I’ve referred to). In recent times, in the face of tight university budgets and difficult and uncertain economic and book publishing conditions, these publishers have focused squarely on popular or trade publishing.
At their best (UWA Publishing is the Australian exemplar), these ‘traditional’ presses bring scholarship to a popular audience and serve an invaluable social and, if this is not a dirty word, political function. They help democracy function; in fact, without them, it is hard to imagine democracy, in any meaningful sense of the word, existing. Needless to say, not all traditional scholarly presses fulfil this purpose as well as they might, and the e-presses, in their own way, certainly contribute significantly to our democratic society also.
No-one likes a fight but, of course, getting mugged is worse still. Like us, I would expect, the e-presses will want to do what they can to set the record straight.
‘Paying the Rent’: Publishers throwing in their lot with the retail sector
I’ve been watching with interest recent debates about retail rents. Obviously, in Australia at the moment, and not only in Australia, the retail sector is (sing along) ‘doing it tough’. In the Melbourne Age newspaper of 20 September 2011, Premier Investments CEO Mark McInnes was reported saying an increasingly ‘adversarial’ relationship had led to Premier attaining a 30 per cent rent reduction after threatening to close one of its Portmans stores. Premier Investments’ retail chains also include Peter Alexander, Just Jeans, Jay Jays and Smiggle. According to McInnes (or to the Age quoting McInnes), ‘Landlords have got a business model, they are protecting that business model, the [shopping] centres are underperforming, the retailers are underperforming and there are massive arguments going on between retailers and landlords about the types of rent they are trying to get.’ Business commentator Malcolm Maiden, in the same paper on the same day, referred to the ‘the battle with landlords that is developing as the retail recession intensifies’.
For publishers, or for this publisher, at any rate, an important question is: How much of this downturn is cyclical ... occasioned by the international recession ... and how much is structural: arising from the expansion of internet traders unencumbered by retail rents and staff and a host of other overheads associated with doing business in the retail sector on the street?
E.P. Thompson, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), noted that the first mass political activism in the wake of the industrial revolution was not about low wages but high prices. If we’re in the early stages of a digital revolution, a possible parallel can be seen.
It hardly seemed a coincidence that in the Age, again of 21 September, another article reported on Australia Post struggling to keep up with delivery demands arising primarily from increased online shopping.
Of course, these two phenomena are likely to be related: consumers can be expected to look extra hard for bargains and forego the ‘real’ shopping experience (assuming that is worth experiencing) when money is especially short and economic confidence low. One businessperson I was talking to recently, however, voiced the opinion that, because of the internet, retail rents need to come down by half before ‘shopfront’ retailers can compete with their online competitors. His successful clothing brand was driven to the wall by rent costs, and he was now re-launching the brand as an online entity only.
‘It will take a long time for the rent chargers to accept this need for their costs to come down,’ he said.
Has there ever been a truer word spoken?, I wondered.
At Monash University Publishing we have thrown our lot in with the retail sector. You can buy our books in human bookstores – I’ve been unsatisfied with that ubiquitous ‘bricks-and-mortar’ adjective, for bookstores, for some time, and am going with ‘human’ as more suggestive of these stores’ distinctive property – in Australia and New Zealand, North America, Asia and, soon, the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. But I’ve been surprised at the number of print books we sell from our own site even though, naturally, we don’t undercut the retail price (except with special offers for contributors etc.). Getting to bookstores is, I guess, not always easy.
I still believe for a range of reasons – primarily to do with maximising a book’s impact – that distribution into the human retail trade is the best option for us, and that human bookstores offer or can offer a unique and valuable service.
But, not surprisingly, perhaps, I also like the idea of those retail-property rents coming down, and of the price-competitiveness of our products going up.
Thinking about it for a moment, a more or less inevitable effect of the web and its spread would seem to be to make the specific location of retail outlets less important.
One could have said the same thing about the spread of car ownership and the growth of suburban society, after the 1940s, except of course that the growth of suburban car society resulted not in increased freedom for the retailer and the consumer but in increased cost burdens being placed upon, and fewer choices being made available for, them, because of the simultaneous rise of massive shopping centres offering retailers a ‘captive’ market of consumers extracted from their own, ordinary communities, and charging high rents for this privilege. (Jason Epstein discusses this dynamic in his eminently readable Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (2001).)
There is some hope, I think, that falling profits in the human retail sector will bring rents and prices in this sector down as well and, over time, lead not only to this sector’s renewed competitiveness but also increase the capacity of retailers ... and most importantly bookshops, with their seemingly inevitable low margins ... to be more creative and experimental in what they stock, and so to provide a better service for producers and consumers, including readers and publishers. What results might actually be a more diversified and interesting social landscape.
Reflections on Academic Humanities Publishing
Having backed a humanities career horse many years ago, I’ve been saddened – and at times sent broke – by this horse’s continuing poor showing. I’d been thinking and reading a bit about the current state of the humanities, and at the same time becoming increasingly committed to a strong humanities and social sciences list for Monash University Publishing, when Ali Lemer, Events Manager with the Victorian Society of Editors, asked me to speak at one of their dinners. This is an edited excerpt from that presentation.
I do have some positive things to say about developments in humanities publishing but before getting to those it is necessary, and important, to identify and acknowledge some of the profound challenges facing the humanities now – as a disciplinary body – at all levels of education and, consequently, as a field within the publishing industry.
In Australian universities today the research focus is squarely on science (conceived of in the very narrow, specifically English sense of this word), and the teaching focus is on vocational education, the imparting of practical skills and professional training (Turner and on the narrow meaning of ‘science’ in English, see Wierbicka). A consequence of this has been the decline and regular disappearance of language departments. (Schwartz, p.11; Turner) Classics and Philosophy are also under pressure, where they continue to exist. (Schwartz) Writing in October last year Professor Graeme Turner from the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland stated: ‘The Excellence in Research for Australia process is certain to reveal what many know already: that the landscape for the humanities disciplines, once you move beyond the main metropolitan universities, looks like scorched earth. Picked off by administrative restructures, market forces and just plain neglect, whole programs have disappeared.’ He extrapolated: ‘In some of the regional universities, as well as in some of the more vocationally oriented metropolitan campuses, it is hard to see humanities programs of any quality surviving.’
Luke Slattery, reporting on these rankings in February this year, bore out Turner’s prediction: ‘Results from the research assessment reveal that in a field such as studies in human society, only a quarter of our 41 universities attained the international average of three points or higher ... Only 12 universities made it onto the page in anthropology; none of the other 29 had done enough research in this field, broadly defined as the study of human behaviour and social development, to warrant ranking ... In academic work, the University of NSW top-scored with a ranking of four, while four other universities made par with three. The remaining 36 were either given a sub-world standard ranking or no ranking at all.’
Humanities academics feel undervalued while, at the same time, being fearful of losing their employment altogether (Schwartz, p.11). Part of the undervaluing is financial: the median annual starting salary for Humanities bachelor degree graduates aged under 25 and in their first full-time employment in Australia in 2010 ($42,000) was nearly 15 per cent lower than the median average for all bachelor degree graduates ($49,000). (Cambourne) But there are additional factors: Humanities departments have not been alone in suffering from the shift away from democratic governance structures of management within the university, but their Socratic traditions perhaps make these changes especially difficult to bear. Similarly, the dramatic increase in university class sizes since the late 1980s has had a particularly negative effect on humanities teaching, which depends on personal interaction. The whole idea underpinning humanities education is that it should not be passive. The initiatives to standardise testing in secondary schools is also clearly inimical to humanities traditions.
Humanities education, especially when it is advanced as humanities education, rather than as a branch of ‘objective’, ‘value-neutral’ science (in cultural theory, for instance) or a set of measurable skills (within an Education degree, say), is well and truly on the sidelines. The humanities are not seen as being anything like as valuable as either science on one hand or training for a professional career on the other.
This is certainly the case at the level of government: the Labor Party election document of 2007, ‘The Australian Economy Needs an Education Revolution’, was all about the supposed need for more skilled workers to increase economic production. (Schwartz) The humanities are disadvantaged by the relative funding model, now 20 years old, which, Turner notes, ‘privileges research income over research output.’ In addition, ‘there is the practice of putting new money into higher education through strategic research initiatives rather than through changes to base levels of funding. By routinely requiring matching contributions, from the universities or elsewhere, strategic funding consolidated the advantage of those who already had most of the research dollars: typically, the biological sciences.’ (Turner) The Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, designed to measure (amongst other things) research impact, has relied for its measuring of research impact on the Scopus bibliographic database, in which the arts and humanities are relatively poorly covered.
But there is evidence also that the humanities are also undervalued within Australian university senior management. While Macquarie University Vice Chancellor Steven Schwartz recently lamented the fact that ‘the humanities are in crisis’ (p.11) and called for a new level of support for them, he also referred to ‘leaky finances’ supposedly ‘forcing’ universities ‘to jettison disciplines to keep afloat’ (p.11). This would likely be disputed by Turner, who argues that with a small number of exceptions, universities ‘have sat back and watched, deploring the depredations that market forces have wrought on their humanities programs, while operating in complicity with them.’ (Turner)
Turner contends that ‘It is not enough to blame government funding strategies ... These defects in the system would be remediable at the university level if there were sufficient will. Universities don’t decide how their money comes to them, but they do decide how to spend it. Most, however, have decided there is no money in the humanities and gradually declined to invest in them.’ (Turner)
The odds stacked against the humanities in most parts of the world outside of Australia seem even more extreme. In Britain the Tory-Liberal Democrat Government is preparing to remove all public funding from university humanities departments, completing turning on its head the notion of ‘public good’ that historically underpinned the development of the humanities, and universities. Those who forsake training in a particular set of skills likely to lead to certifiable credentials and employment, in favour of the broad education and general knowledge that indirectly contributes to the health and quality of life of society as a whole, are paradoxically to be treated as self-indulgents who effectively need to be punished. New private higher education options are springing up in the wake of these government cutbacks in the UK, but it is feared these will be available only to the very wealthy who can afford their considerable fees (see Eagleton).
In the US, according to Schwartz, ‘Huge for-profit ... universities, such as the University of Phoenix, shun the humanities entirely.’ (p.11) Toby Miller, chair of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, reports that just 53 per cent of US humanities staff had full-time jobs in 2009. Business professors in 2005–2006 were paid twice as much as humanities professors. Between 1979 and 1997, US government National Science Foundation (NSF) grants went from five times the size of grants awarded to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to 33 times the size. In 2010, just 0.45 per cent of federal research money went to the humanities. Miller also notes that ‘The vast majority of governmental support for the humanities nowadays goes to museums, historical societies, regional re-granting bodies and libraries.’ (Miller, ‘Dilemma’.)
By and large, the new universities of Asia focus on science, technology and business and pay little attention to the arts, literature or philosophy (Schwartz, p.11).
University Library acquisitions budgets – especially in relation to humanities publications – have been placed under pressure by the dramatic increase in recent decades of the cost of journal subscriptions in the areas of science, medicine and technology (SMT), a cost increase arising primarily from the acquisition of journals in these areas by commercial publishers who tightly control and effectively exploit associated copyrights. In Australia, between 1986 and 1998, the number of journal subscriptions in university libraries declined by 37% while expenditure on these increased by 63% and the unit cost of journals increased by a ‘staggering’ 474%. (Houghton)
Libraries are under pressure to purchase journals in these fields because without access to the information within them, scholars in these fields will find it difficult to gain access to the largest research grants, now such a priority for most universities. (Miller, ‘Worldwide jitters’.) Even ten years ago, an institutional subscription to a humanities journal might be under US$100 while one in physics might be close to US$1500. (Miller, ‘Worldwide jitters’.). In 2004, Brain Research cost approximately US$20,000 a year, while Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters cost almost US$30,000. (Davidson) The situation has deteriorated further since then.
The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), probably the best known and most influential global universities ranking, places a heavy emphasis on the natural sciences as opposed to the social sciences and humanities. It does not seek to measure humanities quality at all.
James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield (in their book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, 2011) suggest that the traditional role of money in universities has been inverted. Rather than being a means to achieving an end, making money has become an end in itself (Schwartz, p.11); arguably the only real end. Martha Nussbaum, in her recent work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), concurs:
Thirsty for national profit, nations, and their systems of education, are heedlessly discarding skills that are needed to keep democracies alive ... The humanities and the arts are being cut away, in both primary/secondary and college-university education, in virtually every nation of the world [and, in addition] what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science—the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspect of rigorous critical thought—are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.’ (2)
She concludes: ‘We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance ... a world-wide crisis in education.’ (1–2)
Valuing the Humanities
I’m sure – I hope at any rate – it is unnecessary to mount an argument for the value of humanities scholarship to this audience. But I would like to remind us of the nature of this value by reporting what some prominent advocates for the humanities have had to say on this topic in recent times.
For Nussbaum: ‘These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of the world”; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.’ (7) She adds: ‘the faculties of thought and imagination ... make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation. When we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and other in that way, imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.’ (6)
Speaking personally: I think if I had of been clearer on this point during my own time as a (primarily) humanities university teacher: that I was educating people for citizenship, this would have enabled me to better articulate the value of what I was doing, to my students and to myself.
Anna Wierzbicka (professor of linguistics at the ANU) has also made useful comments recently on the value of humanities scholarship. Noting that ‘The fundamental distinction between studying things and studying people was introduced into European thought by the Italian 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico’, she explains: ‘Essentially, the idea is that people can know things of many kinds about people in a way they can’t know things about anything else, that it is extremely important for people to know these things about people, and further, that people can know things of these kinds about people imaginatively, from inside, and that they can have a better understanding of them than they can ever have of the natural world.’
Wierzbicka also notes that a ‘link with values and moral judgment needs to be taken into account in the full definition of the humanities’: ‘Natural sciences are widely taken to be value-free (and social sciences tend to imitate science in this regard). The humanities, on the other hand, do not aspire to be value-free. Thus, when a historian writes of Stalinism and Nazism that “moral judgments are intrinsic to all historical understanding’’, he [sic] is placing history in the context of the humanities rather than the social sciences.’
At the risk of labouring the point (of the value of the humanities) I’d also like to quote Peter Singer (professor of bioethics in the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and laureate professor in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne): ‘The idea of a liberal arts education goes back more than 2000 years to Plato’s Academy ... We might say that it attempts to answer the broad questions ... Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? This kind of education does not train you in a profession, but it gives you an intellectual foundation to use throughout your life, whether you decide to go into medicine, law, business, engineering, or any other occupation.’ And, in a formulation that brings Nussbaum’s to mind: ‘If our best-educated citizens have no idea how to answer these basic questions, we will struggle to build a democracy that can solve the problems we face, whether they are what to do about climate change, the world’s poor, the problems of Australia’s indigenous people, or the prospect of a future in which we can genetically modify our offspring. An education in the humanities is as valuable today as it was in Plato’s time.’
Are we in Australia as empathetic and understanding towards the various ‘others’ outside of and within our own society, as we could be? Are we capable of thinking critically (as opposed to cynically), about issues of public policy on which decisions must be made (and are made in our name)? Are we fully aware of the difference between scientific ‘fact’ and assessments based on value judgements? And of the inevitability and value of these judgements? Do we reach for a rich philosophical and ethical basis for the various decisions we make as individuals and as a society in our day to day lives?
We don’t have time to discuss the answers to these questions in detail and I’ll leave you to make up your own mind but one point I can’t resist making is that, reportedly, more than 80 per cent of Australians are actively disengaged from political commentary and debate, even during election campaigns. A senior Minister in the current Federal Government said at a conference I attended a couple of years ago that, during the 2007 election campaign, it made no sense for then opposition leader Kevin Rudd to engage with the Prime Minister (John Howard) on economic policy because, according to ALP polling, when the electorate heard words like ‘economy’ and ‘economic policy’, approval ratings for the Coalition went up, regardless of the particular policies being advocated, whereas when people heard words like ‘education’, ‘health’ and ‘job security’, approval ratings for the ALP went up. The powers that be in the ALP believed, in other words, that existing word-associations were likely to have a greater effect on voter behaviour than the content of policies themselves. And, well, I also can’t resist noting that Australia’s refugee policies and the treatment of outback Aborigines were attacked in May this year by the United Nations’ top human rights watchdog, which suggested there was ‘a strong undercurrent of racism here’ (hardly surprising following years of disinvestment in the study of other societies and cultures). (‘UN rights chief slams “racist, inhumane” elements in Australia’, and this general point about the effects of disinvestment in study of this kind is also made by Turner and Nussbaum.)
It is heartening – after all this doom and gloom (sorry) – to consider that, while the Bachelor of Arts Degree is no longer the most common degree taken in Australian universities (it was knocked off that perch some ten years ago by the Master of Business Administration), more than 26 per cent of Australia’s university students still choose to enrol in the humanities (where they are taught by 10.8 per cent of the nation’s university staff). (Turner) Polling of what people would like to study also suggests strong interest in the humanities. ((My Career), Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb 2010, p.4.) ‘When working life wanes and it comes time to feed the soul,’ Schwartz points out, ‘only the humanities provide the required nutrition ... Not once have I encountered a retiree [at university graduation ceremonies] whose return to university was driven by a passion for accounting or marketing or business administration.’ (p.11) And, of course, much high quality humanities scholarship continues to be produced.
We have a situation, then, in which the humanities can be seen to be highly valuable, even imperative, socially, and are popular, while, at the same time, these disciplinary fields are going to the wall; whole bodies of knowledge are being lost from our societies.
This seems to me to be, broadly speaking, a case of market failure, in Keynesian terms, in which the market, so good at pricing and facilitating exchange in privately owned goods, is not able, of itself, to deliver for society a product which would greatly benefit – not individuals, or not only individuals – but society as a whole, a product which essentially yields public, rather than private rewards (or ‘positive externalities’ in Keynesian terms), and without which the quality of life of all individuals within society is immeasurably cheapened.
The classic solution for market failure of course is government action. But in the current public-policy environment it would seem to be irrationally optimistic to wait for that. In recent years hopes have grown that the development of digital technologies and, more specifically, the capacity for virtually cost-free reproduction of digitally created products, will facilitate a loosening of the social dominance of market means of product exchange and distribution. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett write in The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better (2009):
For everything that can be copied digitally, additional copies cost little or nothing either to produce or to distribute over the internet ... So low are marginal costs of digital products that there is a growing “free” sector. Efforts are made to enforce patents and copyright protection in an attempt to restrict access and enable companies to hold on to profits; but the logic of technological progress is difficult to resist. (258)
Humanities publishing, in particular, is benefitting from new technologies and business models which enable a new level of emphasis on the dissemination of knowledge and a new degree of freedom from the need to have one’s costs recovered through the sale of print books in bookstores, alone. In Australia the ANU E Press, Adelaide University Press, UTS ePress and Monash University Publishing (which grew out of an epress) publish a large and increasing number of books and journals that are, for the most part, made available online open access (and so, free of charge to anyone able to view the web). It is no coincidence that these presses are, physically or administratively, housed in their host institutions’ libraries. Libraries, after all, have borne the brunt of the dramatic increases in journal acquisitions costs in recent decades while, at the same time, being among the earliest and most sophisticated institutional consumers (and in many cases developers) of data management, discovery and distribution software.
The ANU E Press alone currently publishes over 50 books a year. Extensive, targetted metadata dissemination heightens the discoverability of these library-based presses’ works online. They are generally typeset as part of a semi-automated, XML-based workflow, and digitally printed, yet, at their best, are the equal of commercial publishers’ offset printed books, in terms of their physical quality (the advancement of digital print technology is a story in itself). And the strategy of publishing open access online in no way precludes simultaneous distribution into brick-and-cement bookstores, or even a business model based on these ‘traditional’ sales (that’s what I hope, at any rate, since this is the business model of Monash University Publishing).
I am not suggesting that these new presses, making use of new developments in digital communications technology, are ‘the solution’ to the problems faced by the Humanities as a whole (which can only be overcome by a wider social mobilisation and more enlightened political leadership), but they are, I believe, a very positive development for Australian education (and humanities scholars especially) and society.
No author listed, ‘UN rights chief slams “racist, inhumane” elements in Australia’, www.theage.com.au, viewed 26 May 2011.
No author listed, Sydney Morning Herald (My Career) 6 Feb 2010, p.4.
Keeli Cambourne, ‘Job net is wide in public service, Sydney Morning Herald 5 March 2011, quoting Graduate Careers Australia 2010 GradFiles survey.
Terry Eagleton, ‘AC Grayling's private university is odious’, Guardian online, 6 June 2011.
Cathy N. Davidson, ‘The Futures of Scholarly Publishing1’, Journal of Scholarly Publishing 35:3 2004, pp. 129–142, p.139.
J.W. Houghton, ‘Crisis and transition: The Economics of Scholarly Communication’, Learned Publishing 14:3, 2001.
Toby Miller, ‘Dilemma of blowing up the humanities’, The Australian (Higher Ed), 16 Feb 2011, p.25.
Toby Miller, ‘Worldwide jitters over publishing’, The Australian (Higher Education) 4 May 2011, p.40.
Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Princeton University Press, 2010.
Steven Schwartz, ‘Soul food in the age of money’, The Australian Literary Review 4 May 2011, pp.11–12.
Peter Singer, ‘We must nurture the humanities’, The Age 27 July 2009, p.13.
Luke Slattery, ‘Cultural life diminished by the absence of top-flight experts---RESEARCH RANKINGS’, The Australian 1 February 2011, p.6.
Graeme Turner, ‘In thrall purely to sciences’, The Australian (Higher Ed) 13 October 2010.
Anna Wierzbicka, ‘The humanities battle to gain a scientific edge’, The Australian (Higher Ed) 7 July 2010, p.24.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, Allen Lane, 2009.
The Future is Regional
In about two weeks’ time (on 3 June) the Monash University Publishing team will load up the station wagon, strap a mattress to the roof and head down to Wonthaggi for the launch of Andrew Reeves’ Up from the Underworld: Coal miners and Community in Wonthaggi 1909 – 1968.
This is being launched by Senator the Honourable Kim Carr, federal Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, at the State Coal Mine Visitor Centre.
This is going to be an exciting event for us. It’s not every day that one of your titles is launched by a federal Minister, and certainly not one so central to Australia’s future plans for economic and educational development as Senator Carr. The response to the book and the launch event, especially in the Wonthaggi region, has also been fantastic. And we’re very proud of the book itself, both as a work of history and as a physical production, with a cover adorned by a Noel Counihan painting and over fifty graphics inside.
But I’m also especially pleased to be publishing a work with such a regional focus, and hope that such works will be a strength of this press.
Of the many characteristics of the digital era that I continue to find difficult to ‘process’, foremost among these is the impact of this technology on rural and regional life.
Growing up in Mildura in the eighties, one felt more or less completely isolated from the world outside that rural city and the cluster of little towns around it.
Now, not surprisingly, a lot of those people I grew up with (and who, in another age, I would probably never have heard from again) are enthusiastic users of Facebook and various other means of digitally keeping in touch.
Australia’s highly urbanised society has, since its early days, shared Banjo Paterson’s dream to go bush with Clancy. The founders of the Country Party, in New South Wales, even campaigned – for many years – for their own nation state, in which the ‘evils’ of urbanisation and industrialisation could be avoided.
Now, with the cities’ increasing congestion and expense and the spread of digital technologies and infrastructure to regional areas (assisted, in part, by the attention afforded the two independent rural MPs who sided with the Government after the last federal election), the decay and decline of rural areas may not necessarily be so ubiquitous, the experience of driving through country towns so inevitably morose.
It is to be hoped that intellectually, too, the privileging of what Raewyn Connell has termed ‘metropolitan’ theory (Southern Theory, 2007), which seeks a universal explanation for social phenomena, will also, increasingly, come into question. And, in turn, new spaces will open up for non-metropolitan voices.
The publication of Up from the Underworld exemplifies ways that new technology can help to preserve historical traditions, rather than erase them, while the book itself tells an important story of struggle, sacrifice and cooperative achievement.
If, as Martha Nussbaum has reminded us recently (Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, 2010), the great value of humanities scholarship derives from its capacity to explicate ‘other’ worlds, experiences, desires, fears, imaginings and sets of values, a focus on localised cultural and historical study might play an important part in generating more sophisticated understandings of and lines of communication between the various groups that make up our nation and our world.
I was impressed by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better, when it was first released in 2009, and wrote this review of it for Overland magazine. They didn’t end up running the review, so with the recent re-issue of this publication, I thought it worth publishing here. The study, especially in the authors’ discussion of developments in digital technology, has implications for publishers and publishing.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane, 2009.
In the UK, according to Thornton McCamish (Sunday Age 16 August 2009), The Spirit Level has helped to stimulate a “lively debate about the social costs of inequality”. Here, no such debate has got off the ground, in spite of Richard Wilkinson’s visit to Australia in 2009, the mass media’s publicising of Executive incompetence and excess during the global financial crisis, supposedly high levels of resentment against profiteering banks, and intermittent public spats about school funding formulae. Whatever the reasons for this quietude, Wilkinson and Pickett’s findings and arguments need to be remembered by anyone seriously interested in understanding and responding to fundamental social dynamics here and throughout the world.
Drawing their primary data exclusively “from the most reputable sources – from The World Bank, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and others”, and taking care to ensure that their objects and methods of study have been consistent and systematic throughout, these epidemiologists find that more equal societies are more healthy – physically, mentally and emotionally (and thus also ‘happier’) – more trusting and internally cohesive, have higher life expectancy and social mobility and lower rates of crime (including violent crime and crimes against women and children), shorter sentences for criminals and better records of rehabilitation, and lower rates of teen pregnancy and obesity and of their associated problems. In more equal societies women do better, professionally, and more money is spent on welfare, health and education, while, partly because resources are less likely to be siphoned off into prison building and private bank accounts, more financial assistance is also given by these nations to the poor in other parts of the world.
All of this is very affirming for those of us who believe in the general social value of equality: “Health and social problems are indeed more common in countries with bigger income inequalities. The two are extraordinarily closely related.” More arresting though are the authors’ other central findings: firstly that “as nations join the ranks of the affluent developed countries” – the focus of the research here – “further rises in income count for less and less”, in terms of their impact on health and quality of life. In these countries, for example, “there is no relationship between the amount of health spending per person and life expectancy”. And secondly, though coterminously: the strongest influence on the physical and social health of these nations is the degree of equality that exists within them: “Some countries can be almost twice as rich as others without any benefit to life expectancy. Yet within any of them death rates are closely and systematically related to income”. In other words: “The problems in rich countries are not caused by the society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people within each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society.”
Why is this the case? Wilkinson and Pickett trace out, more comprehensively and thoroughly than has been done before, so far as I am aware, the complex process by which a person’s economic position in society is likely to affect – indeed, statistically speaking, determine – his or her chances not only of, say, achieving in school or obtaining a good job, but of being overweight, violent, a teen parent, happy, healthy, living a long life, and even of such things as getting certain cancers and other illnesses: “In a striking experiment, researchers have . . . shown that people with friends are less likely to catch a cold when given the same measured exposure to the cold virus – in fact the more friends they had, the more resistant they were.” As individuals, our socio-economic experience and social position seeps through our psyche and into our physiology itself. In more unequal societies, for example, more stressed pregnant women carry more stressed foetuses who may then turn throughout their lives to food as a source of comfort, as most obese people do. (Australia is singled out, incidentally, as having one of the very worst systems of child care and maternity / paternity leave, in the rich world.)
The authors go on to speculate about human beings’ fundamental evolved psychological nature and traits, bringing to mind this aspect of the project of Emile Zola and, unfortunately, being no more convincing. (As ‘Frankfurt school’ thinkers like Habermas have argued convincingly, one needs always to be wary of reducing ‘the social’ to ‘the natural’.) They do, nonetheless, decimate the proposition, still dominant in our nation at least, that human beings are naturally overwhelmingly inquisitive, selfish and greedy: “Now that we have much more knowledge of hunting and gathering societies it is clear that our ancestors did not [as Hobbes thought] live in a state of continuous conflict … [S]ocial and economic life was based on systems of gift exchange, food sharing, and on a very high degree of equality.” “Forms of exchange involving direct expressions of self-interest”, on the other hand, “such as buying and selling or barter, were usually regarded as socially unacceptable and outlawed”.
Turning to the future, and technological development, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that in the “digital age”, in which goods can be reproduced, perfectly, for very little extra cost, the sustainability and desirability of private property may well need to be reconsidered. Why pay to develop a product that can easily be copied? And why should profits from such copying go into private hands (such as those of Google)?
What, then, is to be done? Refreshingly, for scholars trained in the ‘natural’ sciences especially, Wilkinson and Pickett are strongly aware of the social dimensions of knowledge and of the ultimately arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries: the point is to change the world, for the better. Also, being unencumbered by any conscious intellectual debt to Marx and finding that “greater equality can be gained either by using taxes and benefits to redistribute very unequal incomes or by greater equality in gross incomes before taxes and benefits, which leaves less need for redistribution”, they recognise, as Marx and his followers sometimes did not, that there is no single ‘correct’ approach to economics. That said, they do identify what is likely to be the most effective means of bringing about the kind of social transformation which their findings suggest is desirable: industrial democracy: giving employees a greater share of profits from, and say over the direction of, the companies they work for.
This is argued for so clearly in the book’s final chapter, and on the basis of such evident logic, that it is made to sound easy and unproblematic (employees would, for instance, be restricted from selling their shares). Partly for this reason, the arguments are patently inspiring; and the authors’ practical intentions are signaled by both the confidence of their rhetoric (“[n]ow that we have shown that reducing inequality leads to a very much better society . . . We are on the verge of creating a qualitatively better and more truly sociable society for all”) and by the fact that they have set up a research institute to continue to advocate and campaign for change (see www.equalitytrust.org.uk).
The study as a whole stands as a corrective to those – like Clive Hamilton – who would argue that increasing affluence has made the goal of wealth redistribution in the rich ‘first’ world less vital, politically. It also invites a reconsideration of the truism, accepted within most approaches to cultural theory (including mine), that cultural and political phenomena are, if not floating free from the economic, then independent to some degree. For Wilkinson and Pickett what Marxists call, or used to call, ‘the superstructure’, sprouts directly from the economic ‘base’: “We should perhaps regard the scale of material inequalities in a society as providing the skeleton, or framework, round which class and cultural differences are formed. Over time, crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity.” On the evidence presented here, it is hard to disagree.
It is also true, of course, that times change, and that social progress does take place; sometimes even social transformation. Still, I am not quite convinced that “if governments understood the consequences of widening income differences they would be keener to prevent them”. Would Thatcher? Would Howard? Or Bush (I or II)? And isn’t it possible that for what might imperfectly be called ‘the ruling class’, social dysfunction and pain (especially other people’s pain) are a price worth paying for their position of dominance?
Clearly, Wilkinson and Pickett did not need to read Marx to arrive at their conclusions. They have merely responded intelligently to the evidence they have found. But a consideration of Marx’s work on ideology may have added an extra layer of analytic strength to this book. After all, remember what happened – and what didn’t happen – when Laurie Carmichael and others put the case for industrial democracy in Australia Reconstructed (1987) …
Talk for Professional Historians’ Association of Victoria
On March 16, I gave a speech at a Professional Historians Association of Victoria event.
Event organiser Kimberley Meagher asked me to cover: ‘what SPUNC [Small Presss Underground Network] does/represents; general direction of publishing considering the introduction of new media/ publishing mediums; tips for getting published; outside/mainstream/niche interest in history material’.