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Funding Ethic and the Spirit of Neoliberal Academia

Pekka Himanen, the Finnish consultant, has been in the headlines over the past weeks and months. It all started when an interim report of his project got torn apart in media reviews, for instance in Suomen Kuvalehti and in various other subsequent articles. Basically, the language did not make sense: full of repetition and grammar that sounded like it had gone through google translator, the suggestions of Sininen Kirja, (PDF) “the Blue Book” were besides banal, badly written. The project about possible futures for Finland did not promise much.

Besides the substandard research, what was raised as a question mark was the funding: 700 k for this project for Himanen and Manuel Castells. And what was revealed then was how the funding was obtained: outside the normal funding calls, after a special deal arranged by the Finnish government and Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen. Of course, the PM has rushed to explain: nothing dodgy here, the research agencies were involved and interested. However, for instance Finnish academy begged to differ. Perhaps not direct pressure, but something not very fair play either, it was reported in interviews (see here and here for instance).

There is a range of really good blog posts (in Finnish) out there (for instance here and here), and I have not much to add, just to summarise and point to a wider theme this raises: dodgy funding arrangements in the midst of widespread university funding crises and claims that there just is not enough funding to sustain public universities. This is clearly not the case, but more about allocation: whether the money goes to supporting peer reviewed excellent basic work with students in free and public universities, and research that is respectable, or to consultancy projects, like Himanen’s.

Indeed, as raised for instance in a Filosofia.fi blog post, there are various issues at play. To paraphrase, and summarise:

– the project plan’s budget has unclear expenses that refer to the past, prior to the project
-the plan itself is something I would not accept even from a student: no words on methods, sources or research material; it presents a “comparative perspective” without telling what countries are being compared
– there are basic problems with the personnel of the project, regarding their duties in the project
– the project was not peer reviewed, or gone through any of the normal academic procedures for funding

What it does is an overuse of words “analysis” and “synthesis”.

Welcome to the world of neoliberal academia: a cynical disjuncture between the political economy of research & basic funding and the rhetorics of innovation, futurity, and ethical values ( such as the pet term “dignity” that Himanen spreads frequently). This neoliberal world of academia functions through privatisation of assets, architectures and mechanisms of public funding, channeling them to consultancy projects that are commissioned and tightly linked with political goals.

Interestingly Manuel Castells rushed to the defense of his colleague, professor Himanen (whose CV, it was claimed in an earlier piece of investigative journalism, does not include peer reviewed articles at all): the critics are motivated by envy. Himanen is a genius. But Castells fails to engage with any of the actual critique or even more so, with the actual puzzling core of the whole issue. Instead of political economy of funding, this is a matter of psychological problems of those without funding.

Indeed, in this case this is less about Himanen than about the wider Funding Ethic and the Spirit of Neoliberal Academia. Perhaps that is the book that should have been written instead of his Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. Of course, this issue is not solely about Finland, but we can recognize the same patterns across a range of other countries, including Britain: privatize public funding and commons, engineer the procedures so as to fit that financial channeling and top it up with beautiful rhetorics of ethics, respect, creativity, innovation, sharing and big societies where values are respected. Neoliberalism loves value: both in bank accounts and rhetorics. Terms such as dignity are beautifully empty signifiers that can be customised to fit the purpose.

Categories: academic research
  1. p
    March 18, 2013 at 7:36 am

    In terms of what you call rhetorics of innovation, accompanied by pet terms, I was reminded of another pet term “positivity” a favorite of Himanen’s teacher/guru, Esa Saarinen who seems equally banal both in his speech and posturing. I was wondering if any of these people sound more profound in Finnish. The few talks that I have heard the latter give in English were not only shallow but factually inaccurate.

    • March 18, 2013 at 7:54 am

      They sound as banal and inaccurate in Finnish, although those aspects might be emphasised in English. Saarinen is another similar figure, who groomed for instance Himanen to this “public philosophher/consultant” role. Both have background in analytical philosophy (which has a serious tradition in Finland as well, think of Georg Henrik von Wright, etc), although Saarinen wrote in the 1980s even a book on Sartre that I as a teenager loved. But he had a serious Turn (not a Heideggerian Kehre however) towards consultancy/positivity rather soon, which makes his early “brands” like Sartre or coined as the “punk-doctor” look amusing. But to speculate, he probably always had an eye for something that would catch teh attention of media, etc.

  1. March 6, 2013 at 7:43 am
  2. March 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm
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