Lessons from Comrades

So many new post ideas, so little time. But this one will go cold soon, so here’s a short post reflecting on lessons I learnt when running the Comrades marathon last weekend.

It’s a very emotional race: people speak of it with such reverence and affection. And it truly does test you on multiple levels. Being neither physically prepared or mentally tough will be sufficient to see you through. So here are the key take aways… there were lots more, but I’ve bored enough people to narcolepsy in the last year with talk of running.

Lesson 1

Running a race like Comrades gives one an over-inflated sense of agency. You really do believe there’s nothing that can’t be achieved with sufficient will and determination. After all, it’s that sheer ‘bloody mindedness’ as a friend puts it that gets you to the start line, never mind the finish line. Most of us have run 1000km+ in the 5 months since January in training alone, with a similar amount in the 6 months prior to that. We’ve given up social opportunities, booze, sleep ins, any hope of reasonable tan lines or publicly displayable feet. Our bodies have undergone profound changes as we force them to run while eating, run while sore, run while cold, run while drinking, run while hot. Our guts go into hyperdrive, our muscles store glycogen and water, our heart rates drop and our sleep needs rocket. And let’s not forget the ridiculous amount of laundry…

So no wonder we start thinking we’re invincible. Superhuman. Every day we are forced to overcome our desire to rest, to skip a day, to drink the wine. A friend said “listen to your body”… and any Comrades runner will tell you that’s exactly what you don’t do. Your body will tell you to stop, it will moan and complain. “So how do you know if you should stop then?” they asked… to which the response is: many indicators… but pain is not one of them.

In all these Herculean efforts to overcome our gremlins, demons, doubts and flaws, it’s very easy to forget the invisible enablers that give us the options to make such choices. We really think it’s all down to our own doing and nothing else. Which leads me to:

Lesson 2

Behind every successful Comrades runner is a whole team of fed up supportive friends and family.

My interest in Comrades was sparked by my uncles, both of whom ran 1o races and acquired the covetted Green Number (10 runs). It’s a prestigious accolade, and is reverred the running world over. When I spoke to my grandmother after my race, she said my uncle was very proud of me and that I had run. I remarked that my respect for uncle was there, but my respect for my AUNTS had grown enormously. Because while my uncles were out being boys, spending 10+ hours a week running, probably 10+ extra hours of sleep a week also, their wives were doing the laundry, prepping the meals, raising small children, pinning down the domestic front with little to no domestic support from spouses who were obsessed with mileage in all hours outside of work.

Only 20% of Comrades runners are women. And yet the success rate at Comrades, and ultra distance running in general, is higher for women than men. Taken to extremes (like, 300km+) women will out perform men overall in endurance sport. Coach Parry’s research indicates that women’s higher pain thresholds, more conservative approach (we ‘respect the distance’ and don’t fire out the starting blocks in a fit of ego) and willingness to take professional advice ensured that in general, women run better ultramarathons than men. So why such a low turn out rate?

I don’t have hard data, but my hunch would be: free time. I’ve seen similar trends in the trail running groups I’ve tried around Cape Town. Almost all the women in attendance are child free. The men post instagrammed pics with the baby on Facebook, but I know that on the weekend they spent 6 hours or more on the trail. I’m relatively certain that the vast majority of their wives and partners are not afforded the choice to do the same. Most of my female friends stop running seriously once the first baby arrives. While this is initially a physiological requirement, the rhythms and labour divisions set in quickly and the pattern sticks.

So it’s no surprise that the longest running Comrades participant is a white male proudly attempting his 44th medal. Yes, it’s a phenomenal achievement. But contrary to most, what I saw was a man who was afforded a ridiculous amount of time free from drudgery and domesticity to just run ludicrous amounts over a very long period of time, with probably a wife to mother his kids, and a domestic to clean his house and cook his meals. Achieving 44 medals is as much testimony to being allowed the opportunity to as it is to taking that opportunity.

[No offence to people who run that damned race year after year after year after year… but really? It’s an awful lot of time. There are other interesting things to do in the world also.]

Now on to the positives!

Lesson 3

Comrades is special because of what it enables its runners to do off the road. Whether aware of it or not, almost every Comrades runner I have met is running to heal: running to, running from, running through… running strong, running tired, running running running. I ran to get off anti depressants, to make my anxious overwrought mind finally collapsed into delicious exhausted sleep, to excommunicate my heartache, to “run until it doesn’t hurt any more” ( ala “Mignon (Mossie) van Zyl”). It’s not the hills and sweat and miles that makes Comrades unique amongst races. It’s the exorcism of demons along the way. And the triumph of the human heart over the pain inflicted by life and living.

Which brings me to the last lesson, which was, for me, the most profound:

Lesson 4

Comrades is utterly contradictory. Because simultaneously:

no one can do it for you.

and you can’t do it alone.

That verdommende course is the loneliest 90km you’ll ever trudge. No one can take away your pain, no one can choose for you to put the next step down, to ignore the lurking vulture of a Bailer Bus creeping along in your peripheral vision, tempting you to climb on board and all the pain will go away (like the Devil in the desert tempting Jesus of Nazareth, those bloody Bailer Buses!) You will retreat into your own head, into your throbbing heaving chest and ask yourself who you are, where you’re going and WTF made you do this.

And then you draw. Draw in, draw breathe, draw courage from the wonderful strangers plodding beside you, handing you water, screaming your name, rubbing your legs, telling you to keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going, keep going… keep twelve bloody hours of going. They tell you wonderful lies, like “you’re looking good” and “almost there”… the bastards. The glorious wonderful human beings who have given up their day for no other reason than to help you slay your demons one by one, mile by mile, to scream your name louder than your muscles scream to stop. The mounted police looking so proud on their horses. The blind student who held his hand out for passing runners to give him high five. The woman with her placard saying “Shut up legs! You’ve got this.” The bhuta with his Tazz boot open pumping kalawa somewhere on the side of the road near Inchanga. Those kind people who raked thousands and thousands of plastic sachets off the road so those who follow didn’t slip. The dancers, the singers, the cheerers, old and young, all hues and sizes. You realise that you wouldn’t get much past 50km without them. Comrades only starts at Kilometre 50.

And what a life lesson. Your pursuit is yours alone–no one can do it for you. But you will not get very far without the support and kindness of others, stranger or friend. We are social creatures, even though our current historical moment would have us believe we are individual islands and others are for our use. We need each other, and Comrades’ glory is a triumphant testimony to our collective spirit as much as our individual determination. And what glory we can achieve when we are not only given the chance to go the distance, but then exercise the choice to also.


A shout out to Tshepo Joseph Shibambo of Apex Athletics Club, Pretoria. I owe you my race. Thank you. Ke a leboga.

The Problem of Piecemeal Reform

Disclaimer: this is a difficult piece to write.

It is difficult on two fronts: firstly, because the conclusion is frustrating. The end point I hope to illustrate is deeply unsatisfying. Unfortunately this does not make it untrue.

The second frontier of difficulty comes from the fact that, at least in South Africa (but not only in South Africa), people are sensitive to criticism, and we often conflate critiques of ideas with criticisms of people. I’m not immune to this myself: I hate having my ideas challenged, or even found wrong. So to those of you I consider friends who might not like what I write here, please see it as an engagement around ideas. I still care for you very much.

I wish to problematize the issue of ‘piecemeal reform’ in the education system. This is an issue that applies across many different interventions, including:

  • collaboration (i.e. charter) schools;
  • starting up independent, privately funded schools for the poor (whether fee charging or not);
  • small-scale NGO interventions after school (e.g. private classes on Saturdays);
  • direct private philanthropy towards individual public schools i.e. any other injection of resources (whether man hours, money, infrastructure or other) into individual institutions or groups of institutions that share a banner or name, without going via the structures of government under which that institution operates.

Let me first state up front that I do not in any way doubt the good intentions of people who undertake such projects. This critique is not an indictment on people’s desire to help, or to effect change. It must be recognised, and respected, that many people who put their money-if not their lives-into these projects, genuinely wish to see a better society, especially for our most vulnerable citizens i.e. our children. Moreover, it must be recognised that most of them are deeply frustrated. Efforts at effecting broad change have failed, hitting political walls, funding constraints, scaling issues, M&E barriers and any other version of red tape you can imagine. People wish to try and exercise their agency, and when they fail to achieve this through the state, they attempt to bypass the state.

BUT

With all the attention on the localised positive effects for one or two people, schools or communities that such undertakings bring, there is a critical issue that falls out of focus. There is a cost to these projects that goes untallied, and it is a steep price indeed.

For every such intervention-especially in a marketized schooling system like South Africa’s-…every such project irreparably fragments the public education fabric.

Each of these private interventions creates a new node, a new ‘broken off piece’ that cannot be reintegrated into the whole. And in doing so, the reach of any coherent system to conduct oversight, to redistribute resources from one area to another and to get a big-level picture of who is doing what, where, how, when and with whom, becomes increasingly difficult.

Moreover, the process is irreversible. Like smashing a clay pot, putting all the pieces back together again is just about impossible. Or imagine, if you will, an actual piece of fabric. One hole can be mended. With skill, several. But each hole weakens the structural integrity of the fabric, each tear ever so slightly weakens the tensile strength of the weave. And with enough tears and holes, mending becomes impossible, and the whole thing falls apart.

This thorny issue came up when discussing effective education interventions with a friend. He was (understandably) frustrated about how to effect systematic change, and he and his wife were considering the option of starting up a small school of their own to try and help the children they work with daily. At least this way, he argued, he could have more autonomy to do what he needed to do, and he knew his efforts would be benefitting the children he worked with in a real and tangible way.

I countered that yes, these were all true. His error is not in reasoning, but in omission: he must recognise the cost inherent in the project, and whether he was willing to contribute to the fragmentation of the public system that he claimed he believed in and wanted to fight for. Such costs are, in business speak, referred to as negative externalities-hidden downsides that are borne by society as whole, rather than by the individual entity that incurs them.

How does this fragmentation happen? What do I mean?

Another analogy: and please bear with me, this one is a little raw. But it makes the point, so as analogy it works.

Traffic pile ups

Think of good service delivery of quality education as analogous to adequate transport infrastructure. At the moment, as things stand, the system is horribly clogged and underperforming, like Cape Town’s traffic woes. Everyone is affected. The tailbacks on the highway are huge. People are late for work. Family time is intruded upon, as is sleep and health, as people have to leave earlier and earlier to commute to their jobs daily. Frustration is rising. “Peak hour” is increasingly less distinct from just everyday traffic: the intersection from the M5 to the N2, for example, is a nightmare, no matter the time of day.

There are clear systemic interventions that could improve the system. The road is widened (this is an example of systemic improvement that has an initial up front cost in the form of roadworks for improved performance later down the line). The city could hire more buses to reduce the number of private vehicles. We could fix the trains to get people off road and onto rail. All of these are system-level interventions that would benefit everybody involved. They need to be implemented by the agent that has the oversight, authority and reach to affect the whole system. That is: the government.

Now imagine being in that 5km long tailback trying to get to work. Every single driver is frustrated. Being ‘in the system’ i.e. obeying the rules of the road, is not getting you what you need. We know that the occasional deviant will pull out of the traffic and cut in further down the queue. Or, if you’re a minibus taxi, just pull up in the emergency lane and butt in at the last moment. Everyone behind throws their hands up in dispair!

Some of this deviance is driven by pure selfishness. Some by genuine need. A person rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital may feel his deviance is morally justified (and it is!). A bus driver may reason that he should get priority, given he represents a far larger number of people than the individual motorist driving alone and contributing to congestion. These scenarios help us to realise that ‘breaking away’ from the conventions of the system to pursue our own interests, or those immediately in our surroundings (our passengers, our families), are not always morally reprehensible: that is, ‘cutting in’ is not always just pure selfishness.

Rather, this scenario helps us to understand what happens when deviance, encouraged by frustration at non-performance, reaches a certain critical threshold. Because it is a scenario many of us have already begun to witness in our daily lives. One cuts in. Then two. Then three. It starts to become normal. The cutting in is not innocuous: it actually further clogs the system, those individuals taking a short cut at the cost of the others in the queue. Eventually, those who would normally choose to adhere to the common public system eventually get ‘the moer in’ with paying the price for other people’s perceived selfishness and they too begin to scrum and prioritize themselves, instead of waiting in the queue. And the entire convention disintegrates.

Getting that system back once that tipping point has been reached, is nigh on impossible. Entropy has permeated into the system and the structures have fallen apart.

How are traffic pile ups like the education system?

Each little private endeavour, which benefits one school over the others, is akin to a car cutting in. “No it isn’t!” I hear you say “I’m doing this because I want to help! Not because I’m selfish”. But this is missing the point: the person rushing to the hospital wants to help too. Just like a small school, he’s trying to do what he can for the person next to him because this seems the limit of his personal agency and scope to assist.

But that doesn’t change the effect his cutting in has on the queue. Or the irreversibility on the structural integrity of the system and conventions that keep the traffic from chaos.

We have a marketized schooling system. Children and parents are free to move around, ‘shopping’ for the school they think ‘offers the better service’. That means, any school that is perceived to have something ‘better’… whether it is ‘better teachers’, ‘better funding’, ‘better infrastructure’, ‘better management’… even if that perception is not substantiated with anything factual… any such school will create attraction points on the education landscape that naturally draw learners and parents who are more mobile and more enabled to select and be selected.

If a school is started in a township that purports to offer better maths and science opportunities, that school will command applications from the learners who, at least at a local level, excel at maths and science and want that excellence supported. The others get left behind in the other schools, who then are labelled as ‘failing’ (relatively), further exacerbating the impression of difference. The schooling landscape becomes a litany of ‘sinks’ and ‘sources’, as each school is inherently pitched against their neighbours to attract learners who are ‘easier to teach’. Localised interventions enhance these differences.

Like the guy rushing his wife to the hospital, perceiving her need over that of others, the local intentions are good, and the effect for the one or two people/children/schools involved is positive. But if we fail to see the negative costs borne by others in so doing, we ignore that we are slowly snipping away at our education fabric. For each private school that is started, another snip. Another institution that will never be reintegrated back into the fold of a system whose purpose for existing is exactly to have oversight across differences, across geographies and strata. After all, isn’t that what a government is for? To see the bigger picture on our behalf, to move resources where they are needed most?

If you do not believe in formalised government, for whatever reason, that is fine. Such fragmentation may be seen as the natural decline of a dated behemoth that has outlived its usefulness. But most people actually do not subscribe to this line of reasoning. There is an expectation that government will one day deliver the services we expect, once it has pulled up its socks. And its sock are, let’s be honest, sitting pretty low. But we need to notice when our little local projects to ‘help in the meantime’ prevent the socks from ever being pulled up at all. The system is too fragmented, with no central oversight. And nothing short of rather radical social re-engineering will ever forge the shards back into a cohesive whole.

The alternative is daunting, exhausting and demoralising: we continue to struggle and press for change from those who we gave a mandate to control the levers of power on our behalf. We do not give up on the ideal of a functional, quality public education system, where redress and equity can be enacted through coherent decision making. We continue to write in to our local councillors badgering them that our wait in the queue to get to work every morning is just unacceptable. We continue to hold our local education authorities to account. We push for capacitation of the system so that it can function to further all of our needs, because inequality hurts all of us.

There is only one mechanism to mitigate inequality in our education system. A capacitated, coherent public education system that has the means to see the broader picture and make the moves required to keep gaps from widening. All our little fractured projects dotted around the landscape will never have this reach, and hence will never be able to reduce inequality at the system level. They will only perhaps help the few in our immediate vicinity, often at the invisible cost of those elsewhere.

For each of us who wish to ‘help’, we should do so knowing the full cost of our intervention. And ask whether we would make the same decisions once all the negative externalities are in full view. Just like mining companies who pitch prospective digs on the potential positive outputs and ignore the future costs of pollution, small-scale private education interventions should, I feel, be a little more circumspect in their cost-benefit book-keeping when it comes to analysing the positive effects they claim to offer.

________________

[please note that this post in no way exonerates the current poor performance of government, nor ignores that piecemeal delivery on the part of government e.g. between provinces or districts, also exacerbates inequalities. That is not the point of the analysis.]

[* with thanks to one K. Marx for the term ‘piecemeal reform’]

Sorry for what?

Prompted by the recent title of Haji Mohamed Dawjee’s book (and, I’ve subsequently discovered, the book shares a title with a Demi Lovato single and a bio by an actor from Glee), the prevalence of the phrase “Sorry, not sorry” has got me noticing how many times women I know say ‘sorry’.

About everything.

And I (kind of) know myself. So me too.

The most interesting part of this noticing is how men don’t do it. The gender disparity is stark. We women constantly, frequently (over)use the word ‘sorry’. And this might seem an innocent habit but for the fact that tied up in the word is some tacit assumption of responsibility (whether guilt-driven or otherwise) for the situation about which we are saying ‘sorry’.

We use ‘sorry’ to:

  • express sympathy for something that happened to someone else, at another time, in another place (ooh sorry about that)
  • calm frayed nerves in a tense or stressful situation, even if it was not of our making
  • soften what we are going to say next when we disagree, or ask forgiveness, as if the truth coming out of our mouths must be sugar-coated for the receiving to hear it, or we are not allowed to ask for something we have every right to (I’m sorry but…)
  • to signal an interruption (instead of saying excuse me we say sorry)

An example: a friend invited me back to his place for a glass of wine the other day after we had walked the dog in the forest. I asked at least twice if this was going to work because it would involve my (rather energetic, rambunctuous) dog coming into his house, and potentially upsetting his cat. I was assured that it was not a problem, the cat would be ok, the dog was welcome.

After a pleasant evening of pizza, wine and chatting, I bundled the hound into the car and drove home. I messaged to say ‘thank you for a lovely evening’, and the response message said that “the cat is terrified” (clearly at the smell of a strange hunting dog in its homespace).

My instinct was to say “oh I’m sorry”… as if this was somehow my fault. It was my dog after all. Now be honest, girls… would you also have felt guilty? I did. I like cats: I don’t like the idea of a little critter being afraid. But it wasn’t my fault. I asked and checked (twice) and was assured it was ok: if anyone is responsible for the cat’s distress, it’s my friend who made the decision. So why do I feel guilty and responsible?

I noticed this urge to say “I’m sorry”, to assume responsibility for what had happened. I had to fight it… so instinctive, so habitual. And I realised how much responsibility I have been assuming, my entire life, for other people’s decisions and their consequences. There are times, too, I think that my assuming responsibility for other people’s decisions has also led to my expecting them to take responsibility for mine. Like I want someone to help me carry the weight of my mistakes. What a mess.

‘Sorry’ to buffer problematic gender relations

The use of the word ‘sorry’  is particularly marked in conversations between men and women. The women are saying ‘sorry’ in the ways described above, the men hardly ever do. What are we signalling to menfolk, when we take this disproportionate responsibility for decisions, sweep up the mess behind them, whether as their partners, their mothers, their daughters (yes… I often cleaned up the detritus of my father’s decisions in the form of my mother’s emotional fallout. “I’m sorry Dad, but I don’t think Mum’s ok with that”).

Another example: a friend was staying with me from out of town for a little while to do some work. She was carless and not too flush, so ubering everywhere was not ideal. Her partner was struggling to fetch her due to his car being damaged by his (rather inconsiderate) younger brother who had not gotten his ass in gear to fix the damage and restore the vehicle to use, inconveniencing everyone in the family who needed the wheels. On her last day with me, my friend and I are sitting in my home trying to convey to two men who are completely unaware of the consequences of their actions that we now can’t do what we needed to do that day (including an important doctor’s appointment) because they haven’t organised themselves. I resisted, furiously, the urge to just say “I’ll take you”, to halt my plans and fix the situation… women once again dropping their priorities and going out of their way to make shit work around disorganised men.

We end up playing broken telephone: “where are you?”… “what time will the car be fixed?”… “please can you liaise with your brother about collecting the car?”… messages go unanswered, undelivered. Eventually I just called up my friend’s partner (interrupting his meeting, which she was loathe to do, understandably) to say “listen: we’re sitting here unable to do what we need to do because you guys have not gotten yourselves organised”. Now my friend’s partner (who is also dear to me) is a nice guy, considerate, kind and generally extremely helpful. He just didn’t know what effects his actions were having, that here we were feeling like we now had to manage his brother because he was in a meeting and de facto ‘uninterruptable’. He was just going on with his day, as he had planned it, not thinking about how that day needed to synchronise with the day of others. Once he realised, he sprung to action to sort the issue out.

This is an important point: I don’t think men don’t tailor their actions to accommodate others deliberately. It’s just that the women around them have been accommodating, adapting, compensating and adjusting for their entire lives, allowing them to continue on oblivious, and we don’t challenge them. We don’t say “no, that’s not ok. That might be what you want, but I want X and we need to find a compromise”. Or “thanks for communicating your plans, here are mine and we have a clash at point Y” and then expect mutual reciprocity in resolving the issue. Rather we say ‘sorry’, capitulate and then mold and adjust ourselves around the worlds of the men in our lives, taking on their shape like water in a vessel, and then feeling completely lost when the cup disappears and we are left spilt out on the floor, wondering what our own form was before we took on theirs.

Resolution: I’m only saying sorry when I’m genuinely remorseful about something I could’ve done better

If I need to get past you because you are blocking the aisle/passage oblivious of other people… I will say “excuse me, please move”.

If something unpleasant has happened in your life for which I hold no responsibility, I will say “that’s awful, I wish that hadn’t happened”. Or “wow, I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now. Let me know if I can make you feel a bit better somehow” (if I wish to help).

If I’m going to say something I think you won’t like, I will not preface it with “I’m sorry, but…”. It will be “thanks for letting me know, but that’s not going to work” or “I would rather we…”

If I’ve fucked up, done something inconsiderate, unkind, selfish. Then I will say “I’m sorry”. How many times will depend on the severity of the sin.

And of course, this is not going to be easy. Old habits die hard. But now you know when I say ‘sorry’, I mean it. Sincerely. I know for a fact some people will not like it. Women who are not constantly apologising come across as hard, with rough edges, not soft like we are supposed to be. “Tough”. “Icy”. Whatever. Not my monkeys, not my circus. I’ll take responsibility for what I have done, and not what you’ve done. And I’ll expect you to do the same.

I am tired of apologising for expecting respect. Or just being.  You’ll have to get used to it, but I’m not sorry. Sorry for what?


(This was also prompted by how remarkable MaWinnie was. “I am not sorry. I will never be sorry.” Unyanisile Madikizela.)

A slippery subject: unpacking ‘privilege’ without a zero-sum mentality

It’s becoming all too twee these days to use the word ‘privilege’ as a signifier of ‘woke-ness’ without considering what privilege is, how it is acquired and the slipping of semantics it currently suffers.

Firstly to say that, even if abused as a signalling device to indicate an alleged lack of bias or prejudice, that we are talking about various forms of privilege in the mainstream is a good thing. I’ve no doubt that the conversations currently ongoing about white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, “middle class problems” etc. is a form of progress from denying these things exist.

Rather, I’m concerned at the slippage between the concept of privilege and the concept of luxury. I even caught myself the other day writing “male privilege, a luxury women can’t afford” and then had to erase my words… as if these are the same things: luxuries and privileges. But they are not always.

The importance of the distinction first struck me while conducting fieldwork in a high-performing (by results, at least) high school in Cape Town. On explaining the focus of my study, the staff and students at the school were quick to caveat their place of work and activities with the phrase “yes, we know we are very privileged here.” Besides being a form of exculpation, I was increasingly bemused as I then proceeded to walk about the school. Because very little of what the school offered was particularly luxurious. The buildings were old, but well maintained, but relatively simple. Classrooms looked like my old classroom did back in the 1990s. There weren’t iPads in every hand, smartboards in every room, water coolers in every classroom, digital eyeball recognition locks on student lockers… you get my meaning. The student lockers were old metal jobs. The staffroom decor still quaintly dated. The school was not lavish. It was functional, and well maintained. Yes, the learners had access to good sports coaching and art classes. But these are facilities every child should enjoy. They shouldn’t be synonymous with excess.

This got me to thinking that we need to heed the difference between privilege and luxury. The difference can be prised apart when we consider a more well-trodden framework of equity versus adequacy. Privilege sits in the frame of equity–it points out that there are discrepancies between peoples experiences that shouldn’t be there. Luxury sits in the frame of adequacy i.e. ‘what is enough?’ Luxury is synonymous with excess. To say I have privileges is to admit I sit on the fortunate side of an equity assymmetry. But it does not necessarily mean I live in luxury.

White privilege allows me to walk into a building as a stranger and not be assumed to be a thief or a beggar. It allows me to enquire about hiring a flat without worrying that I’ll be told “sorry it’s taken” sans further explanation when I arrive for a viewing. To not have my lecturer assume my lack of understanding is a language issue, or that my command of English is synonymous with my intelligence. But this is not a luxury: this is something people of all hues should be afforded.

Male privilege means not being catcalled down the street. Not being asked “what were you wearing” when you lay a complaint about antisocial behaviour. Not being tutted at when the cashier notices you’ve grey hair but no wedding ring (yes, this really happens). But I don’t want men to be catcalled, or judged for their marital status. I would like the privileges that men enjoy too please.

You see, I think we’ve allowed ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ to problematically meld. We slip between ‘privileges’ which are human rights, and ‘privileges’ which are luxuries. Privileges are things that all people should enjoy. That is: they should be additive, not subtractive. We call these things ‘privileges’ to acknowledge that while they should be universal, they are not: some have them, and some don’t, and this is a problem.

But when we ask someone to ‘check their privilege’, it is not helpful to tacitly or overtly insinuate that those privileges are necessarily all excessive and should be given up in the name of social justice. Luxuries–those things we don’t need–that’s a different story. It’s a luxury to buy new shoes every month. It’s a luxury to have a heated private swimming pool. Sadly, it is a privilege in South Africa  to be safe in your home. It is a privilege to not be harrassed by police. It is a privilege to have safe means to get to work every day.

When we conflate human rights and luxuries by sweepingly referring to them as ‘privileges’, we end up with extremely defensive and angry rhetoric: people feel they are being told to yield things that all human beings, in a good society, would have a right to. A home. Access to job opportunities. Respect and dignity. To not be discriminated against. We need to distinguish what we mean when we say ‘privilege’.

Unfortunately our zero-sum mentality (encouraged by our economic system) has us believing that for someone else to ‘get’, someone must ‘lose’. i.e. for women to receive privileges, men must yield theirs. For black people to receive dignity and respect, white people must lose theirs. In the fallout of the “land appropriation without compensation” debate, the pearl clutching middle classes are receiving their DA smses warning them that “they are coming to take your house!”: a message premised on exactly this zero sum view of the world.

And I’m not for one minute insinuating that the line between ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ is clear. The adequacy debate is far from concluded. Nor am I implying that being aware that I enjoy human rights (like dignity and respect) that others don’t is a bad thing. But I’m convinced that noting this slippage is an important part of beginning positive discussions across social stratification: between haves and have-nots, whether those strata are racial, class, gendered, landed. Coupled with the recognition that someone else’s gain is my gain too, not my loss, distinguishing luxury and privilege, adequacy and inequity, holds a lot of promise for less angry debate.

Capitalism and learning: a form of parasitism

IT is difficult to engage with sociological issues about schooling without engaging economics. So much of how we think about schools, skills and success is now completely framed in economic terms, with pockets of resistance scattered across the globe.

Given that the dominant mode of economic arrangement is now capitalism and has been a particular flavour of capitalism for the last 30 years, it is inevitable that this blog will touch on this relationship frequently. Many terms are used to refer to the contemporary economic flavour: ‘neoliberalism’, ‘fast capitalism’, ‘late capitalism’… I won’t unpack these too much in terms of an explainer, as plenty has been written on these  elsewhere. Now and then sometimes their deployment warrants some careful scrutiny (e.g. Jessica Gerrard’s excellent paper “Public education in neoliberal times: memory and desire” takes the political left’s use of the word ‘neoliberal’ to task.). But today’s post is the exploration of a thought that struck me while reading Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, and tries to unpick a bit of the relationship between a capitalistic approach to production and economy, and the process of learning. Here goes.

The Dialectic of Capitalism and Learning

An interesting conundrum sits at the heart of the relationship between capitalism and learning: a dialectic (no, not an Hegelian dialectic, for all you philosophers out there… alas there is no synthesis). By dialectic, rather, I mean a germ of an idea that contains its own refutation. A paradox.

There is something inherently contradictory in the relationship between capitalistic arrangements of production, trade and consumption, and the project of learning (which, one could argue, is the project of being and becoming).

Critical to the nature of capitalism as a process is the need for constant growth. This is achieved through expansion into new spheres of markets, through conquest, cooperation, or the fabrication of whole new areas of supposed ‘need’ to generate previously non-existent demand (the latter is often achieved through commodifying previously non-monetized entities: water, air, time, attention etc.)

But such consistent expansion and growth requires adaptation. That is: learning. “Learning” in this sense is not necessarily cognitive, considered, concious or institutionalized. Rather, it is the acquisition (and appropriation) of new information and knowledge in order to better achieve a particular outcome or aim (telos), and this can be overt or covert, deliberate or accidental. In the case of capitalism, that telos is profit.

[Unsurprisingly, when we look backwards at history, we can see how large strides have been made in technological development–mapping, linguistics, military analysis, timespace compression etc.–through the expansion of capitalist market arrangements.]

It is important to note that capitalism depends on learning, but not vice versa. That is: adaptation is necessary for capitalism (in its absence, growth is not possible), but adaptation can–and has–existed for aeons in the absence of capitalism. The assumption of symmetry (or simultaneity) between the two is false, but often used by the proponents of capitalism as ‘natural’ and ‘without alternative’ in a rather neo-Darwinian manner.

Capitalism has had (and continues to have) an extraordinary influence on our conceptions of what constitutes ‘learning’. It’s almost as if, by being so dependent on the process of learning, the capitalist imagination seeks to ‘claim’ learning as its sole right and manifestation. One of the mechanisms of this claiming, is that learning or adaptation that is not to the benefit of the capitalist project is ‘less than’ or of questionable value. Art, philosophy, political studies, music, sport… have all been either interrogated regarding their true ‘value’/usefulness (in the most utilitarian of manners) or appropriated towards commercial ends (even if that commodification is hidden under layers of denial or misrecognition). Institutions of learning are forced to synchronize their aims, outputs, terms and frames of reference to that of the economy, or risk extermination through ‘irrelevance’. Learning for the sake of learning, for discovery, personal development or curiosity, is rapidly losing ground.

Such appropriation is critical if the capitalistic project is to survive. Any learning that is not for is necessarily against: in a world where constant growth and expansion is paramount, all non-cooperation is at best inhibitive and hence antagonistic, or, more radically, a potential for alternatives, for rupture.

Learning that can not, or will not, be appropriated towards the specific aims of capital threatens the totality of that system’s ability to reach and shape discursive reality i.e. to present itself as ‘without alternative’ (whatever that alternative might be, whether anarchy, a return to feudalism, communism, species extinction or any myriad of alleged utopias or dystopias). Uncommodified/uncommodifiable learning punctures the capitalist hold on our imaginations of what might be.

So where’s the contradiction?

Capitalism will cease in the absence of learning. The parasite will die if it kills its host. And yet, the continuation of the project of learning at all times threatens the hold of capitalism on the collective psyche. The discovery and considerations of alternatives continues to draw back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, inviting fresh creativity that may or may not be aligned with the ends of monetization and commodification. Wherever, whenever, people are learning… are thinking new ideas, previously unthought… there is the possibility that they will think of a world beyond constant commodified growth.

If we recognise this dialectic, we are forced to consider then the continued permanent vulnerability of all systems and moments of learning to appropriation and co-option towards profiteering. In the presence of capitalistic economic arrangements, activities and meaning, in which learning is always the fuel that drives the engine, and yet threatens to rupture, there can not–and never will be–a moment in time when the arrangements, activities and meanings of learning are not beseiged by attempts to be commodified. Consider the example of the very word ‘disrupt’: previously reserved for deviants, political upstarts and anarchists, from street protestors to uncontrollable students in the classroom, the word ‘disrupt’ has now been brought into the monetized fold, been gilded as a descriptor for people who ‘shake up the market’ or ‘reinvent how things are done’. Even terms used previously in the pejorative are co-opted. And due to such a system’s constant need to grow and eliminate all alternatives, learning can expect no relief from commodification forces while a kernel of capitalism remains.

Far from being deterministic, this contradiction gives anyone who is concerned with capitalism and its effects genuine hope. Because built into the machine itself, at its very beating heart, are the seeds of its own defeat–that new ideas, learning, fresh thought and creativity remain, and these pursuits provide the starting point of imagining something different and more humane.

Bouncing back…

As happens with startling frequency to everyone I know, with little to no discrimination, life decided to drop on me over the last year. Needless to say, blogging took a backseat during the ride.

But, as assured by Keith Westwater below, humans are more elastic that they might seem. [more on the issues bound up with the increasingly popular term ‘resilience’ in a later post, as a good friend, Ashley, recently pointed out].

As I’m wrapping up my PhD this year, not a day goes by when I don’t have thoughts that I want to share, discuss and disseminate. I’ve sworn off social media for some time now…long before #deleteFacebook (and am feeling irritatingly smug about this decision since the emergence of the Cambridge Analytica scandal–feel free to tell me to stop gloating), but this does decrease my ability to reach others with ideas across the internet. Social media also doesn’t really encourage proper development of ideas beyond bite-size chunks. Maybe a proper, regular blog might do the trick.

So here’s a poem, originally shown me by someone I care for dearly, which takes a lovely gentle dig at us ‘mathematicians’ in favour of a more nuanced appreciation of human tenacity. Expect regular blog posts again. We are back to vertical.

Resilience by Keith Westwater

Mathematicians     have worked out

how to calculate     the bounciness of a ball:

(the coefficient of this x the cosine of that)

+   the differential of today’s weather     all ÷ by

a piece of string     (and the speed of the train)

= the same as    dropping different balls together

and seeing which ball     has the longest bounce

 

Measuring how well     a person will rebound

after being dropped on     is still being worked on:

some believe     it has something to do with

the thickness of their skin           whether their stretching

reaches a breaking point     or results in       withstanding

whether they can fight and flee          how many times

the person has returned to a vertical position before

An essay on mining by George Orwell 1939

The following essay, written about coal miners in 1939 by George Orwell, struck me as essential reading for all South Africans. We need simply replace the word “coal” with the word “gold”.

The essay is a product of its time, and the UK still had the problematic policy of appeasement towards Hitler: please read it in context. This in no way dilutes the truths that should come home to all South African readers whose lives and livelihoods sit upon the broad shoulders of our brothers (and sisters) who work in the depths of our gold and platinum mines and have done so for the last 130 years.


Down the Mine

George Orwell

1939

Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble.

When you go down a coal-mine it is important to try and get to the coal face when the ‘fillers are at work. This is not easy, because when the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong impression. On a Sunday, for instance, a mine seems almost peaceful. The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. At those times the place is like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space. Everything except the fire, for there is no fire down there except the feeble beams of Davy lamps and electric torches which scarcely penetrate the clouds of coal dust.

When you have finally got there—and getting there is a job in itself: I will explain that in a moment—you crawl through the last line of pit props and see opposite you a shiny black wall three or four feet high. This is the coal face. Overhead is the smooth ceiling made by the rock from which the coal has been cut; underneath is the rock again so that the gallery you are in is only as high as the ledge of coal itself, probably not much more than a yard. The first impression of all, overmastering everything else for a while, is the frightful, deafening din from the conveyor belt which carries the coal away. You cannot see very far, because the fog of coal dust throws back the beam of your lamp, but you can see on either side of you the line of half-naked kneeling men, one to every four or five yards, driving their shovels under the fallen coal and flinging it swiftly over their left shoulders. They are feeding it on to the conveyor belt, a moving rubber belt a couple of feet wide which runs a yard or two behind them. Down this belt a glittering river of coal races constantly. In a big mine it is carrying away several tons of coal every minute. It bears it off to some place in the main roads where it is shot into tubs holding half a ton, and thence dragged to the cages and hoisted to the outer air.

It is impossible to watch the ‘fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while—they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling—and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make things easier. There is the heat—it varies, but in some mines it is suffocating—and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun. But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron—hammered iron statues—under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines, they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that; just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible. You can never forget that spectacle one you have seen it—the line of bowed, kneeling figures sooty black all over, driving their huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. They are on the job for seven and a half hours, theoretically without a break, for there is not time ‘off’. Actually they snatch a quarter of an hour or so at some time during the shift to eat the food they have brought with them, usually a hunk of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea. The first time I was watching the ‘fillers’ at work I put my hand upon some dreadful slimy thing among the coal dust. It was a chewed quid of tobacco. Nearly all the miners chew tobacco, which is said to be good against thirst.

Probably you have to go down several coal-mines before you can get much grasp of the processes that are going on round you. This is chiefly because the mere effort of getting from place to place makes it difficult to notice anything else. In some ways it is even disappointing, or at least is unlike what you have expected. You get into the cage, which is a steel box about as wide as a telephone box and two or three times as long. It holds ten men, but they pack it like pilchards in a tin, and a tall man cannot stand upright in it. The steel door shuts upon you, and somebody working the winding gear above drops you into the void. You have the usual momentary qualm in your belly and a bursting sensation in the ears, but not much sensation of movement till you get near the bottom, when the cage slows down so abruptly that you could swear it is going upwards again. In the middle of the run the cage probably touches sixty miles an hour; in some of the deeper mines it touches even more. When you crawl out at the bottom you are perhaps four hundred yards underground. That is to say you have a tolerable-sized mountain on top of you; hundred s of yards of solid rock, bones of extinct beasts, subsoil, flints, roots of growing things, green grass and cows grazing on it—all this suspended over your head and held back only by wooden props as thick as the calf of your leg. But because of the speed at which the cage has brought you down, and the complete blackness through which you have travelled, you hardly feel yourself deeper down than you would at the bottom of the Piccadilly tube.

What is surprising, on the other hand, is the immense horizontal distances that have to be travelled underground. Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away. I had not realized that before he even gets to work he may have had to creep along passages as long as from London Bridge to Oxford Circus. In the beginning, of course, a mine shaft is sunk somewhere near a seam of coal. But as that seam is worked out and fresh seams are followed up, the workings get further and further from the pit bottom. If it is a mile from the pit bottom to the coal face, that is probably an average distance; three miles is a fairly normal one; there are even said to be a few mines where it is as much as five miles. But these distances bear no relation to distances above ground. For in all that mile or three miles as it may be, there is hardly anywhere outside the main road, and not many places even there, where a man can stand upright.

You do not notice the effect of this till you have gone a few hundred yards. You start off, stooping slightly, down the dim-lit gallery, eight or ten feet wide and above five high, with the walls built up with slabs of shale, like the stone walls in Derbyshire. Every yard or two there are wooden props holding up the beams and girders; some of the girders have buckled into fantastic curves under which you have to duck. Usually it is bad going underfoot—thick dust of jagged chunks of shale, and in some mines where there is water it is as mucky as a farm-yard. Also there is the track for the coal tubs, like a miniature railway track with sleepers a foot or two apart, which is tiresome to walk on. Everything is grey with shale dust; there is a dusty fiery smell which seems to be the same in all mines. You see mysterious machines of which you never learn the purpose, and bundles of tools slung together on wires, and sometimes mice darting away from the beam of the lamps. They are surprisingly common, especially in mines where there are or have been horses. It would be interesting to know how they got there in the first place; possibly by falling down the shaft—for they say a mouse can fall any distance uninjured, owing to its surface area being so large relative to its weight. You press yourself against the wall to make way for lines of tubs jolting slowly towards the shaft, drawn by an endless steel cable operated from the surface. You creep through sacking curtains and thick wooden doors which, when they are opened, let out fierce blasts of air. These doors are an important part of the ventilation system. The exhausted air is sucked out of one shaft by means of fans, and the fresh air enters the other of its own accord. But if left to itself the air will take the shortest way round, leaving the deeper workings unventilated; so all the short cuts have to be partitioned off.

At the start to walk stooping is rather a joke, but it is a joke that soon wears off. I am handicapped by being exceptionally tall, but when the roof falls to four feet or less it is a tough job for anybody except a dwarf or a child. You not only have to bend double, you have also got to keep your head up all the while so as to see the beams and girders and dodge them when they come. You have, therefore, a constant crick in the neck, but this is nothing to the pain in your knees and thighs. After half a mile it becomes (I am not exaggerating) an unbearable agony. You begin to wonder whether you will ever get to the end—still more, how on earth you are going to get back. Your pace grows slower and slower. You come to a stretch of a couple of hundred yards where it is all exceptionally low and you have to work yourself along in a squatting position Then suddenly the roof opens out to a mysterious height—scene of an old fall of rock, probably—and for twenty whole yards you can stand upright. The relief is overwhelming. But after this there is another low stretch of a hundred yards and then a succession of beams which you have to crawl under. You go down on all fours; even this is a relief after the squatting business. But when you come to the end of the beams and try to get up again, you find that your knees have temporarily struck work and refuse to lift you. You call a halt, ignominiously, and say that you would like to rest for a minute or two. Your guide (a miner) is sympathetic. He knows that your muscles are not the same as his. ‘Only another four hundred yards,’ he says encouragingly; you feel that he might as well say another four hundred miles. But finally you do somehow creep as far as the coal face. You have gone a mile and taken the best part of an hour; a miner would do it in not much more than twenty minutes. Having got there, you have to sprawl in the coal dust and get your strength back for several minutes before you can even watch the work in progress with any kind of intelligence.

Coming back is worse than going, not only because you are already tired out but because the journey back to the shaft is slightly uphill. You get through the low places at the speed of a tortoise, and you have no shame now about calling a halt when your knees give way. Even the lamp you are carrying becomes a nuisance and probably when you stumble you drop it; whereupon, if it is a Davy lamp, it goes out. Ducking the beams becomes more and more of an effort, and sometimes you forget to duck. You try walking head down as the miners do, and then you bang your backbone. Even the miners bang their backbones fairly often. This is the reason why in very hot mines, where it is necessary to go about half naked, most of the miners have what they call ‘buttons down the back’—that is, a permanent scab on each vertebra. When the track is down hill the miners sometimes fit their clogs, which are hollow underneath, on to the trolley rails and slide down. In mines where the ‘travelling’ is very bad all the miners carry sticks about two and a half feet long, hollowed out below the handle. In normal places you keep your hand on top of the stick and in the low places you slide you hand down into the hollow. These sticks are a great help, and the wooden crash-helmets—a comparatively recent invention—are a godsend. They look like a French or Italian steel helmet, but they are made of some kind of pith and very light, and so strong that you can take a violent blow on the head without feeling it. When finally you get back to the surface you have been perhaps three hours underground and travelled two miles, and you are more exhausted than you would be by a twenty-five-mile walk above ground. For a week afterwards your thighs are so stiff that coming down stairs is quite a difficult feat; you have to work your way down in a peculiar sidelong manner, without bending the knees. Your miner friends notice the stiffness of your walk and chaff you about it. (‘How’d ya like to work down pit, eh?’ etc.) Yet even a miner who has been long away from work—from illness, for instance—when he comes back to the pit, suffers badly for the first few days.

It may seem that I am exaggerating, though no one who has been down an old-fashioned pit (most of the pits in England are old-fashioned) and actually gone as far as the coal face, is likely to say so. But what I want to emphasize is this. Here is this frightful business of crawling to and fro, which to any normal person is a hard day’s work in itself; and it is not part of the miner’s work at all, it is merely an extra, like the City man’s daily ride in the Tube. The miner does that journey to and fro, and sandwiched in between there are seven and a half hours of savage work. I have never travelled much more than a mile to the coal face; but often it is three miles, in which case I and most people other than coal-miners would never get there at all. This is the kind of point that one is always liable to miss. When you think of the coal-mine you think of depth, heat, darkness, blackened figures hacking at walls of coal; you don’t think, necessarily, of time, also. A miner’s working shift of seven and a half hours does not sound very long, but one has got to add on to it at least an hour a day for ‘travelling’, more often two hours and sometimes three. Of course, the ‘travelling’ is not technically work and the miner is not paid for it; but it is as like work as makes no difference. It is easy to say that miners don’t mind all this. Certainly, it is not the same for them as it would be for you or me. They have done it since childhood, they have the right muscles hardened, and they can move to and fro underground with a startling and rather horrible agility. A miner puts his head down and runs, with a long swinging stride, through places where I can only stagger. At the workings you see them on all fours, skipping round the pit props almost like dogs. But it is quite a mistake to think that they enjoy it. I have talked about this to scores of miners and they all admit that the ‘travelling’ is hard work; in any case when you hear them discussing a pit among themselves the ‘travelling’ is always one of the things they discuss. It is said that a shift always returned from work faster than it goes; nevertheless the miners all say that it is the coming away after a hard day’s work, that is especially irksome. It is part of their work and they are equal to it, but certainly it is an effort. It is comparable, perhaps, to climbing a smallish mountain before and after your day’s work.

When you have been down in two or three pits you begin to get some grasp of the processes that are going on underground. (I ought to say, by the way, that I know nothing whatever about the technical side of mining: I am merely describing what I have seen.) Coal lies in thin seams between enormous layers of rock, so that essentially the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice. In the old days the miners used to cut straight into the coal with pick and crowbar—a very slow job because coal, when lying in its virgin state, is almost as hard as rock. Nowadays the preliminary work is done by an electrically-driven coal-cutter, which in principle is an immensely tough and powerful band-saw, running horizontally instead of vertically, with teeth a couple of inches long and half an inch or an inch thick. It can move backwards and forwards on its own power, and the men operating it can rotate it this way or that. Incidentally it makes one of the most awful noises I have ever heard, and sends forth clouds of coal dust which make it impossible to see more than two to three feet and almost impossible to breathe. The machine travels along the coal face cutting into the base of the coal and undermining it to the depth of five feet and a half; after this it is comparatively easy to extract the coal to the depth to which has been undermined. Where it is ‘difficult getting’, however, it has also to be loosened with explosives. A man with an electric drill, like a rather small version of the drills used in street-mending, bores holds at intervals in the coal, inserts blasting powder, plugs it with clay, goes round the corner if there is one handy (he is supposed to retire to twnety0five yards distance) and touches off the charge with an electric current. This is not intended to bring coal out, only to loosen it. Occasionally, of course, the charge is too powerful, and then it not only brings the coal out but brings the roof down as well.

After the blasting has been done the ‘fillers’ can tumble the coal out, break it up and shovel it on to the conveyor belt. It comes out first in monstrous boulders which may weigh anything up to twenty tons. The conveyor belt shoots it on to tubs, and the tubs are shoved into the main road and hitched onto an endlessly revolving steel cable which drags them to the cage. Then they are hoisted, and at the surface the coal is sorted by being run over screens and if necessary is washed as well. As far as possible the ‘dirt’—the shale, that is—is used for making the roads below. All that cannot be used is sent to the surface and dumped; hence the monstrous ‘dirt-heaps’, like hideous grey mountains, which are the characteristic scenery of the coal areas. When the coal has been extracted to the depth to which the machine has cut, the coal face has advanced by five feet. Fresh props are put in to hold up the newly exposed roof, and during the next shift the conveyor belt is taken to pieces, moved five feet forward and re-assembled. As far as possible the three operations of cutting, blasting and extraction are done in three separate shifts, the cutting in the afternoon, the blasting at night (there is a law, not always kept, that forbids its being done when other men are working near by), and the ‘filling’ in the morning shift, which lasts from six in the morning until half past one.

Even when you watch the process of coal-extraction you probably only watch it for a short time, and it is not until you begin making a few calculations that you realize what a stupendous task the ‘fillers’ are performing. Normally each man has to clear a space four or five yards wide. The cutter has undermined the coal to the depth of five feet, so that if the seam of coal is three or four feet high, each man has to cut out, break up and load on to the belt something between seven and twelve cubic yards of coal. This is to say, taking a cubic yard as weighing twenty-seven hundred-weight, that each man is shifting coal at a speed approaching two tons an hour. I have just enough experience of pick and shovel work to be able to grasp what this means. When I am digging trenches in my garden, if I shift tow tons of earth during the afternoon, I feel that I have earned my tea. But earth is tractable stuff compared with coal, and I don’t have to work kneeling down, a thousand feet underground, in suffocating heart and swallowing coal dust with every breath I take; nor do I have to walk a mile bent double before I begin. The miner’s job would be as much beyond my power as it would be to perform on a flying trapeze or to win the Grand National. I am not a manual labourer and please God I never shall be one, but there are some kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to. At a pitch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm hand. But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks.

Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people in habit. Down there where coal is dug is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about. Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. it is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’—something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tub of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal. But most of the time, of course, we should prefer to forget that they were doing it. It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants—all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

 

Partitioning the Public Sphere: search engines, echo chambers and technological/linguistic balkanization

Since the election of Donald Trump1 to the White House at the beginning of November, there has been a renewed attention to the mechanisms of information dissemination in the 21st century and how this might affect electoral outcomes.

Manipulation of information for political ends is not new. The use of propaganda and the capture of key broadcasting and print media outlets has been a strategy for the power hungry since such technologies existed. Journalists have long been targeted by despotic regimes of all flavours, especially those who refuse to tow particular lines and/or self-censor.

We are reminded in South Africa by the ongoing debacle regarding the SABC 8 and the problematic appointment of Hlaudi Motsoeneng as COO of the public broadcaster that rather crude manipulations of state media outlets is not confined to historical accounts of Goebbels, the Kremlin or the Khmer Rouge. This latest video of local musicians singing the praise of Motsoeneng for placing quotas on local content for TV and radio is a good example of how old-fashioned techniques are still in use.

However, there is a far greater threat to what Charles Taylor refers to as the Public Sphere: online media dissemination.

Taylor, in his essay “Modern Social Imaginaries”, outlines the way that printing technology enabled the creation of the Public Sphere which in turn had a profound effect on the modern social imaginary. The Public Sphere was that open space in which dialogues, discourses, information and debate occurred between people who were not co-located and were not in direct discussion with each other. It describes the social space popularly referred to as ‘current affairs’, ‘popular opinion’ and ‘news’: those stories, issues, arguments that bounce back and forth between strangers across TV and radio waves, through newspapers and magazines. Critically, the Public Sphere enabled a means of information sharing and contestation that has become one of the bed rocks of modern democracies.

Prior to the Gutenberg moment, such a common social information space didn’t exist: current information was limited to the gossip of your local town, from people you knew. Now, with the arrival of the printing press, information could be sent out far and wide, with communities who were unaware of each others’ issues suddenly engaging in ways never seen before. Mimeographs, newspapers and columns prompted dinner table discussions previously unimaginable. Disconnected groups of people could still envision themselves as a piece of a greater whole, beyond the limitations of direct sensory perception regarding who was directly seen and heard.

Then came the wireless, and then television, and information moved even faster. The boundaries of the social imagination–about who we shared our world with and how we fitted in–grew even further as information about distant happenings was teleported into living rooms.

While broadcasts and printed materials could be tailored and tweaked to specific audiences, the control of dissemination at the individual level was relatively weak. Even if radio and TV were localized and ‘personalized’ in their content, anyone with the correct receiving apparatus living in the same area would receive the same content. As for printed media: once in hard copy and in circulation, there was no controlling who sent copies of what to whom. It was out there, and, like feathers in the wind, almost impossible to retrieve. Anyone with the correct production means (a radio transmitter, a printer) could inject information into the Public Sphere. One man and a mimeograph could disrupt the whole news cycle.

The strength of the Public Sphere is not to be under-estimated. It is akin to the centre 8 blocks of a chess board: the player who controls those blocks holds the dominant position. That media outlets are often the first to be targeted and/or captured by those suffering a crisis of legitimacy is testimony to the importance of the Public Sphere to influence opinions and political moods2.

But now there is a new technology to disseminate information, one that is not easily controlled by governments (although China is doing its best): social media and online news. Never before have those with internet access had so much information of such a broad variety at their fingertips. In countries with deep connectivity saturation, such as the United States and Western European countries, manipulating TV shows and newspapers is liking farting in the face of the internet wind.

However, while the World Wide Web promised a robust Public Sphere with access to information previously never seen, there was a down side. The consumption of information via the internet is almost always an individual activity. Unlike watching the TV or listening to the radio, people do not read news at their laptops together: they each have their own screen and keyboard, with external sensory occlusion often completed by the use of headphones. This has opened up the opportunity for individualization of information consumption like never before.

Couple this individualization of information consumption with advanced research in psychology and big online companies now have a terrifyingly powerful apparatus. This apparatus works using two key mechanisms: the ability to change already published content, and the ability to individually funnel readers to specific pages covertly without them being aware of it.

Changing already published content

Unlike hard copy or broadcast media, consumers of online information never really have their ‘own copy’: the information resides on a remote server under someone else’s control, who can update, redact or tweak the information at will3. Only the most observant will notice the removal of a sentence in an article from one day to the next, or the subtle change in wording. The days of declaring errata are over: publishing corporations need never admit their errors or changes unless called to account by the most anal retentive of readers who keep multiple local copies of information and actually bother to compare versions of the same material to look for changes.

This also means that the Public Sphere is now vulnerable to pirating, the  (il)legitimate manipulation by technologically advanced ‘third parties’ of hackers, whose intentions may range from the noble to the anarchic (e.g. Anonymous).

Funneling readers into partitions

But by far the more insidious mechanism has to be the learning algorithm of search engines: in the West this takes the form of Google and Facebook. By tracking people’s preferences and choices over time and using advanced models of psychological trends, readers now have the information on their screens ‘customised’ to show them what Google and Facebook think they want to see. Combined with ever more cunning strategies to entice clicking (known as click-baiting), the very lucrative click-advertising revenue stream is optimized by presenting users of online content with information that affirms their own world views.

The result is a partitioning of the Public Sphere into echo chambers: people are now balkanized into online spaces of shared opinion, rather than into the physical spaces of shared neighbourhoods that might’ve previously demarcated information distribution. It is the technological equivalent of apartheid era spa