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Knowledge cannot be wrapped in a box and put aside as if there is nothing more to be learnt

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Globalisation is a good thing, professor. Ripped from the sweaty palms of Homo economicus means that the world is culturally richer and excitingly diverse – notwithstanding the persistence of problems.

Sometimes it is like a pantomime to behold. A pantomime of dunces who have reached the end-of-knowledge production, beyond which there is only self-satisfaction and backslapping. At one corner of a stage stands a prominent journalist whose Twitter feed gloats gleefully whenever anything goes wrong in the country, as if she had just seen a supernova with the naked eye. Elsewhere, on an exoplanet, a prominent professor jumps up and down shouting: “See, I told you so. I told you so. Marx was right!” 

Okay, I made up that last bit, but I did receive a message in my inbox today, Wednesday, from a professor rubbing his hands joyfully, or so it seemed, anyway, because, well, things in the global political economy are going really badly. Forget that many of us – columnists, commentators and opinion writers – have repeatedly emphasised that new knowledge, concepts, methods and tools are required to make sure that the benefits of trade are spread more equally across, and among, individuals, communities, regions and time. The problem, at least with this professor, is if you don’t add words like “Marx” or “imperialism” or “sub-imperialism” or even “accumulation” to what you say, he turns vituperative and insulting. Then you’re just a shill for “capital”.

What journalists and professors have in common, is that they cling to a single narrative. They have one story to tell, and they stick to it. The professor, a veritable wrecking ball of the institutions that employ him, and whom I shall not name and give the privilege of the right to reply, now peddles his conspiratorial Marxism at a different university. The message this morning was a celebration of sorts, that globalisation was in retreat. And then, like one of those creaky neo-classicists, he conceals his biases behind thickets of graphs, tables and charts. So let me focus on the good professor. Not on him personally, but on a type of semiotic closure of his knowledge.

The end of knowledge production

I’m not sure if the term “semiotic closure” is appropriate here, but it has a nice ring to it. What I am actually trying to say is that there are scholars and thinkers who would imagine that someone else may know a thing or two, but that the things the former knows, are superior – and that that knowledge can be sealed off, because there is nothing more that can be known, said, learnt or discovered. In this sense, you have reached the end of knowledge production, and all you do is tell students what you know, and when they write exams or essays, and they repeat what you told them, they get a pass. 

In other words, you tell students what exactly to think about something as complex and dynamic as a political economy, decorate it with the fripperies – statistics, charts and tables – and if they get that right, they pass, and you (the teacher) apply your power of certification. We are faced, then, with two immediate problems. The first is that you do not encourage students to question everything, open their minds, look at theories, weigh them up against evidence and reach their own conclusions. The second is probably more dangerous, and a privilege that, when left unchecked, has the power to reproduce inequality (concealed beneath veneers of equality). The power of certification or the power to certificate by professors (not all of them) is one of the most insidious forms of class reproduction in society. 

It is certainly true that education is one of the surest means of upward mobility in society, but “certification” or “credentials” can be meaningless when students repeat only what professors want to hear, or are too intimidated to ask questions or reach independent conclusions. The very idea of certification or credential awarding flies too closely to the liberal notion of meritocracy which simply cements positions of privilege, while ignoring talent and innovation, inspiration and imagination, which (I would hope) may be infinitely more valuable in a society where social justice actually matters, and where centuries of iniquity (which is more than just inequality) has broken communities and individuals in ways that standard tropes can’t fix by tagging a certificate on to a graduate. 

With respect to research, there is the problem where a professor has come up with an idea and repackaged it over and again, and published it in various journals over 30 years.

New knowledge is vital for the growth of prosperity and overall wellbeing.

Universities, in my mind, are primarily places of teaching and learning, and of knowledge production – which is different from reproduction. Reproduction – in the particular sense that is relevant to what is written here – refers to belief in the eternal validity of a complete body of knowledge. This body is based on the belief that all the problems in the world are caused by a single thing, and that solving the myriad of problems require a single and simple “solution”. This approach to “solving problems” universalises particularities, regardless of the evidence. Put another way the communism that collapsed with the Soviet Union and contributed to the collapse of Venezuela, and the capitalism that has had to be bailed out more than 100 times since the 1970s, and all the smart ideas that propped up these systems, will create five million jobs, tens of thousands of small businesses and build homes for millions of people

According to conservative estimates, published by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, “in 2011, between 1.1 and 1.4 million households, or between 2.9 million and 3.6 million people lived in informal settlements [and] given the insecure tenure arrangements in informal settlements and the fluidity of residence in these areas, the number is likely to be significantly higher”.

The answer to all South Africa’s problems, according to the professor, lies in the Communist Manifesto.

Globalisation is necessary

The professor was getting jiggy with globalisation being in retreat. He makes the fatal error – the great delusion of elite intellectuals – of tying globalisation to internationalisation of trade, communication and transportation. We did all that at the start of the decade of globalisation, the 1990s. But we (many of us) have learned a lot more about globalisation, not just that driven by the cosmopolitanism of Immanuel Kant and the free trade of Adam Smith. We learnt, also, about the importance of the movement of people, multiculturalism, opening up societies and learning from indigenous knowledge to vernacular architecture. Globalisation, ripped from the sweaty palms of Homo economicus meant that the world was culturally richer and excitingly diverse – notwithstanding the persistence of problems. 

The professor, instead, channelled Donald Trump’s anti-globalism, and echoed the sentiments of ethno-nationalists from Narendra Modi to Viktor Orban. In this morning’s note to a closed discussion group, he was quite joyful that (what he described as) the “global bourgeois” were panicking because of “deglobalisation”.

So. Let me draw a line under this. Openness is good. The ability and possibility of people to travel, work and live wherever they wish, are necessarily good. The good professor should know that (I think he is a subject of the Queen of England) since it’s easier for him to get around the world than it is for a Sudanese or Thai scholar. 

It certainly is not cool to channel the xenophobia in Trump’s anti-globalism. Why, even Karl Marx suggested that all workers of the world should unite. It’s telling that in all Marx’s genius, he could not anticipate just how difficult it is for workers of the world to unite in a world that prevents transborder movement. As for the journalist, well, there’s a traffic light in Kakamas that is not working. DM

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