Some of the monarchy-themed street art in London this sumer.
A couple of years back, the Royal Institution made their director redundant. There were various reasons why they did this, but part of me enjoyed the basic idea that they didn’t need a director. I wondered if other scientific institutions might follow. I mean, do universities really need vice chancellors? (and it’s an interesting convention that we call them vice chancellors, as officially they are deputy to a figurehead chancellor who’s role is generally entirely ceremonial). Do we need a President of the Royal Society? Or a Chief Scientific Advisor?
I remembered this rather idle musing on a possible more anarchic science while reading Dan Hind’s new ebook/ extended essay “Maximum Republic“. Here, Hind argues that the republican cause should stop picking a fight with the Queen and focus on other constitutional arrangements. Most Brits seem to quite like our current head of state. Moreover, the actual Queen is perhaps a distraction from those global oligarchies which rule so much of the economies we live within. In Hind’s words, “the hidden wiring that connects London to global capital flows and their enabling circuits of information and untruth” (pp.12). Instead, Hind offers “another, less familiar and more substancial republicanism” which denies a necessary anti-monarchism and is more concerned with “remaking the state as the shared possession and achievement of a sovereign public” (pp. 7-8, emphasis added).
Key to Hind’s central argument is that the British too often use the world republic in ways which obscure the more interesting and useful aspects of what a republic might look like. A republic exists when the state is the shared possession of a sovereign public. This is already understood by the ruling class, Hind argues; indeed, the very idea of shared possession of the state is what defines a ruling “class” (i.e. group, not just individual). “A coalition of the wealthy and the political astute has achieved this by accepting the need for paradox and cooperating as a secret, or radically unreported, public” (pp. 15). In a way, we’ve already toppled the monarchy, there are already co-operatives ruling the state. The question is who has access to this slightly more distributed power (and the answer is that it remains within a rather small, closed group).
To deal with this, Hind suggests, we need to learn more about the processes of governance to: “We do not fully own what we do not understand” (pp. 41). He understands that such processes of understanding aren’t simple. It might be “commonplace to say that education empowers, it is also true that power educates” (pp. 43); we need more public ownership of communication systems, a point that reminded me of old debates on the circulatory of ideology and education (e.g. Bourdieu and Passeron). In places, Hind’s arguements also reminded me of the idea of science and the “modest witness” (see Shapin and Schaffer and Donna Haraway); the 17th century construction of a connection between truth and openness whereby science must be demonstrable to witnessed, except only certain people may count as appropriate witnesses, a process of exclusion which is largely hidden.
Hind makes a few specific points about science, arguing that any truly republican system of communication would not just stop at journalism, education systems, etc, but must include the discussion and conduct of science too. His ideas will be familiar to many in science policy: “the state, the corporations and a handful of industrial and post-industrial foundation largely determine the direction of science” this determines much of the direction of society “although science reflects the preoccupations and assumptions of those who fund it, scientists themselves do not like to admit this elementary fact” (pp. 46). In some ways, it’s a matter of gaining control of the means of production, just applied to a knowledge economy, and kind of Foucaultian (in a power/ knowledge sort of way).
The Royal Institution had it’s own reasons for picking a fight with their particular queen when they made her redundant in 2010, but what was left in the wake was a very long way from a Royal Institution by the people, for the people. We might make a similar point about the increasing uptake of “open access” policies, which drop paywalls for access to science but doesn’t open it up in any meaningful way to allow the public any role in that science, maintaining their role simply as recipients of knowledge (a point I tried to make in the THE a few months back). As with his book The Return of the Public, Hind’s essay has a lot to say to those interested in the social relations and structures of science.