All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

The perils of measurement

Measuring performance sounds like a good idea, but it has downsides.

How well are you doing your job? And who would like to know? It makes sense to measure outputs, and it makes sense to provide rewards according to these outputs. Actually, though, rewarding people for measured outputs can be harmful.

One problem is that people may try to perform well according to the things that happen to be measured. When police are judged by the number of arrests they make, they may pick easy targets and ignore the harder and bigger cases. They might even give false figures.

During the Vietnam war, US commanders reported body counts. These were grossly inflated, and counted civilian deaths as deaths of enemy soldiers. The result was that Washington decision-makers thought the war was going much better than it was. In command economies, like the former Soviet Union, unrealistic targets were given to enterprises with the result that production figures were falsified, corners were cut and unnecessary output produced. The targets were supposed to lead to increased production but instead became ends in themselves.

            In the academic world, the measuring process changes what people do. Enrolment targets can lead to dubious recruitment practices. Rewarding scholars by the numbers of their publications can lead to a reduction in quality and to exploitation of research students. Ranking universities in part by the number of citations to publications by their researchers has led to recruitment of staff simply for their citation counts. (Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy have written a superb critique of perverse incentives for academic research.)

In these examples, measurement leads to changes in behaviour by those being measured. The problem occurs when these changes are undesirable. Sometimes the problems are anticipated and sometimes not.

Another disadvantage of measuring performance is that it can undermine intrinsic motivation. In some occupations, for example health and education, many workers are driven by their commitment to helping others. External inducements, such as salary and promotions, are secondary. External inducements can actually reduce intrinsic motivations.

When metrics rule

These issues are comprehensively covered in a new book, The Tyranny of Metrics, by Jerry Z. Muller. “Metrics” here refers to measurements. Muller is not opposed to metrics. He repeatedly observes that many metrics are valuable, helping to identify areas for improvement and identify good practice. But in too many cases, measurements cause problems.

            One area for measuring performance is surgery. The success rates of different surgeons can be collected and, in what is called transparency, published. There are some initial benefits: surgeons with very poor outcomes may decide to withdraw from particular operations or from surgery altogether. But if used for ongoing scrutiny, measuring outcomes can lead to surgeons avoiding complex or difficult cases. After all, tackling the most challenging surgeries is likely to lead to a lower success rate.

If a hospital is judged by the percentage of patients who are able to leave intensive care within a specified number of days, there will be pressure to move some patients out too soon.

The problem is basically that the thing measured becomes a goal in itself. This is aggravated when rewards are attached. When real estate agents are paid according to sales, it can lead to shady practices of giving loans to individuals with no assets or income. This was part of what led to the global financial crisis.

Muller says there are three key components of “metric fixation”: (1) a belief that numbers can replace judgement; (2) a belief that making metrics public ensures accountability; (3) a belief that giving rewards for measured performance is the best way to motivate workers. To these I would add a belief that there are no good alternatives for improving performance.

There is yet another problem with measuring performance. Only some things are easily or accurately measured, and other things are intangible or obscure. In a workplace, outputs that can be measured include sales, share prices, new clients and so forth. Often given short shrift are collegial support, mentoring and morale boosting, which are important but not easily quantified. The result can be that self-interested narcissists get ahead at the expense of those who are generous and supportive.

            Muller describes eleven predictable though unintended negative consequences of metrics: goal displacement, short-termism, costs in employee time, declining value of continuing use, proliferation of rules to address faults of metrics, rewarding of luck, discouraging risk-taking, discouraging innovation, discouraging cooperation, degrading of work and eroding productivity. With such a list of negatives, no wonder Muller tries to give credit to metrics when he can. Even so, he actually may be overlooking some of their shortcomings. In the case of police, Muller says that systems to identify areas where crime is more likely to occur are useful for making decisions about deploying police. However, Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction argues that identification of at-risk areas may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy and contribute to racially biased arrest patterns even when individual officers are unbiased.

Muller gives examples of the problems of metrics in quite a few areas: universities, schools, police, military, business, hospitals. His chapters on each of these areas are valuable. But even more valuable is the way his analysis encourages readers to start thinking more critically about metrics.

Jerry Z Muller

Other examples

When activists organise a rally, its success is commonly measured by the number of people who attend. Sometimes estimates differ considerably, for example with organisers saying 100,000 people showed up whereas police say 20,000. Discrepant estimates testify to the importance put on the metric of crowd size. What both sides miss are the less observable factors, such as the extent to which participants are energised by the experience and the number who decide to become more deeply involved. Hahrie Han in her book How Organizations Develop Activists distinguishes between mobilising and organising. Mobilising aims to get people who are already sympathetic to take action. Organising aims to develop the motivations and skills of individuals, a transformative process. Counting numbers at rallies is a reasonable way to judge the success of some sorts of mobilising but can be misleading in relation to organising.

            I’ve written before about citizen advocacy, in which paid coordinators seek to identify people with intellectual disabilities who have unmet needs and then, for each such protégé recruited, find a member of the community who will be the protégé’s advocate, without any compensation, often on a long-term basis. In Australia, various forms of disability advocacy have been funded by the government. Citizen advocacy was discriminated against by use of a misleading metric. The efforts of paid advocates were measured by the number of separate advocacy actions. However, the efforts of citizen advocacy programmes were measured by the number of new protégé-advocate relationships created. Not only was the support for existing relationships overlooked, but so were the actions of the citizen advocates. The metric made citizen advocacy seem like a boutique (that is, expensive) form of advocacy when actually it is often more cost-effective. (Some funders have become better informed about citizen advocacy.)

One of the challenges in questioning metrics is that understanding their shortcomings requires deep knowledge of what is involved, and this can take time and effort to acquire. It’s so much easier to look at a number of publications or arrests or successful surgeries than to probe into goals and methods of achieving them.

Some metrics continue to be used because they serve the interests of powerful groups. A good example is GDP, gross domestic product, a standard measure of economic activity. Having a big GDP is widely seen as a good thing, and a high per capita GDP is often used as a surrogate for quality of life. The shortcomings of GDP have been analysed for decades. Expenditure on traffic accidents, prisons, planned obsolescence, me-too drugs and oil spills contributes to an increased GDP though these are negatives rather than positives. Producing a $20,000 dress counts as much as 1000 pairs of inexpensive shoes. Various alternatives to GDP have been proposed, such as the human development index. Nevertheless, GDP continues to be used while alternatives are given little attention. This is convenient for governments that tout their economic performance while allowing inequality to increase.

What to do?

If you are unaware of the problems with a particular metric, you can hardly be blamed for relying on it. Let’s assume, though, that you have become aware of the metric’s shortcoming. For example, you are a police officer aware that total arrest numbers are not a good way to measure effectiveness or a surgeon aware that the survival rate from an operation is not an ideal way to measure your skill. What should you do?

The cynical response is to aim to achieve well according to the metric even though you realise this may harm actual outcomes for your occupation. This is most easily rationalised by trying to forget about the shortcomings of the metric, denigrating those who question the metric, and pointing to arguments in support of the metric. Basically, you conform to the misleading metric’s imperatives and convince yourself, and maybe try to convince others, that this is the only or best way to proceed.

In contrast, a high-minded response is to ignore the misleading metric and do your job according to what you believe is in the best interests of citizens, patients, your colleagues and other stakeholders. A police officer thus might sacrifice good arrest figures by focusing on more important outcomes. The trouble with this response is that you might miss out on opportunities or even derail your career. Meanwhile, your cynical co-workers get ahead and make decisions that continue the misguided practices.

Another response is to gripe in private about the bad metrics. This sounds pointless but actually can be useful in finding out who else is dissatisfied and potentially building a constituency for change. However, griping can also be an unproductive release of emotion that allows problems to fester.

Rather than just griping, it is possible to promote alternative metrics, assuming they are available. Just using them in conversation can help raise awareness. If friends talk about growth in the economy, you can comment about a worsening in the Gini coefficient (a measure of economic inequality). This can help start conversations and get others thinking about and discussing alternatives.

            If you are enterprising, you can study more about metrics and their shortcomings. Muller’s book is a useful tool. Then you are in a position to make more informed comments or even to publicise concerns and propose alternatives.

Even more time-consuming is development of alternative ways of promoting good practice, which might not involve metrics at all. This is not a task for everyone, but it’s important that some people put energy into it.

It’s worth thinking about different options because no one can do everything. Metrics are all around us, some good, some bad and some pointless. There’s no universal solution to the problems but it’s valuable to be aware of the problems and take action when possible.

Brian Martin

Is US politics a lost cause?

Many people despaired at the election of Donald Trump. But would things have been all that different if Hillary Clinton had become president?

Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffett

Anyone who follows politics in Western countries knows that the US is different from other liberal democracies. It is commonly noted that the US is the only country where there has been no major socialist or communist party. Its politics is skewed to the right.

This wouldn’t make all that much difference if the US were a small country like Estonia or Ireland. After all, every country has its own political peculiarities. But the US is a looming presence on the world stage, with nearly half of all military expenditures, military bases in dozens of countries, a disproportionate influence on world economic arrangements (usually to serve US-based massive corporations), and more generally a society that is dysfunctional in many ways. Among the world’s affluent societies, the US has the highest imprisonment rate, an extraordinary murder rate, the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy despite the world’s highest per capita medical expenditure, and a shockingly high level of economic inequality.

            Although such statistics would cause leaders in other countries to be ashamed, US politicians and many citizens continually proclaim that the US is a shining beacon to the rest of the world. But that is another story.

US politics are so skewed to the right that the policies of conservative parties in many other countries would be seen as extreme left in the US and called socialist, used as a term of abuse and dismissal.

Since the 1980s, with the rise of neoliberalism in much of the world, many governments have adopted policies that benefit large corporations, disadvantage workers and hurt people in need. This process has been just as savage in the US, but starting from a worse position.

Decades ago, I read a book titled The Best Congress Money Can Buy. The author, Philip Stern, documented the way the US Congress is driven by campaign contributions. It’s possible to predict the votes of most members of Congress: the more money received from a group with a vested interest, the more likely the Congressperson’s vote will serve that interest.

My colleague Sharon Beder has written extensively on what she calls “business-managed democracy,” which basically means the manipulation and control of the system of representative government to serve the interests of big business.

Within the US, the Republican and Democratic parties are often seen as embodying right-wing and left-wing politics. However, the Democrats are left-wing only by contrast. Transposed to countries such as Australia, they would be on the far right.

Listen, liberal

In case you had any illusions about the Democrats, you should read Thomas Frank’s highly engaging and hard-hitting new book Listen, liberal, or, what ever happened to the party of the people?

The subtitle refers to “the party of the people”. That has been the self-image of the Democrats since the 1930s, during the great depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” introduced welfare measures and when trade unions were recognised. The federal government came to play a much larger role in managing the economy. Since then, the Democrats have had the reputation of being pro-labour.

Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 1935

            Frank says all that has changed. He argues that since the 1990s, including with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats have forgotten the working class and tried to distance themselves from the New Deal.

Frank’s diagnosis is harsh. He analyses all the major initiatives under the Clinton and Obama administrations, finding that poor people have been sacrificed. One example is the “welfare reform” bill passed under Clinton’s administration that removed benefits from struggling families, plunging them into abject poverty. Another is the crime bill that vastly expanded the prison population, with penalties that unfairly targeted African Americans.

If you read only the speeches by Clinton, Obama and other Democrat luminaries, you would not have an inkling of the problem, because rhetorically they continue to express concern about the struggles of “ordinary Americans”. What Frank has done is expose the policy reality behind the public rhetoric.

The new orientation of the Democrats

The Democrats have a new idol: the professional class and “innovation”. Frank reviews writings on what various writers have called the “new class” or the “professional-managerial class”. The traditional working class is in decline and a new group is in the ascendant, composed of lawyers, scientists, engineers, financial managers and a host of others with specialist training who reap rewards from the use of their intellects.

In the Democrats, the rise of this group is most clearly manifested in the appointments in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A large number of those chosen had degrees from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, in many cases advanced degrees. Not only are degrees from elite institutions prized: there is a great emphasis on these individuals being smart. Intelligence is the new currency for advancement.

Frank diagnoses the Democrats’ orientation as a commitment to meritocracy, which refers to a system in which those who have the most merit receive the greatest rewards. Attending Harvard is assumed to establish a person as worthy. In this way of seeing the world, being rich is the just outcome of a system that rewards performance. Inequality is the inevitable result of an unequal distribution of merit.

            Frank gives an extended treatment of Hillary Clinton’s politics. (He wrote the book before she lost the 2016 election.) She had many fine words about empowerment of women. How was this to be done? Basically, they just needed to be treated according to their merits. This is the usual prescription of liberal feminism, with the main concern being about well-off women held back from obtaining the very highest positions. As Frank notes, this offers little for the large numbers of women in the worst jobs, or without jobs, for whom equal opportunity is a pious phrase given structural conditions that keep them in their place.

Another feature of the Democrats’ political orientation is an adoration of innovation. Frank describes Boston’s Route 128 area of high-technology start-ups and universities, a haven of support for the Democrats and a model for what Democrat leaders see as the future for the country. Yet just fifty miles away, in the decaying rust-belt small town of Fall River, the desperate workers and townspeople are forgotten. These are the losers in the great transition to an innovation-driven future, and they are forgotten by the Democrats.

            Frank tells of Hillary Clinton’s hope for women worldwide. It is that they become entrepreneurs, running their own innovative businesses, following the footsteps of the multibillion-dollar tech companies. Micro-lending is touted as the salvation for Third World people in poverty, especially women, but, as Frank bitterly notes, it entwines them in the market and often makes them worse off than before.

So why do Democrats turn their back on the traditional working class? One answer is that they have a new source of support: high-tech business, providing ample donations to the Democrats. But campaign contributions are not the only factor, according to Frank. As noted, high-tech companies are exemplars of the success of the smartest people who went to the best universities, and they represent the triumph of innovation, seen as an unalloyed good. Meanwhile, the Democrats took for granted the support of working people. Where could they turn? (The answer: Trump.)

But could it have been any different? Perhaps the Democrats in power are so constrained by various powerful constituencies that doing something different is almost impossible. Frank has no time for this face-saving explanation. He points to the early days of Obama’s presidency. The economy was in peril due to the greed and shady operations of the bankers. This was a golden opportunity to shake up the system, and there were cries from across the country for the bankers to pay the penalty for their corrupt behaviour. So what did Obama do? He bailed out the banks with government money, leaving ordinary workers to pay for the damage. No bankers went to prison or were even charged. Instead, they got to keep their bonuses. Obama served the rich at the expense of the poor.

What next?

Listen, Liberal is an eloquent, impassioned complaint about the failure of the Democratic Party to address the plight of working class people in the US. But what are the implications? Frank hopes to raise awareness about what is happening, and does not propose solutions. In a long afterword written in 2017, after Trump’s election victory, he explains why Trump was so successful: he spoke to the people’s concerns about jobs and income. Frank has no illusions about Trump, anticipating that he will serve only the rich and betray the interests of his supporters. What Frank sees in Trump is the outcome of a two-party system that has offered no alternative to corporate globalisation and every-increasing economic inequality.

In US politics, the focus on the presidency is excessive. It’s as if everyone is looking for salvation from a supreme leader. This is misguided, but it is difficult to turn away from the spectacle. However, vast numbers of citizens have given up on electoral politics, at least if voter turnout is any indication.

What Frank does not describe are the many signs of hope. In my visits to the US, I have always been impressed by the high level of local activism on all sorts of issues. US activists are just as committed, insightful and resourceful as those in many other countries. The difference is that they have little visibility in the mainstream media and little effect on the positions of the major political parties. In Australia, reading the mainstream media, few would realise that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in parts of the US there were protests against the war for weeks, months and even years afterwards.

Frank doesn’t address this sort of grassroots activism, perhaps because it so often bypasses the political parties. Frank does not even mention the Occupy movement that originated in the US, spread worldwide and put economic inequality on the political agenda. The Occupy movement steadfastly refused to make formal demands of the political system, instead seeking to exemplify a participatory alternative to representative government.

In the US, there are numerous economists questioning the neoliberal model. There are proponents and promoters of local currencies, an alternative to the usual centralised money system. There are climate change and other environmental activists building local energy systems. There are numerous initiatives based around cooperative work, of which Wikipedia and free software are the most well known. There are campaigners for alternative forms of governance.

Frank is rightly depressed by the capitulation of the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, to big business. But instead of yearning for the Democrats to return to the New Deal of the 1930s, perhaps it is time to question the value of party politics altogether.

Thomas Frank

“It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health. ‘Failure’ is admittedly a harsh word, but what else are we to call it when the left party in a system chooses to confront an epic economic breakdown by talking hopefully about entrepreneurship and innovation? When the party of professionals repeatedly falls for bad, self-serving ideas like bank deregulation, the ‘creative class,’ and empowerment through bank loans? When the party of the common man basically allows aristocracy to return?” (pp. 255-256)

Brian Martin

Building activism

You’re active in an organisation and you’d like to help it become more effective. How do you proceed? You can work harder yourself. You can try to recruit others to support the cause. You can set up a website, run an advertisement, or invite some friends to a meeting. What’s the most effective thing to do?

This question is relevant to a wide range of organisations, including sporting clubs, corporations, government departments, environmental groups, churches and political parties. Despite the importance of the question, surprisingly most organisation members simply rely on what they’ve always done.

For insight, it’s worth learning from the 2014 book How Organizations Develop Activists by Hahrie Han. To try to assess what methods worked better, Han looked at the different chapters of two US national organisations that she calls People for the Environment and the National Association of Doctors. Some chapters were more effective than others. Han interviewed members and observed strategies, and came up with a framework.

Three approaches

Some chapters relied on lone wolves. A lone wolf in this context is someone who takes action on their own. These individuals became committed to the cause, studied the issues, became very knowledgeable and wrote submissions and personally lobbied politicians. The lone wolf approach is usually not very effective because very few individuals maintain a commitment on their own and because collective action is vital for some purposes.

Lone wolf at work

            Other chapters relied on a second approach that Han calls mobilising. Core members would decide on actions, such as a meeting, petition drive or rally, and try to recruit people to join the action, for example by sending emails or ringing. Sometimes a mobilising strategy can bring huge numbers onto the street, especially when there is an event triggering outrage. This happened just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when campaigners were amazed by huge turnouts at rallies. But other times there is little response to the messages calling for action.

Han calls mobilising a “transactional” exchange between the organisation and the activist. The organisation seeks to make action as easy as possible so that, for the activist, the benefits of acting outweigh the costs.

Mass mobilisation: London, 15 February 2003

            Yet other chapters relied on a third approach that Han calls organising. Experienced members, in their role as organisers, try to identify members or supporters who might take a leadership role, and spend time helping them to develop their skills and motivation. In this model, organisers identify and train others to become autonomous leaders.

Han calls organising “transformational” because it aims to change individuals, developing their understanding, perspectives and emotional investments. Through this process, activists become more knowledgeable and involved, and start thinking strategically of how the organisation can achieve its goals.

Han says the most effective chapters use a combination of mobilising and organising. They use mobilising, for example getting people to public events, to achieve the goals of the organisation, and to identify potential leaders. Then organising methods are used to develop possible leaders, who go on to train others, building the capacity to mobilise many more people.

Although mobilising and organising are used in the most effective chapters, organising is the most easily neglected. In the heat of a campaign, core members may focus on getting out the numbers rather than the slower, long-term effort in helping others develop skills and motivations. Organising requires much hard work.

For decades, the Highlander Center in Tennessee has been training organisers

            Another factor is that media technologies now make mobilising easier than before. With databases giving the demographics of community members, it is straightforward to tap into pre-existing commitments. One consequence is that organising is sidelined.

Han’s analysis of civic organisations deals with US environmental and medical campaigning groups, and is oriented to influencing politicians. Whether her observations apply more widely is uncertain. Even with this caveat, I think Han’s conceptual division of organisational development into lone wolf, mobilising and organising approaches is immensely valuable. It provides an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of a range of organisations well outside the domain studied by Han.

“Distinct philosophies about transactional mobilizing and transformational organizing underlie these choices about how to engage with volunteers. In transactional mobilizing, the chapters were most focused on minimizing costs to maximize the numbers of people involved. In transformational organizing, the chapters were focused on creating experiences for volunteers that would begin to transform their affects and orientations towards activism. Thus, they were more likely to create work that brought people into contact with each other, and support that work through extensive coaching.” (p. 122)

Hahrie Han

Trade unions

Large unions have paid staff, and often the paid officials take on the bulk of union work, from holding meetings with employers to deciding on industrial action. There may not be much sustained effort to select workers who can become effective labour activists, thinking strategically, acting autonomously and in turn recruiting others to become activists. Why not? One reason is that unions have a natural constituency, the workers, with common interests, so it’s far easier to call on workers to take action than to develop more organisers.

Recently, I attended a campaign forum held by the local branch of my union, the National Tertiary Education Union. The presidents of branches at two other Australian universities — Damien Cahill at Sydney University and Vince Caughley at the University of Technology Sydney — told about their unions’ efforts to protect and improve staff conditions. They told about how union membership had declined in the aftermath of enterprise bargaining. Many university employees don’t see the point of being union members because they receive all the benefits of union efforts without having to pay union dues.

Vince and Damien at the University of Wollongong

Damien and Vince told about the importance of face-to-face meetings with individuals, of encouraging members to help in small ways (like putting up a notice about a meeting) and of identifying potential leaders. What they described fits perfectly in the organising mode. Because unions have a natural constituency for mobilising, organising is all the more important.

Other examples

In Australia, political parties are poor at organising. Party memberships have been shrinking for decades, and ever more activity is driven by political staffers. One factor is compulsory voting. There is no need to “get out the vote,” and therefore less incentive to employ either mobilising or organising strategies.

Universities, for the most part, do not do much organising. Most of the effort at marketing is done by paid staff. There are quite a few people willing to be volunteers, especially alumni and retired staff, but at most universities it is not a priority to identify and develop volunteers who will become ambassadors for the university. As a result, most of the efforts are by lone wolves, individuals who take the initiative themselves.

Learning via organising

Consider education and the challenge of helping people learn. Imagine there is an independent campaign group that tries to promote learning. This is not a lobbying group, seeking more government or private funding, but a group that directly engages with eager learners. How can such a group become more effective?

Following Han’s insights, the most promising model is a combination of mobilising and organising. But are there any such groups? In Australia, they exist only on the margins. One place is refugee support groups. In Wollongong there is a group called SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families). Among its activities is a tutoring programme for refugee children. SCARF can extend this programme through recruiting more tutors and by more systematic mentoring of tutors so they can become leaders to recruit and train others.

Another place for direct learning is the home. Many parents take it upon themselves to assist their children’s learning. Home schoolers take a much heavier responsibility. Campaigners for home schooling can use the mobilising and organising methods described by Han.

home schooling

            However, there seems to be no wide-scale campaign in Australia to foster learning. The best examples of such campaigns have been in countries with low literacy, where efforts by social movements link learning with understanding of oppression and resistance. Paulo Freire’s efforts are most well known.

Some Western social movements see learning as part of their brief. They can form reading groups, study circles and other processes to build understanding. But such efforts are often seen as low priority because it’s easier to draw on people who have developed their skills through formal education. Movements are thus likely to neglect organising for learning.

Citizen advocacy as organising

In the disability sector in Australia, there is an important role for advocacy, in which an individual supports a person with a disability, helping them to meet their needs. An advocate is different from a service provider, who directly helps by providing food, transport, housing and other essentials. An advocate, in contrast, essentially speaks on behalf of the person with a disability to make sure the service system operates properly on their behalf.

Alice has an intellectual disability. Abandoned by her family, she lives in a group home where she has been subject to abuse by other residents. She has no friends. Jo, an advocate for Alice, puts pressure on the managers of the group home to place her in a safer residence. Jo introduces Alice to a few others who might become friends, uses contacts to get her a job, and helps her develop living skills.

In practice, family members, especially parents, most commonly act as advocates. But in some cases the family is unwilling or unable to help and the service system is overloaded or dysfunctional, so some other form of advocacy is valuable.

Jo could be a paid advocate, who acts on behalf of several people with disabilities. Another possibility is that Jo is a citizen advocate, taking action on behalf of Alice out of a personal commitment.

Citizen advocacy programmes were set up to promote this form of advocacy. Typically they have a few staff paid by government or private donations. The staff search the local community for people with disabilities who have significant unmet needs, like Alice, called protégés, then seek to recruit someone like Jo who will be an advocate, often on an ongoing basis. The staff then support the advocate by providing advice, training and encouragement.

A citizen advocate and protégé: Michelle and Winnie, Citizen Advocacy Perth West,

            Citizen advocacy in essence operates using an organising model, with a highly specific focus. The paid staff do not do advocacy themselves but devote most of their efforts to finding protégés and a suitable advocate for each protégé, and then supporting the advocates. However, citizen advocacy has only a limited capacity for expansion because it does not recruit or train new coordinators, namely people who could become match-makers themselves, though without pay. As well, mobilising methods could be valuable to expand citizen advocacy.

In contrast, paid advocacy is more analogous to the lone wolf model of activism. Individual advocates may be very good at their jobs, but cannot expand their efforts more broadly because the methods of mobilising and organising are not used.

A previous post: “The rise and decline of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy“. My account here refers to the time before the National Disability Insurance Scheme.


The methods of the lone wolf, mobilising and organising seem to apply most obviously to campaigning, which is Han’s focus. But what about actually doing jobs? Han studied a doctors’ advocacy organisation. But is there any organisation that tries to build a community capacity for health care? In China under Mao, “barefoot doctors,” who learned basic skills but were not professionally trained, served the rural poor. However, where the medical profession is well established, there is little or no fostering of the capacity of people outside the formal structures to contribute. About the most that anyone does is take a first-aid course, or perhaps volunteer at a hospice.

barefoot doctoring in rural China

            By excluding non-trained individuals, occupations maintain a monopoly over service, preventing competition and maintaining salaries and conditions for those accepted into the occupation. This applies in professionalised domains such as medicine, dentistry, law and engineering. The same phenomenon applies to most large employers. A company, to get a job done, hires workers and spends little effort at developing the skills of non-workers to do the same job. To do so would be heresy: it would be seen as undermining the work of those paid to do it. Within government departments, the same applies. There is little effort at recruiting unpaid helpers and developing their skills. That would be a threat to the paid workers and seen as exploitation of the unpaid helpers, even if they were keen to contribute.

Things would be different if everyone was guaranteed a decent annual income, as proposed by advocates of the UBI, universal basic income. If paid work were a voluntary extra, then mobilising and organising would become more important to encourage people to make contributions to worthwhile causes.

Han points out that in practice few organisations rely entirely on one approach. The lone wolf, mobilising and organising approaches are “ideal types” that are helpful for better understanding what happens in actual organisations. One of Han’s most important messages is that organising is often neglected. One reason for this is that so many social institutions are set up to protect those with skills and to marginalise outsiders. Thus, it is bound to be an uphill battle to expand the role of organising. And to do this, the most obvious method is — organising!

Brian Martin

Thanks to Damien Cahill, Sharon Callaghan, Julie Dunn and Jan Kent for valuable feedback.

Comment from Sharon Callaghan

I liked the pointers to longer-term solutions on building activism. Workers in disability services in Australia who are active in their union came together and said they wanted access to quality training and recognition of the skills they bring to their work. The Australian Services Union, as the union for these workers, commissioned a report. Workers in disability are now seeking “A Portable Training Entitlement Scheme for the Disability Support Services Sector“, to give the title of the report authored by Drs Rose Ryan and Jim Stanford. This campaign, if successful, will address other gaps in this sector. Quality training and supervision, whistleblower protections and strong workplace safety mechanisms are important to workers who often have extraordinary responsibilities caring for vulnerable service users. Organising and supporting workers to speak out and demand their entitlements has long lasting flow on benefits for the service and sector.

I was interested in the idea of organising both inside and outside formal structures and accept some forms of professionalisation are not open to those seen as “non expert.” Personal activism with the freedom to speak out may still be limited when lacking the resources, skill development and support that formal groups can provide. Somehow finding ways to allow the authentic voice of the activist come through with assistance of the formal structure of their union, university or community group, may be a good way to go.

Doing your best under pressure

When under pressure, your performance can suffer. There are many proven ways to overcome this problem.

Are you ever nervous at a crucial time? It might be an interview for a job you desperately want. Or a public talk in front of friends or critics. If you play sport, it could be a big game.

Most people have performance anxiety at some times. It is cruel. Not only does it make you feel terrible, but it can harm your performance. Speakers at a big occasion freeze up and can’t remember their lines, or speak in a leaden voice while reading a text. A golfer misses a crucial putt, commonly called choking.


I’ve read that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. Some famous opera singers are anxious throughout their careers and have to be pushed onto the stage. I’ve talked with academics who never get over their worries about giving lectures. Some professional musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves.

            Decades ago, I played competition chess, and eventually began to become nervous about making a blunder, a bad move that meant the game was lost. Strangely, after making a blunder I would totally relax, because I knew I didn’t need to worry any more. After several games like this, I stopped playing.

Pressure can also have a more drawn-out effect. I see this among colleagues who have trouble finishing articles and sending them to journals. Their anxiety is caused by thinking their work is not good enough. Some of them fear rejection; others cannot measure up to their own internal critics.

If you suffer performance nerves in any part of your life, I recommend the book Performing under Pressure by Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry. It draws on the large amount of research in this area. Best of all, it has a multitude of practical tips.


You might imagine that you perform better under pressure. A looming deadline concentrates the mind, enabling you to get the work done. But in many ways pressure can have a negative impact.

You are in the middle of a crucial interview or presentation. To do your best, you need all of your mental capacity directed to the task at hand, with no distractions. However, the pressure of the situation may cause you to worry about making a mistake. You might even start thinking of worst-case scenarios, if you mess up entirely. It doesn’t matter exactly what you’re thinking of: if it’s anything except the task at hand, it saps mental energy and prevents you from doing your best.

For some tasks, you rely entirely on your unconscious mind: you do things without thinking consciously about them. Your breathing is an example. When you learn a skill well, like a golf swing, eventually it becomes automatic, and you don’t need to think consciously about it. Under pressure though, if you start doubting yourself, you may pay attention to what is usually routine. You start thinking about your golf swing rather than where the ball will go. You lose the benefit of unconscious, automatic processing, and your skill level declines. You may end up choking: your stroke is way off!


Part 2 of Performing under Pressure describes “pressure solutions.” When you’re under pressure, these are things you can do to perform better. There are 22 of them!

Pressure solution 1 is “befriend the moment”.  The way you think about pressure makes a big difference.

“… individuals who perceive a task or situation not as a threat but instead as a challenge, an opportunity, or fun are far more likely to perform up to the level of their ability, increasing their changes for success.” (p. 112)

Number 13 is “pressure yourself.” When preparing for a high-pressure situation, the idea is to practise what’s involved with pressure. I did this years ago when preparing to play the Weber clarinet concerto #2 with the Wollongong Symphony, a really high-stress occasion for me. I practised the piece for months, of course,  and rehearsed with the orchestra. Then, closer to the concert, I simulated some of the circumstances. At home, I played through the entire concerto without stopping. I played it along with a recording. I dressed up in my performance clothes and played it, imagining being in front of an audience of 500. At the concert, I was very nervous beforehand but relaxed as soon as I walked on stage. I’m sure that pressuring myself in advance made a difference.

            Pressure solution #15 is to write down your fears. There is a considerable body of research showing the power of writing to reduce the mental effects of traumatic experiences. The technique is simple: spend a few minutes writing down what happened and how you felt or feel about it. This straightforward exercise, spending just 20 minutes writing on three days, has been shown to have lasting benefits. Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry report on one study about using writing in advance of a stressful challenge.

For students who didn’t write out their thoughts and feelings, there was a high correlation between test anxiety and performance – the more anxious the student, the worse the performance. In contrast, those students who wrote about their test thoughts and feelings showed no relationship between test anxiety and performance. In fact, the highly anxious students did as well as the less anxious students. (p. 140)

With 22 pressure solutions on offer, you should find it easy to find at least a few that work. It’s a matter of trying them and seeing what difference they make, and recruiting a few friends who can provide an independent assessment of the outcomes.

I think a big obstacle is that many people do not want to talk about their performance anxiety, or even think about it, perhaps with the fear that this will make it worse. Avoidance is easier in the short term. Checking out solutions means confronting what causes anxiety.

The COTE of armour

In part 3, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry take a step back and look at ways for people to become more resistant to performance anxiety and more able to use it to their advantage. They present four generic personality strengths: confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm. Each one can be fostered.

Consider optimism. Many people believe that pessimism or optimism are character traits, which is true enough, but also believe that they are unalterable. Actually, though, there ways to change.

Optimism is not just thinking that everything will turn out okay. It involves several features. One is permanence. An optimistic attitude involves assuming that good things will continue but that bad things are temporary. A promotion at work is taken as a sign of continued success, but rejection of a promotion is treated as a short-term setback to be overcome by trying harder.

A second important feature of optimism is pervasiveness. An optimistic attitude treats positives as pervading all parts of life and treating negatives as restricted in relevance. A pessimistic salesperson, having a bad day, might say “I’ll never be any good at anything” whereas an optimistic one might just say “It was a bad day but tomorrow will be different.”

An important part of optimism is looking for positives, even in disastrous situations, and working towards them. The willingness to continue is important.

As well as describing the value of confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm, Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry give tips on becoming stronger in each of them. For example, to become more tenacious, they recommend setting meaningful goals, practising focusing, being adaptable enough to look for alternative paths to achieve goals, and thinking of obstacles as opportunities.

Hendrie Weisinger

Putting it into practice

Performing under Pressure is a valuable manual for improving in clutch situations. Following the authors’ suggestions will lead to short-term solutions and long-term improvement. Eventually, pressure that used to cause anxiety will be welcomed as a challenge and as a prod to doing ever better. Too good to be true? For many individuals, the challenge is to just get started.

Based on my observations, many people seem resigned to their current set of skills. Rather than study and practise how to become better under pressure, they are more likely to continue what they’ve always done. To improve requires a willingness to become involved in self-transformation, to think of yourself in a different way, and to put in the effort to achieve the vision.

Ironically, those with the most confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm are most likely to benefit from the authors’ insights and advice. It requires a degree of tenacity to obtain and read a book, think about its relevance and to institute a programme to implement some of its suggestions.

My guess is that the most promising way to improve is to find one or two friends and work together at changing, helping each other. How to proceed is straightforward. The challenge is to begin.

J P Pawliw-Fry

Brian Martin

A tale of two steel towns

Steelworks in Gary, Indiana, USA

Steelworks in Wollongong, Australia

I was born in Gary, Indiana, the city hosting the biggest steel manufacturer in the US. Now I live in Wollongong, the home of Australia’s largest steelworks. So I’ve moved from one steel town to another. There are several similarities between these two cities, and some striking differences.

Aerial view of Gary, with Lake Michigan in the distance

Gary is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, a huge inland lake, while Wollongong is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.

Wollongong is sandwiched between the ocean and the escarpment, seen in the distance

In the mid 1900s, they each had about the same population, 200,000. The steelworks attracted large numbers of immigrant workers, mainly from Europe. At their peak, each of these two steelworks employed more than 20,000 workers but, following downsizing in the 1980s and technological advances, this number in each city is now less than 5000. Gary is not far from Chicago, one of the largest cities in the US, and Wollongong is not far from Sydney, Australia’s largest city. On the down side, both Gary and Wollongong have suffered from political corruption, and each city has significant areas of social disadvantage.

So much for similarities. The differences are striking and revealing. I’ll first tell about Gary and then Wollongong.


I lived in Gary only for my first year of life and have no memories of the city, so I’ve relied on treatments by others, including the books Big Steel by Edward Greer and Lost Gary Indiana by Jerry Davich. My mother, who worked in the Gary steel mill during World War II, has told me various stories.

         Gary was created as a steel town in 1906, and was for years a shining example of enlightened civic enterprise. This was reflected in the architecture, with impressive buildings, including schools, churches, railway station, apartment blocks and theatres. However, this illustrious beginning eventually came to dust.

City Methodist Church, Gary, about 1955

            Many blacks came to Gary for jobs in the steelworks. However, they faced serious discrimination, and most were restricted to living in less affluent parts of town. The racial polarisation was highlighted when a young black candidate, Richard Hatcher, ran for mayor in the 1967. The opposition of the white-dominated political establishment was extreme. Hatcher sought nomination by the Democratic Party, which controlled Gary’s politics: whoever was the Democrat’s candidate was assured of winning the general election.

The Democrat party machine used every possible means to oppose Hatcher. I can’t resist quoting a few details about this extraordinary campaign.

“Attempts by Hatcher’s white supporters to distribute their campaign literature in white neighborhoods were met by so many individual acts of violence that it was necessary to suspend the effort. It even became necessary to provide armed guards to protect the homes of his most publicly prominent white supporters.” (Big Steel, p. 43)

After Hatcher won the nomination, the Democrat party machine then refused to support him at the election, instead openly supporting the Republican candidate and using various methods of voter fraud. Hatcher was a threat to the machine’s control.

“Moreover, the machine was able to see to it – and did – that on election day numerous voting machines in the black precincts were ‘out of order.’ Hatcher’s organization prepared for this eventuality by hiring on its own over a dozen voting machine mechanics from nearby Chicago to be on hand on election day to fix broken machines. … And Gary police officers, who stood in front of polling booths in black neighborhoods to prevent their opening, were driven away by armed gangsters from outside the city hired by unknown persons prepared for this machine tactic.” (p. 49)

Despite the resistance, Hatcher won the election and became the first black mayor in a major US city.

Richard Hatcher

            Racial tensions in Gary helped trigger “white flight”: white residents moved out of the city limits to independent towns that are part of greater Gary. The city of Gary lost a lot of its tax base. There was not enough money to maintain major facilities, and declining population meant less income and patronage. One by one, major buildings were abandoned, some of them razed and others left derelict, because there was not enough money to demolish them.

City Methodist Church, now derelict

            As the city amenities disappeared, Gary became victim to ever more crime, causing further decline. Businesses closed and visitors stayed away. In all the United States, Gary was matched only by Detroit as an example of urban decay.

Union railway station, Gary, once impressive, now abandoned

Abandoned row of Edison-concept homes, Gary


Wollongong started off as a small town on the east coast of Australia, south of Sydney. It has an excellent deep-water harbour at Port Kembla, chosen as the site of what became Australia’s largest steelworks. The city of Wollongong gradually grew, but with relatively little industrial diversification. Healthcare and education are now the largest employers. Being close to Sydney, there are ever more Wollongong residents who commute to work in Sydney.

Wollongong has had its share of social dysfunction and political corruption. Despite rising affluence, there are serious problems due to unemployment, poverty, crime, drug use and gambling. The local government was the scene of a major corruption scandal, publicised in 2008 in hearings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (my analysis). One former lord mayor, after he died, was exposed in the media as having run a paedophile ring. Another stepped down from office after declaring bankruptcy, thereby avoiding paying millions of dollars in a court action. I have heard stories of bribes offered to allocate preferences in local elections. However, this pales into insignificance compared to the history of political corruption in Gary.

Frank Arkell, long-serving lord mayor of Wollongong, later murdered

            Many people say Wollongong is like an overgrown country town. It has few distinctive buildings. The most prominent is the Nan Tien Buddhist temple that opened in 1995.

Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong

            Despite its shortcomings, Wollongong seems a model of harmony, honesty and civic pride compared to Gary. In Wollongong, there are numerous nationalities but in comparison relatively little discrimination. The most serious racism, as in Australia more generally, is directed against Aborigines. Aside from this, Australia’s version of multiculturalism seems relatively successful.

Although Wollongong has never had many impressive buildings like Gary, it has not suffered anything like Gary’s urban decay. To the contrary: downtown Wollongong is gradually adding a few sites of note, and customers continue to patronise local businesses.

The Council Building, one of Wollongong’s few civic buildings of any size or notability

Explaining the differences

Of the two steel towns, why has Wollongong managed to survive so much better than Gary? This is a big question and I will not try to provide a comprehensive answer but instead just point to a few relevant factors.

Wollongong railway station: modest but still functioning

In Gary, urban decay was triggered by “white flight” so that now 90% of the city’s population is African American. In Australia, there is no equivalent to the US history of slavery and subsequent institutionalised racial discrimination.

Another factor is the way local government is organised. In the US, many cities are surrounded by independent towns, each with its own government and police force, and sometimes its own schools, libraries and other services. Right next to Gary are quite a few such independent towns. Their existence means that residents of the legal entity called Gary can leave and live in a nearby town, such as Merrillville.

The information about Gary says the population peaked at 180,000 and has since declined to 80,000. So I thought this meant Gary and Wollongong had had roughly the same population. But then I looked up the population of the Gary metropolitan area. It is over 700,000. Metropolitan Gary is over twice as populous as Wollongong.

Aerial view of Gary, showing the numerous neighbouring independent towns

            In Australia, city names and populations refer to the metropolitan area, not a specific administrative entity. Administrative arrangements make something like white flight less plausible in Australia. In Wollongong, and indeed in the entire state of New South Wales, there is a single government school system and a single police force. It’s possible to move to a more affluent part of Wollongong, but this has a limited effect on tax revenues.

The implication is that US urban decay, and the phenomenon of ghettoes, is facilitated by the administrative arrangements that allow formation of separate towns with their own income and local schools.

Trade unions may be another factor. Wollongong has long had a strong progressive labour movement. One of the pioneering initiatives of Australian trade unions was “green bans.” These involve unions refusing to undertake work that would be environmentally or culturally damaging. The decision by workers to undertake a ban requires being approached by a community group.

The South Coast Labour Council, representing unions in the region, has occasionally put bans on development projects that would damage buildings considered to have heritage value. Although successes have been limited, the readiness of community and labour activists to protest may have helped prevent a more rampant destruction of Wollongong heritage in the name of development. Labour militancy may also have played a role in maintaining living standards for workers.

Wollongong coal miners on picket line, 2015

This comparison of Gary and Wollongong is at most suggestive. Not all US industrial towns have gone downhill. Comparisons of other US and Australian towns might give a different picture. Even so, there is potentially much to learn from making comparisons, and towns in other countries might be brought into the mix. If it turns out that administrative arrangements greatly affect  the way regions evolve, this might give impetus to reform that actually makes a difference.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan,  Xiaoping Gao and Yasmin Rittau for valuable comments.

Scholarship and the academic game

Surviving and getting ahead as an academic can sometimes be detrimental to scholarly goals.

Universities are supposed to foster the creation and dissemination of knowledge. However, the academic system of funding and careers can get in the way. Here I’ll focus on research, looking at grants and publications in Australia.

Research grants

To do research, academics can use resources provided by their universities, including libraries, computing, labs and equipment. In addition, it’s possible to obtain research grants from external sources to pay for equipment and personnel. I was once employed by a colleague’s research grant, and grateful for it. However, the research grant system has some damaging side-effects.

When success rates for grant applications are low, efforts to make applications persuasive can lead to dubious practices. Hyping the importance of research is commonplace. Some supervisors in scientific fields, in order to add to their publication record and thereby improve their chances in grant applications, put their names on papers done almost entirely by their research students.

In Australia, obtaining a grant has become so highly valued that it supersedes the research outputs it is supposed to enable. Absurdly, having a grant and producing some publications is more prestigious than producing those exact same publications without a grant, even though the researcher without a grant is more efficient.

This inversion of values is acute in the humanities, where extra money is seldom needed. Because obtaining grants is prestigious, scholars may apply for them even when they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

This especially applies to grants from the Australian Research Council, the main external source of funds for humanities and social sciences. Based on successes with direct grants, the ARC gives money to universities for scholarships and infrastructure. Therefore, university administrations have a financial incentive to encourage scholars to apply for ARC grants.

This was my experience. I have never needed extra funding for my research, but applied because it would look good on my CV and would bring additional funding to the university. I obtained four major grants from the ARC and its predecessor and used the money to hire assistants (usually becoming co-authors) to work on my projects. It was satisfying to collaborate but there were many administrative hassles.

The strange thing is that I don’t think my own productivity increased. I plotted my publications against the years in which I did or didn’t have a research grant and found no evidence of more outputs resulting from the grants. (The people employed by my grants contributed to publications, so what the grants did was fund their outputs.)

Writing grant applications is labour-intensive. My guess is that the work involved in writing a new ARC application is roughly the same as required to write a paper for publication. In a quest to obtain the money to do research, it is thus necessary to sacrifice vast quantities of time and effort that might otherwise be devoted to the research itself.

Applicants for grants often play it safe by pitching proposals that do not challenge standard views within the field. Many of those who receive grants feel obliged to follow a fixed research agenda. In these ways, grant systems discourage innovation.

Time, money and facilities are needed to do research. That’s not in question. The issue is whether grant schemes are the most effective way to foster research, especially path-breaking research. There seems to be little retrospective assessment of whether grants are providing value for money.

Where to publish?

Is the point of publishing to say something worthwhile or to get ahead? In practice, it can be a mixture.

The academic system fosters career-oriented publication. Academics are encouraged to publish in the “top” journals, the ones most prestigious in their fields. Papers in top journals are much more likely to be seen by other researchers and cited in their own papers. Receiving lots of citations is another measure of scholarly performance.

For decades in Australia, publishing in top journals has been a way of getting jobs and promotions. Because appointment committees usually have members from the same discipline, publishing in big-name journals is likely to impress them.

The Australian government through its scheme ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) has institutionalised the preference for top journals. Universities are rated in different disciplines for “excellence,” which is largely judged on the basis of publications and citations. The more high-status the publications put forward for ERA assessments, and the more they are cited, the higher the rating.

This sounds sensible but it has pernicious effects. Many academics are now encouraged or even instructed to publish only in top journals, and new appointments are made with an eye to contributions to ERA. The result is that academics, even more than before, write primarily for each other, because most of the top journals are oriented to other researchers. People outside the field are unlikely to want to read them, as they require specialist knowledge and vocabulary and are often filled with jargon. Even people in the field may find reading published articles unappealing. Furthermore, people outside academia often do not have cheap and easy access to scholarly papers.

For books, an important currency in some fields, academics are encouraged to find prestigious publishers. Most academic books are very expensive and mainly purchased by libraries. Some of my colleagues are reluctant to recommend that others buy their own books.

Most of the top journals are owned by big publishers that make enormous profits from their control over scholarly outputs. It’s a strange situation: academics do the research, write the papers, review the submissions of their peers and edit the journals, but the resulting publications are controlled by commercial publishers. These publishers extract money in several ways. Many journals are pay-by-use, so if you’re not an academic you have to pay to read an article. Academic libraries pay large annual fees for databases with bundles of journals, so universities pay so their students and researchers can read scholarly outputs. Then there is the “open access” option provided by some journals, requiring authors (or their institutions) to pay a large fee to the publisher so it becomes free on the web.

The open access movement has been pushing to make all scholarly publications free online, but big publishers have mounted a strong resistance. Unfortunately, many authors continue to submit articles to journals owned by exploitative publishers. The reason: to get ahead in the academic game, it’s important to publish in high-prestige, high-impact journals, and most of these are controlled by the big publishers. What is called “socially just publishing” is a budding challenge to big-publisher domination.

The overall impact is that academics are encouraged to write articles in a style that alienates most readers and to publish in venues that limit access to people not at universities.

Some intellectuals are independent of universities and have the freedom to write in a readable style and publish where they like. Academics can do this too if they can resist the pressures to play the game.

A decade ago, I was able to carry out a comparison. First, I looked up the number of citations received by each of my publications. Second, I looked up the number of views of my publications on the university website. I compiled two top-20 lists of my articles and book according to citations and according to views. Lo and behold, the articles on the lists were almost entirely different.

My most frequently viewed publication was “Defamation law and free speech”.. It wasn’t published in a refereed journal, or indeed in any journal at all. I put it on my website as an aid to whistleblowers, many of whom are threatened with being sued for defamation. The article received twice as many views as anything else I had written. Meanwhile, few of my most highly cited publications received many views.

The implication was that the publications people wanted to read were systematically different from those seen as important by academics.


Why are academics so reluctant to write in places and ways that are accessible and understandable? No doubt part of the reason is the pressure to impress peers to obtain jobs, grants and promotions. But why are so many peers, namely the academics who sit on selection, grant and promotion committees, so enamoured with esoteric publications in journals and books that few people ever want to read?

I see this as an unconscious process by which academics control their fields of study, specifically to protect them from outsiders, and thereby gain resources and status. When only those in the field can understand research outputs, this provides support for the claim that only those in the field can judge who is a good scholar and who is making a useful contribution to knowledge.

Consider the alternative. If publications were expected to be readable by non-specialists, either entirely or with explanatory supplements, this would open the field to interlopers, namely scholars in neighbouring fields, and perhaps even some well-read non-academics. By keeping outputs esoteric, those in the inner sanctum are protected from competition.

Scientists have been prominent in the push for open access. Scientists have the least to worry about competition because most of their publications are understandable only by specialists. In the humanities and social sciences, and some applied fields, things are different. When concepts are easy to grasp, this can be limited by the proliferation of jargon and obscure theorising.

What to do?

Junior scholars usually feel the need to play the game for the sake of their careers. Nevertheless, it’s always possible to deviate from the expected path, though at some sacrifice or risk.

One option is to put the full text of all publications free online, on a personal website, an institutional repository or a platform like This alleviates the financial barrier to access.

Access is one thing; understandability is another. Open access is not all that helpful for writing that is opaque to outsiders. More readable treatments can be posted in blogs, published in the mass media and in popular magazines. For those seeking to rise in the system, writing for general audiences is usually an added burden, and undertaken at the risk of being seen to be unscholarly.

Then there are grant applications. As well as trying to obtain grants, it’s also possible to push for alternative funding systems.

Academics can even rewrite their job descriptions, laying out a commitment to open access and to socially just publishing.

None of this is easy or can be tackled singlehandedly. This is why movements for change, like the open access movement, are so important. Contributing to these movements is probably the most valuable way to help promote long-term change.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Simon Batterbury, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Zhuqin Feng, Kathy Flynn and Jody Watts for comments on drafts, and numerous informants over the years for sharing their insights.

Boldly promoting alternatives

There’s a need for utopian visions presented as practical possibilities. Rutger Bregman shows how.

Free money for the poor

What should be done about homelessness? One idea is to give money to homeless people, no strings attached. What do you expect they will do with it? Use it for drugs or gambling? A common assumption is that homeless people have character defects and cannot be trusted.

The experiment has been done, in Britain, and homeless people turned out to be far more responsible than anticipated. Most of them used their gift carefully. Months later, the majority had found accommodation and otherwise improved their circumstances.

Actually, there have been quite a few experiences and studies of giving money to the poor and disadvantaged. Not only does the money help them, it actually saves money for the government. Costs of welfare, policing and courts go down. It seems like a win-win solution: help the disadvantaged and save money by doing it.

This is one of the arguments presented by Rutger Bregman in his fascinating and inspirational book Utopia for Realists. Bregman is an articulate advocate for a universal basic income: money paid to every member of society unconditionally. The benefits are manifold: savings for the government, reduced crime, improved civic participation, and more effort devoted to things people care about.

Seldom have I encountered the case for radical alternatives presented so cogently. I’ve read lots of books about social analysis, social change and visions for the future. Utopia for Realists is one of the most stimulating I’ve read for a long time. It summarises relevant research and observations in a clear and engaging fashion, presents arguments in a succinct fashion, and is written with an engaging turn of phrase. For the latter we can also thank Elizabeth Manton, who translated the book from the Dutch.


Bregman delves into the history of work. In the 1930s, some leading economists predicted that within decades the work week would be greatly reduced, perhaps to only 15 hours. Economic productivity is great enough to provide for everyone and more. However, this is not the way things turned out. Instead of having ever more leisure, many workers are just as harried as ever while toiling at jobs they find unsatisfying.

Many jobs today, including many of the most high-paid ones, are unnecessary for human wellbeing. Examples include advertising, financial trading and manufacturing copycat pharmaceuticals. A cable was laid across the US so that financial information could be sent a few milliseconds faster, enabling the owners to skim extra money off the markets. Cost: $250 million. Examples of this sort of waste could be multiplied.

A fundamental problem is the way that goods and services are distributed. The usual mechanism is jobs: having a job entitles a worker to wages that can be used to buy goods and services. But this mechanism is increasingly dysfunctional when the economic system is capable of producing enough for everyone. Instead, Bregman argues, it would be better to provide a universal basic income, cut working hours, get rid of pointless and harmful work, and enable people to do things that are worthwhile.

A universal basic income would not be welfare in the usual sense. Today, in most countries, there are large bureaucracies providing all sorts of rules and barriers that frustrate and humiliate many of those seeking unemployment and other benefits. A universal basic income would be an entitlement. Bregman’s book, published in Dutch in 2014, has contributed to a vigorous discussion about this option.

As well as covering current arguments and research, Bregman looks at the history of the basic income option. It nearly became policy in the US in the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, until some evidence was brought to Nixon’s attention. Bregman analyses the evidence used to scuttle the plan, showing how it misrepresented events that occurred over a century earlier. This is just one example of how the past has been interpreted to support current policies.

“The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame. It is a grotesque pact between right and left. ‘The political right is afraid people will stop working,’ laments Professor [Evelyn] Forget in Canada, ‘and the left doesn’t trust them to make their own choices’. A basic income system would be a better compromise. In terms of redistribution, it would meet the left’s demands for fairness; where the regime of interference and humiliation is concerned, it would give the right a more limited government than ever.” (p. 45)


Bregman’s concerns extend well beyond Europe, and include poverty worldwide. He gives figures showing that world poverty levels are declining, but notes that there is still a long way to go. What about foreign aid? It’s a drop in the bucket, and not necessarily effective. There are studies showing that giving poor people money is more effective than supporting development projects. There is now a booming business in doing comparative studies of foreign aid interventions, seeing whether they are more or less effective than doing nothing. Giving textbooks to a remote school may do nothing for children’s education, but health interventions, such as deworming, can lead to children obtaining several more years of schooling.

However, even the most effective of these interventions is nothing compared to the most powerful way to address world poverty: open borders. Allowing unrestricted immigration worldwide is utopian indeed. Bregman quotes figures showing that this would dramatically improve economic welfare, far exceeding any foreign-aid approach.

Open borders is so far off the political spectrum as to be dismissed outright. Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in the agenda of economic globalisation: borders are open for flows of goods, services and money, but only slightly ajar for movement of labour.

Bregman addresses all the standard fears and reservations. For example, open borders would not hurt incomes in affluent societies. He notes that when movement between Mexico and the US was easy, 85% of Mexican immigrants to the US eventually returned to Mexico. In recent decades, with the tightening of the border, only 10% return. This is just one of many counter-intuitive findings on this issue.

Bregman is realistic enough to say that open borders will not happen overnight, nor should it. His argument is that this utopian option should be put on the political agenda for discussion. Even a slight increase in immigration levels would have large economic benefits.

How to bring it about

Bregman is a fan of the power of ideas. He uses the example of neoliberalism to show what can happen. After World War II, ideological adherents of markets were a small group, out of favour, but they took their ideas forward and within a matter of decades they became dominant. Bregman believes a similar process could occur with ideas like a universal basic income and open borders.

I agree that ideas are important, especially when they can be woven into a persuasive narrative. Ideas about equality and participation have been vital in overcoming discrimination and domination. Nevertheless, ideas are not enough: they need to be linked to social movements, and creating or fostering a social movement is not easy, especially when opponents are powerful.

My reservations about the power of ideas stem in part from my own experience in promoting a utopian alternative. Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. It sounds implausible but actually there are many suggestive precedents. In the 1980s, there were activist groups  in several countries promoting social defence, including in the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Italy and Australia. However, after the end of the cold war and the collapse of the massive movement against nuclear weapons, social defence faded from consideration. Yet military systems are alive and well and causing just as many problems as ever, and an alternative is needed.

Social defence is a threat not just to military systems but to governments and to corporate capitalism. When ordinary citizens have the skills and training to resist aggression, they can use those skills and training to oppose oppressive bosses in the workplace and repressive government policies.

The same sorts of considerations apply to the utopian possibilities presented by Bregman, namely a universal basic income, a 15-hour week and open borders. They are rational and feasible. They would save money and improve economic productivity. But they are threatening to the current system, in which inequality not only privileges the wealthy and powerful but provides scapegoats for those lower in the hierarchy. This is similar to the way patriarchy operates: the collective domination of men over women facilitates the domination of a few men over the rest.

Rutger Bregman

Although utopian ideas are not enough on their own, they are incredibly important, and Bregman provides a fresh and inspiring example of how to make utopias seem realistic. His book is the best possible advertisement for practical utopian thinking and campaigning. With its clear, no-nonsense arguments, engaging presentation and array of evidence, it is a model for anyone wanting to contribute ideas for a achieving a better world.

“The richer we as a society become, the less effectively the labor market will be at distributing prosperity. If we want to hold onto the blessings of technology, ultimately there’s only one choice left, and that’s redistribution. Massive redistribution. Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter working week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.” (p. 199)

Brian Martin

Leadership and its discontents

There’s plenty of advice available about how to be a great leader. Be wary.

In most large bookshops, there are many shelves in the sections on business. Nearly all the books are oriented to managers, with an occasional one addressed to workers.

Many of these books are about “leadership.” In principle, anyone can be a leader, offering vision, guidance and mentoring for others in a team, the others being “followers.” In practice, most of the writings about leadership are aimed at managers, those who have formal power within hierarchical organisations, and who might also be called bosses. “Leader” sounds more high-minded than “boss.”

            Recently, I came across Jeffrey Pfeffer’s 2015 book Leadership BS. The title alone indicates that this is not another treatment designed to inspire managers. The book is about US corporations, but many of Pfeffer’s observations apply more widely.

            For years, Pfeffer has been observing the leadership industry, which is most active among US corporations. There is a thriving business in providing advice and inspiration to managers. All very well, except that Pfeffer gives plenty of evidence and examples showing that the performance of US business leaders hasn’t improved. Workers are dissatisfied and companies aren’t doing well. The quality of leadership seems unaffected by the efforts of the leadership advice industry.

The explanation, Pfeffer argues, is that the advice is wrong. The consultants commonly recommend that leaders be modest, authentic, truth-telling, trustworthy and put their workers first. Pfeffer says these are nice aspirations and gives examples of successful leaders who display these traits. But he also says these sorts of leaders are exceedingly rare and gives numerous examples and arguments why these traits are not the route to great leadership.

            According to Pfeffer, modesty can be attractive in a leader, but few modest individuals ever rise to senior management. To get ahead, touting one’s talents and achievements is a more reliable route, and exaggerating helps too. Narcissists thrive in hierarchical systems.

It is not always clear what being “authentic” means in practice. If it means displaying outwardly what one feels internally, it is risky. If a CEO is feeling deflated and pessimistic, it is unlikely to be helpful to the workforce to display these emotions. Instead, a great leader will show just the emotions needed to help followers do their best.

Pfeffer’s chapter on truth-telling presents the case for lying and deception. These are common in everyday life. Telling the truth can be disastrous for a leader. Everything Pfeffer says about lying and truth-telling accords with what I have read and written about the prevalence and usefulness of deception, in arenas ranging from politics to activism.

Should leaders be trustworthy? Pfeffer says not necessarily. There are numerous examples of when betraying trust is the way good leaders actually proceed. Why do leaders get away with this? The answer is that there are few penalties for betraying trust. Because others need leaders for their own purposes, they commonly continue to deal with them even after brutal betrayals of themselves or others.

When those at the top look down, they see only shit.
When those at the bottom look up, they see only arseholes.

            Leaders commonly look out for themselves at the expense of their followers, as illustrated by the CEOs receiving massive salaries and bonuses while their companies go downhill. As Pfeffer puts it, leaders “eat first.”


The implication for ordinary workers, Pfeffer says, is not to put yourself at risk by trusting or believing leaders. Don’t expect leaders to tell the truth, be authentic or look out for you.

“The bottom line: If you have a beneficent environment and a leader who actually cares about you, enjoy and treasure the moment, but don’t expect it to be replicated elsewhere or to even persist indefinitely where you are. The world is often not a just or fair place, our hopes and desires notwithstanding. Get over it. Take care of yourself and watch out for your interests. If others do as well, all the better. To the extent you develop self-reliance and cease relying on leadership myths and stories, you will be much better off, and substantially less likely to confront disappointment and the career consequences that devolve from relying on the unreliable.” (pp. 191-192)

What are the implications for leaders? Pfeffer mainly gives a negative view: don’t be taken in by the preaching of leadership consultants and gurus. Instead, seek to understand the way organisations actually operate, without the blinders of unrealistic just-so stories. There is not likely to be any advice that is universally applicable. What to do depends on the circumstances, and knowing what attributes to display given the organisational culture. Keeping in touch with front-line workers is important.

Although lying is sometimes advisable for the greater good, one of the realities of companies is that top managers look after themselves at the expense of subordinates and the company itself. Pfeffer doesn’t recommend that CEOs pay themselves millions while sending their company broke, even though this frequently happens. He would prefer managers to do the right thing, but without succumbing to the blandishments of leadership consultants.

Jeffrey Pfeffer

            This sounds quite depressing, but some context is important. Pfeffer writes about US companies, most of which are toxic workplaces, but the situation can be different elsewhere. The US has the highest level of individualism of any country. In more collectivist societies, there can be a greater level of community and workplace solidarity. The US is the most economically unequal post-industrial society. Economic inequality can be both a cause and consequence of exploitative behaviours in workplaces.


In some sectors, such as teaching, engineering and healthcare, bureaucratic hierarchy is moderated by the system of professions, with training and standards that promote a different mode of interaction. (However, many of these sectors are increasingly bureaucratised.) A strong trade union, responsive to the rank and file, can be a counter to exploitative managers. A policy of having leaders serve short terms and then return to their previous positions can limit the corruptions of power.

            Then there are alternatives to bureaucracy. One workplace model is the cooperative, in which there are no bosses. Decisions can be made by consensus, a informally or using a formal process. In social movements, many groups aspire to operate in a non-hierarchical fashion, devoting effort to fostering supportive group processes.

Another option is to select decision-makers randomly. This approach has been widely trialled for policy matters; it can also be used within workplaces. Yet another economic model is commons-based peer production, exemplified by the creation of free software and Wikipedia. Bureaucracy is not the only way to organise work.

Anyone with experience in egalitarian groups knows there can be all sorts of challenges and problems. Working in such groups is more likely to be satisfying but, because expectations are higher, failures can be more damaging. In some future society in which non-hierarchical systems have become commonplace or even dominant, no doubt it will be necessary for some critic to write Egalitarian BS.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan, Lyn Carson, Anneleis Humphries and Jolin Tian for valuable comments on drafts.

PS There is a promising beginning to studies of egalitarian BS. A classic analysis is What a Way to Run a Railroad.

 Appendix: why I’m interested in books on organisational dynamics

When I mentioned to a new colleague that I was reading Leadership BS, he asked why I was interested in such a topic. Good question. My interest goes back many years. In the 1980s, I wrote a book titled Uprooting War in which I analysed several “roots of war”. One of them I identified as bureaucracy, referring to an organisational form based on hierarchy and the division of labour, in which workers are interchangeable cogs. Bureaucracy is the dominant mode of organising work in government bodies, large corporations, militaries and in some churches, trade unions and other organisations.

            Also in Uprooting War, I presented several alternatives to the war system. One of them is “self-management”, in which people collectively organise their work and lives without bosses. In the workplace, this alternative is called workers’ self-management or workers’ control. Self-management is not just hypothetical. There are many self-managing enterprises. As well, there are historical episodes of society-wide self-organisation, most famously the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s.

To understand the nature of bureaucracy and its antithesis self-management, I read many articles and books. In Friends of the Earth Canberra, we did a project on bureaucracy, interviewing members of the Department of National Development and Energy. Later, in Schweik Action Wollongong, a group of us carried out a project on Challenging Bureaucratic Elites, linking ideas about nonviolent action to struggles within bureaucracies. As well, I became involved in campaigns against workplace sexual harassment, and then in advising whistleblowers, who are often targets of workplace bullying.

To address these issues, it’s useful to better understand how organisations operate. Hence, when I visit a large bookshop, I check out the business section, even though there is usually little available from the worker’s point of view and even less about self-management.

Academic dissidents: be prepared for reprisals — and more

Academics who dissent from orthodoxies or who challenge powerful groups need to be prepared for the tactics used against them.

When Ivor van Heerden worked as a hurricane researcher at Louisiana State University, he was good at predicting hurricane impacts. But he may not have anticipated all the methods his detractors would use.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, van Heerden presented his views forcefully to the media. In particular, he blamed the collapse of the levees on the Army Corps of Engineers. Top figures at LSU were not pleased, and tried to gag him and then to dismiss him.

Because his views were unwelcome, he was a target for reprisals. Is there any way he could have known what was likely to come next?

Ivor van Heerden

When you speak out and offend those with power, you’re at risk of adverse actions. This is true for anyone, including academics. Scholarly dissent is supposed to be protected by academic freedom, and sometimes it is, but in too many cases it is not, as shown in numerous case studies in Australia, the US and elsewhere.

Suppression of dissent

There is a regular pattern in cases of academic dissent. A scholar does something threatening to others, for example criticising scientific orthodoxy, doing research that threatens groups with vested interests, or teaching in an unconventional way. The most common trigger for suppression of dissent is challenging senior management within one’s own institution.

Then come reprisals, for example ostracism, damaging rumours, reprimands, censorship and dismissal. Sometimes the reprisals are subtle and hard to prove. Petty harassment can involve delays in processing forms, inconvenient teaching times, failure to be notified of meetings, and denial of requests for funding or leave.

The question is what to do. Sometimes it’s better to leave or to put up with the bad treatment. However, if you want to resist, what’s the best strategy? To better understand options, it’s useful to look at what happens with other sorts of injustices.

Outrage management techniques

When powerful individuals or groups do something that might be perceived as unfair, there is a risk of triggering public outrage. To reduce this outrage, powerful perpetrators regularly use five sorts of methods: (1) cover up the action; (2) devalue the target; (3) reinterpret the events by lying, minimizing, blaming, and framing; (4) use official channels that give only an appearance of justice; and (5) intimidate or reward people involved.

For a stark example, consider torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (1) The prison guards and the US government hid the torture. (2) The tortured prisoners were called criminals or terrorists. (3) The torture was labeled “abuse.” Prison guards were blamed, with no responsibility taken by senior US officials. (4) Legal action against prison guards involved took many months, led to limited penalties, and allowed higher level officials to avoid responsibility. (5) Whistleblowers suffered reprisals.

Abu Ghraib was the exception, in that the exposure of graphic photos forced the US government to respond. In other torture centers around the world, cover-up and official denials prevent information getting out and limit public awareness and concern.

It may seem a large jump from torture to suppression of academic dissent. The commonality lies in the methods of outrage management. The same five methods of reducing outrage are found in a wide range of injustices, including sexual harassment, bullying, police beatings, massacres and genocide.

This means that when administrators take reprisals against academic dissent, with the risk of generating outrage from their actions, it is predictable that they will cover up their actions, devalue the dissident academic, provide plausible-sounding explanations for their actions, rely on formal processes to give credibility, and use threats and promises to thwart critics. In some cases, only one or a few of these techniques are used; in others, all of them are involved.

Techniques used against van Heerden

In July 2011, the AAUP issued a report on the van Heerden case. The report documents the intent of LSU officials to gag and eliminate him, because his public statements threatened their aim of gaining funds from the Army Corps of Engineers. The AAUP report provides evidence of all five types of techniques. (See also  van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s 2006 book The Storm.)

When the dean made the decision not to reappoint van Heerden, he did not give any reasons. Similarly, no reason was given for removing him as deputy director of the Hurricane Center. This was a type of cover-up. If reasons had been given, they could have been countered.

To devalue van Heerden, LSU officials emphasised that he had no credentials in civil engineering (relevant to design of the levees). In 2006 and 2007, van Heerden’s supporters asked the Chancellor to endorse their nomination of van Heerden for the 2007 National Wetlands Award. The Chancellor received advice from the Vice Chancellor, who wrote, “We would not want this award to justify his potentially misguided view of science/service.” (p. 10 of the AAUP report). By preventing the nomination, they denied van Heerden the possibility of significant validation of his contribution. Meanwhile, “a concerted media campaign arose defending the Corps of Engineers and attacking its critics, notably Professor van Heerden, in the New Orleans press” (p. 11). What seemed to be letters from members of the public were traced to “government computers inside the Corps offices in New Orleans.”

Van Heerden’s ouster was enabled by a reinterpretation of his job description. He had been employed for over a decade as an associate professor–research. His supervisor insisted that, “The formal job description is 100 percent research” (p. 11). This claim helped justify dismissing him on the grounds of not publishing enough papers in scholarly journals. Actually, van Heerden’s job description did not specify 100% research.

To challenge the decisions made against him, van Heerden appealed to the Faculty Grievance Committee. However, the committee copped out of its responsibility, declining to carry out an investigation. This is an example of the failure of official channels. The Grievance Committee provided the appearance of providing justice, but in practice none was forthcoming.

Van Heerden sued the university over wrongful termination. This provided the administration a pretext not to respond to other initiatives on his behalf. After the AAUP became involved, authorising an investigation, lawyers for LSU said, “the pendency of litigation prevented the administration from cooperating with the investigation” (pp. 13–14). This is an example of how using an official channel — legal action — can stymie other types of action. The administration refused to cooperate with the AAUP’s investigation, another example of cover-up.

When senior academics in van Heerden’s department met to consider his case, the dean was present at the meeting. “His attendance was widely (and unsurprisingly) perceived as intimidating.” (p. 17) More generally, the administration’s actions against van Heerden sent a signal to other academics about the risks of running foul of the administration’s agendas generally, as well as in supporting van Heerden.

These examples give a taste of the many facets of the van Heerden case. They show that the administration used all five types of methods to reduce outrage: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation.

The same patterns are found repeatedly in cases of suppression of academic dissent. The more prominent the case, the more likely it is that the full range of methods will be used. It is wise to be prepared.


Each of the five methods can be countered. The counter to cover-up is exposure. Van Heerden’s supporters publicized his case; thousands of members of the local community signed a petition in his support. When wider audiences become aware of an injustice, some of them may be willing to act.

However, many academic dissidents avoid publicity, out of embarrassment, unfamiliarity with campaigning, or a trust in official channels. Anyone thinking of questioning or challenging orthodoxy should consider taking the issue to wider audiences.

The counter to devaluation is validation. Van Heerden had his impressive record of warnings concerning hurricane preparation and had allies in the university and local community willing to speak on his behalf. Dissidents can collect statements about their good performance and find people with credibility willing to vouch for them. Administrations will go through a dissident’s record, going back many years, searching for some transgression as a means to discredit them. Dissidents need to be prepared.

The counter to reinterpretation is to emphasize the unfairness involved. Van Heerden’s supporters pointed out the administrative contradictions involved in dismissing him: they cut through the false statements by those who wanted to get rid of him.

Dissidents can expect lies, blaming, and framing. Their opponents will try to explain reprisals in all sorts of ways — except as reprisals. Dissidents and their supporters need to be able to counter misleading accounts and insist on the unfairness of targeting a scholar for expressing unwelcome viewpoints.

The alternative to official channels is mobilizing support. Van Heerden’s supporters did this on his behalf. However, he put considerable trust and energy into official channels such as the Faculty Grievance Committee, which took energy away from a mobilization strategy.

Academics often assume that official processes, like grievance committees and courts, are set up to fairly adjudicate issues. Unfortunately, more often they give only an appearance of justice. Typically they are slow, focus on procedures rather than the core issues at stake, and rely on experts such as lawyers. As such, they are perfect for sapping energy from a campaign. Sometimes it is necessary to use formal processes, but relying on them is risky, and usually reduces wider concern about taking action.

The counter to intimidation is resistance. Van Heerden did not give up and walk away quietly: he and his supporters put up a powerful resistance to the administration’s attack.

For some individuals and circumstances, acquiescence is the wisest strategy. But if administrations are to be prevented from exerting too much power, some dissidents need to resist. Those who take their case to wider audiences, expose the injustice and refuse to accept it provide an example to others.

In resisting attacks on dissent, there are no guarantees. Van Heerden and his supporters mounted a major campaign but could not save his career at LSU. Others can learn some lessons from his story, in particular not to put too much trust in official channels.

The wider lesson is to be prepared for the likely tactics taken by administrations or by outside attackers. The methods of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation are predictable. By being prepared to counter each of these methods, dissidents can better defend. It is wise to be prepared for hurricanes — and for reprisals against dissent.

Ivor van Heerden


In early 2013, van Heerden settled his case against LSU, receiving a payout of $435,000. Even considering that his career was destroyed, compared to other dissidents he was one of the lucky ones.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Nicola Marks and Ken Westhues for helpful comments on drafts.

Addicted to the screen?

Behavioural addictions are on the rise. It’s important to understand and be able to change them.

It’s commonplace to see people walking along with their eyes focused on their smartphones. Surveys show that many check their phones the last thing before going to sleep and the first thing when they wake up. And they have them within arm’s reach the whole night.

Some online gamers refuse to take a break, playing for days and nights on end. Playing the game becomes more important than eating or sleeping.

Is it reasonable to refer to obsessions of this sort as addictions? If so, they are addictions to behaviours, not substances.

            For insight into this rising problem, check out Adam Alter’s new book Irresistible. The subtitle explains the topic: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching. The book is highly readable, though not quite as irresistible as the activities Alter describes.

            To provide a context for understanding behavioural addictions, Alter examines the more familiar sort of addiction, to drugs. The usual idea is that the physical processes involved are the key, including wanting the drug and having withdrawal symptoms. In relation to pain medication, Alter says something more is involved: a psychological component, in particular emotional pain. Alter says addiction “isn’t the body falling in unrequited love with a dangerous drug, but rather the mind learning to associate any substance or behavior with relief from psychological pain.” (p. 89) For example, people who were sexually abused as children may cover up the emotional pain by using drugs.

So what’s involved?

“Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” (p. 9)

Alter devotes a chapter to each of these six ingredients. One of the fascinating insights is the way designers try to make activities enticing.

Consider poker machines, in which players put in their money in the hope of winning a prize, especially a jackpot. Research shows that near misses provide an incentive to keep playing. Even so, there are fallow periods with no wins during which players are inclined to quit. In the US, gambling establishments are prohibited from manipulating the odds. So instead of the machine giving a little payout just when a player was thinking of quitting, an employee, watching the proceedings, will provide a small gift, such as chocolates. Even this process can be automated, with the machine providing information to the proprietors as to when to offer a gift to a player.

            Gambling addictions involve unpredictable positive feedback, but there is not incremental progress and improvement. For greater behavioural addiction, skill is involved, and skills improve.

Video games are the most common type of behavioural addiction. The most engaging games are very easy to learn, provide pathways for gradual improvement but make it impossible to achieve total mastery: there is always another level of difficulty. Alter interviewed video game designers. Some of them became addicted to their own games, and so did everyone else around them.

            Television producers try to induce viewers to keep watching a serial by using the technique of “unresolved tensions that demand resolution”, more commonly called cliffhangers. Near the end of an episode, some new development – an unexpected phone call, illness or assault – will be provided so viewers will want to tune in to the following episode to find out what happened next, namely to resolve the tension. This technique helps explain the popularity of soap operas and quite a few TV series. However, watching a show once a week is not a big problem. The addictive qualities of cliffhangers become more obvious when entire series are available on demand. Some viewers watch two or more episodes at once, or even binge for several days.

Knowing about the cliffhanger technique, a bit of planning can overcome bingeing on multiple episodes. The key is to end the viewing session after resolution of the tension, maybe 5 or 10 minutes into the next episode, and then start there the next time.

Alter provides numerous tips for overcoming or avoiding addictive behaviours. Email is a common problem: as soon as there’s a notification of an incoming message, it has to be checked or willpower is needed to resist checking it. One solution is to disable notifications. An even stronger technique is to shut down email altogether for most of the day, only opening it for a limited time. Alter counsels against the aspiration of an empty inbox, because this goal encourages obsessive checking of emails.

It’s now possible to buy all sorts of monitors, for example to record your pulse and the number of steps you’ve taken. Setting goals is fine, but Alter warns about making them too precise. When setting yourself the goal of 12,000 steps in a day, there’s a risk of injury by over-exercising. The target goal can overshadow messages from the body about exhaustion or pain. Self-monitoring runs the risk of encouraging addiction.

Who is susceptible?

It used to be thought that drug addicts had weak personalities and that to break an addiction, all that is needed is the assertion of willpower. These views are thrown into question by evidence that the environment makes a huge difference in addictions. Alter refers to the heroin users among US troops in Vietnam during the war. On returning to their home communities in the US, very few maintained their habits. The implication is that changing an addict’s environment is central to change. This includes being around different people and avoiding the triggers for the habit.

With behavioural addictions, environments are changing in ways that make more people susceptible. Video game addiction occurred from the earliest days of gaming. It was often thought that young males were especially vulnerable. But the reason they were more commonly addicted was opportunity. Not having jobs or other responsibilities, and having access to game consoles, they could devote hours to gaming every day.

            Therapists who treat gaming addicts have noticed an explosion in addiction in the US since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. Suddenly many more women and older men began developing addictions. The reason: access to games has gone mobile. No longer anchored to a console, you carry your device with you. It’s like having drugs on demand, with no cost.

For substance addictions, one treatment option is abstinence. It’s possible to totally avoid alcohol or heroin, and this is the basis of twelve-step programmes, most famously Alcoholics Anonymous. However, treating Internet addictions through abstinence is not feasible, because jobs and other activities so commonly involve operating online. Alter canvasses various ways to deal with Internet addiction. Many of these draw on insights about how to change habits.

The difficulty of changing habits points to a strange discrepancy. Powerful groups seek to promote behaviours, like checking Facebook, that serve their interests, but that can become addictive. There are relatively few groups dedicated to countering these potentially addictive behaviours. Furthermore, there is even less effort put into helping people break damaging habits.

It’s worth thinking broadly about damaging habits and challenges to them. Smoking is the classic example. Tobacco companies benefited from hooking people on smoking and it has taken extraordinary efforts by campaigners to bring tobacco addictions under control. A key part of the change has been to make ever more spaces non-smoking. Another part has been to stigmatise smoking.

Alcoholism remains a scourge on many people’s lives. Alcohol producers so far seem to have avoided many of the controls applied to smoking.

Then there are illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin and ice. The prohibitionist impulse is a manifest failure, enabling the rise of organised crime with disastrous consequences for users and their families.

With the vast expansion of behavioural addictions, what are the choices? Internet companies benefit from behaviours, like checking phones regularly, that easily become addictive. Because there is relatively little harm to others, there is unlikely to be a movement analogous to the anti-smoking movement. So what are the prospects?

            One source of hope is the availability of apps and devices to control Internet use, for example apps to shut down access after a specified time. But even to use such apps requires a degree of self-awareness. Ultimately, the culture of Internet use needs to change. If checking a phone while talking face-to-face with a friend were seen as extremely discourteous, there is some hope, but only if talking face-to-face remains common. Perhaps things will have to become much worse before major efforts are made to change social expectations.

Imagine that all children learn, at home and in school, the characteristics of addictive behaviour and how to change habits. Imagine people becoming more self-aware of their own damaging or time-wasting habits. Imagine companies becoming more responsible. If you’ve come this far, you have a good imagination and maybe you’re just dreaming.

Adam Alter

Brian Martin