Lancaster’s REF: Stockholm syndrome or worse?

A reader of my blogpost “Update from Wonderland: the Lancaster REF farce goes on” commented: “Brilliant but when will university historians mount a sustained campaign against the REF?”  Many who have commented on this and my earlier post “Kafkarna continues: REF gloves off at Lancaster University” on Twitter and other social media have voiced the same concern.  Why has there been so little resistance, at Lancaster or elsewhere, to an enterprise that makes a mockery of the values universities are meant to stand for?  Several have gone so far as to liken British academics’ collective acceptance of the REF exercise to Stockholm syndrome.    

I am not especially puzzled at colleagues’ reluctance to publicly resist a process many of them despise but feel they can do little about. Fear is a powerful disincentive to action, and British academics do not enjoy the protections of tenure (which was legislated away under Margaret Thatcher).  What does bother me, however, is the apparent willingness of many of those involved in the administration of the REF to participate in and vigorously defend an exercise they know will damage the reputations of colleagues, even if they are fully aware that the evaluative mechanisms used in their internal processes for selection of staff for entry into the REF are far less rigorous than those routinely used in academia (in peer review for journals, research grant funding competitions, or promotion appraisals, for instance).  

How to explain this willingness to throw one’s colleagues to the wolves, in some cases obviously relishing the sense of self-importance that comes with the power to do it?  Max Weber’s classic studies of how bureaucracy works “without regard for persons” might provide one starting-point; Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust another.  We might invoke Michel Foucault’s analyses of power and subjectivity.  But the text that goes to the heart of the matter, for me, is Václav Havel’s parable of the compliant Prague greengrocer.

*   *   *

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high.  […]

[T]he real meaning of the greengrocer’s slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar: the greengrocer declares his loyalty (and he can do no other if his declaration is to be accepted) in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.

Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless” (1978), translated by Paul Wilson


  1. The interests of the people running the show are not the interests of the people subject to the system. Put better by Shaiken (and quoted in a biography of Frederick Winslow Taylor):

    It seems probable that the large ships that once plied the Mediterranean, propelled by legions of slaves in the galley, were designed by people who had no expectation of doing any rowing.

  2. One of the difficulties with universities, where academics assume managerial roles at all levels from department upward, is that the distinction between “the people running the show” and “the people subject to the system” is not always so easy to make. That was also Havel’s point with regard to communism: a “system” in the abstract, but one that was sustained and reproduced by individuals’ complicity. I don’t accept that British academics are merely passive victims of the REF. It could have been fought, were they not too busy knifing each other in the back for the crumbs that fall from the HEFCE table. Actually, in the universities the “slaves” have had a considerable part in designing the ship: who else staffs the REF panels, or (my particular concern) supplies the internal and external evaluations and makes the judgments of “quality” on whose basis universities like Lancaster have excluded some of their staff members from the REF?

  3. I think that the greengrocer is every and each British academic … The extraordinary thing is that THES, far from being a radical critic of British higher education, is today voicing doubts about REF, but within universities silence reigns and preparations for REF continue apace, with minimal disruption. I wonder how many colleagues have refused to appeal …

  4. This post is absolutely spot on. I’ve made my anti-REF views pretty plain in my department. But the fact is that British academics are not especially brave notwithstanding the radical sentiments that pass for the conventional wisdom in large areas of the academy. Ironically, I can’t help feeling sometimes that these are the people who do most to make it a conservative profession. Talk about monocultures of the mind. Who is more compliant than them when it comes to following orders? We may not have the job security we once had but most of us are pretty safe from a summary dismissal just for speaking our minds. Even so, most of us say very little. I’d say I’m the most vocal person in my department notwithstanding my own middle of the road politics, about the REF, and now about the new Open Access scam which we are being invited currently to ‘celebrate’. Needless to say, the people implementing this disgraceful process, which is very similar to Lancaster’s, are my academic colleagues. Some will privately admit it’s all nonsense. But they carry on regardless. Nobody has officially confirmed I’m not in the REF but it seems certain I won’t be. I won’t in any case be able to appeal as I would have to prove I have been victimised. Like Prof Palladino I have been judged by those who do not understand what I do.

  5. Congratulations on being one of the very few people willing to challenge the hypocrisy of the REF. But why do quite so many UK academics collaborate and endorse this exercise? Can we be told quite how many staff have been sacked as a result of the REF?

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