DR JOEL LAZARUS

BANKING ON DEMOCRATIC TELEVISION: CO-PRODUCING CULTURE TO PROMOTE PUBLIC PRAXIS
INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR FELLOW: APRIL 2015 – MARCH 2016
Joel Lazarus

Joel’s academic background is in Development Studies, and he has researched and written on the political economy of development and on Western democracy promotion.

His ISRF-funded project brings together critical approaches to pedagogy, cultural studies, international political economy, and drama in ways aimed at encouraging and helping ordinary people to come together to learn, think, debate, and act in ways that might contribute to democratic social transformation.

Abstract

This ISRF grant will kickstart an ambitious four-year project that will culminate in the production of a television drama series and complementary website. The series will be based on the trading floor of an investment bank and will be produced through a process of participatory ethnography and collaboration between bank staff, scholars, and script-writers. A ‘Sociological Imagination’ website, co-produced by philosophers and social scientists, will accompany the series (cf. Mills 1959). It will provide viewers with the analytical tools needed to critically interpret and respond to the drama and, by extension, their own lives. This will be stimulated and facilitated by the creation of online fora and by encouraging viewers to set up book club-style local discussion groups.

The project is focused on addressing two contemporary, fundamental, and interrelated social challenges, namely the dominance of financial capital and the demise of our democracy. It has two main goals. First, the drama can reinvigorate public debate about the future of banks and finance in our society. Second, the drama and website can catalyse a public process of praxis needed to reimagine and rebuild our democracy. In this way, the project is politically prefigurative, embodying the kind of transformative democratic practices it seeks to promote.

My ISRF year (Year One) will be spent developing the concept and practice of ‘democratic television’ through academic study and the convening of a workshop. The ideas and plans generated will be publicised via a journal article, conference presentations, blogs, and a short film. In Year One, I will also secure funding for future years (see below). Year Two will be spent conducting and analysing fieldwork. In Year Three, I will oversee the co-production of the drama series’ script. In Year Four, the drama series and the website will be produced.

The Research Idea

What Antonio Gramsci referred to as Karl Marx’s ‘philosophy of praxis’ was perhaps most famously expressed in the maxim: ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx 1998: 571). Yet, beyond this negation and, thus, supersession of the objective-subjective dualism, Marx was equally challenging a ‘theoreticoelitist’ portrayal of philosophers, of intellectuals, as social superiors, educating and directing the unconscious masses (Critchley 1997). Thus, the philosophy of praxis of Marx, and successive contributors, articulates a radical democratisation of philosophy, of intellectuality, with ordinary working people as the self-conscious, self-emancipatory force of history.

Today, alas, we remain dominated by a theoretico-elitist system of knowledge and power, institutionalised way beyond the university itself. We endure the reign of the (often selfproclaimed) ‘expert’ and technocrat under the facade of independence and neutrality. Ours is an age of hardening authoritarian tendencies; of prolonged and profound economic depression; and of ecological and, thus, existential crisis. Yet, the seeds of resistance, revival, and re-creation remain right here – in a philosophy of praxis. It is our world to win! However, we find ourselves in a situation characterised, superficially at least, by mass cynicism and hopelessness. Consequently, the central question for any critical scholar today must be ‘how can I contribute to a revival of collective hope, self-belief, self-knowledge, and action?’ or, in short, ‘how can I contribute to a public process of praxis?’ The project outlined below is my response to this crucial question.

The Focus

This project focuses on two profound, interconnected contemporary issues in the UK and beyond: the political dominance of finance capital and the decline of democracy.

We bear witness to the immense political power of finance capital and its social consequences. Yet, despite or, indeed, because of this power, finance’s inner workings remain opaque, limiting public descriptions of banks and bankers to careless caricature. The project’s aim, therefore, is, to paraphrase Marx, to reveal the ‘hidden abode’ of investment banking (Marx 1976: 940). This move is vital to generating the information and understanding needed for a reinvigorated public debate about the role that banks and finance should play in our society.

Colin Crouch (2004) has described the UK as a ‘post-democratic’ society. Beyond the severe material consequences of the neo-liberal counter-revolution, the sustained attack on tradeunions and the ‘demonisation of the working class’ (Jones 2012), the intensification of capitalist life, the technocratisation of politics, and the trivialisation of media output have all depleted the resources, critical skills, and confidence citizens require for genuine democracy. There is an urgent need to redevelop lost capacities and resources, and, most crucially, to rekindle the self-belief and hope vital to any revival (Bloch 1991).

This project constitutes a prefigurative political action. Through its maximally participatory methodological approach, it can stimulate new cooperative convocations of generating knowledge, culture, and hope. The ultimate goal is to set off a positive feedback loop of collective praxis that can catalyse a process of democratic revival that has already begun.

Background

In recent years, journalists like Gillian Tett (2009); writers like Michael Lewis (2014); documentary film-makers like Charles Ferguson (2010); academics like Karen Ho (2009), and even ex-bankers (Das 2006) have generated important insights into the culture and practices of investment banks. Yet, unfortunately, such works predominantly reach a more educated, informed audience. To the general public, while perhaps evoking an uneasy, yet unfocused, sense of distaste and injustice, the banks and bankers remain primarily figures of ridicule and envy. As financial markets (and bonuses) soar, real wages tumble, and austerity bites, the media and political classes have conveniently shifted their focus onto other, far less politically powerful, organised, and articulate scapegoats. Economic ‘recovery’ seems founded on wage repression alongside asset market inflation via ‘quantitative easing’, which, in reality, functions as life-support machine for a still moribund global system (SPERI 2014). The institutional and structural factors behind the 2008 collapse remain fundamentally unaddressed.

By generating information and cultural output aimed at a wider audience, this project can build on and transcend the aforementioned contributions, thereby serving to reinvigorate public debate about the future of finance, hopefully before the next crisis hits.

Regarding my development of the concept and practice of democratic television, this project is informed by and will build on various contributions: Frankfurt School social theory, critical cultural studies (Hall 1992; Williams 1989), and critical media education initiatives (Kellner & Share 2005). The theoretical and performative pedagogical innovations of Paolo Freire (1971) and Augusto Boal (1979) are another major influence.

Theory & Evidence Base

It is not within its isolated component parts that this project’s originality resides, but in the dynamic process generated in their combination. It lies in the construction of dialectical bridges that bring these elements, and the people behind them, together. The idea of ‘democratic television’ is a foundational element of construction here.

On the production side of democratic television, transformation emerges within bank employees beginning to reflect and respond as they participate in producing ethnographic research. Indeed, the whole process of production constitutes a rich collective praxis. On the reception side of democratic television, the Sociological Imagination website constructs a bridge to facilitate social praxis between academics and citizens. Academics provide viewers with the tools for their own critical enquiry. Yet, ultimately, academics learn too as viewers apply these tools to understand the drama series, and subsequently begin to analyse and transform their own individual and collective realities.

These are just two examples of ways in which this project can facilitate a public process of praxis. Crucially, what I present here is a plan to initiate a collaborative process – a process that, as it grows, will bring in increasing numbers of contributors, and will evolve in ways and will produce outcomes as yet unknown and unknowable. It is this quality that makes it truly and radically democratic. Is it a leap of faith? Yes! For, what is democracy if it is not a constant collective leap of faith? A project born to inspire faith must prefigure in this way.

Methodology

Since I have already shown how my participatory research methods link theory with the real world through praxis, I will focus here on proving how this ambitious project is actually realised.

First, I must emphasise that I will not be doing this alone! My task is to initiate, to recruit, and to lead. Various experiences, not least those with PPE (see CV), have helped me to develop strong abilities to organise, to bring people together, and to lead democratically.

I have the right contacts and background needed for this project’s success. First, I have direct access to individuals from the script-writing, production, and commissioning sides of television who have already expressed an interest in this project. Second, I actually worked on trading floors between 1998 and 2003, mostly at Merrill Lynch. I also grew up in suburban Essex (a hotbed of City employees), attended City of London School, and my father’s hairdressing business was in Farringdon. In short, I have the personal contacts and the acquired cultural habitus to access a trading floor.

During my ISRF year, I will secure funding for the final three years of this project. With PAIS’s support, I will apply for a Leverhulme three-year award commencing January 2016. I will also seek crowdfunding for the television series script-writing and pilot costs. The drama series itself has significant commercial potential. My plan is to distribute revenues appropriately between myself, funding bodies, and a new foundation to fund similar projects and the cause of popular education generally.

Output

My ISRF year productive plans revolve around developing the concept and practice of ‘democratic television’ – the foundation and heart of this project.

From January to June, I will conduct academic research and interviews with both banking and television industry professionals. In July, I will host a workshop at Warwick University’s Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), bringing together academics, community educators, and television professionals, using participatory methods to elaborate an embryonic conceptualisation of and practical plan for producing democratic television. This forum will also initiate an active network of project contributors.

Out of this workshop, I will oversee the production and dissemination of a short film that articulates our vision. I will also write a peer-reviewed journal article and will present our ideas and plans at relevant academic, education, and television industry conferences and workshops. I will write informal online articles and blogs too. In this way, I will also further the growth of the network.

Prof Matthew Watson of PAIS has been a long-term supporter of my work and this project. If this application is successful, I have been offered institutional access and support at PAIS. I hope and believe that many of PAIS’ outstanding scholars will contribute to this project, particularly in the production of the Sociological Imagination website. I will also engage friends at the cooperative Social Science Centre in Lincoln in the website’s production too since they have already developed a ‘Sociological Imagination’ course for their student-scholars.

Relevance

This project relates directly to ISRF’s own goals of funding originality, new knowledge production, and alternative solutions to pressing real-world problems. This project embodies a radically democratic approach to research method and output; to the co-production of knowledge; and, therefore, by extension, to the generation of alternative solutions to two realworld problems of fundamental contemporary significance. Thus, radical democracy constitutes the universal of this project – its guiding methodological, epistemological, and ethical principle. The particular of the project will comprise the particular forms of knowledge, the particular solutions that its contributors collectively generate.

Regarding my personal motivation, this project has been evolving within me for a whole decade! It is the articulation of a journey that has taken me from financial markets to academic study, and on to community education. I am now going back full circle to finance, bringing my academic understanding and pedagogical experience with me.

I return to investment banking after 10 years of working hard to try to understand an unjust world and the part I might personally play in its transformation. This project constitutes a crystallised vision of the specific contribution I might make as: a privileged white male; a social scientist; and an intellectual and educator. This project, I know, is incredibly ambitious, but we live in critical times. Such times necessitate grand visions and a ‘radical imagination’ (Khasnabish & Haiven 2014). I know I am capable of setting this process in motion and of leading it to a powerful and potentially transformative outcome.

Conference Papers

Lazarus, J. (2015). Cultivating self-belief and educated hope: toward a contemporary radical democratic practical theory of and for transformative art.

The relationship between art and politics has been explored within the Western philosophical canon as far back as Plato. In more recent decades, critical theorists have made inexpressibly important and influential contributions to understanding and developing this relationship. In light of this, I seek to make a modest contemporary contribution to this crucial issue.

If being a critical social theorist means espousing a philosophy of praxis then the question of the most effective way of contributing to social transformation, to the goal of social justice, should be one at the forefront of our minds. I argue here that while cultural critique, the deconstruction of
hegemonic ‘truths’ and their manufacture, is a vital starting point, it is also important for critical scholars to explore the possibilities within their scholarship for cultural reconstruction and recreation.

This, I believe, constitutes the most powerful form of resistance. The most effective way to disprove that ‘There Is No Alternative’ is to create alternatives. It is for this reason that I myself as a critical scholar seek to engage with artists who try to do just that. Whether one is motivated more by a desire to help as wide an audience as possible learn about the political economy of social injustice or to participate in imagining and creating social alternatives, I believe that there is much to gain from listening to and learning from artists. This paper is informed by the beginnings of a dialogue with artists of various types: visual artists, filmmakers, playwrights, and performers.