Value and Values (Spotlight Series, Vol. 1)

Value and Values

Dr David Civil is a Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre in the School of Education at the University of Birmingham. His PhD research explored the concept of meritocracy in post-war Britain’s intellectual politics.

Since their inauguration in 1948, the BBC Reith Lectures have provided historians with an annual window into the intellectual preoccupations of the post-war world. From the impact of quantum and atomic theory in 1953 with Robert Oppenheimer’s Science and Common Understanding to questions of racial, gender and national identity in 2016 with Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Mistaken Identities. A potential Reith lecturer, searching for a topic to explain the contemporary moment would be spoilt for choice: the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, rampant economic inequality and social injustice, the rise of populism, big tech, the existential challenge to democracy etc. The list, it seems, is endless. On the surface then, the selection of Mark Carney, the Canadian central banker and former Governor of the Bank of England, feels like an odd choice. Carney has sat at the apex of a financial system assailed on all sides and held responsible, by a wide variety of politicians, commentators as well as large swathes of the public, for creating or exacerbating many of the problems listed above. The title of his series however, ‘How We Get What We Value’, unites the vast majority of these crises and, in doing so, like all good Reith Lectures, touches on one of the fundamental issues of the post-Cold War age.

At the heart of Carney’s thesis is the idea that financial value has trumped human values as developed nations morph from market economies into societies where the market rules. The free market, Carney claims, has become the organising framework not just for economies, but for broader human relations as its reach extends further into civic spaces and family life. Across a variety of sectors ‘citizens’ have been replaced by ‘service users’, with perilous consequences for our civic sphere. Whether manifested in concerns about the outsourcing of public services to private providers or the growing privatisation of public spaces, the so-called ‘invisible hand’ has come to exercise a visible and forceful grip.

Within these market societies the idea of subjective value is now hegemonic. Whereas in the past thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Karl Marx and Adam Smith felt the value of a product derived from how that product was produced, neo-classicist economists in the early twentieth century shifted the axis of value theory away from labour and towards the consumer. A product or service was no longer deemed valuable because of the costs that had gone into making or providing it, instead value was to be decided by whether individual consumers were willing to pay for it. Value was no longer thought to lie in the sweat of the labourer but in the eye of the beholder. In many ways this was a democratic shift: value was to accrue to those who could satisfy millions of individual preferences as reflected in the free market place.

It was not, however, without consequences and Carney identifies a number of risks associated with this rise of subjective value. For example, individuals are not always the rational decision-makers assumed by neo-classicist economic theory and often value the present more than the future. This ‘tragedy of the horizon’ has made solving issues like climate change more difficult. The catastrophic costs of a global issue like the climate crisis are felt beyond the traditional time horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation have no direct incentive to fix. As Carney has noted elsewhere, the ‘horizon for monetary policy extends out to two or three years.’ For ‘financial stability it is a bit longer, but typically only to the outer boundaries of the credit cycle – about a decade.’ In others words, once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late. More worryingly, Carney claims, is the ‘drift from moral to market sentiments.’ This ‘flattening of values’ corrodes those which have tended to exist outside of the market (e.g. civic virtues) and in the process has undercut the social foundations upon which any economic activity fundamentally relies. In short, anything not priced, not deemed financially valuable, in our society is not valued. Nowhere is this fact more starkly visible than in the essential work of the care sector where, because the value of care is difficult to measure, pay remains low and conditions poor. Care workers, therefore, remain the victim of a damaging tautological spiral: because their labour has been historically undervalued they are not paid a lot and because they are not paid a lot their labour is not seen as valuable.

The message and the messenger of the 2020 Reith Lectures is emblematic of the growing intellectual consensus in favour of a ‘social reset’. Whether embodied in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rather vague slogan of ‘Build Back Better’, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Great Reset’ or the progressive Left’s ‘Green New Deal’, the desire for a fundamental reappraisal of the global economy is shared, admittedly to differing degrees and to varying ends, across the ideological spectrum. While Carney’s lectures serve as a symbol of this particular conjuncture, his concerns are nothing new. The idea of a parasitic free market is a common theme of communist and socialist texts, while the more Carney-like warnings are found in a variety of liberal and social democratic positions. Even more surprising, perhaps, is to find traces of Carney’s thesis amongst some of the neoliberal thinkers whose intellectual output in the early-to-mid twentieth century did so much to economically and philosophically support the rise of the market in the 1980s.

For example, Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist, philosopher and author of the influential tract The Road to Serfdom, argued in 1960 that

A society in which it was generally presumed that a high income was proof of merit and a low income of the lack of it, in which it was universally believed that position and remuneration corresponded to merit, in which there was no other road to success than the approval of one’s conduct by the majority of one’s fellows, would probably be much more unbearable to the unsuccessful ones than one in which it was frankly recognised that there was no necessary connection between merit and success.[1]

For Hayek, in any free society income should reflect the value of an individual’s goods and services and have nothing to do with merit, virtue or the moral importance of their contribution. In a similar vein Frank Knight, the American anti-New Deal economist and later Hayek’s teacher, argued in the early 1920s that an individual’s income or market value should not be associated with their social contribution.[2] Serving demand in the market is simply a matter of satisfying the wide range of tastes and desires people happen to have at that particular moment in time. The ethical significance of satisfying them, however, depends on their moral worth.

Evaluating this worth involves making contested moral judgements which go beyond the discipline of economics. The philosopher Michael Sandel illuminates this distinction by considering the character of Walter White, the teacher, father and drug-dealing kingpin of the Emmy-award winning drama Breaking Bad. Most viewers would agree that White’s contribution as a teacher far exceeds that of his contribution as a drug dealer. ‘Even if meth were legal’, Sandel argues, ‘a talented chemist might still make more money producing meth than teaching students.’ But this does not mean that a ‘meth dealer’s contribution is more valuable than a teacher’s.’[3] In a similar vein, few would have argued that Captain Sir Tom Moore’s fundraising efforts, reaching £33 million in total, would have represented less of a contribution had he only met his initial target of £1000. In this sense the value of his effort was recognised in the civic or moral character of his actions rather than because of their monetary value.

Context is important here. Hayek, for example, had little influence in 1960, the start of a decade where technocratic desires to rationally plan economic activity reached fever pitch and the free market remained a marginalised concept. Hayek’s primary concern in distinguishing between merit and value was to secure the legitimacy of free market inequalities. This legitimacy, he claimed, would be tarnished if those at the top were not only rich but also considered morally superior. As Carney’s lecture makes clear, however, these warnings went unheeded as price and value increasingly became conflated. Those individuals with high incomes also came to possess greater status, power and, perhaps most damagingly, moral superiority. It does not therefore require much of an intellectual leap to consider how Hayek’s concerns have played out in the last decade of political destabilisation. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, however, it is clear that these market generated inequalities are suffering a legitimation crisis. In this sense Carney’s intervention has fired the starting pistol on what Mariana Mazzucato has described as a great contested debate about value.[4]

It is clear that this debate can not be overly reliant on the discipline of economics, a discipline where the moral questions highlighted by Knight have been subsumed beneath technical exercises in applied rationality. The market appealed to politicians and policymakers precisely because it eschewed these contested judgements, pushing questions of ‘who gets what?’ onto an abstract, impersonal force. There was no longer a contested debate about the morally right or wrong course of action but a mechanistic discussion about the economic costs or benefits of a particular policy choice. In its place the debate will be heated. As David Robinson has outlined in this journal, in its worst form it will descend into an irrelevant culture war. Yet it appears that a tentative consensus is forming as those across the political spectrum recognise that key workers deserve pay, status and conditions beyond those assigned by the market.

A great debate about values entails radical consequences for the shape of higher education in Britain, a sector which has too often, in the words of David Manning, disengaged ‘from the virtues of scholarship to perform research for market value.’ This is particularly true of disciplines like the Humanities where value is difficult to measure and demonstrate. Shifting away from crude metrics, however, should not, be used as an opportunity to completely dismantle mechanisms designed to deliver accountability and ensure fairness. Instead it represents an opportunity for all of us in the Humanities to illuminate the issues, challenge long-standing assumptions and help to construct a new social contract which places human, rather than merely financial, values firmly at the centre.

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Hayek, F. A.,The Constitution of Liberty (London, 1960).

Knight, F. H.,  The Ethics of Competition (New Brunswick, NJ., [1923] 1997).

Mazzucato, M., The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (London, 2017).

Sandel, M. J., The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (London, 2020).



[1] F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London, 1960), p. 98.

[2] F.H. Knight, The Ethics of Competition (New Brunswick, NJ., [1923] 1997), p. 46.

[3] M.J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (London, 2020), pp. 138-39.

[4] M. Mazzucato, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (London, 2017)













The “Woke” Bite Back! (Spotlight Series, Vol. 1)

The “Woke” Bite Back!

David Robinson takes a light-hearted look at the shifting reputation of the Humanities academic but concludes there are serious reasons for their voices to be heard…

In a pre-pandemic life I was asked at a social event the obligatory question about what I do. I replied that, having been made redundant after 25 years in the business world, I went to university to study undergraduate history. Subsequently, having discovered a love for research and writing, I completed my MA and, recently, received my PhD. “And what will you do with that?”, asked my interlocutor. “Well”, I replied, “I’ve put it in a frame on the wall.”

A flippant response, but I was heading off the inevitable. A request to defend spending seven years achieving something that could not be directly monetised; not, anyway, in the sense that my previous life as a Commercial Director could be leveraged for financial gain. Of course, I could secure a position as a university academic, but in a climate where even entry level positions are given to module convenors with several years’ experience and a slew of books and articles, that is unlikely.

Hold your sympathy, though. I have my dream job! I was recently offered the opportunity to edit a journal I co-founded 3 years ago: the one you are presently reading, The MHR.

“Ah!”, exclaimed my dinner-party host, “I expect that pays quite well.” “Precisely nothing!”, I replied. “Oh! Well, that’s the problem”, they responded, “there’s not much one can do with those humanities degrees.” We both shook our heads knowingly and they wandered off to find someone with a proper job to talk to.

This was an experience to which I have become accustomed. Perhaps, you have too? Why study History? Or even worse, Art History or Philosophy? American Studies? What can you really do with these degrees? What do they even mean?

When my teenage daughter suggested she, too, might be interested in studying history, that she had enjoyed our visit to the National Gallery in London and our subsequent lunch discussion of the ways in which gender roles had been assigned in art, someone quietly reminded her that “what your Dad does isn’t really history.” Quite. She might be advised to “do a proper subject.”

Such disdain does not seem justified. In fact, the reverse. In the twentieth century, thirteen out of the nineteen British Prime Ministers awarded a degree were humanities graduates. More recently, P.P.E. (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) is the humanities degree of choice for an astonishing proportion of those who rule over us and those who explain how we are ruled, whether senior politicians or prominent political journalists. And what about those who implement policy, the civil service? Andrew Greenway, a former senior civil servant who writes regularly for Civil Service World, argues that P.P.E is not necessarily the golden ticket to the top of the political and administrative elite’. In his list of post-war Prime Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries, only three studied P.P.E. Still, between the P.M. who, as Greenway puts it ‘chooses the route’ and the cabinet secretary who ‘drives the car’, of the eighteen he lists with a degree, thirteen studied history or a mix of classics and philosophy. The outliers were a few lawyers, economists, and a chemist.

It seems, then, that we might complicate the debate on the relevance of a humanities degree. An education providing little apparent value for the likes of thee and me, appears to be an almost ubiquitous preparation for a career at the highest levels of public life.

Let’s unpack this a little further. Back in the nineteenth century, studying classics at Balliol, Oxford, under the college’s Master, Benjamin Jowett, was de rigueur for a career as a senior administrator in British India. Young men were trained, Jowett claimed, ‘by cold baths, cricket, and the history of Greece and Rome.’[1] The British did not simply take their management of India from classical Greek and Roman precedent, they were the new Greeks and Romans. A classical education was not merely a useful preparation for colonial administration, it was central to justifying ‘the historical experience of overseas domination.’[2]

Generations of British school children have been taught British history as a discrete list of the actions of, mostly, white male elites, often described by gentlemen amateurs and retired statesmen who regularly wrote about the very policies they themselves designed and implemented. As Churchill noted, ‘history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’

The most influential historian of his generation, Thomas Babington Macaulay, wrote his 1848 seminal work almost entirely as a justification of the cultural, economic and political authority of the English middle-classes. This was ‘the smug message of Macaulay’s History of England.’[3] Nor was he informing only his own generation. As he wrote to a friend, ‘I have tried to do something that will be remembered; I have had the year 2000, and even the year 3000, often in my mind.’[4] Macaulay would probably have been reasonably satisfied with his efforts. These are histories of glorious nation that are, at best, incomplete and de-contextualised and, at worst, a carefully crafted narrative of British (English?) exceptionalism to justify and lionise tyrannical imperialism and global domination.

Is this a fair and balanced assessment? Of course not. For a start, Churchill never made such a statement. Although, he did say ‘for my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.’[5] A damning indictment? Well, that’s the problem with woke lefty historians: no sense of humour. Churchill was probably just joshing. A bit.

The more serious point is that, as David Ludden puts it, ‘the veracity of statements about reality is not at issue so much as their epistemological authority, their power to organize understandings of the world.’[6] More simply, the study of human affairs is not so much about what happened and when, although events and chronology are important, but how and why the past is and has been interpreted differently.

So, back to my central question. Why are the exponents of academic humanities, once respected for their knowledge and trusted to pass on their understanding of Britain’s and, more broadly, the ‘West’s’ contribution to concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’, now castigated as ‘typical of the open-toed, sandal wearing, beardy geography teachers at the heart of all the problems in modern society.’[7]

For two key reasons: on the one hand, because they present an existential challenge to many Britons’ understanding of themselves and their nation’s place in the world, past, present and future; on the other, because they potentially strike down a central appeal of politicians to the voting public, namely their right to rule based on defending that same understanding.

Most academics today contend that there is a strong prima facia case to suggest that the interpretation of the humanities for educational and public consumption has tended to be selective and aimed at presenting a particular view of the past that tends towards a certain British exceptionalism and national superiority. In recent decades, scholars of the humanities have taken to analysing and deconstructing the comfortable and self-congratulatory picture of the past taught for more than a century.

Are they right? Can we have that discussion? Not a very sensible one when government ministers trivialise the issues with populist headlines such as We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past.

Let me close with an example of just how misleading such headlines can be, the 2020 removal of the statue of Edward Colston, in Bristol, the paradigmatic example of cancel culture, imposed by woke militants intent on erasing our history.

The reality, I contend, is almost exactly the opposite of what has been popularly proposed. The argument has been made that Colston, an acknowledged beneficiary of colonial oppression and slave trading, may have profited from activities considered unacceptable today, but that when his statue was erected in 1895, such practices were less proscribed. To remove his statue is to impose a modern moral standard not subscribed to at the time, and is thus a distortion of history, the classic example of ‘cancel culture’.

In fact, the removal of Colston’s statue had little to do with historical debate and more to do with the frustrations of local protesters. Their legitimately gained democratic mandate, to have a plaque attached which offered some more context in terms of Colton’s slave trading activities, has been continually blocked. It is also demonstrably the case that slave trading was, largely, as unacceptable in 1895 as it is today.

That, however, is not my point. The proposal to erect Colston’s statue back in 1895 was a local political response to the growing protests of Bristolian workers objecting to poor rates of pay and working conditions. Political activists argued in public speeches, influenced by the political tracts of Karl Marx, that those workers were as much victims of their merchant masters as the slaves and the colonised that had been such a source of enrichment for the commercial elites of Bristol. These were arguments that gained some traction with the voting public of the city. Such concerns and the potential for unrest, common to many British cities, prompted local businessman, James Arrowsmith, to try and raise a statue to Colston, a well-known Bristolian philanthropist, by public subscription. Arrowsmith’s strategy was to counter criticism of Bristol’s colonial merchants through a demonstration of public support for the civic benefits brought to the city by those engaged in colonial trade. In this, he largely failed. Although some public funds were raised, the statue was eventually erected mostly at his own cost.

The background, then, to the Colston statue is not one of ubiquitous popular support for a merchant philanthropist Bristolian, but a fascinating insight into nineteenth-century ‘open class warfare’ and public support for ‘the formation of a “labour party” to represent working people’. Which aspects of history are being erased by substituting a mature debate on this subject with trivialising accusations of woke cancel culture? In many ways, Arrowsmith’s nineteenth-century tactics are being replicated by twenty-first century politicians.

The past will always be contested. If you are reading this, you are probably engaged in that process to some extent or another. Practitioners of academic humanities are, perhaps, not naturally suited to confrontation. But our voices are not just important, they are key. As Orwell pointed out, critically thinking about the past is an essential part of the present and, by extension, the future.

The MHR aims to be a part of that debate, through the voices of our contributors. We look forward to hearing from you.

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[1] P. Woodruff, [= P. Mason], The Men who Ruled India: The Founders (London, 1953), p. 15.

[2] E. W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1993), p. 114.

[3] F. Bédarida, A Social History of England, 1851-1975 (Paris, 1976), p. 49.

[4] T. Pinney, The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay in four volumes (Cambridge, 2008), p. 216.

[5] Speech in the House of Commons, Hansard ,Volume 446 (23 January 1948), Column 557.

[6] D. Ludden, ‘Orientalist Empiricism: Transformations of Colonial Knowledge’, in C. A. Breckenridge & P. van de Veer (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia, PA., 1993), p. 250.

[7] As said to me at the same dinner party described above. Ok, it’s a great line!