Radical Retreat: LSE Tamed by Transnational Powers

by Pat Dodd Racher

A long email from the London School of Economics arrived yesterday afternoon, complaining about the BBC’s decision to show undercover filming by a ‘Panorama’ team in North Korea. The team was accompanying members of the Grimshaw Society, which is linked to the LSE’s Department of International Relations. The missive seemed to assume that I, as an LSE graduate, would be ‘on their side’. Instead, it reinforced my view that the LSE has, perhaps irrevocably, abandoned its founding mission.

For several years it has seemed to me that the LSE has become an educational arm of global business, and no longer prioritises the purpose of its motto ‘Rerum cognoscere causas’, to know the causes of things.

The LSE was founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Graham Wallas and George Bernard Shaw, all members of the Fabian Society, in 1895. The society was then (more than now, I would argue) a well of political ideas with a focus on social justice achieved in non-violent ways. H G Wells, R H Tawney and Annie Besant were all among the members, powerful intellects who challenged traditional notions of the social order.

Nowadays the LSE seems to represent the global leadership class, rather than challenging it. There are individual academics who interrogate dominant understandings of social justice, but the school is now well and truly part of the Establishment.

Back to the email. One paragraph read: “While this particular trip was run in the name of a student society, the nature of LSE’s teaching and research means that aspects of North Korea are legitimate objects of study in several of our academic disciplines. Indeed, LSE academics work on aspects of many politically sensitive parts of the world, including by travel to those locations (sic). It is vital that their integrity is taken for granted and their academic freedom preserved. The BBC’s actions may do serious damage to LSE’s reputation for academic integrity and may have seriously compromised the future ability of LSE students and staff to undertake legitimate study of North Korea, and very possibly of other countries where suspicion of independent academic work runs high.”

What’s more important, I thought, the possibility for a handful of academics to visit the world’s more unpleasant corners, or the potential for millions of Britons to learn something of the hardships afflicting the impoverished masses of North Korea, hidden from the rest of the world? In a closed society like North Korea, independent journalists are as welcome as a plague of bird flu. There are tourist trips – Beijing-based Koryo Tours runs several – but by all accounts visitors are very carefully managed.

LSE’s three most important higher education partnerships, according to its website, are with Columbia University in New York, Sciences Po in Paris – and with Peking University in Beijing. I wonder if the loud protestation of “deception” from LSE has Beijing as its target, rather than Pyongyang? China is North Korea’s nearest and largest ally, and so LSE may be very keen for more students and research contracts to come from China.

The students on the trip, none of them innocents abroad because the Grimshaw Society is for students of international relations, knew that undercover journalism would be one outcome. They knew the journalism would reach the public domain.

Sir Peter Sutherland, LSE’s Irish-born chairman of Council, has been particularly forceful in condemnation of the BBC. Sir Peter is a mover and shaker in globalisation, international finance and free trade, and while he is eminently distinguished in all these fields and more, from my perspective his position at the LSE signals a shift towards academia more as a branch of commerce. Sir Peter is chair of Goldman Sachs International, and a member of the steering committee of the Bilderberg Group, which is composed mainly of leading politicians, business chiefs and government technocrats, and holds private conferences to discuss global issues. He was chairman of the board at oil-and-energy company BP until June 2009, and in February of that year left the board of the state-rescued Royal Bank of Scotland Group after approving former chief Fred Goodwin’s £700,000-a-year pension.

One highly influential post he held between 1993 and 1995 was as director general of GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which became the World Trade Organisation in 1995. Before that, his roles included European Commissioner for Competition and chair of (later bailed-out) Allied Irish Banks.

Sir Peter’s positions at the intersections of industry, finance and government cast a glow or a shadow, depending on your point of view, over the LSE. Either way, the Fabian experiment in education for social justice is now a poster child for the power of Business Rampant.

At least, that’s how I see it.

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