Recommended Reading: Sara Ahmed on Strategic Inefficiency.

At New Socialist, one of the things we offer subscribers is a weekly email from the editors with some recommended reads, & short contextualising texts. I’ve decided to periodically repost some of the things I’ve written for that here on my blog. If you want to get these as they’re written, along with excellent contributions from the other editors, you can subscribe to NS! But otherwise, I’ll add them here as and when I remember, and once long enough has passed that my re-publishing them doesn’t constitute a thorough razzing-off of subscribers.

In December, I wrote a short piece on Universal Credit, the publishing industry, and Sara Ahmed’s concept of ‘strategic inefficiency’. I hope you like it!

Sara Ahmed—‘Strategic Inefficiency’

As its title suggests, this essay finds Ahmed unfolding the ways in which inefficiency can be strategic; the ways in which it is often “not just about the failure of things to work properly but can be how things are working.” Inefficiency, she writes, is “not just about errors in an operating system; errors can be an operating system.” In keeping with the direction of her current research into complaint, which originates in her resignation from Goldsmiths over their failure to address the recurrent sexual misconduct of prominent academics in their employ, Ahmed is primarily writing about higher education. I would argue, though, that this essay makes an important intervention into how we might think all political institutions—including, but not limited to, the academy.

This tweet by @HannahDaisy offers an example of how inefficiency—a failure to operate smoothly—is weaponised by institutions as a means of tacitly restricting access to certain systems of recourse. Hannah writes:

At job centre. Man comes in and is told he will have to check his Universal Credit account for more info. Says he doesn’t have a computer and has old brick phone. Told to use job centre computer… 
“I cant use a computer, can you help me?” 
“No, we’ve been told we can’t do it for people” 
“I can’t use a computer” 
“I’m sorry, it’s the only way” 

god UC is a mess.

In this exchange, the advisor’s role within and on behalf of the system is to act as a blockage: to prevent access to information that might offer claimants some means of agency. Without the ability to use a computer—and with assistance having been specifically and pre-emptively denied—this man is left with no personal knowledge of his own situation. The ways in which the system is acting towards and upon him remain opaque. This is a form of abuse, and it is a form of strategic inefficiency. The less one knows about one’s situation, the smaller the opportunity to make a formal complaint (with its legalistic requirements around specificity) becomes. In this way, disempowerment and deprivation are reproduced. As Ahmed observes:

The engines of social reproduction still seem to run smoothly even when other things fail to run. We can turn an observation into a question: is there a connection between the inefficiency in how some things are run & the efficiency with which institutions reproduce themselves?

The answer to that question—for me, at least—is a clear and resonant YES. Ahmed has shown clearly, time and again, the ways in which complaints procedures at universities are strategically designed to obfuscate, procrastinate, and de-escalate in order to protect valued academics (whom, it has to be said, are usually valued because of their contributions to the Research Excellence Framework, just one of the many ways in which our universities are governed by and beholden to a free market ideology; capitalism is violence, capitalism is abuse). The tweet quoted above shows one way in which the unstoppable clown car that is the Universal Credit rollout has had these same obfuscations and apparent systemic ‘failures’ or ‘breakdowns’ built into it from the beginning. These problems, in tech-bro parlance, are not bugs: they are features. 

There are other ways, too, in which institutions and systems reproduce themselves using strategic inefficiency. The bloated and arcane practices of Parliament, where one votes on issues by… walking around a lot, are one example. As Laura Pidcock pointed out, in her maiden speech to the ‘Commons’, “the intimidating nature of this place is not accidental. The clothes, the language, and the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination are symbolic of the system at large.” It is not supposed to be welcoming to a working class woman. It is not supposed to be easy for those who don’t ‘belong’ to navigate. That is the whole point and purpose of the place. I felt something similar last weekend, walking around central London. The ways in which the architecture, the street design, the urban planning in general reflected a world of which I was not a part, in which I was not welcome, to which I would never, ever belong. Think, too, about our invisible institutions: a Guardian staff drawn entirely from Oxbridge and/or independent schools; the predominance, still, of RP accents on TV and radio (and, similarly, the way in which somebody like Jess Phillips, daughter of a teacher and an NHS chief executive, is presented as salt o’t’earth because she has a vaguely regional—and, one suspects, hammed up—accent). Go into any bookshop and you’ll see books by people with names like Horatio Clare and John Lewis-Stempel and Portia Simpson. The inaccessibility and opacity of the agent-and-publisher world to the rest of us is a form of strategic inefficiency that reproduces the cultural dominance of a certain stratum of British society.

So much can be revealed when we attend to who is able to navigate spaces, institutions, and systems with ease. There is, as Ahmed ends by noting, a 

connection between the discriminatory effects of inefficiency and the efficiency with which organisation reproduce themselves as being for certain kinds of people, those whose papers are in the right place, those who are in the right place; those who are upright, able; well-resourced, well-connected.

Part of long revolutionary work, then, is to build and maintain paths that are accessible to all—to remake the world, not as a mystifying maze, but as a sort of garden: abundant, and open, and ours.