10 Great Political Rock Songs

Good art doesn’t have to be political, and good politics doesn’t have to be art, but when the two come together well then they can be very powerful. Here are my 10 favourite political rock songs. You may well complain that some favourites of yours aren’t on here, but that is the fun thing about these lists, isn’t it. Feel free to leave a comment.

One criterion does need mentioning however: there is no wishy-washy earnest folk acoustic stuff here. These tracks are not just good politics, they rock. I present them in rough (but not exact) chronological order. I don’t claim to be a great music critic, so feel free to ignore my comments if you want: but I have linked to versions of every track and the best thing to do with these songs is not just put them on, but listen to them…. so please do.

The old get old, and the young get stronger. May take a week, but it may take longer. They’ve got the guns, but we’ve got the numbers. Gonna win… yeah, we’re taking over… Come on!
The Doors may have strayed into some psychedelic whimsy now and again, and by all accounts Jim Morrison was often narcissistic and self-indulgent, but goddammit when he and his band set their minds to it they produced some powerful stuff. This is as radical as they ever got.



Kent State massacre

Kent State massacre, 4th May 1970.

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming. We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming… Four dead in Ohio.
On April 30th 1970 Richard Nixon announced on US TV that the Vietnam war would be extended into Cambodia. During a subsequent protest at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard opened fire on unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine. A subsequent enquiry, the Scranton commission, concluded that the shootings were unjustified, but charges against the Guardsmen were dismissed in 1974. David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young recorded the song almost immediately after the shootings and Atlantic records rushed it into the charts. (Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Long Time Gone’ is also well worth a listen.)

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Hard to resist this one, in all its 8-minute glory, with the brilliant — and never matched — organ sound that opens the track, remains as an undertone throughout, and then eases its way up again towards the end before Keith Moon’s drumming and Daltrey’s scream burst the band back in. The Who were a very political band — listen also to ‘The Dirty Jobs’ off the Quadrophenia album. ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ remains highly relevant — and should be given heavy circulation before just about any election, anywhere. Alas, it’s central message also remains very true.


The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions… The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner. The revolution will not be televised, brother.
Who knows whether his prediction is still true? But it doesn’t matter. Christ, this is a powerful track, one I never heard until quite recently, but it’s got to get in this top 10. This kind of thing will send white conservatives into paroxysms: talk about radical.


Jamie Reid poster

Jamie Reid’s poster for ‘God Save the Queen’

God Save the Queen, her fascist regime. They made you a moron, potential H-bomb. God Save the Queen, she ain’t no human being. There is no future in England’s dreaming.
There’s rarely been a more subversive song than this, and John Lydon wrote it when he was 20 years old, for heaven’s sake. For a song with lyrics like this to get released at all by a record company was incredibly brave, and I would bet it would never get out today. Not only is it anti-monarchist, but it then segues into the ‘No future…. No future… for you’ ending, totally defining the punk spirit. In the present day, when a woman with no job can have a baby and receive millions from the taxpayer just because she married someone who was a member of an accidentally rich family…. we need this song. You need it. (‘Anarchy in the UK’ is brilliant too, but this is better.)


This town…. is coming like a ghost town. Why must the youth fight against themselves? Government leaving their jobs on the shelves. This place… is coming like a ghost town… No jobs to found in this country… Can’t go on no more. People getting angry.
I’ve heard this described as the UK’s best ever number 1 single… and I would agree with that. From that mournful brass at the beginning, it’s a complete work of art, invoking the despair of an urban environment in which there’s nothing to do and nothing to become. Remember, it’s about Coventry. But it could be many places. Maybe you live in one.

Ghost Town sleeve

‘Ghost Town’ single sleeve


What are you being put to death for today? Is your family here? What was your last meal? Any last words for the fans? The longer you cling to life…. the more prizes for your friends!
Jello Biafra was lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, who have done a bunch of tracks of their own that could have got on here (see ‘Police Truck’, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’, ‘California Über Alles’, to name but three). Lard was his collaboration with Paul Barker and Al Jourgensen of Ministry. Both the DKs and Ministry are excellent bands in their own right — together, they were, quite simply, awesome. In my opinion their Pure Chewing Satisfaction is the best album ever recorded, by anyone. If there’s one song on this list you  haven’t heard of, it’s probably this one, so give it a go. It’s a stunning prose poem set to a driving beat, an indictment of American attitudes to killing their criminals and sensationalism, as JB fantasises about a game show with ‘executions… on live TV!’ Five minutes and forty-two seconds of genius.


Free Nelson Mandela

Special AKA perform ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ on Top of the Pops in 1984

21 years in captivity… shoes to small to fit his feet… his body abused but his mind is still free… are you so blind that you cannot see? I said… Free Nelson Mandela!  
This and number 9 are the most exuberant songs on here. It deserves to get on if only because it annoyed the Tory Party so much at the time. Let us never forget that David Cameron was a prime mover in the anti-Mandela movement. The Special AKA were one of the two remnants when the Specials split, which makes them the only band to get on here twice, and Jerry Dammers, writer of both these tracks, king of the political rock song. I challenge you to hear this and not feel like dancing at the sheer joy of it.


Our muscle is our labour, and we flex it when we go on strike… Fight back, unionize…. If we fail to organise we’ll waste our lives on protest songs. A life worth living is waiting to be won…
This is the most blatantly leftist track on here, but is worth including just for that reason. A paean to Marxist politics, and it’s got fucking great drums on it as well. Like the last one, it’s political and it makes you want to dance your arse off.(I think the version done on a John Peel session is the best, but that’s really hard to find. I have it though 🙂 )


Elimination policy… A military-industrial illusion of democracy….
OK, I’m getting on a bit these days, and tend to think that most great rock ended at some point in the 1980s, but then again the lack of many newer songs on here is also a factor that rock music has just got a lot less political lately. Record companies are just too scared, too corporate these days. But perhaps you have your own favourites from the last couple of decades. Still, there’s always Primal Scream, who unlike many of their contemporaries have not yet given up and become their own tribute band — they still turn out great music, including this year’s More Light album, with its own political moments in the tracks ‘2013’ and ‘Culturecide’ to name two. But I’ll go with this track from 2000’s Xtrmntr album, thanks to its title’s allusion to a famous punk poster of the Queen (see also #4 above) and for a really kicking bass line.



British Conservative accuses Cameron in journalist’s partner arrest scandal

Dear Kitty. Some blog

This video from Britain is called Greenwald‘s partner David Miranda on his detention under terror laws.

By Paddy McGuffin in Britain:

Cameron ‘approved Miranda detention’

Tuesday 20 August 2013

A former minister escalated the furore over the detention of the partner of a journalist at the centre of a whistle-blowing scandal today after accusing the government of approving the operation.

David Miranda, partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was detained at Heathrow airport under draconian anti-terror laws as he changed planes on a journey from Berlin to his home in Brazil on Sunday.

Mr Miranda was held and interrogated for nine hours before being released without charge. Agents confiscated his laptop, memory sticks and a mobile phone.

Mr Greenwald has written a series of stories revealing the National Security Agency‘s electronic surveillance programmes, based on documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The newspaper also published…

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“2001” and the dangers of programming

One of my favourite movies is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am sure many of you, if you are aware of this movie at all, find it overlong, obscure, confusing and difficult – and largely I agree with you. But it is brilliant anyway. There has never been another movie like it, and I doubt ever will be. It is the closest the cinema has ever come to creating something truly unique, a symphony in film, with its four separate movements, its brilliant and defining use of music (can you now hear Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra without thinking of it as ‘the 2001 theme?’), and its astonishing special effects, which impress even now, but are almost unbelievable when you remember they were created in the mid-1960s, before we even knew what the Earth really looked like from space.

Anyway, the reason I mention it here is that I want to use it as the basis for an exploration of how system design constrains the way we think. This is an important topic when it comes to the investigation of self-organised learning. I’ve also recently read Mary Douglas’ 1986 book, How Institutions Think, which provoked me into making these connections.


HAL’s ‘eye’, or interface – a constant motif in the film

The overriding theme of 2001 is humanity’s dependence on technology, and how our use of tools in certain ways has propelled us forward into new stages of development, but also changed who we are and how we operate within the world. There is a spiritual aspect to this in the movie, with the recurring black monolith and the idea that these developments have been provoked by alien intelligences, but we can ignore that here. The important element for my purposes is the role played by HAL 9000, the super-computer that is – quite deliberately – the dominant character within the third of the movie’s four movements.

This section takes place on a spacecraft travelling to Jupiter, tracking a radio signal that was broadcast at the end of the second movement, from a monolith uncovered on the Moon. The craft is crewed by only two men, Frank Poole and Dave Bowman, though there are three more in suspended animation. Poole and Bowman are depicted throughout almost as automatons, with very little character and emotion. It took me several viewings of the film to notice that apart from one, very significant, conversation (see below), the two men actually never interact directly with each other. All their interactions, whether on the ship, or with mission control or family members back home, is mediated through technology – specifically, through HAL. They talk to HAL, play chess with him, use him as a way of accessing news and information back home – but not to each other. (I remind you again this was a movie made in the mid-1960s, so its prescience is astonishing.) HAL is fully in control of the spacecraft, keeping it on course, maintaining life support both for the two conscious men and the three in suspended animation, and – as we find out later – he is also privy to information about the real purpose of this mission, information of which Poole and Bowman are not aware.

At one point HAL and the two astronauts are interviewed for a television programme. Bearing in mind the fact that without him, the craft simply could not operate, there is a delicious irony in the way the interviewer expresses this question:

INTERVIEWER: “HAL, despite your enormous intellect, are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out actions?”

Poole and Bowman

Poole and Bowman on board, watching TV (through HAL)

HAL: “Not in the slightest bit. I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr Poole and Dr Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operations of the ship, so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

HAL is also asked:

INTERVIEWER: “HAL, you have an enormous responsibility on this mission, in many ways perhaps the greatest responsibility of any single mission element. Does this ever cause you any lack of confidence?”

HAL: “Let me put it this way… the 9000 series is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error.”

The pride that he expresses in his answer leads the interviewer to ask Dr Bowman:

INTERVIEWER: “In talking to the computer, one gets the sense that he is capable of emotional responses. Do you believe that HAL has genuine emotions?”

BOWMAN: “Well, he acts like he has genuine emotions. But as to whether or not he has real feelings… I don’t think that’s something anyone can truthfully answer.”

It is around this issue of whether HAL has emotions that the whole sequence then swings, and this is the point of my discussion, as well. For all his surface human qualities – as Bowman says, he acts like he has emotions – he remains programmed. He is a system, designed to perform certain tasks in certain ways. The pseudo-emotions that he manifests have been programmed in to help the two crew members interact with him. But what Kubrick and his co-writer, Arthur C Clarke, are investigating here is what happens when a machine is made so intelligent that it begins to manifest real emotional responses – that is, inputs that it is not designed to deal with.

The crucial moment – depicted with immense subtlety, but nevertheless a clear and single moment at which, irrevocably, things change inside HAL for ever – comes when he mentions to Bowman whether Bowman is aware of “rumours about things being discovered on the Moon”. These rumours, as the audience already knows (but Bowman does not), are true, and are what has led to the Jupiter mission being launched (as this planet was the destination of the radio transmission made from the Moon object). HAL is aware of this information, and it is because of this discrepancy between what he knows and what Bowman knows (or does not know) that he is hit by a genuine human emotion – doubt.

It is right here that HAL begins to collapse: the system breaks down. Again, the process is shown by Kubrick and Clarke with great subtlety but nevertheless it is irrevocable, and immediate. At the moment he cannot process the unexpected input – doubt, the sudden concern that things are not as he was told they were – he makes a mistake, identifying a component on the ship that he believes is about to fail, but which turns out to be operating normally. Right then, the two astronauts themselves begin to doubt HAL, because this model of computer is supposed to be infallible.

In the pod

Poole and Bowman conversing in the pod, where they think HAL cannot hear them – but he is visible in the background and can see their lips move.

It is at this point that Poole and Bowman have their one and only conversation with each other. But because it is about HAL, and they do not want him to hear it, they retreat to what they think is a secluded space on the ship where they cannot be heard. They express their own doubts about HAL’s ability to continue to run the ship, but also refer to him once again as if he has real emotions:

BOWMAN: “Another thing just occurred to me. As far as I know no 9000 computer has ever been disconnected.” POOLE: “Well, no 9000 computer has ever fouled up before.” BOWMAN: “That’s not what I mean. I’m not so sure what he’s going to think about it.”

They are right to express these concerns. Despite the precautions they take to avoid being overheard, HAL can see them through a window, and is lip-reading them, so realises they intend to turn him off. (The picture shows this moment – one of HAL’s terminals, with his glowing red light, is visible in the background, and it is through this that he lip-reads the men’s words.) He reacts by jettisoning Poole into space and then trying to trap Bowman outside the ship when he goes to rescue his colleague. Bowman is able to get back in through using his creativity and ingenuity, and does eventually turn HAL off. The human ‘wins’, but at the cost of four lives and the near-termination of the mission.

The point of all this? What we are seeing in this sequence is how a programmed system fails when it is asked to process an unexpected input: an input that, in this case, emerges because of a simple omission in how the system has been programmed (that is, its failre to allow for the fact that HAL knows something which Bowman does not, and which therefore makes the computer doubt the veracity of its information). And this is a system that is utterly central to the lives of the people who depend on it: literally, in that it is keeping them alive (the three crew members in suspended animation die when HAL stops maintaining their life support as part of his breakdown).

Forty-five years after 2001 was released into cinemas, and twelve years after the date itself, we have not developed space stations on the Moon, the ability to fly people to Jupiter, to put them into suspended animation for months on end. Nor have we built computers like HAL which can converse with us and appear to express genuine emotions (that is, they could pass the ‘Turing Test’).

Interior of 'discovery'

The interior of the ‘Discovery’. The three crew members in suspended animation can be seen towards the top of the shot.

However, a great deal of our lives is now as completely dependent on programmed systems, as much as Poole and Bowman’s were. Automated algorithms now buy and sell stocks and shares in immense quantities every second of the day. Sat-navs direct trucks around our highways, the drivers mostly just automatons following routes that are programmed in according to calculations of cost- and time-effectiveness: the containers on the back of these trucks filled with goods and components sorted by inventory-control programs. When we phone the bank, or the electricity supplier, we hear a human voice but really it is a computer interface, and if it does not offer us the option we need, we either have to fit our query into the form the system demands, or hold until a ‘human operator’ becomes available – who more than likely, will read to us from a pre-determined script anyway.

In 1986 Mary Douglas wrote about how the institutions, through which we organise our lives, exert an intense – and often invisible – pressure on the way we think, the way we process information, and ultimately, the way we live. She writes (p. 92):

Institutions systematically direct individual memory and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorise. They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardised pitch on standardised issues. Add to all this that they endow themselves with rightness and send their mutual corroboration cascading through all the levels of our information system. No wonder they easily recruit us into joining their narcissistic self-contemplation. Any problems we try to think about are automatically transformed into their own organisational problems. The solutions they proffer only come from the limited range of their experience. If the institution is one that depends on participation, it will reply to our frantic question: ‘More participation!’ If it is one that depends on authority, it will only reply: ‘More authority!’ Institutions have the pathetic megalomania of the computer whose whole vision of the world is its own program. For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the intellectual grip is laid upon our mind.

(See also the recent work of Ricardo Blaug, particularly his 2007 paper “Cognition in a Hierarchy” and the 2010 book, How Power Corrupts.)

What do we risk when we see, or suspect, a problem – yet cannot express our concerns because the institutionalised and systemic ways of thinking and acting cannot process this unexpected input? What happens when the systems which marshal and govern the resources of our lives are programmed in accordance with principles that we know nothing about, and have not participated in setting? How, as Douglas states, can we “discover how the intellectual grip is laid upon our mind”? How can we avoid becoming subject to “the pathetic megalomania of the computer whose whole vision of the world is its own program” – as it was with HAL? These must be key educational questions for the 21st century.

The trouble is, the more we rely on computer programs and algorithms written by others – and the more that our so-called ‘leaders’ (in fact, a self-interested elite) conceal from public scrutiny the principles on which decisions are taken – the more likely we are to face a huge and irrevocable systemic collapse when these principles are seen to be in error. Kubrick and Clarke’s joint genius came in seeing this 45 years ago. We need to rediscover this now, accept that systems are being created to control, based on principles that are damaging to our lives, our environment and our future – and learn, then enact, modes of active resistance before it is too late. Thought itself, creativity and ingenuity, is actively threatened. Alarmism? Maybe. I hope not.

Cees Hamelink and the forgotten political origins of information literacy

At the moment I am going through a range of old papers and articles which collectively introduced the term ‘information literacy’ in the 1970s. This is an area I have been working in for some years, albeit with an increasing sense of concern about the fundamental roots of the concept.

In a broad sense, information literacy (IL) is the set of skills, processes, attitudes and outcomes that collectively allow individuals and communities to develop and sustain healthy informational environments and, thus, engage in the sort of autonomous, self-organised learning that this blog as a whole is trying to promote and investigate. At least, that is my informal definition of it. (Whether we need a “definition” of IL at all is an interesting question, and one to return to in a later post.)

However, the most commonly quoted definition is still that of the ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries, a US organisation) which states that an information literate person is someone who:

  • determines the nature and extent of the information needed;
  • accesses needed information effectively and efficiently;
  • evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into their knowledge base and a value system;
  • uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose;
  • understands many of the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information and uses information ethically and legally.

As I have said in Information Obesity (in chapter 6), this definition of IL is useful at one level, but there are a range of problems with it. It implies a linear sequence, one that the learner deliberately engages in, and does not therefore account for the way most real information searches are often more in the way of accidental or serendipitous discoveries, are driven by availability rather than need, and do not take place in formal educational settings. It does not allow for the ways information is filtered and selected before the individual learner even gets the chance to ‘access it effectively and efficiently’, whether by dominant interests in the media, educational curricula, individual preferences and prejudices, peer pressure and so on. And it diminishes the idea that learning is about constructing new knowledge, rather than retrieving information that has already been constructed by others.

I do not want to go on here about these issues: in any case I’ve already discussed them in my previous book, and other writers, particularly Christine Bruce and Annemaree Lloyd, have done a lot to rework IL in more nuanced ways, ways that allow for its application outside the realm of formal (especially higher) education, and permit a range of different approaches that include social awareness, subjectivity, serendipity and so on.

What I do want to do is consider how this dominant, standards-based and linear view of IL was only one possible form that it might have taken. This is why I have been re-examining the history of the concept.

There are three principal papers, all dating from the mid-1970s, which brought the term into academic discourse. They were:

  • Paul G. Zurkowski, The Information Service Environment Relationships and Priorities (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, 1974), 6.
  • Lee G. Burchinal, “The Communications Revolution: America’s Third Century Challenge,” in The Future of Organizing Knowledge: Papers Presented at the Texas A & M University Library’s Centennial Academic Assembly, Sept. 24, 1976 (College Station, Tex.: Texas A & M University Library, 1976), 11.
  • Cees Hamelink, “An Alternative to News,” Journal of Communication 26

Zurkowski’s paper was the first to actually use the term ‘Information literate’ and is usually now cited as the originator of the genre. He writes:

People trained in the application of information resources to their work can be called information literates. They have learned techniques and skills for utilizing the wide range of information tools as well as primary sources in molding information solutions to their problems.

The individuals in the remaining portion of the population, while literate in the sense that they can read and write, do not have a measure for the value of information, do not have an ability to mold information to their needs, and realistically can be considered to be information illiterates.

This is a very general description but nevertheless a useful one. The idea of ‘molding’ information, to find solutions to problems, implies rather more than just ‘using’ it or, more limited still, ‘retrieving’ it. It implies that the information literate person is creative, and can change, or at least, reconceptualise information based on their understanding of a problem.

However, what is also apparent from Zurkowski’s paper is his orientation towards a commercial view of information literacy, one in which the private sector has the primary interest in producing both information, and the information literate people necessary to sustain competitiveness in the workforce. This is not to dismiss his paper which is very interesting (and anyone working in the IL field should read it at some point) – but his focus is not on developing information literate individuals through a process of formal education. Rather, he is exhorting governments – the US government, specifically – to create policy structures that will develop an information literate population.

Burchinal’s paper dates from 1976. It is the one of the three that most clearly develops the notion that IL is about an individual’s skills, and that it is in formal education that these skills should be developed. He writes that:
to be information literate requires a new set of skills. These include how to locate and use information needed for problem-solving and decision-making efficiently and effectively.

It is not hard to see this as an antecedent of the ACRL definitions mentioned above, and indeed, Burchinal was addressing the library profession (at a symposium at Texas A & M). Of the three initial ‘branches’ of IL that these three papers represent, this is clearly the one that grew the most strongly. The reasons for this seem to lie in the omission of any reference to libraries from the US’s 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, and the library profession’s aggressive response to this neglect: Behrens (in her paper “A Conceptual Analysis and Historical Overview of Information Literacy”, in College and Research Libraries, July 1994) makes this point on p. 313, amongst others. This is also an interesting story but one to be taken up in another blog post.

Of the three mentioned above I find Hamelink’s paper the most interesting – and unfortunately, it has also been the most forgotten. Google Scholar – not a 100% reliable indicator I know, but a reasonable estimate – shows only 28 citations since 1976, and quite a few of these are in other literature reviews. Nevertheless, I think this paper is the most important of the three, certainly so if looking at what information literacy can do to fulfil the promise of my informal definition of it, given above: to “allow individuals and communities to develop and sustain healthy informational environments and, thus, engage in… autonomous, self-organised learning”.

Hamelink’s perspective on IL is made clear from the very first sentence:
A new ‘information literacy’ is necessary for liberation from the oppressive effects of the institutionalized public media.

He then goes straight into an observation about the way that information is not usually freely available, but is pre-selected and filtered by dominant interests in society:

what is actually communicated [in the public media] is the outcome of a decision between possible alternatives which is made on the basis of the most powerful interests (economic, hierarchical, intellectual).

Through the way that these interests that “select items for the public agenda”:

“information” functions as an oppressive tool since, by its manner of presentation, it keeps people from shaping their own world. The incoherent fragments preclude the wholistic perspective which enables insight into the interdependence between happenings, into the involvement of  one’s own context, and into the possibility of acting upon the challenge thus posed. The ready-made explanations preclude the insight of the world as something problematic and changeable.

He goes on:

If, however, people are to be given the chance to intervene in their reality, then information channels have to be created that do permit the coherent organization of information.

Media installation at Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

The media…

What he is talking about here is akin to Gramsci’s idea of “counterhegemonic” operations to counter the hegemony of the dominant interests in society and the media. Gramsci (in the Prison Notebooks) recognised that power was often not overtly exercised through repressive means, but instead operated through the manipulation of public opinion and the manufacturing of consent. Plenty of writers, and Hamelink is among them, identify the media and communication channels of society as conduits for hegemony. But Gramsci is no fatalist, believing that there is no way in which this hegemony can be challenged: instead he recognises that counterhegemonies can, and indeed always do, open up around alternative means of communication and what has been called a “radical infrastructure”. This is exactly what Hamelink is talking about.

He says that “the first step toward ‘information literacy’ is to recognise that access to information starts from where the information users are”, and that “their situational context… is central”. Information is not something that should be given to people, or ‘retrieved’ by them, but formed by them, as a response to their own needs and through their own efforts. This may, of course, happen as the result of some kind of formal learning process, but as recognised by Paulo Freire, this learning has to be sensitive to the needs, and political/social context, of the learners, and not something which has had its content and context determined by others, in a paternalistic way.

Hamelink writes:
Herewith, a vital step towards ‘information literacy’ is the implementation of community centers which give access to a set of information resources with which the user can interact, i.e., ask for and receive information at his own initiative and in his own perceived self-interest. To avoid sophisticated forms of well-intended paternalism, such centers would have to be designed and developed with a major input from those who are supposed to benefit from them.

An example of such alternative channels may be represented by Indymedia (see this piece by Jon Pike), which is not just presenting a different perspective, but actively engages with the fact that the stories on these sites have to be created in different ways, from the bottom up.

To me this is a completely different conceptualisation of IL from the skills-based, formal educational perspective originated by Burchinal and epitomised in the ACRL definition. It is, truly, community-based, recognising that the sustainability of any community resource depends on the understanding of the context of that community. It does not discount the importance of ‘experts’, whether in the media, academia, or anywhere else, but does firmly recognise that these types of people cannot make others ‘literate’ on their own terms, and that literacy cannot be reduced to a set of generic capabilities or ‘skills’ but varies according to need and context. In other words, because it is a definition of IL which recognises differences between people and interests, and presents IL as something which is oriented towards empowering the usually disempowered in society, it is firmly political. That this paper has subsequently been so neglected, and IL instead formed into something which is, at best, apolitical, and at worst contributes to the very oppression by “information” that Hamelink bemoans, is for me the biggest mistake the IL movement has made.

Although I think that, like many articles, this outlines an agenda for action without necessarily taking account of the obstacles and barriers (which are largely political and organisational) in the way of its agenda – it is nevertheless a useful summary statement of how things have changed, and what the difference is between ‘information overload’ (a negative metaphor) and the more positive ‘information abundance’.

User Generated Education


As I read through the social media networks, the concept of information overload is continually being discussed.

Information overload is a term popularized by Alvin Toffler in his bestselling 1970 book Future Shock. It refers to the difficulty a person can have understanding an issue and making decisions that can be caused by the presence of too much information. Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.  

As the world moves into a new era of globalization, an increasing number of people are connecting to the Internet to conduct their own researchand are given the ability to produce as well as consume the data accessed on an increasing number of websites. Users are now classified as active…

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‘We Want Falmer’: a case study of self-organised learning in a community

I published my first book, Information Obesity, in 2009. I wanted to write it in an accessible way, hoping that it might reach a more general audience than just other academics (and maybe it is a comment on the way the UK judges the ‘output’ of its researchers that this means it is unlikely to be considered worthy of entry in the 2014 exercise, being ‘not academic enough’ – but that is another story for another time). As a consequence, where I needed to illustrate theoretical or abstract points, I tried to draw on examples that meant something to me personally. This also brought into the book the subjective element, which I argue is one of three essential aspects to how we value information and thus create meaning, along with intersubjective and objective values: but, again, that is something to explore later.

One recurring reference, coming up three or four times in the book, was to my being a fan of Brighton & Hove Albion FC. I accept that it probably seems rather trivial, even facetious to include such an example, and at least one reviewer picked me up on this at the time. I’ve subsequently been told off for mentioning it elsewhere, for instance, in a recent funding bid. But I stand by its inclusion in the book, and its relevance to the subject of community-based, self-organised learning; and the creation of informational resources. This blog post briefly explains why.

Goal celebrations at the Amex

The community of Brighton fans – celebrating a goal at their Amex stadium

In the first place, football fandom is an excellent illustration of the nature of ‘community’. People don’t form any kind community, or feel themselves to be members of a community, simply because they are in proximity to one another, whether in a settlement, a workplace, or anywhere else. Certainly there are times when you might be told you belong to a particular community – if you are a man who prefers men in bed you might be assumed to be a member of the ‘gay community’ and if your name is Liebowitz you might be told you are a member of the ‘Jewish community’ whether you go to a synagogue or not. But this glosses over the essential issue here, which is that community is based on the idea of sharing. (See pp. 17-18 of Information Obesity and also page 24 of P. B. Clarke’s book, Deep Citizenship (1996)).

The word ‘community’ comes from the Latin root word communis meaning to share, to hold in common – as in other words such as commune, communal, Communism – and, significantly, communication. Community members share symbols, they share memories, significant issues, events, and so on. Ultimately there is a shared identity which does not preclude any individual being a part of multiple communities, but which does, at least in some way, give them common ground with others who are members of the same community. Fans of a particular football team – say, Brighton – may well not live in the city (I never have), or even the county of Sussex, which is another identity the club also appeal to, not least through its club song Sussex by the Sea (a shared symbol). But wherever they are, all around the world, a series of shared events (each match, most obviously), symbols like the club’s blue-and-white striped kit, the seagull motif and nickname, star players, rival clubs, and so on, all serve as centres of gravitation around which a common identity can coalesce. I may never have met someone before but if we’re both Brighton fans it won’t be hard to strike up a conversation (to communicate with them, in other words): and the same is true, in different ways, for any fan of English football all over the world. (If you ever want to strike up a conversation with a Norwegian man, just wear a scarf or shirt from any English football team, however obscure.)

Among the things that community members share are shared threats. You may never have particularly associated with your neighbours but if you all find out that there are plans to drive a motorway through the woodland at the bottom of your gardens, you will almost certainly find common cause in objecting to it – it may therefore bring you closer together as a community.

In 1995 news broke that the then-owner of BHAFC, Bill Archer, planned to sell off the club’s stadium, without there being plans for any replacement. Archer had bought the club for the grand total of £56, and then changed the company’s Articles of Association, which forbade any investor from taking out more money than he had put in. In essence, he was asset-stripping. In 1997 the club were forced to leave the Goldstone Ground which was, eventually, turned into a retail park at considerable profit to Archer (figures of £24 million have been mentioned – see the references below). The fans of the club launched a long battle to save the club in the face of this shared threat, which progressed through two main stages: first, ousting Archer from his position of control of the club; second, bringing the club back to Brighton, surmounting enormous bureaucratic obstacles in the shape of planning laws. The first phase took two years; the second was only concluded in 2011 when the club moved to its new stadium on the edge of the city, the American Express Community Stadium (pictured).

The American Express Community Stadium

A corner of The American Express Community Stadium

Plenty more detail on these events is available in North & Hodson’s two books, one for each phase of the struggle (and these are themselves good examples of how to write in a ‘multi-voiced’ way: the authors’ voice is not present in the books at all, they are made up entirely of quotations from fans, players, officials and other participants in the campaign); so I won’t keep on about them. What I want to do here is show why I think this campaign epitomises the sort of thing I want this blog to focus on – that is, how to build and sustain spaces in which self-organised learning can take place, which is, in the end, what I mean by ‘anarchic education’.

The BHAFC campaign did not have ‘leaders’ in the way a political party does. Although there were clearly certain people who played a more prominent role in it than others – and the list of contributors to both the North & Hodson books may as well serve as a register – they did not get elected, or appointed. They simply emerged, spontaneously, at times when their particular skills were most in demand. At first, what was required was publicity and mobilisation. The story about the sale of the Goldstone and the change in the Articles of Association was first broken by the Brighton & Hove daily newspaper, the Argus (and was therefore an example of the value of investigative journalism). But that did not automatically result in the formation of an organised campaign of protest, still less an effective campaign. What then had to emerge was an effective network of communication – spaces within which activity could happen and learning take place.

That all this happened in the mid-1990s is, I believe, significant, because though there had been similar protests before – Charlton Athletic, a south London club, in the 1980s, springs to mind – the Brighton campaign was the first to take place after the massification and popularisation of the Internet around this time. Email lists and web sites served as the necessary conduits of communication – not the only ones by any means, but they were significant, particularly for geographically distant members of the community such as myself (I last lived in Sussex in 1991 and at the time of the campaign was a student at the University of Leeds). One significant web site which emerged from the protest was www.clubsincrisis.com – which I return to below. It is impossible to really judge the impact that these media had on the campaign – Charlton’s proves that one does not actually need the Internet per se – but without some form of space in which the community can share information, ideas, debate and so on, no political activity can succeed; that is surely self-evident.

Another reason that this is a good case study of self-organised learning is that in advance of the Argus’s breaking of the news, no one could have predicted what learning needs the community was going to have. We were football fans, we cared about results, meeting up before games for a drink, who the club was going to sign to play up front, these kinds of thing. In 1994, at least without a huge amount of (pessimistic) foresight, who could have predicted that this community would need to become experts on – at least – the following:
company law (this being necessary to show that Archer’s changing of the Articles of Association was an act of aggression against the club and its fans);

  • planning law (the inquiry into the new Amex stadium was incredibly long and drawn-out, and many fans – including myself – made some kind of contribution to the club’s case for a new stadium);
  • peaceful political protest (fans engaged in this many times, including a march through London, delivering a giant Valentines’ card to John Prescott’s constituency office in Hull [Prescott was the man who ultimately had the final decision on the Amex, and to be fair to him, as North & Hodson’s book shows, was broadly supportive throughout]);
  • standing as candidates in local elections as the Seagull Party;
  • media work;
  • and more.

In several cases the campaign benefited from the input of professionals who were experts in these fields (e.g. Paul Hayward, chief sports writer of the Daily Telegraph); in many cases, though not all, they were also members of the Albion fan community. But the campaign certainly required others to learn their way into these professionalised skill sets.

You see – this is the way of learning. Most of the time, you don’t know in advance what it is you need to learn. And when you find out, you don’t then look around to see which nearby university is, say, offering a course in ‘How to Stop Your Club Being Asset-Stripped’ and register in a series of formal classes, undertake an assessment, get a certificate of some kind and then get down to the task at hand. That’s not how it usually works. You just have to get on with it, and the validation of your learning is found not in some abstract certification but in the reality of your work and your activity – and ultimately, the success (or otherwise) of that activity. Brighton fans’ learning was ultimately successful; as evinced by the existence of the Amex, and indeed, the continued existence of the club. But no one, except possibly indirectly, got any qualifications out of it.

Showing solidarity with Portsmouth FC

Showing solidarity with fans of another threatened club – Portsmouth FC – during a match between the teams in March 2012

There are other legacies too, which are the final thing I will draw attention to here. I mentioned earlier the web site, www.clubsincrisis.com . This is no longer being updated, unfortunately, but for many years after the Brighton campaign, served as a valuable resource for the fans of other clubs – other communities, in other words – who faced similar threats. North and Hodson’s two books do the same. For example, not long after 1996-7, Doncaster Rovers FC were also threatened with extinction thanks to the actions of their chairman, and close ties were formed between the two communities as Brighton fans tried to apply the results of their learning to the Doncaster case, not necessarily directly (though we did join DRFC fans on marches and protests, including at a match between the two clubs in 1998), but by showing the relevance of the earlier case to the new learning need. This is, to me, the most tangible, positive result of the learning which BHAFC fans undertook in the mid-1990s – the creation of resources, which comprise not just practical guidance, but also inculcate certain values: e.g. the belief that football fans should have a voice in what happens to their club, that we are not all ‘hooligans’ or at least, uneducated (I’m a football fan, and do have a PhD you know); and so on.

This is anarchic education in practice: and it can work. If you think that using a football club as an example in any academic discussion is trivial, well, perhaps this post may change your mind. Certainly I believe it is an example which has application in other fields, but I’ve typed enough for now.

I highly recommend reading the two books on the campaign which, as I’ve said above, are orchestrated by their authors, rather than written by them. They are:

North, S. and Hodson, P. (1997): Build a Bonfire: How Football Fans United to Save Brighton & Hove Albion (Stripe Publishing) – see http://www.buildabonfire.com/

Hodson, P. and North, S. (2012): We Want Falmer! How Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club and its fans united to build a stadium (Stripe Publishing)

My review of the second book, ‘We Want Falmer’, is also available online.

Why ‘anarchic’?

Why have I called this blog the ‘anarchic educator’? What’s all this reference to anarchy, isn’t that a nasty thing, practiced by punks and subversives who just want to throw down the system but have no idea what to put in its place? Let me address this question here, in what will be the first in a series of posts on this issue.

The word anarchy comes from the same Greek roots as ‘monarchy’ (one ruler) or ‘oligarchy’ (a few rulers). The ‘an-’ prefix is merely a negation, as it is in the word ‘amoral’ (without morals) and so represents the idea of not having any rulers. This is all it means.

There is a strong tendency, however, in modern political discourse, to then segue smoothly from here into a statement or position that if rulers are absent, what will result is a state of chaos. In fact so strong is this tendency and so smooth is the segue that the term ‘anarchy’ has come to signify chaos and disorder, without any acknowledgement of the real meaning of the term. But this is an imposition of meaning; imposed by the state/corporate hierarchies which control most of the planet’s physical and economic resources and have an interest in denigrating any attempt at autonomous political action. Yet it is false. There are plenty of examples of structured, orderly activities, groups and societies that exist, now and in the past, without ‘rulers’ in the formal sense.Peter Kropotkin

I once wrote up my feelings about anarchism in an essay published under a pseudonym and available here: “The Trouble with Anarchism”. I do take back some things said in §5 about property vs. possessions, or at least, admit that the view propounded in that section is naive: but I stand by the rest. The important sections for this discussion are §3 and §4, on page 2, where I wrote about how collaboration and consensus can come about when there are no ‘leaders’ to orchestrate it. The answer – as the great anarchist writer, Kropotkin [pictured], recognised in his book Mutual Aid – is self-organisation.

Now this is not a rare phenomenon. It happens all the time, and Kropotkin identified many examples, from animals through to pre-literate and then ‘civilised’ human society. Social structures can emerge without there having to have been ‘direction’ from some kind of ‘leader’. Within these structures, activity takes place, which can be on quite a large scale (e.g. raising a barn). One can organise without becoming ‘an organisation’ (here see the excellent book by Merrick (1996) about the Newbury by-pass protests) – and decisions can and do get taken within the collective. And the collective can in turn learn about the problems it faces, and the impact of its own activity, including its decision-making.

None of this is particularly radical. As a model of education it is, in fact, quite well described by Etienne Wenger with his original idea of communities of practice. In the first part of his 1998 book, which is probably the best simple statement on what a community of practice (CoP) actually is, Wenger describes how newly-employed claims processors in an insurance company came out of their first few weeks of initial staff training having learnt ‘how to do their jobs’ from the point of view of the company, guided by all the systems analysts, business process analysts, instructional designers and other such operatives who form part of the technostructure – that wing of the organisation which Henry Mintzberg (1989) defines as having a mandate to “plan and control the work of others”. But when they get on to the shop floor, they find that the technostructure’s idea of how this work proceeds is not matched by the reality. On the shop floor there exist a whole range of short cuts, unofficial procedures that have been learned by the claims processors collectively, in the face of the shared learning need that is ‘I want to learn about how to get my work done as effectively and in as stress-free a way as I can’. So the new processor joins this CoP and for the next few weeks unlearns a certain amount of what the technostructure thought was the way the job was done, and relearns the procedures and short-cuts which have slipped under the radar of the technostructure. They do this not because they are being directed to do so by a ‘leader’ (or a ‘teacher’); the learning, and the spaces, skills and structures which shape that learning, are emergent.

Peoples' Front of JudeaMany might say at this point that it is impossible for a whole organisation to structure itself in this way. Would it move in any direction at all? Possibly not. Mintzberg (1989) recognises this when he describes the ultimate ‘political organisation’ as one which spends all its time discussing and fighting over the details but never getting anything done – rather like the Peoples’ Front of Judea (pictured) in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (‘Right! This calls for immediate discussion!’). But one of the things the collective can learn about as it works is the impact of the decisions it takes. This includes how to reconcile individual motivations and desires with those of the group.

This is the crucial tension for self-organisation. As Black (or rather, I) wrote in the essay linked above, there is a ‘school of pseudo-anarchism’ which would subsume all such considerations under that of the individual and reduce human social contact to a mere transaction, offering aid to someone only if they can pay for it (the libertarian position) and never recognising that sometimes one’s views must be modified in the face of the collective interest. Yet this is also part of the essential learning processes of society:

“The true anarchist recognises an absolute need to deal with others, because all authority is fallible: and this therefore includes oneself. Just as one should never listen to only one “expert”, nor read only one perspective on any subject, so one should never fully trust one’s own judgment. Of course, this does not mean that one should take advice from others about which way to travel to work in the morning, but what it does require is the mutual and reciprocal recognition of all other people as autonomous beings. The trick anarchism needs to pull off — and it is the same trick as democracy must master — is to preserve the autonomy of the individual within the collaborative efforts of the group. Group decisions are based on individual preferences, but they must transcend them. Reaching a consensus does not mean talking until one gets one’s own way; a consensus is innately and irrevocably a group creation (Follett, 1920) which can only arise through a process of deliberation in which (ideally) all those affected by the decision under discussion have an equal chance to participate.”

Thus, participation in decision making is a learning process – and a creative process of co-construction of spaces in which learning can subsequently continue in the same way. To solve a decision-making problem – a learning problem – within a self-organising collective by creating a hierarchical structure which will damage one’s ability to take collective decisions in the future, can be defined as a poor decision (see Blaug 2007). The main learning problem faced by the self-organising collective (or CoP) is therefore how to recognise the trade-offs which exist between the desire to maintain the autonomy of individuals and the group as a whole, and how to take decisions that move the collective forward.

Anarchic education is therefore essentially about how we:

  • create and sustain the spaces in which such learning can occur;
  • develop in people the skills and awareness they need to make best use of such spaces;
  • react to change by learning about the impact of such change on these spaces and the people within them.

There are plenty of real-life examples to illustrate these processes, for good and bad, but they can be discussed in subsequent blog posts.


Black, J. (2004): “The Trouble with Anarchism”, Tangentium May 2004, online at http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/drew.whitworth/tangentium/may04/supp1.html [last accessed Dec 31 2012]

Blaug, R. (2007): “Cognition in a Hierarchy”, Contemporary Political Theory 6(1): 24–44.

Follett, M. P. (1920): The New State: Group Organization, the solution of popular government, New York, Longman Green.

Mintzberg, H. (1989): Mintzberg on Management, London, Collier Macmillan.

Wenger, E. (1998): Communities of Practice, London, Routledge.