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The Fundamental Flaws in Internationalism

       As I was leaving the polling station having voted in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union my eldest son was passing on his bicycle. Having ascertained what I had done he berated me, albeit jovially, mentioning in particular his difficulty in recruiting adequate British staff for his niche in the electronic games industry. Our encounter turned out, of course, to be a representative cameo of the relations between the generations on this issue. “I don’t get nationalism,” he said. “I have more in common with a Frenchman in my field than with somebody who just happens to be English.” He had pedaled away before I could tell him that my opposition to the European Union, among other organisations, was not primarily nationalist, but anti-internationalist. I would have added that such anti-internationalism has a long and impressive pedigree in liberal thought. But the last people you would expect to listen to you are your children.

I might also have added that my anti-internationalism was by no means untested or unresearched since I was close to finishing a book, written with my friend  Alan Tomlinson, on international sporting organisations. We call these organisations SINGOs (sporting international non-governmental organisations) and the most important and hegemonic of them, FIFA and the IOC, we call mega-SINGOs. It is not difficult to summarise their characteristics. They are clientalist in their basic workings in a clear sense which dates back to Ancient Rome: that is, followers become dependent on established leaders who, therefore, tend to remain in power far longer than politicians in states with functioning electoral systems. They are extremely corrupt and have been protected from surveillance by Swiss locations and their remaining status as “cultural” and “social” organisations rather than the businesses they really are. The corruption is at the level of “lowest common denominator” in that practices tend to resemble those in the most corrupt member countries. One wonders about FIFA vice-president Geoff Thompson who has been around at the summit of the organisation during a period in which practices have been commonplace which would have had him quickly arrested in his native Sheffield.

All of this is complemented by an ideology and culture which consists of claiming the highest of moral high grounds and insisting on its universalism. An extreme aspiration of inclusiveness goes neatly with clientalist structures because Burundi and Albania are far more likely to fit into a clientalist system than are France and Germany. Leadership thus becomes essentially messianic; the leader regards himself as the embodiment of universal human values and in his own view (it always has been “his” so far) he represents something which stands far above the petty self-interest of national political leaders. Thus the pomposity of many SINGO politicians can be jaw-dropping. I could quote many examples, but I will merely refer the reader to the hagiographic biography João Havelange had commissioned about himself, The Young Havelange. On browsing through it (no more is recommended) the reader might ask whether even Vladimir Putin would project himself as having been “like a young god”. Or Mussolini?

In many respects the problem with these organisations is the context in which they operate. There is a massive deficit of accountability and I would be the first to admit that sport was an extreme case. Sports journalists for the most part have had neither the skills nor the desire to penetrate the world of the SINGO not least because their instincts are to protect both their own sport and sport in general. Thus their treatment of the drug issue: lack of acknowledgment of reality punctuated by bouts of moral panic. To put it simply, if the preposterous figure of Sepp Blatter had been living in Britain and running an organisation along the kind of lines he ran FIFA there would have been a period in which journalists camped out by his front gate followed by the rest of us laughing him all the way to his gaol cell. His downfall would have occurred at least a decade earlier than it actually did occur.

The question of how seriously you take all this is a complicated one. Without doubt, sport is a case of an advanced global regime: what happens in sport depends far more on international organisations and far less on states than what happens in other realms. States, with their “hard” power even become supplicants to the “soft” power of SINGOs – remember Blair and Chirac at the IOC meeting in Singapore in 2005! But many people would see sport as trivial and exceptional. Certainly, if you were an internationalist you would be reluctant to accept sport as the paradigm.

But I do believe that the lessons are much more general and for me our studies of the likes of Samaranch and Havelange constantly drew me back to the nineteenth century and to the support of liberal thinkers for nationalist causes based on their perception of the inherent inadequacies of multinational states and international organisations. John Stuart Mill, for example, in Considerations on Representative Government (published in 1861) verges on the axiomatic in his dealing with the necessity of a national community for mature government. He says, “A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies, which do not exist between them and any others – which made them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government and desire that it shall be government by themselves or by a portion of themselves exclusively.” Multinational organisations were prone, in the absence of trust, sympathy and accountability, to authoritarianism and corruption. The Hapsburg Empire (shortly to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was a case in point, but the considerations also had difficult implications for the United Kingdom.

More directly relevant are Lord Acton’s reflections on the First Vatican Council in 1870 which he attended as an observer. Acton found his liberal catholicism tested to the limit by Pius IX’s rigging of a vote (never rescinded) to have the holder of his office declared infallible in matters of doctrine. And I found reading about it strangely reminiscent of the world of Havelange. In each case we have a “universal” organisation which embodies the highest values of humanity and an individual leader who embodies that organisation. They regard themselves as dimensionally above the world of flawed, accountable, rejectable politicians. But my thought is hardly original: Havelange was constantly comparing himself to the pope.

Universities are like sport insofar as they have a natural capacity for globalization; they are highly internationalised economically and demographically. The markets in academic labour and research are more international than most markets. Yet they are unlike sport insofar as there is no developed system of international university governance, though there are many international organisations and networks with soft power in particular fields. In terms of governance university systems remain predominantly state systems; a World (or European) University Authority is a long way off. This combination means that academic life resembles the arts rather than sport.

But there can be no question that a huge degree of internationalisation took place during my working life. My first seminar as a tutor contained six English people and a very anglicised Pakistani. The last seminar I ever taught had twenty five people in it and the Kazakhs outnumbered the English by three to two. As time went on I barely attended a conference in the United Kingdom. Like everybody else I basked in the ethical and social superiority of the cosmopolitan, in the warm glow which comes from chatting with Olaf and Maria as we walked to the post-workshop dinner in the restaurant where Luigi had booked a table. Academic life, like football and the Roman Catholic church, can pose as a Great Universal, vastly superior to the merely national or parochial.

But there is a dark side to the cosmopolitan university, one which would be entirely unsurprising to John Stuart Mill, one which we all recognised as time went on, but spoke of very little. My first experience of it was of more or less straightforward corruption. A colleague from another department, a national of an Asian country, came to me to persuade me to accept an undergraduate from his native country in my role as admissions tutor. He pointed out that the university would be very grateful to me since the applicant’s father was rich and influential. He suggested that the three of us – himself, myself and the father – should meet for lunch. I turned down this offer with a modicum of pomposity and rejected the candidate. I didn’t report it, but I don’t think I ever spoke to the colleague again.

I was reluctant to quote this example because it was clear and rare. The vastly greater form of corruption was endemic and cultural; it was not itself the issue of “plagiarism” though it did generate an enormous increase in plagiarism as an issue. It was the absorption of large numbers of students who had no conception of the development of a capacity for independent thought as a primary objective of university education, but wanted instead to be told clearly what to learn and what to say. There was no question of the “off piste”, reading widely and trying to make connections that nobody else had made. I remember talking about this on BBC radio to be informed by the president of the NUS that I was a racist. The answer to that, of course, is that I was absolutely not talking about, say, people of Cantonese origin who had been to an English boarding school. We were talking about culture and to deny that profound differences in culture exist would be absurd.

This is connected with the issue of language. Again, I can quote a very extreme case: I found myself giving a personal supervision to a masters’ student from South Korea who barely understood a word of English and who had survived a whole term by nodding and smiling and getting other people to do his work. He had come through a corrupted testing system and, to be fair, the University of Warwick dealt with that extreme case by excluding him and by insisting on much more protracted assimilation periods and language training and testing. But, once again, that extreme case is not the main problem which is that students at all levels are assessed on work which they have not actually written. There is now an entire industry of writing other people’s theses and dissertations. If you believe, as I do, that language is thought you have to infer that academic qualifications are now substantially faked.

The practice of extended supervision is part of this and I admit to complicity. I once discovered that a doctoral student of mine, a very nice man from an Asian country, was not only unhappily separated from his family, but was having to clean lavatories in order to keep body and soul together and to pay his fees. Of course, I found it unthinkable that he should fail and offered him the maximum help. What I did was in line with established practice. But is it the right practice? One might argue that this represents a much less reprehensible form of corruption than the more common, venal sort. It is the corruption of standards nevertheless and it arises from the undermining of established national standards by internationalisation. My own experience of graduate students was overwhelmingly of graduate students from overseas of very variable quality and only a handful of UK students, but even the national figure for 2014-15 shows that 46% of graduate students in the UK as being from overseas.

Issues also arise out of employing staff from other countries. I am not thinking primarily of language at this level, though I could name a few incomprehensible lecturers. I have in mind different conceptions of what the job entails. In this case massive differences existed between English-speaking countries over such issues as “pastoral care”. I took it for granted that one was, among other things, a “personal tutor” so it shocked me when a newly appointed North American colleague, informed of the system and his supposed role in it, demanded, “What the hell is this? I have no training in this sort of thing.” Pastoral care, in my mind, was an organic relationship between senior and junior members of an academic community and should not involve any (non-academic) professionals. This particular issue was a component, in my view, of a massive decline in the quality of university life, yet another case of the descent to the lowest common denominator in an internationalised organisation.

I was mildly appalled, though not remotely surprised, when it was reported that 90% of academic staff had voted to remain in the European Union. Partly this was the self-interest of people who had locked their interests into international organisations and networks. And partly it was the ignorance of people basking in the warm glow of cosmopolitanism with no knowledge of the classic arguments against it. Academic life is in some respects highly internationalised like sport. It lacks the development of the institutions of global governance which exist in sport, but it shows many of the same structural failings including a tendency to corruption.


Lincoln Allison

A much edited version of this essay appeared in Times Higher Education on May 18th, 2017.