neoliberalism, the capital-relation and education

I spoke at the BERA social theory and education SIG symposium yesterday. My slides and initial thoughts are here.

These are the thoughts I had when statements and people stopped or challenged me during the day.

ONE. Analyses of neoliberalism enable us to position ourselves in terms of democratic engagement or the de-democratising of life-activity, in the face of mediations (and in particular the market). Such analyses offer neoliberalism as an omnipresent and omnipotent form of habitus. In return, we see neoliberalism as a threat to common sense, and we believe that if we can decode it, then we can move beyond its refusal of our humanity, and that we can move to less harmful social relations inside capitalism. This discounts the reality that neoliberalism is the latest (potentially) instantiation of the capital-relation – the latest instantiation of capital’s domination and exploitation of our labour-power. It needs to be addressed in such terms. Critique must be anti- or post-capitalist or it can offer no hope.

TWO. Neoliberalism is not a threat to common sense. It is the new, abstracted common sense that is the reinterpretation of capital, in order to maintain capital’s subjectivity and autonomy. If we are critiquing neoliberalism or seeking new ways of understanding it, we are moving towards a new common sense. A new common sense that reflects an alternative way of producing society. However, inside a totalising, hegemonic system the tendency is that such alternatives will be co-opted for the reproduction of that system. In imagining a new common sense, we have to situate this against the violence of abstraction imposed by capitalist social relations. Waged work reduces our activity to abstraction, through exchange, the market, commodification, division of labour, private property and the role of money. A new common sense is required that situates our life activity against these mediations, in order that we can describe and move beyond them. And, of course, we have examples of alternative forms of common sense, in autonomous centres in Latin America, in the little schools of the Zapatista movement, in the community work of the Black Panthers, in family inclusion groups in indigenous communities, in the co-operative movement.

THREE. Our work makes us ill. Our work makes us precarious. Our work dominates and exploits our lives. In our analyses of neoliberalism, and the ways in which they infect our educational relationships and settings, we must move beyond the analysis of symptoms. We must move towards a deeper uncovering of the bastardisation of social relationships, which exist in order to generate flows of surplus labour, time, value and power that can be commodified. Social or liberal democracy lies at the heart of this process. It is inextricably entwined with neoliberalism, as the development of the autonomy of capital. It will not save us, however deep our analysis of and resentment towards neoliberalism.

FOUR. If we are exemplary neoliberals, we need to examine how that relates to our academic or educational labour, in order to refuse that labour. This work must be done at the level of society, through intellectual work that refuses to fetishise specific forms of knowledge, or specific spaces for knowledge production, like schools and universities.

FIVE. This means that we can, of course, reflect upon how neoliberalism works to govern through ideas of market freedom and the individual autonomy of market actors, operating cybernetically through ready access to performance information. We can reflect upon how neoliberalism works to discipline us through our internalisation of self-government, responsibility, human capital enrichment and close attendance to our personal risk profiles. We can reflect upon how neoliberalism instantiates itself through discourses of impact, excellence, efficiency, employability, entrepreneurship, productivity, and so on. However, as we chase neoliberalism in its authoritarian, promiscuous, libertarian appearances, we risk losing sight of how it masks the deeper, substantive matter of the capital-relation.

SIX. So we need to engage with the history and heuristics of neoliberalism, as they relate to the circuits and cycles of capital, in particular in their historical development following the Nixon Shock and the end of the Bretton Woods agreement of the early 1970s, the role of oil and the development of the petrodollar, responses to collapses in the global rate of profit, the need to recalibrate global economic output in terms of services and manufacturing, changes in the technical composition of capital through the deployment of technology, the collapse of state socialism and a socialist market economy, and so on. Clearly, we also need to engage with the material and geographical differences in the deployment of, and responses to, neoliberalism, for instance in terms of resistance in Latin and South America, and the role of the State alongside transnational organisations in that process. We do this work because of what it enables us to hear, voice and see.

SEVEN. This historical, material, geographical set of narratives around the deployment of neoliberal governance and resistance to it, enables us to map the relationship between capital and labour, and to engage with issues of economic populism, in particular as they relate to the socio-economic core of specific economies/nations and their margins. This core and margin exist both inside the nation-state and globally for specific economies, and affect the ideological positions taken by populist leaders. One issue is how to bring these positions into the classroom/curriculum, in order that we move beyond demonising, and in order to show how these are vectors of exploitation on a global scale. This returns our educational relations to an engagement with capitalist social relations, and the relationship between work and surplus, capital and labour, autonomy and domination. This is a process of refusing colonisation by certain narratives, and of generating new forms of humanist identity.

EIGHT. Here, the intersections of race, gender, ability, sexuality and class are fundamental to any analysis of alternatives. Finding spaces (that are safe and which respect power-relations and asymmetries) to share is central to this process. Deliberation, taking time, being critical, being anti-algorithmic, being optimistic, confirming/legitimating/hearing others, are crucial. These disrupt the flows that reproduce capital through its subordination of labour. This is a deeply anti-capitalist, and post-capitalist approach, because it creates spaces that are against commodification, and which are rooted in the kinds of humanism denied systemically in the market. This is a risky strategy precisely because of the system’s ability to morph and reproduce itself anew. Here we may question whether there are responses to new repositionings of patriarchy. How do we engage with issues of agency and voice? How do we move beyond the fetishisation of salvation or redemption inside the system that is toxic to us? How do we find spaces to grieve and manage negative emotions or perception, rather than accepting the system’s desire to performance manage them to the periphery? How do we use grief as a step in a movement?

NINE. Is it possible to have hope inside institutions that are hopeless? Is it possible to have hope inside institutions that are abject? Is it only possible to hold Gramsci’s position of the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will? In particular, inside institutions grounded in manufactured and manufacturing consent, is it possible to develop critical hope, beyond market-based, ordered liberties? As we see our very selves colonised by the commodity, how do we generate hope and action?

TEN. So focusing upon a critique of neoliberalism(s) and its characteristics, as an explanatory critique of the state we are in, enables resistance to be minimalised, where we focus upon values like trust, or a return to social democracy and a better capitalism, or the hunt for new forms of democratic leadership, or where we think that a fight for autonomy inside the current system can be won. Instead, I am interested in engaging with those characteristics as heuristics that reveal the deeper reality of our sociability, or ability to reproduce society. Performance, market, competition, liberties/rights, cybernetic management of risk, governance theory, coercion, corporate parasitisation, shadow/parallel governance and finance structures, each point towards forms of revelation around illness, precarious employment, overwork, labour relations, and then onto issues to do with the way in which society is reproduced through the organisation of work. Here, we begin to think about critiques of power, domination and exploitation in the generation of surplus. Moreover, we begin to think about these symptoms and their causes as ontological or pedagogical at the level of society, because they place certain discourses at the heart of who we are.

ELEVEN. Movement is everything. Is our current appreciation of neoliberalism simply a light critique of capital? Might it be something more in using the visible, theorised characteristics of neoliberalism as a means to reimagine the capital-relation? Might it be something more in moving to a position where we can critique neoliberalism as a moment in a movement against capital?

TWELVE. What does this mean for education? What does this mean for the re-imagination of the curriculum? What does this mean for the relationship between student, teacher, administrator, bureaucrat, school, university, State and so on? What does this mean for the abolition of education, the abolition of status and bureaucratic educational structures, the abolition of the curriculum, such that intellectual work happens at the level of society, in order to move beyond the violence of abstraction and to address crises? How do we do this work humanely, when capital (whether in its neoliberal form or some other guise) seeks to eviscerate our humanity?


The day promoted me to consider some key issues for one of my PhD students who is working on the lived experiences of primary school communities under neoliberal policy. I wrote to her that “I think the following concepts/issues are interesting. I do not intend to unpack them here, rather to leave them as things for you to investigate or ignore. You are perfectly at liberty to ignore.” There is a shout-out here to the work of the Manchester School here, and especially Steve Courtney, Helen Gunter and Carlo Raffo. These questions/points are stream-of-consciousness and not fully formed. Like most of my work, tbh…

  1. Is neoliberalism the new common sense? Or is it a threat to common sense? Check out the work of Stuart Hall on this. Is neoliberalism anything other than promiscuous capital, able to reshape and reproduce itself depending upon historical and material conditions of production?
  2. How does neoliberalism (if there is such a thing), and its contested characteristics (if there are such things), relate to capitalist social relations?
  3. Our communities simply exemplary neoliberal structures for governance?
  4. What does individual autonomy, in particular in relation to constitutional rights and market-based liberties/freedoms, mean?
  5. In terms of community, what does disciplinary control, responsibility and self-government mean in practice?
  6. How is the lived experience of primary school communities affected by economic populism (Brexit, Trump etc)? How does this affect the relationship between race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and their intersections?
  7. Can community ever be a safe space? How can new narratives be developed that challenge patriarchy?
  8. Does neoliberal feminism(s) affect your research?
  9. Do communities struggling inside neoliberal governance have any space for hope? Or are they simply hopeless? Is there a place for critical hope, in particular in relation to school cultures, choices, governance/governmentality, managed consensus and manufactured consent?
  10. What is the role of teacher professionalism and pupil agency in the creation of neoliberal subjects, or their refusal?
  11. Under neoliberalism, what does voice mean inside/outside the classroom, or inside/outside the curriculum? How does voice relate to the commodification of the community and its activities?
  12. What does it mean for communities to be simply coping and surviving rather than thriving, inside a mediated life-activity, governed by performance management, competition in the market?
  13. How do communities interact and interrelate with algorithmic-control mechanisms and the domination of performance data? How do cybernetic forms of control enable, disable, reform and deform communities? Are they simply vectors for colonisation?
  14. Our explanatory critiques of neoliberalism simply means for reproducing a refined neoliberal project, in which resistance can be minimalised?
  15. In terms of understanding the lived experience of communities, how does internalised performance management and self-governance do the job of the State?
  16. How do we explain the bastardisation of values in the face of value as it is enabled through neoliberal governance? How is trust dehumanised in the face of risk? How is generosity dehumanised in the face of the commodity and commodity-exchange? How is courage dehumanised in the face of competition in the market?
  17. What is the relationship between accountability and autonomy, when policy is affected by transnational activist networks operating as geographies of neoliberalism, encompassing policymakers, educational leaders, finance capital, credit ratings agencies, educational publishers, and so on?
  18. Is it possible to repopulate and re—agent spaces for alternative imaginings of society?
  19. Is it possible to humanise our managers? Or must they all go?
  20. Neoliberal leadership in all its forms (relational, distributed, heroic) is simply the operation of governance at a distance, and the imposition of managerial discipline. How does this impact the lived experience of primary school communities? How does this relate to school refusal, homeschooling, deschooling?
  21. What is the impact of corporate school leadership, infected by the corporation, with its imposition of signature pedagogies, performance management, performance data and cybernetic control, on the school community?
  22. Is the primary school community curated by or a curator of neoliberalism? Is the market at the core of who/what the community is and stands for?
  23. What would a post-neoliberal primary school community look like?
  24. Steve Courtney spoke about being on or off the bus – those who fit in, and are common/shared travellers on a neoliberal journey can stay on the bus. What does this mean for communities that most fitting, fall off or fall out of the bus? How do bodies ensure that they are aligned with the local delivery of national reforms, rather than being wilful in refusing those reforms?
  25. Can we see neoliberalism as an habitus, comprising vectors of choice and non-choice, voice and non-voice, value and non-value, core and periphery?
  26. Where is it possible to intervene? Or are we being ontologically reshaped by forms of neoliberal engagement that are pedagogical and operating at the level of society?
  27. How do you relate your lived experience of primary school communities that are English and rooted in the global North, albeit containing individuals and cultures from the global South, to conceptually a morph is definitions of neoliberalism?
  28. To what extent does neoliberalism depend upon our conviction that positivism, which is theory free and evidence-based, and inside which certain voices are sanctioned, is the most appropriate response to the politics of austerity and the crisis of value?
  29. How is this maintained through the politics of desire? (c.f. Spinoza) How does the characterisation of leadership maintain desire? How does the fetishisation of desire_the fetishisation of leadership?
  30. What is the relationship between the lived experience of primary school communities and macroeconomic trends?
  31. Steve Courtney spoke about the role of theory, and in particular the relationship between functionalist and social critical theory. The former is designed to remove dysfunctions, to be based on “science” and “evidence” cometary positivist, cybernetic and theory-free. The latter relates to power, context and theory. Here we see the rise of the leadership industry, which maintains a harder distinction between leaders and followers – see work on network governance and governing networks. This enables functionalism to do the discursive work of neoliberalism in maintaining impact, excellence, efficiency, entrepreneurship, in the face of educational values. This is the triumph of marketisation and authoritarianism.
  32. What are the roles of the subaltern and subordinate in this analysis?
  33. How do we use this analysis, embedded in critical social theory, to render visible the differential and differing effects of power? How do we use theory to expose power, in order to recontextualise and in order to avoid ontological or epistemological closure?
  34. How do we engage with the reality that neoliberalism offers the promise of mobility and individual/familial agency, in the face of narratives of welfarism that stress its disabling effects?
  35. What metaphors does the individual/community used to describe itself? What metaphors does the individual/community use to describe the educational setting?
  36. Is it possible to dismantle neoliberalism without coming into asymmetrical relation with capital? Is a focus on neoliberalism a safe option, which denies the ability to decode the capital-relation?

References

Burman, E & Miles, S 2018, ‘Deconstructing supplementary education: From the pedagogy of the supplement to the unsettling of the mainstream‘Educational Review.

Courtney, S 2018, ‘Privatising educational leadership through technology in the Trumpian era‘ Journal of Educational Administration and History, 50.

Courtney, SJ & Gunter, HM 2015, ‘Get off my bus! School leaders, vision work and the elimination of teachers‘ International Journal of Leadership in Education, 18(4): 395-417. DOI: 10.1080/13603124.2014.992476

Courtney, S & Gunter, H 2017, Privatizing leadership in education in England: The multiple meanings of school principal agency. in D Waite & I Bogotch (eds), The Wiley International Handbook of Educational Leadership. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Inc., pp. 295-310.

Davies, J 2011, Challenging governance theory: from networks to hegemony. Bristol: Policy Press.

Raffo, C & Gunter, H 2008, ‘Leading schools to promote social inclusion: developing a conceptual framework for analysing research, policy and practice’ Journal of Education Policy, 23(4): 397 – 414. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930801923799

Rayner, S, Courtney, S & Gunter, H 2017, ‘Theorising systemic change: learning from the academisation project in England‘ Journal of Education Policy. DOI: 10.1080/02680939.2017.1327084

Rowlands, J & Rawolle, S 2013, ‘Neoliberalism is not a theory of everything: a Bourdieuian analysis of illusio in educational research’ Critical Studies in Education, 54(3): 260 – 72. https://doi.org/10.1080/17508487.2013.830631

Social Theory Applied: https://socialtheoryapplied.com/


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