Which things, tell me, are yours? Whence have you brought your goods into life? You are like one occupying a place in a theater, who should prohibit others from entering, treating that as his own which was designed for the common use of all.
-St. Basil of Caesaria, ca. 300s CE
I have some questions.
Why does higher education find such warm support in the abstract, but such sharp disdain in practice? Why do we (speaking broadly) tell young people to be sure to earn their degree, but also that universities are failing and their professors are out-of-touch elites who don’t know how the “real world” works?
How is it that the same people who so loudly trumpet their adherence to faith traditions that preach sacrifice and compassion for the less fortunate are able to embrace policies and politicians that actively work against those virtues?
Why does our society celebrate entities like the military and sports teams that glorify subsuming the needs of the individual beneath the good of the whole and then repudiate and belittle that ethos in the political and economic arenas?
Why does it seem like those who make it to the top of the ladder seem like they wish nothing more than to quickly kick away that ladder before others have finished climbing?
To be a critically engaged member of the higher education community is to confront a bewildering array of paradoxes like these. The most frustrating part of this encounter is that these are not particularly complex or esoteric paradoxes. One doesn’t need to be a trained logician to discern the mutually antagonistic elements lurking within them. The contradictions are not subtle; they are blatant. They should crumble at the slightest intellectual touch. Yet they don’t. In fact, they only seem to get stronger the more they are challenged. How do we navigate through this minefield without succumbing to desk-flipping rage about once an hour?
Higher education has always been a fraught enterprise. From the early days of the academy, when it was a bastion of elite white males to more recent times when it….well, is often still a bastion of elite white males, actually…higher education has simultaneously reflected the worst elements and the highest aspirations of our community.
It’s alarmingly easy to develop a siege mentality working in higher education, because in many ways—both tangible and intangible—we are indeed under siege. Henry Giroux, an important voice in critical pedagogy, has argued that America is “at war with itself.” And while that may seem like an excessively violent metaphor, there is a hard truth in it that we ignore at our peril. Genuine violence is being inflicted upon the sinews that give our society its coherence. The idea of a common weal, such an evocative and cherished concept in earlier eras, has become at best passé, at worst harried into intellectual extinction. We are told implicitly and explicitly that the individual trumps all, that freedom and liberty are concepts whose only legitimate applications center on the individual, and—most importantly—we are told that it has always been thus.
To advocate for the good of the whole, to suggest that empathy for the other might be a desirable trait to foster, to suggest that individuals might sacrifice some personal gain to promote the common good? These sentiments swim against an increasingly powerful current, and are thus treated as rather quaint notions that aren’t relevant to the immediate needs of the individual, and as a result, unworthy of pursuit and amplification. Neoliberal ideology, with its single-minded obsession with “market values” and a narrow vision of “individual liberty,” has created a cultural environment in which the imperatives of ruthless, atomistic competition are cloaked in platitudes about “freedom” in order to actively undermine any sense of community or larger purpose.
What is this “neoliberalism?” The term itself has gotten to the point where it veers dangerously close to cliché status, a catch-all pejorative that applies to “stuff I don’t like.” Among its supporters, even, the term has become a banner to wave in front of anything that seems to stand for “liberty” or “freedom,” in at least a vaguely-defined sense. Despite its ever-expanding and as a result less-precise use, neoliberalism does have a historically-specific definition and coherent set of applications, and we should not lose sight of that. Indeed, neoliberal ideology has provided a set of tools with which its advocates have quite effectively dismantled and delegitimized the institutions that comprise the very soul of our society—including education. For those reasons, it’s worth taking the time to further explore this blend of ideology and specific political and economic practice. Without discerning the totality of what threatens higher education, any tactics we use or solutions we contemplate can be only minimally effective at best. In this series of posts, I hope to delve into the historical context of neoliberalism shaping the political and economic landscape in which higher education operates today. Knowledge, as they say, is power.
In what used to be called “political economy,” the idea of “liberalism” emphasized two related, but not identical, concepts: the individual and natural rights, or liberties. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beginning with such philosophers like John Locke, and other Western thinkers in what is usually referred to as the Enlightenment tradition, “liberty” and individualism became fundamentally intertwined concepts. Locke and his fellow philosophical travelers tended to approach liberty—rights that were “natural,” and as such were part and parcel of what it meant to be human—by defining it negatively. That is, “liberty”was conceived as freedom from something; the individual was naturally protected against some external force, usually conceived of as a threat.
In this historical context, “classical” liberal ideology represented a radical shift for Western thought and culture. Its emphasis on the individual’s natural liberty undercut, for example, the theory that a monarch was divinely chosen to rule a nation. It posited that at least a theoretical equality existed between various members of the human community. Of course, those beliefs were as often as not honored only in their breach. Thomas Jefferson, the foremost American apostle of Lockean liberalism, wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” yet at the same time enslaved hundreds of those “created equal” humans. The crucial question of the liberal tradition, then, was simply who is human?, because it was one’s existence as a sovereign, individual human that theoretically triggered the conferral of natural rights: the “right to have rights,” in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase.
Such has been the hegemony of the liberal tradition in our society that it becomes well-nigh impossible to define “freedom” in terms that are not rooted in our individuality. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, are explicit guarantees of individual liberties: freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom from arbitrary arrest or “cruel and unusual” punishment. My purpose is not to argue against these liberties, or to suggest that individual rights don’t matter. Of course they do, and a society that does not allow and guarantee individual freedoms is one where its members suffer. Ideas about individual liberty, for example, undergirded much of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionist movement (though, again, it’s important to point out that many key liberal theorists, like Locke, ignored the plight of the slave and reconciled themselves to slavery’s continuation). But the devil, as they say, is in the details. Conflating liberty and the individual so completely, as the universalizing language of Western Enlightenment political thought has done, has created some insidious effects on our efforts as individuals to live and work together in meaningful community.
As is the case in so many endeavors, problems arise when things get out of balance. In this sense, we should think about the ways in which we conceive the place of the individual in our larger society. We place such a premium on individual liberty, but do any of us truly exercise a free and unhindered range of options in our daily lives? Put simply, are we free to literally do whatever we want? Of course not. We place limits on our liberty as a trade-off for the security of living in community. I obey traffic signals because when we all do so, I am guaranteed to be safe in my travels up and down the streets in my community. I limit the range of actions I choose to pursue in the name of a greater good. Moreover, we all do this, and do it all the time. Does that mean we live in some sort of collectivist, statist hellscape? Or does it mean there are benefits to living in community with others that I cannot take advantage of without being in that community? For our purposes here, the essential point is that however much we rhetorically equate liberty with individual freedom, in the actual practice of our lives, there are limits, trade-offs, and conditions which make that relationship more nuanced and complicated. Effective communities, from the household to the nation-state, are those which have figured out how to balance individual freedoms with the good of the whole.
This was a key argument, it’s worth noting, of the U.S.’s revolutionary generation. The revolutionary generation tended to believe that pure, unfettered, willy-nilly liberty was actually nothing more than mere “license”: each against all and the devil take the hindmost. True “republican liberty,” they argued, involved balancing the claim of individual rights against the imperatives involved in maintaining the common good—the “common weal,” as it was called in this earlier era. Now, defining precisely where that balance lay was a difficult proposition, and the diversity of answers to that question fueled some of the most intense debates in the politics of the early American republic. But that a balance was necessary was not in itself an object of dispute.
Yet this idea of balance is not the privileged sector of what’s become called “classical liberal” thought, for the most part. The American revolutionaries’ articulation of its necessity, then, was in mnay ways a deviation from the norm. Classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo placed their faith in “free markets” as the ultimate expression of man’s rational pursuit of gain; state interference would destroy the operation of these free markets, which governed themselves and their participants’ actions according to an intricate set of rules which would soon become referred to as “the invisible hand.” This overweening faith in the “free market” helped create the conditions for explosive economic growth in the United States, particularly as the Industrial Revolution took its course, but that growth was also largely built upon the backs of enslaved peoples and the products of slave labor, and it was accompanied by grotesque levels of economic inequality that made the rhetoric of “opportunity” and “freedom” nothing more than a cruel joke for many Americans.
[Warning and Disclaimer: what follows is a super-short and surely too general synopsis of principal currents of US economic thought in the twentieth century.]
This contradiction—the significant increase of economic production and wealth in the aggregate accompanied by the profound immiseration of many individuals underneath those aggregate numbers—could persist for only so long before the proverbial chickens came home to roost. While many contemporary observers wondered if that roosting explained the increasing levels of management vs. labor violence in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the worldwide Great Depression that began in the late 1920s which shattered the easy faith in unfettered free markets as the only desirable arbiter of human activity. The classical liberals’ faith in “free markets” could not explain the failure of those markets: “How could there be a such thing as ‘market failure,’ they reasoned, if markets-properly shielded from the meddling state-were by nature incapable of failing?”
The Great Depression and World War II brought about a profound reassessment of the relationships between individuals, the state, and the economy. Economic thought in this era was dominated by the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi, who posited that while capitalism contained enormous generative power and was a desirable form of economic and social organization, the shocks of the Great Depression—and the disastrous consequences which emanated from that economic collapse—proved that the classical liberals’ vision of an unfettered homo economicus free to pursue his individual gain without any social consequences or state regulation was a vision that no longer promised the greatest good to the greatest number—if indeed it ever had. The massive state interventions of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and then the United States’ role as “the arsenal of democracy” in World War II were practical examples of the kind of capitalism-with-a-safety-net social democracy that Keynes and Polanyi advocated.
When Republican president Dwight Eisenhower not only retained but extended several key New Deal measures (most notably Social Security), it was clear that a postwar consensus favoring what some economists called “controlled capitalism” had emerged. The G.I. Bill and the Interstate Highway System are just two prominent examples of the state’s commitment to an active role as both participant and funder in the larger economy. Government spending reached record levels, but so too did government revenues-thanks in part to the most progressive income tax system the US has ever had. However, all was not well, either, even in this age of American prosperity. The legal apparatus of racism and segregation, seen most clearly in such practices as “redlining,” meant that African Americans and other people of color were pushed to the margins, or excluded entirely, from the rising tide of affluence. 
More generally, the active interventionism of Cold War-era foreign policy, culminating in the Vietnam War, raised spending levels even higher than the already-record levels in place. Despite domestic prosperity, the US remained vulnerable to the effects of international economic changes, seen most acutely with the “oil shock” and subsequent energy crisis caused by the OPEC nations’ pricing and production restrictions on crude oil. Rising oil prices combined with rapid inflation, increasing unemployment, and collapsing corporate profits to bring the age of American affluence to a crashing halt in the “stagflation” and sharp recession of the 1970s.
It was in this period of crisis and disillusionment in which neoliberals and neoliberalism moved into the center of US and Western economic discourse, an opportunity for which they’d been preparing since the close of World War II. Who were these self-styled “neoliberals,” and what did they believe? Those are the questions I’ll turn to in Part Two of this series.
Andrew Mellon: Genthe, Arnold, 1869-1942, photographer. Arnold Genthe Collection (Library of Congress). Negatives and transparencies. Wikimedia Commons–
Karl Polanyi: from Gareth Dale, “Karl Polanyi and the Economics of Labour,” Verso Books blog, Sept. 11, 2018.
Back to the Future GIF: GIFTenor
-  Hannah Arendt, “‘The Rights of Man’: What Are They?,” Modern Review 3:1 (1949), the phrase appears at p. 34. The phrase and its implications are explored in Stephanie De Gooyer, Alastair Hunt, Lida Maxwell, and Samuel Moyn, The Right to Have Rights (New York: Verso, 2018).↩
-  Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), quoted at p. 5.↩
-  During the New Deal years, for example, almost half a million Latinx people—many of whom were US citizens by virtue of being born in this country—were deported (mostly to Mexico) in response to heavy pressure from white workers and labor unions. On redlining, see the essential piece by Ta-nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June, 2014).↩