In the 1970s, neoliberalism came into its own as a coherent ideological platform and political-economic policy toolkit. As politicians, economists, and intellectuals struggled to explain both the causes of their present crisis and propose solutions for it, “an entirely new breed of liberals sought a way forward by reviving the old doctrine of classical liberalism under the novel conditions of globalization.” The emergence of neoliberalism and its rapid ascent to hegemonic status in the 1970s, then, represents a watershed historical moment, the significance of which we are only now really beginning to grasp.
The term “neoliberalism” actually made its first appearance in post-World War One Germany, where is was used by intellectuals associated with what was called the Freiburg School to advocate for the German state’s return to at least a modicum of classical liberal economic policies. It is most firmly embodied, though, in the Mont Pelerin Society (founded by the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek), a group of economists and intellectuals who argued that any state intervention in the economy placed a nation on “the road to serfdom” (to use the title of Hayek’s most famous work). Arrayed against what they saw as “a rising tide of collectivism,” the Mont Pelerin Society’s membership sought to not only restore classical liberal principles, but to also render them a permanent feature of the future’s economic and ideological landscape. As Hayek’s disciples, like the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, acquired more influence in the resurgent conservative movement, neoliberalism became a pillar of that movement’s ideological program.
When the economic downturn of the seventies propelled the movement into national power, culminating with Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, neoliberalism became the ideological catechism of Reagan’s America. This ascendancy mirrored contemporaneous developments in the United Kingdom; Margaret Thatcher’s elevation to Prime Minister in 1979 served as an enshrinement of neoliberal doctrine in British political culture as well—so much so, in fact, that Thatcher’s brusque declaration “there is no alternative” (which became shortened to “TINA”) was accepted as economic gospel despite its obvious untruth. As a measure of just how effectively were neoliberal ideals ensconced in public discourse and policy during the Reagan/Thatcher years, even when the opposition parties in both the US and UK regained power through the elections of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, respectively, to high office, the neoliberal creed retained its hold on the political and popular imaginations of each country.
Neoliberalism is a term that has been used in different contexts, and for different purposes since its inception, but these uses don’t represent a wide range of difference so much as they do variations on a single theme. While specific policy and initiative recommendations may embody differing regional and contextual flavors, there is a general consensus that unites the diverse array neoliberal thinkers and politicians. The key elements of this consensus are “free markets” and “free trade.” Neoliberals hold “a common belief in the power of ‘self-regulating’ free markets to create a better world.” Neoliberalism extracts the “individual freedoms” portion of regular old classical liberalism from its surrounding context of communal and reciprocal social obligations. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with its glorification of individual greed as the only sufficient motivation for human achievement is one expression of the neoliberal creed. The insistent refrain that “privatization” of public programs like social security—or public education—is the only way to ensure those programs work is another. Neoliberalism operates on a specific set of assumptions about motivation: only the pursuit of self-interest, which neoliberals posit as the sole, true measure of rationality, is sufficient motivation for meaningful action.
This leads to an essential question: how is “self-interest” defined? According to neoliberal thought, it is best seen via the operation of “free markets,” where every participant in economic exchanges has a free range of options and access to all available information upon which they can then act in the rational pursuit of their own interest (as if such a situation ever existed outside of an economics textbook’s discussion of theory). With such a foundation in place, as the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith posited, the sum total of individuals’ rationally acting upon their self-interest would lead to the greatest good for the entire social unit. David Harvey, a modern critic of neoliberalism, sees this market-oriented ethos at its heart:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade…[It] holds that the social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions, and it seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market.
Aren’t these the phrases we hear so frequently in our political discourse that we treat them like background noise, like the HVAC system that runs in our classroom building all the time, but that we only notice when someone new to the area points out how loud it is? Entrepreneurs. Free Markets. Property Rights. Free Trade. Who would question the inherent goodness of these things? After all, aren’t they they things that make our society work? But in practice, the application quickly gets messy. Is it possible to have a truly “free” market, or has our history created a sociopolitical system in which it becomes impossible to take the unequal power dynamics out of the equation? Should state authority always land on the side of property rights? (Bear in mind that for two-thirds of this country’s history, that stance meant supporting slaveholders’ “right” to hold fellow humans as chattel.) Is everything really a commodity, and do market forces really promise the most equitable and just allocation of resources? The result of our reflexively answering these questions in the affirmative is the creation of what Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval call “a certain existential norm” that neoliberalism has created in the West:
This norm enjoins everyone to live in a world of generalized competition; it calls upon wage-earning classes and populations to engage in economic struggle against one another; it aligns social relations with the model of the market; it promotes the justification of ever greater inequalities; it even transforms the individual, now called on to conceive and conduct him- or herself as an enterprise…this existential norm has presided over public policy, governed global economic relations, transformed society, and reshaped subjectivity.
There is no choice involved in whether or not one participates in this system; one cannot feasibly opt out of an existential norm. Our everyday lives and interactions unfold within structures built by neoliberalism in its guise as “everyday common sense.” Just as a fish would be hard-pressed to describe water, so too do we struggle to conceive of the structures that dictate the very operation of our lives.
That’s why I place such importance on what may have seem like an overly deep dive into economic theory. Ideas have power. And the ideas which currently hold the lion’s share of power over higher education are ideas which also have the power to destroy it. Indeed, that work is well underway. Those of us on the front lines of higher education work—who teach, advise, counsel, or otherwise work with and among college students—face a bewildering array of difficulties and attacks on that work and our ability to do it well. The sheer volume of obstacles we encounter almost guarantees we’ll be so busy putting out individual fires that we aren’t able to see the entire structure has been burning and is in fact dangerously close to collapsing around us.
Put simply, higher education is under attack, and the weapons used by its attackers are forged in neoliberal ideology. We need to understand what that means in order to defend ourselves, our students, and our collective enterprise. Far from being some sort of pretentious buzzword, “neoliberalism” is actually a coherent set of ideals aimed at preserving what Henry Giroux has called “a form of economic Darwinism.” Therefore, we ought to reckon with what it means for us in our daily practice as educators. In the next part of this series, we’ll look at exactly that: what neoliberalism means for our work with and among students in higher education.
Margaret Thatcher, from Der Spiegel
Ayn Rand, publicity photo by Talbot, 1943.
“Fishies,” from Flickr user Scott Schiller
-  Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 9↩
-  For a thorough discussion of the Mont Pelerin Society’s origin and the growth of its political influence, see Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). ↩
-  For more on this continuity, see Steger and Roy, 50-75 and the discussion in Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (London: Verso, 2003), esp. 21-76.↩
-  Steger and Roy, quoted at 9 and 15.↩
- David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 2-3. On Smith, see Jerry Z. Muller’s discussion in The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 67-69.↩
- Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, transl. Gregory Elliot (New York: Verso, 2013), quoted at 3. See also Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015)↩
-  Henry Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 2.↩