BY AARON BARLOW
I’ve been told, and by people I respect, not to use the word “neoliberal,” especially when dealing with education–let alone politics. “It is too amorphous,” they say. “It doesn’t really mean anything; it’s just something to rail against.”
That has changed. Not only that but, today, we can no longer keep neoliberalism in the academy distinct from neoliberalism in general–and the meaning of “neoliberalism” is now crystal clear:
Neoliberalism (n) A justification of greed, one based on interlocking concepts of individualism, top-down corporate-style management, and financial gain as the ultimate goal.
Of course, it is more complicated. Sarah Brouillette in a review of Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism provides a little taste of the issues within broader contexts:
The basics of neoliberalism are by now well known. Pressured to be wary of public deficit spending, and trying to find ways to rejuvenate depressed economies, neoliberal governments cut spending on welfare and other social services, and turn the programs that do remain into job training “workfare.” Policies at the same time shift to give priority to the needs of businesses wanting to keep wages low, to offshore production, and to make few or no commitments to workers. The power of unions is undercut as a result, so it is decreasingly possible to look to that form of collectivity as a shelter. Politicians, advisors, sympathetic management consultants and business professors meanwhile emphasize private initiative and personal merit as the keys to success. As a result, work has been trending toward the less regular, less routine, less secure, less protected by union membership, with wages stagnant and less likely to be supplemented by things like affordable public education, low rents, tax credits, and childcare benefit payments.
The working individual suited to this environment will naturally possess certain traits, as people are encouraged to look to themselves for more and more of what they need. Everything becomes a matter of personal responsibility: invest smartly for the future, take out a loan to pay for college, be your own brand, find your joy, “live your life.” If there is a culture of neoliberalism, it is all about interiority and the individual psychic life: therapeutic culture, because there is little state funding for mental health treatment. Find out who you really are, do what you love, look within, take your natural resilience as the base of every struggle and its overcoming; experience setbacks, Pop Idol style, as welcome occasions to overcome every hurdle. Self-improve. Self-actualize.
Neoliberal concepts lie behind the decline of the American university just as much as they lie behind Donald Trump’s success. Neoliberalism has become the dominant educational and political philosophy of our time. It controls not only the ivory tower but government and business. Its guiding light, of course, is the fiction of Ayn Rand, one of its many advocates the conservative columnist David Brooks.
Neoliberals say: No real individual needs school or teachers; success is attracted to them. Today, we’ve gone so far down the neoliberal rabbit hole that we no longer need justifications for such concepts as the hoary one from the Reagan years stating that helping the rich helps the poor (“trickle down”). After all, poverty, as Ben Carson points out, is only a “state of mind.”
So is ignorance.
Seriously, though, the dangers of neoliberal thought are becoming ever more daunting as 2017 progresses–and finally we are noticing, faculty, pundits and the general population. Even people who have been unthinking proponents of neoliberalism—Brooks again comes to mind—are beginning to back away from it, though usually without intending to.
Brooks, a strong advocate of a neoliberal “meritocracy” of the sort Brouillette describes, takes the assumptions of his own beliefs to task in a strange essay for The New York Times. “We’ve seen this philosophy before, of course. Powerful, selfish people have always adopted this dirty-minded realism to justify their own selfishness.” Still, he doesn’t name it for what it is, neoliberalism. He can’t.
Though what he describes is only one of the three legs of the neoliberal philosophy, it is as essential as the others, those legs he adores. His problem is that you can’t cut one of the three from the stool, so he ignores the connection.
The rest of us don’t have to do that, so we can call a neoliberal a neoliberal, yoking Brooks as firmly to Trump’s leg of the stool as Trump is to Kushner and both are to the idea of loyalty to the top. Though Brooks clearly does not want to be tied to Trump, for all of his hand-wringing, he clearly is and deserves to be.
There are so many connections. Trump is as much the logical conclusion of neoliberalism as is the teacherless classroom. You can dress either up in as many fancy costumes as you want, but eventually the orange hair and lack of real engagement with knowledge shine through. Brooks’s love of “talent,” too, is only a cover for venal striving of the very same Trumpian sort.
In his article, Brooks does try to back away from the dynamo of neoliberalism and into a much older humanism but, given his own past and his continued belief that the best rise to the top and the rest can be ignored, he sounds, at best, as though he is trying to justify his position as what Trump would certainly call a “loser.” He writes:
People have a moral sense. They have a set of universal intuitions that help establish harmony between peoples….
People have moral emotions. They feel rage at injustice, disgust toward greed, reverence for excellence, awe before the sacred and elevation in the face of goodness.
People yearn for righteousness. They want to feel meaning and purpose in their lives, that their lives are oriented toward the good.
People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness.
What Brooks means by “people,” of course, are those bound for success within his meritocracy. Others don’t matter, certainly not the poor who cannot afford the emotions he lauds.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” So wrote William Butler Yeats, spinning Brooks’s vision on its head. That, of course, is where Brooks and Trump meet, in the passionate intensity of the neoliberal vision. The ones Brooks imagines as “best” feel as he, himself, claims nobly to feel, but are actually hiding their avarice under a veneer of self-righteousness–hiding it even from themselves.
Brooks is writing in response two Trumpanistas, H.R. McMaster and Gary D. Cohn, who defend their leader in The Wall Street Journal. Brooks sees their view of the world as that of the deal, with everyone (or every nation) out for themselves. He tries to contrast that with his own benign patina, forgetting that it is simply a gentler cover over the same neoliberal avarice, that same passionate intensity of the worst people imagining they are the best. Worst and not best because, no matter what Brooks may claim, their only goal is their own success.
Brooks is right when he says that Trump and his followers “sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship and loyalty.” What he doesn’t realize is that they are only doing what he has so often recommended, just without the nice overlay of civility.
Brooks ends by quoting Richard Crawely’s translation from Thucydides, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” without realizing the irony of what he is saying.
His own neoliberal argument of the talented rising to the top to create a heavenly meritocracy is, after all, exactly the same, though perhaps a little more polite, as what Thucydides describes of the ancient Athenians. In both cases, all that’s being done is justifying greed. In both cases, it is the passionate intensity of them as the worst that threatens even their own destruction.