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Beyond Bailouts: On the Politics of Education After Neoliberalism

How is it possible to imagine a more equitable transformation in government and economics without a simultaneous transformation in culture, consciousness, social identities and values?

President Barack Obama meets with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and staff in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Sept. 15, 2011.

As the financial meltdown reaches historic proportions, free-market fundamentalism, or neoliberalism as it is called in some quarters, is losing both its claim to legitimacy and its claims on democracy. Once upon a time a perceived bastion of liberal democracy, the social state is being recalled from exile, as the decades-long conservative campaign against the alleged abuses of “big government” – its euphemism for a form of governance that assumed a measure of responsibility for the education, health and general welfare of its citizens – has been widely discredited. Not only have the starving and drowning efforts of the Right been revealed in all their malicious cruelty, but government is about to have a Cinderella moment; it is about to become “cool,” as Prince Charming-elect Barack Obama famously put it. The idea has enchanted many. The economist and recent Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, has argued that the correct response to the current credit and financial crisis is to “greatly expand the role of government to rescue an ailing economy,” with the proviso that all new government programs must be devoid of even a hint of corruption.(1) Bob Herbert has called for more government regulation to offset the dark cloud of impoverishment that resulted from the last thirty years of deregulation, privatization and tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.(2) And there are others, sophisticated thinkers all, such as Dean Baker, David Korten, Naomi Klein and Joseph E. Stiglitz, who have traced the roots of the current financial crisis to the adaptation of neoliberal economic policy, which fostered a grim alignment among the state, corporate capital and transnational corporations. Even New York Times op-ed writer Thomas Friedman has found a way to live comfortably with the idea. He wants to retool the country’s educational mainframe, teaching young people to be more creative in their efforts to build “the most productivity-enhancing infrastructure,” – even as the stated goal unhappily recapitulates the neoliberal fantasy that unchecked growth cures all social ills.(3) And a contrite Alan Greenspan, erstwhile disciple of Ayn Rand, recently admitted before a Congressional committee that he may have made a mistake in assuming “that enlightened self-interest alone would prevent bankers, mortgage brokers, investment bankers and others from gaming the system for their own personal financial benefit.”(4)

With the exception of Greenspan and Friedman, all of these economists and intellectuals have rejected a market fundamentalism that: dismantled the historically guaranteed social provisions provided – however partially and imperfectly – by the welfare state; defined consumerism and profit-making as the essence of democratic citizenship, and equated freedom with the unrestricted ability of markets to govern economic relations free of government regulation. In doing so, they have repudiated the neoliberal dystopian vision that there are no alternatives to a market-driven society, which adhered to the inviolability and inevitability of economic law. And they have condemned a market rationality that advanced private interests as it sold off public goods and services, that sought to invest only in corporate and private sectors as it starved the social. The neoliberal mantra that There Is No Alternative has been replaced by a new, equally insistent and increasingly pervasive call for reform and regulation. With the evils of a neoliberal “voodoo” economics exposed at long last, we can look forward to the dawn of a new democratic age.

Unfortunately, what so many writers and scholars have taken for granted in their thoughtful criticisms of neoliberalism and their calls for immediate economic reform is the presupposition that we have on hand and in stock generations of young people and adults who have somehow been schooled for the last several decades in an entirely different set of values and cultural attitudes, who do not equate the virtue of reason with an ethically truncated instrumental rationality, who know alternative sets of social relations that are irreducible to the rolls of buyer and seller, and who are not only intellectually prepared but morally committed to the staggering challenges that comprehensive reform requires. This is where the fairy tale ending to an era of obscene injustice careens headlong into reality. Missing from the roadmaps that lead us back out of Alice’s rabbit hole, back out of a distorted world where reason and judgment don’t apply, is precisely the necessity to understand the success of neoliberalism as a pervasive political and educational force, a pedagogy and form of governance that couples “forms of knowledge, strategies of power and technologies of self.”(5) Neoliberalism not only transformed economic agendas throughout the overdeveloped world, it transformed politics, restructured social relations, produced an array of reality narratives (not unlike reality TV) and disciplinary measures that normalized its perverted view of citizenship, the state and the supremacy of market relations. In the concerted effort to reverse course, dare one not take account of the profound emotional appeal, let alone ideological hold, of neoliberalism on the American public? The success of a market ideology that has produced shocking levels of inequality and impoverishment and a market morality that has spawned rapacious greed and corruption should raise fundamental questions. How did market rule prove capable of enlisting in such a compelling way the consent of the vast majority of Americans, who cast themselves, no less, in the role of the “moral majority?” The refusal of such an analysis, framed nonetheless as a response, by many theorists (including many leftists) typically explains that working people “do not, under normal circumstances, care deeply about anything beyond the size of their paychecks.”(6) But this is too quick, and far too inadequate. We argue that matters of popular consciousness, public sentiment and individual and social agency are far too important as part of a larger political and educational struggle not be taken seriously by those who advocate the long and difficult project of democratic reform.

Tragically, few intellectuals providing critical commentary on the financial and credit crisis offer any insights regarding how the educational force of the culture actually works pedagogically to reproduce neoliberal ideology, values, identifications and consent. How exactly is it possible to imagine a more just, more equitable transformation in government and economics without a simultaneous transformation in culture, consciousness, social identities and values? We are not implying a vulgar economism is at work in such commentaries in our new and sophisticated information age, but there is a tendency to undertheorize the important relationship between the production of neoliberal economics, popular consent, cultural politics and pedagogy. In doing so, the primacy of the force and influence of formal and informal educational sites, or the apparatuses of what we call public pedagogy, which have mediated the ever-shifting and dynamic modes of common sense for the past several decades remains invisible and so unchecked. Yet the formation of this common sense, which nonetheless served to legitimate the institutional arrangements of a rapacious capitalism, shifting class formations and colorblinding racial logics, has emerged alongside a number of significant and unsettling cultural transformations, to name a few of the most phenomenal: the now much-discussed culture of fear; the hyperindividualization and isolation of expanding consumer society; the ideology of privatization and the dissolution of social totality (and with visions of the good society); and the creation of the punishing state organized around the criminalization of social problems.(7) Indeed, the current focus on the rationality of exchange and exploitation does not capture the fate of those populations – refugees, jobless youth, the poor, immigrants, black and Latino communities – who came to exemplify all that was allegedly wrong with social safety nets that produced pathological forms of dependency, who were often the unwitting targets of the war on crime and the war on terror, as it played out on the domestic front. These, moreover, are populations increasingly rendered disposable not only because they exist outside any productive notion of what it means to be a citizen-consumer, but because of a decades-long racist campaign that invented cultural deficits and deficiencies raising the specter of contagion and threat. The questions we need to be asking ourselves extend beyond how we proceed with competent and effective economic reform. There is a neoliberal logic that extends beyond the economic. We must also consider how we dismantle the culture of fear, how we learn to think beyond the narrow dictates of instrumental rationalities, how we decriminialize certain identities, how we depathologize the concept of dependency and recognize it as our common fate, how we reclaim the public good, how we reconstitute, in short, a viable and sustainable democratic society.

Does it not seem odd, for example, that we bemoan the lack of a culture of service among young college graduates and at the same time seek to improve an educational system by implementing school policy that financially rewards students for scholastic achievement? Is it not a bit naive to assume that such policy can end in any other way than a “pay to play” mentality? We must surely reform our financial institutions and our economic philosophies more generally, but so too must we reform those institutions, professional competencies, and social identities altered by decades of neoliberal rule. And that will prove a most challenging endeavor. It will require that universities, news media, hospitals and clinics, schools and other institutions return critical and reflexive decision-making capacities to professors, journalists, doctors, nurses, teachers and others and away from accountants and middle managers. It means that the bottom line will not determine curricula or shape research agendas; it will not drive the news media, determine a course of medical treatment or fix the outcome of clinical trials. Once-trusted relations between doctors and patients, teachers and students, parents and children will no longer suffer the flatting out of their respective rolls to that of buyer and seller.

In spite of the crucial connection between various modes of domination and pedagogy, there is little input from progressive social theorists of what it might mean to theorize how education as a form of cultural politics actually constructs particular modes of address, identification, affective investments and social relations that produce consent and complicity with the ethos and practice of neoliberalism. Hence, while the current economic crisis has called into question the economic viability of neoliberal values and policies, it often does so by implying that neoliberal rationality can be explained through an economic optic alone, and consequently gives the relationship of politics, culture and inequality scant analysis. Neoliberal rationality is lived and legitimated in relation to the intertwining of culture, politics and meaning. Any viable challenge to the culture of neoliberalism as well as the current economic crisis it has generated must address not merely the diffuse operations of power throughout civil society and the globe, but also what it means to engage those diverse educational sites producing and legitimating neoliberal common sense, whether they be newspapers, advertising, the Internet, television or more recent spheres developed as part of the new information revolution. In addition, it is crucial to examine what role public intellectuals, think tanks, the media and universities actually play pedagogically in constructing and legitimating neoliberal world views, and how the latter works pedagogically in producing neoliberal subjects and securing consent.

Politics is not simply about the production and protection of economic formations; it is also about the production of individuals, desires, identifications, values and modes of understanding for inhabiting the ideological and institutional forms that make up a social order. At the very least, any attempt to both understand the current crisis and what it would mean to produce a new kind of subject willing to invest in and struggle for a democratic society needs to raise another set of questions in addition to those currently posed. For example: What educational challenges would have to be addressed in overcoming the deeply felt view in American culture that criticism is destructive, or for that matter a deeply rooted anti-intellectualism reinforced daily through various forms of public pedagogical address made available by talk radio and the televisual infotainment sectors?[7] How might we engage pedagogical practices that open up a culture of questioning that enables people to resist and reject neoliberal assumptions that decouples private woes from public considerations, reduces citizenship to consumerism and makes free-market ideology coterminous with democracy? What are the implications of theorizing education, pedagogy and the practice of learning as essential to social change and where might such interventions take place? How might it be possible to theorize the pedagogical importance of the new media and the new modes of political literacy and cultural production they employ, or to analyze the circuits of power, translation and distribution that make up neoliberalism’s vast pedagogical apparatus – extending from talk radio and screen culture to the Internet and newspapers? At stake here is both recognizing the importance of the media as a site of public pedagogy and breaking the monopoly of information, which is a central pillar of neoliberal common sense. These are only some of the questions that would be central to any viable recognition of what it would mean to theorize education as a condition that enables both critique, understood as more than the struggle against incomprehension, and social responsibility as the foundation for forms of intervention that are oppositional and empowering. To imagine a simpler solution is to be sold on a fairy tale.

(1). Paul Krugman, “Barack Be Good,” New York Times (December 26, 2008), p. A25.

(2). Bob Herbert, “Stop Being Stupid,” New York Times (December 27, 2008), p. A19.

(3). Thomas L. Friedman, “Time to Reboot America,” New York Times (December 24, 2008), p. A21.

(4). Deborah Jones Barrow, “Greenspan Shrugged? Did Any Rand Cause Our Financial Crisis?” WowOwow (October 24, 2008). Online:

(5).Thomas Lemke, “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique,” Paper presented at the Rethinking Marxism Conference, University of Amherst (MA), September 21-24, 2000, Online:,%20Governmentality,%20and%20Critique%20IV-2.pdf

(6). Ellen Willis, “Escape from Freedom: What’s the Matter with Tom Frank (and the Lefties who Love Him)?” Situations 1:2 (2006), p. 9.

(7). This issue is taken up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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