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The State, Public Pedagogy and Learning
Neoliberalism has wrought havoc in different areas of social life

The State, Public Pedagogy and Learning

Neoliberalism has wrought havoc in different areas of social life

Neoliberalism has wrought havoc in different areas of social life, not the least of which in health and education. One of the greatest myths promoted by neoliberals is that the nation state is not and should no longer be the main force in those domains – that everything should be left to the market. Health care education; infrastructure (financial and legal, as well as physical); the environment are no longer public goods in this worldview, but rather commodities to be bought and sold. Deregulation has been used to expedite this process and, yet, the credit crunch revealed the hypocrisy and impossibility of such a strategy when national states were forced to intervene, bailing out banks and other institutions to prevent the collapse of the real economy as well as the financial sector. So much for the minimal state! It is an opportune moment to look at the function of the state and assess its role within the contemporary scenario of hegemonic globalization.

The state provides the conditions for the accumulation of capital through its institutions. Education and training, therefore, have an important role to play, more now than ever, when education to train workers for positions in the economy, including adult learning for work, is said to perform a crucial role in attracting and maintaining investment. In the post war (WW II) period, a welfarist notion of state provision of, for instance, education, prevailed as part of “the new deal” seen by many as a concession by capital to labor, but also seen within labor politics as very much the result of the struggle for better living conditions by the working class and its representatives.


While the state and its bureaucracy continues to retain responsibility for much that had previously been attributed to it, things have changed considerably in recent years. With the onset of neoliberalism, and therefore the ideology of the marketplace, the state has lost its welfarist outlook even as it plays a crucial role in terms of providing a regulatory framework for “the market’s” operation.

The neoliberal state has a set of important roles to play. It provides the infrastructure for the mobility of capital, including investment in “human resource development,” as well as the promotion of an “employability-oriented,” lifelong, learning policy, although the onus of taking advantage of these “opportunities” is often placed on the individual or group, often at considerable expense. We witness a curtailment of socially-oriented programs in favor of a market-oriented notion of economic viability, also characterized by public financing of private needs. Public funds are channeled into areas of educational and other activities that generate profits in the private sector. Furthermore, attempts are being made all over the world to leave as little as possible to the vagaries of state agencies and the personnel who work inside them since the state has never been monolithic. Whatever the policies, there are always bureaucratic procedures and “tried and tested” ways of working, as well as people working inside these agencies, like critical educators in public schools, who are driven by a vision of doing things that may run contrary to what policy makers desire or simply fall short in the delivery of established policies. Standardization, league tables, classifications, accountability measures and, more recently, harmonization are some of the means used to bring these institutions and the persons who work inside them in line with the dominant trends and policies. The objective is to render agencies of the state or that work in tandem with the state through a loose network (a process of governance rather than government), more accountable, more subject to surveillance, and ultimately, more rationalized. And as indicated at the very beginning, the state has no qualms about its role in bailing out banks and other institutions of capital when there is a crisis. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (the subject of a recent article by Henry Giroux in these spaces) put it so clearly years before the recent credit crunch (he died in 1997):

“Fatalism is only understood by power and by the dominant classes when it interests them. If there is hunger, unemployment, lack of housing, health and schools, they proclaim that this is a universal trend and so be it! But when the stock market falls in a country far away and we have to tighten up our belts, or if a private national bank has internal problems due to the inability of it’s directors or owners, the state immediately intervenes to ‘save them.’ In this case, the ‘natural,’ ‘inexorable,’ is simply put aside.”(1)

The state is very much present in many ways, a point that needs to be kept in mind when discussing any other form of program that conveys the corporate business agenda. We must guard against the widespread neoliberal myth that the state is playing a secondary role in the present intensification of globalization. Capitalism has, since its inception, been globalizing with the active collaboration of nation states (also more recently via the WTO, NAFTA …), and what we have now is the intensification of this process through information technology where everything occurs in real time. Capitalism as a global system requires national organizations to ensure the internationalization of its manner of production.(2)

The state organizes, regulates, “educates,” creates and sustains markets, provides surveillance, evaluates, legitimates, forges networks and represses. One should not downplay the role of the repression realized by the state during this period. Behind the whole facade of securing consent (the ideas it helps generate through its institutions, the media etc, enable it to win over popular consent), lurks naked power which, in Mao’s famous words, ultimately lies in “the barrel of a gun.” The state consists of and acts in concert with institutions, such as the media, that provide the climate for acceptance of its policies. Consent is, thus, manufactured. The state, however, also holds a monopoly over the forces of repression such as the police, the Army, wardens, security officers (although the task is often subcontracted to private firms) etc. The state provides a policing force for those who are the victims of neoliberal policies as well as of the related “structural adjustment programs” in the majority world. These victims include blacks, Latino/as and the rest of what has been described as the “human waste disposal sector.”(3) Prisons, and privatized ones at that, have risen in the USA in the emergence of what Henry Giroux calls the “carceral state.” The prison metaphor can be applied on a larger scale to incorporate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa knocking at the gates of “Fortress Europe.” Carceral states await the victims of neoliberal policies worldwide, notably in countries that are serving as “first port of call” for immigrants from Africa and Asia fleeing poverty, starvation (exacerbated by structural adjustment programs), the droughts emanating from climate change and internal wars fueled by a potent Western-based arms industry (the US is the major exporter of arms). The carceral settings awaiting such hapless victims include detention centers (closed centers) where immigrants are kept for long periods prior to decisions being taken regarding whether they should be allowed in as refugees or repatriated. And such a carceral ordeal is experienced on top of the terrible and often tragic experiences of crossing huge tracts of land and desert in the world’s largest continent and of risking life and limb crossing from the shores of North Africa in small and hardly durable dinghies and other vessels. A similar ordeal is experienced by Latinos/as attempting to cross la frontera.

The carceral function of the state with its manifestly repressive orientation, but not without its dose of ideological support, serves to remind us that there is no 100 percent ideologically pure state apparatus and no 100 percent purely repressive state apparatus, the difference sometimes being one of degree. Authors like the French philosopher Louis Althusser had singled out the school as being the state’s most important ideological apparatus. However, one would have to point to the media as the most influential ideological apparatus, that is, the apparatus that influences minds and helps develop perceptions, as well as manufacture consent, in this day and age. And the link between the state and the media has been underscored time and time again by various commentators of a critical bent. There has been talk of “media spectacles,” which have come to dominate news coverage and deviate public attention from substantial public issues.(4) Media politics play a crucial role in advancing foreign policy agendas and militarism. Political forces such as al-Qaeda and, in the recent past, the Bush administration, constructed and developed media spectacles to advance their politics. The link between the state and the corporate media during the period of Republican US government under George W. Bush has been established.(5) In this regard, therefore, critical media literacy becomes an important feature of any effective educational experience in this day and age. And the challenge to state-induced media constructions lies within such a type of critical literacy as well as in learning to create and promote an alternative media discourse such as those circulated via YouTube, Twitter, and a variety of web sites. These have a role to play in an essential alternative discourse in this day and age. Electronic networking has opened up a variety of spaces in this regard. More than this, however, critical media literacy opens a vast and important dimension to the meaning of critical literacy: reading not only the word, but also the world, in Paulo Freire’s terms, and I would add, reading the construction of the world via the media.

Althusser seems to be right on target in his pointing to there being no 100 percent ideological state apparatus. Education has always had a very strong repressive function; this even more true today. Witness the US high school model with armed security guards making their presence felt in a heavy-handed manner.(6) Other theorists and writers talk of the connections among the state and those institutions we commonly consider neutral, but which – however apparently autonomous – tend to generate the basis for consensus regarding the current state of affairs.(7) They work closely with the state. Some have argued that they serve to prop up the state and that one cannot challenge the state frontally in Western society – see the failure of several head-on, gung-ho revolutions in the 20th century, including the attack on the state by Italy’s Red Brigades or by Germany’s Baader Meinhof (Red Army Faction). For the state to change, work has to be carried out on a large scale and within the interstices of these institutions which include the media, law, religion, education, the entertainment sectors, the arts, scientific communities etc.There is a long process of transformation to be effected, which involves work among these institutions that surround and prop up the state. And there invariably arises a struggle for hegemony.

Hegemony is an ancient Greek word. It has been described as a “social condition in which all aspects of social reality are dominated by or supportive of a single class” or group (p. 235).(8) It concerns ideas and an entire set of practices and expectations.(9) Opinion leaders and organizers strategically located in different sectors of society play a great part in legitimizing the current state of affairs. Similarly, any movement for change must operate also in the domain of influencing minds and practices. This is intellectual work, with the term “intellectual” being used not in its elitist sense, but in the sense of people who influence opinions and ways of living, acting etc. This is what progressive social movements partly seek to accomplish in their all-pervasive work.

This theorization of the state has affinities (despite a strong political-ideological difference) with some of the modern managerial technical-rational conceptions of the state with regard to policy formulation and action. The state and its agencies are nowadays said to work not alone, but within a loose network of agencies – governance rather than government. It has also been pointed out that the state further engages in economic activities, which are not left totally in the hands of private industry. In the first place, industry often collaborates in policy formulation in tandem or in a loose network with the state just as some NGOs or labor unions do, the latter often being co-opted in the process into a form of corporatism: they establish and pursue formal and informal links, in and outside the legislature, with key state agents to advance their specific interests.(10) Nowhere is the role of the state as economic player more evident that in higher education. The division between public and private becomes blurred. So-called “public universities” are exhorted to provide services governed by the market and which have a strong commercial basis. Furthermore, the state engages actively through direct and indirect means, sometimes including a series of incentives. It does this to create a higher education competitive market as part of the “competition” state – it helps foster competition between different entities as part of sustaining a market in this and other fields, all in keeping with the neoliberal ideology. In short, the state is an active player and has not gone away. It is central to the neoliberal scenario and we underestimate its centrality at our peril!


1. Paulo Freire, in Nita Freire as interviewed in Borg and Mayo, 2007, “Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interviews,” (New York: Peter Lang) p. 3.
2. See Corrigan, P., Ramsey, H. and Sayer, D. (1980), “The state as a relation of production,” in Corrigan, P. (ed.), “Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory,” (London: Quartet Books).
3. See Zygmunt Bauman on this in Macedo, D. and Gounari, P. (2006), “The Globalization of Racism,” (Boulder, Co: Paradigm).
4. See Douglas Kellner (2005) “Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy: Terrorism, War, and Election Battles,” (Boulder Co: Paradigm).
5. Ibid.
6. See Henry A. Giroux’s article “Brutalizing Kids: Painful Lessons in the Pedagogy of School Violence,” in Truthout 8/10/2009.
7. The major theorist here is Antonio Gramsci. See Gramsci, A. (1971). “Selections from the prison notebooks,” (Q. Hoare & G. Nowell-Smith, eds. & trans.) (New York: International Publishers).
8. Definition culled from Canadian sociologist David Livingstone’s 1976 paper, “On hegemony in corporate capitalist states: Material structures, ideological forms, class consciousness, and hegemonic acts,” published in Sociological Inquiry, 46, 235-250.
9. See Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” in the 1976 Open University Press Reader, edited by Roger Dale, Geoff Esland and Madeleine Macdonald (now Arnot). “Schooling and Capitalism. A Sociological Reader,” (Milton Keynes: Open University Press). The piece originally appeared in New Left Review (1973) and it later appeared in Marxism and Literature.
10. See David Held’s 2006 version of his classic, “Models of Democracy,” (Cambridge and Malden MA: Polity Press), p. 172.