Evaluating the New Right’s Perspective on Education

In this post I offer four pieces of evidence students can use to evaluate the New Right’s perspective on education, particularly their claim that Marketisation policies since 1988 have raised standards for all pupils.

Item A: GCSE Pass Rates

Probably the strongest piece of supporting evidence for the New Right’s policies on education is that they have worked to improve GCSE results nearly every year for the last 30 years:

The latest reports focusing on the long term trend are a bit dated, such as this one from The Guardian, but it clearly shows a long term improvement in grades at GCSE:

Despite recent dips in top grades, this 2013 report from Full Fact, which also focuses on the long term trend in results since 1988 points out that:

  • The pass rate for grades A*-C has increased by almost two-thirds from 42.5% in 1988 to 68.1% in 2013.
  • A*/A grades have almost trebled from 8.6% in 1988 to 21.3% in 2013.

However, the report also recognizes that some of this is due to grade inflation as this increase in performance is not mirrored by English and Welsh students in international tests, such as PISA BELOW.

Item B: PISA international league tables

(http://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/)

The PISA league tables demonstrate how the neoliberal/ New Right idea of ranking educational achievement has gone global – Since the year 2000 we now have International Education League Tables.

Since the year 2000, every three years, fifteen-year-old students from randomly selected schools worldwide take tests in the key subjects: reading, mathematics and science, with a focus on one subject in each year of assessment. In 2012, some economies also participated in the optional assessments of Problem Solving and Financial Literacy.

Students take a test that lasts 2 hours. The tests are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that are organised in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered.  Students take different combinations of different tests.

PISA is unique because it develops tests which are not directly linked to the school curriculum. The tests are designed to assess to what extent students at the end of compulsory education, can apply their knowledge to real-life situations and be equipped for full participation in society.

The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader school system and learning environment.

The UK currently ranks 23rd for English and Maths.

Item C: Stephen Ball (2003)

argues that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. They have the knowledge and skills to make the most of the opportunities on offer. Compared to the working class they have more material capital, more social capital – access to social networks and contacts which can provide information and support.

Ball refers Middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. For example, they use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer. They collect and analyse information about GCSE results, and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

Ball also talked of the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general, the schools with more middle class students have better results. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market.

Item D: Sue Palmer – The Problems of Tests, Targets And Education

Sue Palmer Is usually introduced in Families and Households module. She argues that technological and social changes have made modern childhood ‘toxic’, and testing in education (because of league tables and The New Right) is part of this problem. Sue Palmer writes…..

‘As long as league tables exist, in a risk averse society most people daren’t ignore them. Primary schools at the top of the league (which, by a strange coincidence, tend to be in the wealthiest areas) have a reputation to maintain; those at the bottom have to try to claw a little higher. The status of all interested adults (teachers, governors, parents) depends on how their Year Sixes perform in national tests.

So from four years of age, our children now live in the shadow of SATs. ‘No time for play in the reception class now,’ one teacher told me ruefully. ‘As soon as they arrive, it’s fast forward to the Key Stage One test.’ The curriculum is dominated by the core subjects of English, Maths and Science, broken down into a series of discrete‘learning objectives’ – closely matched to ‘assessment criteria’ – to be ticked off as children progress through the school.

There are ‘voluntary’ SATs for each year group, so children’s progress (and teachers’ competence in coaching their pupils) can be checked every summer. Then, in Year Six, come several months of concentrated exam practice, ‘booster classes’ during the Easter holidays for those who might not scrape the required mark, and sleepless nights for 11-year-olds terrified of ‘letting themselves down’ on the day.

Not surprisingly, this regime leaves far less time for creative but unquantifiable experiences, like art, drama and music, which through the millennia have nurtured children’s imaginations and contributed incalculably to their emotional and social development. Less time also for the active, hands-on learning children need if they’re genuinely to understand the concepts underpinning the tests.

Last year researchers found that the conceptual understanding of today’s 11-year-olds lags two to three years behind their counterparts in 1990. While performance on pencil-and-paper tests of has soared over this period, children are apparently less likely to understand the principles they’ve been trained to tick boxes about.

Research published recently by the independent Alexander Review of primary education shows that – on tests other than those for which children are coached – there have been only modest improvements in mathematics, and little change in literacy standards. And in last month’s PIRLS survey of international achievement in literacy, England had actually gone backwards, slumping from 3rd to 19th place.

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What is Neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is the idea that less government interference in the free market is the central goal of politics.

Neoliberals believe in a ‘small government’ which limits itself to enhancing the economic freedoms of businesses and entrepreneurs. The state should limit itself to the protection of private property and basic law enforcement.

Neoliberalism is most closely associated with Thomas Hayek and Milton Friedman, and the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Milton Friedman.png

Neoliberals advocate three main policies to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society: privatization, deregulation and low taxation.

Some examples of Neoliberal Policies include:

  • Lowering taxes on income, especially high income earners. When Thatcher came to power in 1997 she reduced income tax on the very highest earners from 83% to 60%.
  • Lowering Corporation tax – The government reduced the main corporation tax from 28% in 2010 to just 21% in 2014.
  • Privatising public services – Privatisation began under the Thatcher government of 1979 and continues today (2017). Britain’s rail, energy and water industries all used to be run by the state, but now they are run by private companies. Education and Health services are also being ‘privatised by stealth’, as more and more aspects of these services are contracted out to and run by private sector companies.
  • Reducing the number of rules and regulations which constrain businesses: This involves national and local governments monitoring private businesses less: by reducing the number of ‘health and safety standards’ businesses need to conform to and doing fewer health and safety and environmental health inspections for example.
deregulation UK.jpg
The ‘Red Tape Challenge’ offers some good examples of deregulation…

Further Background on Neoliberal Thought 

Neoliberalism emerged in the 1950s as a reaction against ‘Keynesianism’ – the idea that nation states should play a significant role in managing free market capitalism through high taxation in order to provide public services such as unemployment benefit, free health care and education (‘the welfare state’).

Keynsianism itself was a development of the earlier doctrine of ‘Liberalism’ which believed that individual freedom was the central goal of politics. Obviously the question of what kind of society allows for the most or best freedom is open to debate, but by the 1950s a consensus had emerged that ‘liberty’ was best guaranteed if the state provided a high degree of regulation of the economy and investment in social welfare.

Neoliberals such as Friedman believed that this ‘Keynesian’ model of organising the economy was inefficient, one of the reasons being that it restricts the freedoms of successful economic actors to reinvest their money as they see fit, because the state takes it away from them through taxes and gives it to the less successful, which in turn can create a perverse situation in which society punishes success and rewards laziness.

Evaluations of Neoliberalism

Arguments for neoliberalism

  • What right does the state have to tax money earnt through individual effort, innovation and risk?
  • Neoliberals argue that the private sector run services more efficiently than the state sector.
  • The argument for deregulation is that red-tape stifles business.

There are many critical voices of neoliberalism, mainly from the left and from within the green movement. Some of the main criticisms can be summarised as follows:

  • Cutting taxes on the rich has resulted in greater inequality and a lower standard of public services, especially for the poor.
  • Privatisation of public services has resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the majority to the rich –
  • Deregulation has made society less safe and stable – critics blame deregulation of the finance sector for the 2007 financial crash and the deregulation of health and safety legislation as being linked to the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Critical Points

It can be difficult to evaluate the impact of neoliberalism because the term is so broad, and there is actually quite a lot of disagreement over what it actually means.

Even if we just focus on the policy aspect of neoliberalism – and try to evaluate the impact of lowering taxation, privatisation and deregulation, you would almost certainly need to break these down and look evaluate the impact of each aspect separately, and maybe even subdivide each aspect further to evaluate properly.

Selected Sources used to write this post…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism

http://www.fsmitha.com/h2/ch37-thatcher.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/29/short-history-of-privatisation

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/mar/29/short-history-of-privatisation

http://www.slobodaiprosperitet.tv/en/node/847

https://fee.org/articles/what-is-neoliberalism-anyway/

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20150326105407/https://www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/themehome/rtc-results-2/

Stephen Hawking Against Neoliberalism!

Stephen Hawking this week accused the Conservative government of damaging the NHS by slashing funding, weakening the health service though privatization, demoralizing staff by curbing pay and cutting social care support.

Neoliberal policy harming health.jpg

Hawking blamed a raft of policies pursued since 2010 by the coalition and then the Conservatives for enfeebling the NHS and leaving it unable to cope with the demands being placed on it.

“The crisis in the NHS has been caused by political decisions,” he said. “The political decisions include underfunding and cuts, privatising services, the public sector pay cap, the new contract imposed on the junior doctors and removal of the student nurses’ bursary.

Hawking also accused the Tories of ‘cherry picking evidence’ to back up their views that funding cuts were not damaging the NHS…

“When public figures abuse scientific argument, citing some studies but suppressing others, to justify policies that they want to implement for other reasons, it debases scientific culture…One consequence of this sort of behaviour is that it leads ordinary people not to trust science, at a time when scientific research and progress are more important than ever, given the challenges we face as a human race.”

Comments/ Application to Sociology

I thought the news item above was worth summarizing as it’s such a great example a critique of neoliberal social policy – Hawking basically picks up on all the three main aspects of neoliberal policy – deregulation, funding cuts and privatization.

The matter of ‘trust’ is also a very central concept in any sociology of the risk society – Hawking is saying that you can trust scientific research as long as you’re objective about it and take into account all of the data and (appropriately reviewed) studies on the topic in-hand – not enough people are saying this clearly enough, and I think it’s important as it’s a useful antidote to post-truth politics.

As to the credibility of science being undermined when politicians cherry-pick data, this is less likely to happen if more scientists like Hawking get involved in social policy discourse. I mean: who do you trust more: The health minister Jeremy Hunt telling you the NHS is doing great based on studies B, F, AND M, or someone like Hawking telling you that, yes studies B,F, and M tell suggest the NHS is doing OK, but if we also take into account studies A through Z, on balance the neoliberalism is screwing our public health services?

Sources 

The Guardian: Stephen Hawking blames Tory politicians for damaging NHS

 

Grenfell Tower – Profits before Safety?

This truly horrific, and avoidable tragedy seems to be a perfect illustration of the downsides of neoliberal policies – deregulation, cutting public services (such as social housing) and outsourcing to private companies are the three cornerstones of neoliberal economic policy – and the conflation of these three things together seem to be directly responsible for the deaths in Grenfell Tower.

Grenfell Tower neoliberalism
The official death toll for the Grenfell Tower is currently 79 people, although the actual number might be considerably higher.

NB – This isn’t just me saying this, below is an approximate quote by Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, in a speech given on 24th June:

‘The Grenfell Tower fire was a ‘direct consequence of Tory attitudes towards social housing… they think they are second class citizens, and thus they got second class fire safety standards. It is also a direct consequence of outsourcing and of deregulation” (video from The Independent).

Five things which suggest Kensington Council put profits before safety…

I’ve taken the  five pieces of evidence from a recent article in The Week : ‘The Grenfell Inferno: were profits put before safety’? (NB – as far as I can tell, this is only in the print copy of The Week, 24th June, Issue 1130).

One – The council ignored repeated warnings by Grenfell residents

Grenfell residents had repeatedly warned KCTMO that the building was unsafe:

  • rubbish blocking hallways was going uncollected
  • emergency lighting was inadequate
  • there was no fire escape (save the main stairs)
  • fire extinguishers weren’t being tested
  • repeated power surges had led to electrical appliances catching fire previously.
  • It was also claimed that on the night of the fire, the fire alarms failed.

The council’s response was to actually threaten one of those bringing up the issue of fire safety with legal action:

grenfell fire safety.png

Two – The council made a conscious choice to cut costs on social housing

The council had the money to make the Tower safe, but it chose not to spend it.

Amelia Gentlemen in The Guardian suggests that, in the context of the vast wealth in the borough, there is a strong suspicion that council officials ‘see social housing tenants, many of them immigrants, as a nuisance, occupying valuable land that could be sold off to developers at a vast profit’. 

Three – The council outsourced the recent refurbishment of Grenfell Tower to a firm called Rydon, which has a track record of putting profits before safety.

Rydon, which made a pre-tax profit of £14 million last year, won the contract over the councils ‘preferred contractor’ by undercutting them, despite the fact that another council, Sutton council, had recently cancelled a five year repairs contract with Rydon becaue its performance fell short of requirements.

Rydon Cladding.jpg

Rydon subcontracted out the Grenfell work to nine different companies, which raised ‘serious concerns about the quality of supervision and accountability’.

So it was Rydon that was the firm who would have agreed to install the non fire-proof cladding, rather than going for the fire-proof panels for an extra £5000.

Four – Deregulation has meant that landlords have managed to avoid acting on fire safety advice. 

Retrofitting sprinklers (which would have cost £200 000) was one of the recommendations made after a fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009 killed nine people, but lawmakers decided not to make this mandatory – they left it up to landlords and councils to do so on a voluntary basis, and few did.

deregulation Grenfell
The Cabinet Office boasts how deregulation has reduced the rigor of fire safety inspections

Five – The incapable response by the council to the disaster

Despite an amazing voluntary response by the public, the ‘council was no where to be seen’ – even 24 hours after the fire, there was no centralised co-ordination from the council, no point of information about missing persons, and some residents were still sleeping rough 4 days later.

All of this suggests that the council see social housing tenants as second class citizens. 

Grenfell protests kensington.jpg

NB – the poor treatment is continuing several days later….According to The Guardian around 30 households were subsequently told by the council that they would have to move out their Holiday Inn accommodation because of previous bookings; some families have been asked to move several times.

The relevance of all of this to A-level sociology….

As I mentioned above, this tragedy can be used to illustrate downsides of neoliberal policies – deregulation, cutting public services (such as social housing) and outsourcing to private companies are the three cornerstones of neoliberal economic policy – and the conflation of these three things together seem to be directly responsible for the deaths in Grenfell Tower.

It’s also a useful reminder that poor people in rich (unequal) societies can be treated appallingly, suggesting that inequality is the main barrier to further social development in so called ‘developed’ countries like the United Kingdom.

I also think Bauman’s concept of ‘flawed consumers’ can be applied here – Bauman has long commented that capitalism produces ‘surplus people’ – those without the means to consume, and many of the Grenfell residents fit this category – and because they perform no useful function in a capitalist system (because they can’t buy that many things and keep profit flowing) these people are treated with contempt, as this case study clearly demonstrates.

As a final note, a harsh question I’d like people to consider is simply this – how many people in the U.K. genuinely believe that the state should guarantee a decent standard of housing for everyone, even if that means spending a few billion extra pounds at the national level, which in turn would mean an increasing in taxes?

Clearly the Kensington council leader, and probably most of the Tory party, think the state should provide no or minimal help to the poor in the form of social housing, that’s one of the main strands of neoliberal thought, but how many of those people cheering for Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury really believe the state should pay more towards social housing, especially if that means your council tax bill going up?

I have this uncomfortable feeling that while it’s easy to come together and hate the Tories, if you probed public opinion a little deeper, there probably wouldn’t be that much support for increased spending on social welfare, or that much commitment to giving serious thought about how to implement policies to make capitalism work better for the poor, let alone how to replace it with a post-capitalist order.

 

 

Why Did Labour Gain Seats in the 2017 General Election?

In the recent June 2017 General Election, Labour won more votes than it did in 2001, 2005, 2010 or 2015, proving almost all the forecasts and commentators wrong.According to this Guardian article there are three main reasons for this…

It motivated young people to get out and vote.

A lot’s been made of the historically high turnout by 18-24 year olds…. It looks like in key constituencies – from Harrow West to Canterbury (a seat that has been Conservative since 1918) – the youth vote was vital. Labour showed it cared about young people by promising to scrap tuition fees, an essential move to stop the marketisation of higher education, and it proposed a house-building programme that would mean many more could get on the property ladder.

This is in stark contrast to the two other major parties – the Lib Dems in 2010 under Nick Clegg lied to them, and the Conservatives have attacked them – cutting housing benefits for 18- to 21-year-olds, excluding under-25s from the minimum wage rise and slashing the education maintenance allowance. At this election, Theresa May offered nothing to young people in her manifesto. Their message was: put up with your lot. Under the Tories, young people have been taken for granted and sneered at as too lazy to vote.

The NUS reported a 72% turnout by young people, and there is a definite thread in the media attributing the swing towards Labour as down to this.

However, this is contested by Jack Sommors in this article who suggests that it was middle-aged people who swung the election result away from the Tories.

‘Lord Ashcroft’s final poll, which interviewed 14,000 people from Wednesday to Friday last week, found people aged 35 to 44 swung to Labour – 50% voted for them while just 30% voted for the Tories. This is compared to 36% of them voting Labour and 26% backing the Tories just two years ago’.

A further two reasons which might explain the swing, let’s say among the younger half of the voting population, rather than just the very youngest are:

Labour offered localised politics, not a marketing approach

Labour rejected the marketing approach to politics in favour of a strong, localised grassroots campaign… this was not simply an election May lost; it was one in which Corbyn’s Labour triumphed. Labour proposed collectivism over individualism and a politics that people could be part of.

Labour offered a genuine alternative to neoliberalism…

Labour offered a positive agenda to an electorate that’s been told its only choice is to swallow the bitter pill of neoliberalism – offering a decisive alternative to Tory austerity in the shape of a manifesto packed with policies directly challenging what has become the economic status quo in the UK. Labour no longer accepted the Tory agenda of cuts (a form of economics long ago abandoned in the US and across Europe): it offered investment in public services, pledged not to raise taxes for 95% of the population, talked about a shift to a more peaceful foreign policy, promised to take our rail, water and energy industries out of shareholders’ hands and rebalance power in the UK.

So how is this relevant to A-level Sociology…?

  • In terms of values…It seems to show a widespread rejection of neoliberal ideas among the youth, and possibly evidence that neoliberal policies really have damaged most people’s young people’s (and working class people’s) life chances, and this result is a rejection of this.
  • In terms of the media… It’s a reminder that the mainstream media doesn’t reflect public opinion accurately- just a thin sliver of the right wing elite. It also suggests that the mainstream media is losing its power to shape public opinion and behavior, given the negative portrayals of Corbyn in the mainstream. .

Value-Freedom and explaining election results…

The above article is written with a clearly left-leaning bias. Students may like to reflect on whether it’s actually possible to explain the dramatic voter swing towards Labour objectively, and how you might go about getting valid and representative data on why people voted like they did, given that there are so many possible variables feeding into the outcome of this election?!

Sources

Young people voted because labour didn’t sneer at them. It’s that simple

General Election 2017: Young turn out ‘remarkable’

The US bombing of Afghanistan – A $16 million distraction from the harms of neoliberal policies at home?

America’s two latest attacks on Syria and Afghanisatan have been headline news in the last fortnight – in case you missed either of them…

In Syria – the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles to damage and air base in response to the claimed use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against civilians.

In Afghanistan they deployed the biggest ever non-nuclear bomb, at a cost of $16 million, to take out an ISIS stronghold.

The US claims the Syrian attack was because Assad crossed a line in using chemical weapons, and much of the news has focused on the declining relations with Russia (who support Assad), and they claimed the scale of second attack was to get into the underground bunkers used by ISIS, and here the news has focused on the message this sends to North Korea.

But why is the Trump administration playing ‘global policeman’ when just 6 months ago they campaigned on a ticket of focusing on domestic policy and making life better for ordinary America?

Noam Chomsky offers an interesting perspective and answer…

Noam Chomsky recently claimed that the Trump administration would need some kind of scapegoat or distraction to disguise the fact that their neoliberal policies are clearly in favour of big business and against the interests of the ordinary working class American, whose side Trump claimed to be on during the election campaign.

One good example of a recent neo-liberal policy which will make life worse for especially poorer working class Americans is the abolition of Obama’s anti wage-theft legislation this required a company to publish details of any violations of minimum wage or health and safety law that they’d made. The regulation forced businesses to disclose each time they broke a law in the past three years, including violations relating to civil rights, health and safety, and minimum wage and overtime violations.

There was also Trump’s recent attempt to repeal ‘Obamacare’ – which would have left 20 million more (poor) Americans without health insurance, but that was defeated, however, the defeat is an embarrassment which fuels the need for a distraction according to Chomsky.

So maybe there is some truth in this? Maybe now the real Trump is showing his colours and enacting policies which support big business and make life worse for the working man, what’s needed is a distraction – and what better than to bomb a few people, which will obviously just generate more problems abroad and more terrorist attacks on US citizens, possibly all ending up in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you like this sort of Chomskian analysis, you might also want to check out Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’, what’s going on here seems to be an evolution of what she argues too.

Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity

This is a brief summary of Jason Read’s: A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2009)

Introduction

Neoliberalism represents a fundamental shift in ideology – firstly, it is not generated from the state, but from the quotidian experience of buying and selling commodities from the market, which is then extended across other social spaces, “the marketplace of ideas,” to become an image of society. Secondly, it is an ideology that refers not only to the political realm, to an ideal of the state, but to the entirety of human existence. It claims to present not an ideal, but a reality.

 

A critical examination of neoliberalism must address this transformation of its discursive deployment, as a new understanding of human nature and social existence rather than a political program.

 

Homo Economicus: The Subject of Neoliberalism

 

Foucault – the difference between liberalism and neoliberalism – according to Foucault neoliberalism extends the process of making economic activity a general matrix of social and political relations; the sphere of economics expands, and more and more things are understood through a simple means-ends, cost-benefit analysis.

 

 

Another difference between liberalism and neoliberalism is that neoliberalism takes as its focus not exchange but competition. Competition necessitates a constant intervention on the part of the state, not on the market, but on the conditions of the market.

 

Foucault also takes the neoliberal ideal to be a new regime of truth, and a new way in which people are made subjects: homo economicus is fundamentally different subject, structured by different motivations and governed by different principles, than homo juridicus, or the legal subject of the state. Neoliberalism constitutes a new mode of “governmentality,” a manner, or a mentality, in which people are governed and govern themselves.

 

The operative terms of this governmentality are no longer rights and laws but interest, investment and competition.

 

As a mode of governmentality, neoliberalism operates on interests, desires, and aspirations rather than through rights and obligations; neoliberal governmentality follows a general trajectory of intensification. This trajectory follows a fundamental paradox; as power becomes less restrictive, less corporeal, it also becomes more intense, saturating the field of actions, and possible actions.

 

Neoliberalism has created individualised individuals, companies of one – the needs of Corporations to be free from expensive commitments and to have ever greater numbers of ‘flexible satellites’ has resulted in workers not seeing themselves as existing in solidarity, but as individuals who need to invest in their future, through constantly updating their skills.

 

The worker has become “human capital”. Salary or wages become the revenue that is earned on an initial investment, an investment in one’s skills or abilities – As Foucault writes summarizing this point of view: “Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself.”

 

As Thomas Lemke argues, neoliberalism is a political project that attempts to create a social reality that it suggests already exists, stating that competition is the basis of social relations while fostering those same relations.

 

Foucault offers us a different interpretation of the relationship between labour and capital. Marx saw labour as being exploited by capital in the process of production, whereas neoliberals redefine the two terms and the relation between them: the capitalist is redefined as an entrepreneur, and labour becomes human capital – capital emerges from labour.

 

(However, for Foucault) As Christian Laval argues, in neoliberalism all actions are seen to conform to the fundamental economic ideas of self-interest, of greatest benefit for least possible cost. This extends to all areas of society – It is not the structure of the economy that is extended across society but the subject of economic thinking, its implicit anthropology.

 

Towards a criticism of neoliberalism

 

Marx tended to see labour as being turned into a cog in the machine, and this was the major way labour ended up working for capital. However, Marx raised the possibility in the Grundrisse, that other human potentialities might be subsumed under capital – and this is where we are at now….

 

Capital no longer simply exploits labour, understood as the physical capacity to transform objects, but puts to work the capacities to create and communicate that traverse social relations. This subsumption involves not only the formation of what Marx referred to as a specifically capitalist mode of production, but also the incorporation of all subjective potential, the capacity to communicate, to feel, to create, to think, into productive powers for capital.

 

For Negri… as production moves from the closed space of the factory to become distributed across all of social space, encompassing all spheres of cultural and social existence, neoliberalism presents an image of society as a market, effacing production altogether and neoliberal power works by dispersing bodies and individuals through privatization and isolation.

 

To put the problem in Foucault’s terms, what has disappeared in neoliberalism is the tactical polyvalence of discourse; everything is framed in terms of interests, freedoms and risks. As Wendy Brown argues, one can survey the quotidian effects or practices of governmentality in the manner in which individualized/market based solutions appear in lieu of collective political solutions: gated communities for concerns about security and safety; bottled water for concerns about water purity; and private schools (or vouchers) for failing public schools, all of which offer the opportunity for individuals to opt out rather than address political problems. Privatization is not just neoliberalism’s strategy for dealing with the public sector, what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession, but a consistent element of its particular form of governmentality, its ethos, everything becomes privatized, institutions, structures, issues, and problems that used to constitute the public.24 It is privatization all the way down.

 

As Foucault argues, neoliberalism operates less on actions, directly curtailing them, then on the condition and effects of actions, on the sense of possibility…. Competing ideas must address this!

Are Downshifters Resisting Neoliberalism?

This is a summary of Verdow: The subject who thinks economically? Comparative money subjectivities in neoliberal context

The findings below are based on a comparative study of the money values of 3 groups of Australian generation Xers -‘ordinary’ low and high income individuals and ‘downshifters’. The study is based on a sample of 41 interviewees from one region in Australia, using unstructured interviews with the question ‘what is the good life’ as a starting point.

The study looks at how neoliberalism it might shape subjective identity through the lens of money meanings, looking at respondents’ attitudes to money goals, money values, money boundaries and their relation to temporality. It shows that while ‘ordinary’ middle and low income participants’ subjectivities strongly reference lay (everyday) forms of neoliberalism, some aspects of downshifters’ money meanings proactively undermine them.

To couch this in more theoretical terms the study analyses the ‘particular manner of living’ (Read, 2009: 27) that participants narrate; or what Foucault (1997: 298) would call ‘the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self’ by which individuals regulate themselves.

Specific Findings

Key theories of neoliberalism are enacted through adult subjective money meanings of middle- and low-income groups in the following ways:

  1. Both value economic entrepreneurialism: having freedom, independence,self-reliance and the opportunity for consumer choice.
  2. Money is viewed as a form of personal security (from unpredictable life events, or anxiety)
  3. Participants emphasizeself-responsibility for the management and/or improvement of their circumstance. In line with Buchan (1997: 270), the values and goals of the middle- and low-income participants emphasize economic thinking as the ‘condition of moral health’. This is the subject who thinks economically, embroiled in a ‘manner of governing that is actualized in habits, perceptions and subjectivity’ (Read, 2009: 34).
  4. Economic ‘freedoms’ are envisaged as empowering projects for the middle-income participants, for the low-income participants they generate anxiety through the absence of a means to achieve them.
  5. Money use for the middle-income participants is limited to an intimate social sphere, including private use and extending to family and close friends, or whatBrown (2006: 42) names a citizenship of ‘self-care’. For the low-income participants – there is an imposed permeability to their money status; that they are part-owned by others. This dependence is experienced as stigma, or self-inadequacy.
  6. With respect to temporality, middle-income participants are confident of a clear linear future, including projects, goals and possibilities. Low-income participants emphasize the present, where, due to unachievable aspirations, future expectations are unclear and become anxiety generating.

Downshifter themes also present habits and perceptions that (in a few cases) fit with neoliberal tenets:

  1. Their emphasis on takingself-responsibility, and their agency around goals of health and personal growth (Joseph, 2013).
  2. The curtailing of collective transformation forneoliberal subjects (Read, 2009: 36) is also observed, in that there is no collective organization in their efforts towards behaviour transformation.

Notwithstanding these exceptions, downshifters in this study tend to challenge principles of neoliberalism.

  1. Downshifters’ money values demonstrate an activemoral rethinking of money priorities, demoting its value relative to quality of life and connectedness with others.
  2. Their goals are less material and they do not perceive a low income as a failure toself-regulate (Walker, 2011). Rather, downshifters emphasize quality and meaning in work, social contribution and personal and spiritual growth.
  3. Their money boundaries are permeable, as personal money is viewed as part of taking moral responsibility for a wider social sphere.
  4. Similarly, their confidence in the future is not economically oriented, and temporality tends to be non-linear. Their focus is on being adaptive and reflective in response to possibilities that life may, or may not, present to them.

Where theories and social critiques of neoliberalism state in variegated ways that its disciplinary power is near total (e.g. it is viewed as a ‘leviathan’ by Wacquant [2010: 211], which offers no ‘ameliorative outcome’ [Whitehead and Crawshaw, 2014: 24]), the downshifters offer an alternative possibility. Based on these terms, monetary values and goals are reoriented, and include taking responsibility for the other.

The downshifters’ subjectivity is transformed, but not in neoliberal terms of competition in order to maximize economic options and futures. Rather, their behaviour accounts for currencies of personal and social health, through strategies including working with and for others so that they, too, may experience social and economic opportunities for transformed futures.

This study demonstrates that neoliberalism does not psychologically govern everyone’s soul (Rose, 1990).

Qualifications

There is risk in romanticizing downshifter experiences, as if having a low income is preferable should the right attitude accompany it. Research shows that downshifters often have the ability to adapt to their low income because they can draw on a middle-income ‘tool kit’ of resources and networks.

Further research highlighting other ‘deviant’ cases, and in particular understanding their epistemological differences in terms of how they are resilient in the face of specific neoliberal subjectivities and agencies (Gershon, 2011: 138), would be an important contribution to this knowledge.

Also noteworthy is that the relationship between neoliberal money meanings and their effects on social relations captured by this data does not account for the presence of ‘relational work’ (e.g. see Zelizer, 2012; see also Block, 2012Tilly 1988), a salient dimension of the sociological study of money. Further study with a focus on participant money practices in the context of key relationships would provide greater depth to our understanding of how neoliberal subjectivities are embedded in specific social and relational practices

What is the Neoliberal Subject?

What are the key aspects of the neoliberal subject?

Below is a brief summary of some of the key theorizing around and indicators of the successful neoliberal subject, drawn from Verdouw 2016 (1)

  1. They are an entrepreneurial, competitive creature, forming a ‘company of one’ (Read 2009)
  2. Freedom is defined as the freedom to choose market strategies (Browne 2005)
  3. Practices are presented as freely chosen, responsibility is taken regardless of constraint (Brown 2005, Gill 2008)
  4. They subscribe to a cultural trope of individual moral responsibility (Wacquant 2010)
  5. They close off alternative moral possibilities (Whitehead and Crashaw 2014, Read 2009)
  6. Their main goal is economic entrepreneurial freedom, more specifically independence, self-reliance, choice (to be realised through markets) and (financial) security
  7. They tend to be materialistic
  8. They perceive the self as a project, and themselves as a rational economic actors
  9. problems are construed as ones with market solutions
  10. They focus on profit and productivity
  11. They emphasize self-responsibility, agency and initiative.
  12. They value money generation. comfort, leisure and success
  13. In terms of money boundaries they emphasise privatisation, dispersion and isolation
  14. They define citizenship as self-care
  15. If they Living in the shadow of financialised norm
  16. They subscribe to the implausibility of social transformation
  17. They only take Responsibility for family and small groups of friends
  18. They are confident in self-identification with the future
  19. They are never in the moment, they are future oriented
  20. They have a clear, linear view of the future.

NB – There may well be some overlap with the points above, this is a starting point post to be refined over the long term.

According to McGuigan (2014, see 2 below) – the neoliberal self is comprised of the following characteristics:

  1. A self which is subjected to compulsory individualisation and combines a freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen; a self condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment
  2. A cool-capitalist way of life that does not appear to insist upon conformity and even permits a limited measure of bohemian posturing, personal experimentation and geographical exploration (‘the year out’, for instance).
  3. Generational tension is a distinct feature of the neoliberal imaginary, including the rejection of ‘dinosaur’ attitudes concerning all sorts of matters cherished by an older generation. In this sense, the neoliberal self is connected to a generational structure of feeling, a selfhood counter-posed to the old social-democratic self. Concretely this will typically involve enthusiasm for the latest communications gadget.
  4. The consumption aspect of the neoliberal self is the most obvious, involving the subjectivity cultivated by the cool seduction of promotional culture and acutely brand-aware commodity fetishism. Naomi Klein (2000) said most of what needs to be said about it at the turn of the Millennium.
  5. ‘Generation Debt’ – he doesn’t say much about this, but I’m guessing the neoliberal self is comfortable with debt. NB to my mind this contradicts fundamentally with ‘capital accumulation’.
  6. Significant numbers work in the ‘creative industries’ in wealthier countries are caught in a ‘neoliberal trap’. The paradoxical life conditions of such professional-managerial groups have been written about by Andrew Ross (2009). Personal initiative and frantic networking in the precarious labour market of short-term contracts, where enterprising ‘creativity’ is at a premium
  7. As Boltanski and Chiapello (1999/2005: 199) put it, for cadres instilled with ‘the new spirit of capitalism’, in effect, ‘Autonomy exchanged for security’.
  8. People subjected to uncertainty and unpredictability especially in so called ‘creative’ and allied careers, though not only there, must fashion the kind of self that can cope where trade-union representation has been eliminated or severely restricted. This kind of self is a neoliberal self, figuring a competitive individual who is exceptionally self-reliant and rather indifferent to the fact that his or her predicament is shared with others – and, therefore, incapable of organising as a group to do anything about it. Such a person must be ‘cool’ in the circumstances, selfishly resourceful and fit in order to survive under social-Darwinian conditions. Many simply fall by the wayside, exterminated by the croak-voiced Daleks of neoliberalism. However, the mass-media of communication hardly ever report upon the down-side of the neoliberal experience
  9. Today, it is impossible to talk of an ideal self without mentioning the role of the celebrity, larger-than-life figures to be admired and maybe even emulated, in an old-fashioned term functional as role models of aspiration – ‘dressed-down cool capitalists like Bill Gates or “Ben and Jerry”’ (Budgen, 2000: 151), Steve Jobbs, and today Mark Zuckerberg.

Specific examples of neoliberal subjectivities?

If you struggle a bit with this sort of thing, then you might like my more simplified version: ‘What is Neoliberalism‘?

Sources 

(1) The subject who thinks economically? Comparative money subjectivities in neoliberal context, Julia Joanne Verdouw. Journal of Sociology – August 29, 2016.

(2) McGuigan, J (2014) ‘The Neoliberal Self’, Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014: 223–240.

 

Neoliberalism in Conservative and New Labour Education Policy (1979-1997)

The resurgence of neoliberalism between 1979 to 1997 resulted in a rolling back of the collectivist principles of welfare state and a return to Victorian era individualsim, a reassertion of the twin pillars of individual liberty defined as freedom to choose and market forces, or the discipline of competition.

Throughout this period, conservative economic policy was reoriented towards the neoliberal agenda of deregulation, privitasation and and liberalisation.

Neoliberalism under the conservative government (1979-1997)

Ball points to six key elements of the conservative (neoliberal) framework for education, the main platform for which was the 1988 Education Reform Act:

  • The establishment of a national curriculum – (What Ball refers to as revisionist – a Victorian fantasy with Britain at the centre as a benign power lighting the way for others)
  • Suspicion of teacher professionalism – accountability and control
  • ‘Teacher-proof’ evaluation – more market information
  • Offering parents choice
  • Devolution of budgets from LEAs to schools
  • Enhancement of roles of governors and headteachers in local management systems.

These elements tied together as a reform package that provided the infrastructure for an education market and the neoliberal vision of the education system focused on market reform, which also had six key elements:

  • Choice for parents
  • Per capita funding meant schools were driven by recruitment
  • Diversity of provision
  • Competition
  • League tables
  • New organisationl ecologies – management modeled on business – focusing on ‘efficient’ use of resources and budget maximisation.

Further features of the neoliberal education system include:

  • A complex infrastructure of testing
  • A discourse of othering – constructing inner cities as a problem in need of correction, for example.
  • The TVEI was also established to reorient schools to the needs of employers. This was intended to make colleges more vocationally oriented, provide job-related training to 14-18 year olds and steer students into boom industries.

 Neoliberalism under the New Labour Government (1997-2010)

When New Labour cam to power in 1997 there were three further shifts or ruptures which were subtle yet distinct inflections of the period of Thatcherism or neoliberalism:

  • A further move in political terms towards the knowledge economy
  • A reassertion of the state as the ‘competition state’
  • A re-articulation of values to new labour values Following Jessop (2002) a competition state ‘aims to secure economic growth within its borders and/or seek competitive advantage for capitals based in its borders’ by promoting the economic and extra-economic conditions necessary for competitive success.

There was a corresponding refocusing of funding so it was increasingly related to performance and competitive success and a move away from public funding to contract funding through private, voluntary or quasi-public bodies.

 Specific policies to drive up standards included:

  • priortiorising literacy and numeracy
  • performance tables were amended to show student progress
  • every school was to be inspected every six years
  • failing schools were to become fresh start schools
  • there were more standards and effectiveness units and task forces

Policy also became increasingly complex/ diverse and dynamic – it talked of culture of success, and the economic imperative became absolutely clear – which represented a change in tone of policy making.

Ball refers to New Labour’s third way as warmed-over neoliberalism. The Third Way preferred a flexible repertoire of state roles and responses (following Eagle 2003) rather than being into market fundamentalism…. but ultimately the aim of the state was not to replace the market, but to make sure it worked properly.

Later on through the agendas of increasing diversification, differentiation and personalisation of learning we see policy being adapted to the interests/ fears and skills of the middle classes.

There was a new emphasis on modernisation, flexibility and dynamism – responding to globalisation – Schools should be innovators

There was a move away from the discourse of the comprehensive school, minimum standards and the start of what Kenway (1990) calls a ‘discourse of derision’ – bog standard comprehensives were stereotypically portrayed as bad – in order to undermine public services.

Sources

Post sumarised from Stephen Ball’s (2013) – The Education Debate