Yesterday I signed a contract with UNC press for a book based on my dissertation. The working title of the project, which differs slightly from the title of my dissertation, goes like this:
The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and
the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education
As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I’m a little skittish about the “wars” part of the title, and I’m hoping I can come up with something better when it’s time to worry about such things.
But I’m not skittish about the use of the term “neoliberalism” — though plenty of my historian friends think I should be!
I am working under the assumption that “neoliberalism” is a useful umbrella term to describe the interconnected and (generally) explicitly articulated ideas, principles, political views and ideological commitments that have ended up running the table in higher education and much else besides.
Without getting too far into the devilish details of my project or plunging right away into the twists and turns of my argument/analysis — that’s what the book is for, after all — I will simply say that “neoliberalism” as an abstract term describes a school of thought privileging the “free market” not as a neutral mechanism for the efficient allocation of resources within a very broad (but still, in the end, limited) sphere, but rather as a positive moral force for determining social values in every sphere of human life.
Historically, the term “neoliberalism” is older than many people assume — it dates to the 1930s, not the 1970s or 1980s — and it is not (necessarily) a pejorative. As both Angus Burgin and Daniel Stedman Jones have demonstrated, “neoliberalism” (or “neo-liberalism” with a hyphen) was a term that participants in the Colloque Walter Lippman and the Mont Pelerin Society used to describe the economic/political philosophy championed by the likes of Friedrich Hayek and (later) Milton Friedman. Indeed, Friedman himself used the term to describe his own economic thinking in articles published in the 1950s.
Stedman Jones reports that Friedman and other like-minded thinkers eventually moved away from the term “neoliberalism” because they wanted to de-emphasize the notion that their ideas represented anything “new” or would introduce anything new. They wanted to claim for their philosophy of political economy the (at that point still esteemed) mantle of (classical) liberalism, and represent themselves as conservatives in the sense that they were (they claimed) conserving or safeguarding the classical foundations of a free society.
But there is nothing conservative about radical free-market ideology. What has been conserved by the near-total (I say near-total if I’m being hopeful) subjection of higher education to the liquidating logic of the market? This is precisely why I wish to avoid using such oxymoronic terms as “free-market conservatism” to describe the regnant philosophy of political economy that is currently setting the agenda for higher education.
The working title of this work in progress is not a hill I plan to die on. But I am of the opinion that “neoliberalism” is a term that, properly historicized (and I’m not pretending that I’ve done all that work here in this quick blog post) can be analytically useful —because it suggests ways in which radical free-market philosophy was not only a departure from, but also a development of, classical liberalism. (In brief, I would argue that neoliberalism emerged not by adding something to the classical liberal tradition, but by subtracting something from it. But I’ll have to argue that elsewhere — or at least elsewhen.)
Still, while I’m not planning to die on this hill, I’m content enough to stand on it for now — though I’m interested in hearing arguments as to why I shouldn’t.