Democracy, Higher Education, and the Ivory Tower Critique of Neoliberalism

Jacob Ertel I Social Economics I Analysis I December 20th, 2016

Few dedicated to any semblance of left politics are celebrating the state of higher education in the United States today. From unprecedented student indebtedness to budget cuts to attacks on tenure, the future of academia looks bleak. Yet for the general concurrence on the symptoms resulting from the neoliberalization of the university, it is less established how this process of neoliberalization is best conceptualized. Analyses of neoliberalism tend to fall largely into two camps: one that describes a series of economic policy moves with varying degrees of deliberation or foresight, and one that describes a markedly new form of governmentality. These critiques are not mutually exclusive, but they often do diverge in their understanding of capitalism's historical progression, its underlying logic, and its most pronounced effects. In particular, the latter camp (largely comprised of cultural theorists) that evaluates neoliberalism as a paradigm shift in governmentality risks romanticizing the Fordist-Keynesian regime of publicly financed mass production and consumption, and the nominal freedoms typically associated with post-war governance. By adhering to the paradigm shift schema, this line of thinking loses sight of the historically contingent movement of capitalism, and in doing so erroneously leaves open the possibility of a return to a prior era. This is not only inaccurate analytically, but entails a range of counterproductive assumptions regarding the political nature of capitalism and liberal democracy. Looking at the higher education system in this light can be instructive for thinking through the political-economic changes of the last several decades, as well as how we can re-conceptualize resistance to ongoing processes of neoliberalization without resorting to a nostalgic imaginary.

Of central importance to any discussion of neoliberalism is that we know what we want. To be sure, since the 1970s inequality has increased, along with the privatization of public goods and services, the incorporation of poor and working class people into the financial sector, and the disembowelment of the already precarious welfare system. While these trends are serious and palpable, and emerge from a range of contradictions endemic to the Fordist-Keynesian arrangement-including low growth, high inflation, worker militancy, and destabilizing foreign inflows of capital-we need to be careful in discussing neoliberalism as a veritable paradigm shift. This is not to understate the realness of neoliberalism, but to argue to that it represents a historically contingent escalation of capitalism's underlying tendencies towards capital concentration, uneven development, and crisis. This distinction holds implications for formulating any sort of left political imaginary. If we accept neoliberalism as a paradigm shift, how much inequality under capitalism are we comfortable tolerating? A common response might entail what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten would term a 'restorationist' argument, which laments neoliberalism's abandonment of ostensible democracy or democratic institutions. Restorationist arguments can have radical theoretical origins, but fall more fully in line with humanist and social democratic affiliations that critique neoliberalism on the grounds of its moral baseness rather than its concrete functionality. Such critiques can be useful in helping us articulate our relationship to political and economic centers of power, but they often idealize pre-neoliberal iterations of such power. Instead, we should look to reconfigure our relationship to neoliberal institutions, especially if we decide that our objections to them come not from their neoliberalization but from their social function throughout capitalism's development.

Wendy Brown's critique of the neoliberalization of the university exemplifies a kind of restorationist nostalgia. In her recent Undoing the Demos, Brown portrays neoliberalism as a distinctly new governing rationality that constitutes a clean break from post-war governance. In so doing, Brown idealizes the university's historical role within the United States while equating democracy with liberal arts education. Brown conceives of neoliberalism as "an order of normative reason that, when it becomes ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life."[1] For Brown, the notion of the free market as a governing rationality fundamentally reconfigures our self-understanding-we become "homo oeconomicus" (a term borrowed from Foucault), or human capital, that constantly must work to leverage our ability to compete and enhance our self-worth.[2] Brown contrasts neoliberal from liberal rationality in three ways. First, whereas liberalism allowed for a degree cultivation of personal interests, under neoliberalism our identity as human capital becomes a singular and ever pervasive subject position. Second, as opposed to the impetus under liberalism for human capital to compete in order to participate in the purchase of use-values, neoliberalism mandates the infinite appreciation of self-as-exchange-value. Finally, neoliberal human capital operates in the sphere of financial or investment capital, rather than entrepreneurial capital. [3]

Brown explains that this neoliberal rationality is dangerous less so because of the material consequences of intensified economic polarization, but because it undermines our potential to effectively participate in democracy (broadly articulated as the ability for people to control their own political decision making process). This limitation is not due to a repressive state power or the impact of financialization on people's livelihoods, but to what Brown calls a reconfiguration of the higher education system in accordance with neoliberal rationality. For Brown, "Citizens cannot rule themselves…without understanding the powers and problems they are engaging," and that understanding must come first and foremost through education, and liberal arts education more specifically.[4] If "the dramatic thinning of key democratic values coupled with this intensification of nondemocratic forces and conditions threatens to replace self-rule with a polity in which the people are pawns of every kind of modern power," then the only way to combat "people's wholesale ignorance of the forces shaping their lives and limning their future" is through an educational model that challenges neoliberalism's professionalizing imperative.[5] This model looks to the post-war period in which, Brown claims, the university "promised not merely literacy, but liberal arts to the masses…it was a time in which a broad, if not deep college education-one of the arts, letters, and sciences-became an essential element of middle-class membership."[6] Here Brown misrepresents the university's social function as fundamental to the production of the "intelligent citizenry" needed for democratic self-rule. Though she often provides stipulations when discussing the pre-neoliberal university in the United States, such disclaimers are effectively rendered mute by her insistence on the university's (and in particular, the public university's) construction as a means for egalitarianism, social mobility, and democracy.[7] According to Brown, this conception of the university destined citizens "for intelligent engagement with the world, rather than economic servitude or mere survival."[8] Brown admits that this model is a classically liberal ideal, but one that is founded on a commitment to egalitarianism, humanism, and the public good. [9]

Yet why should economic mobility rest on a liberal arts education? Why should entering into the 'middle-class' be contingent on any particular kind of education? And how is classical liberalism commensurable with any kind of redistributive ethos? The goal here is not to take up Brown's understanding of the pre-neoliberal university as an institution of egalitarianism by arguing that the university is a purveyor of false consciousness or brainwashing. Rather, it is to assert that her views regarding what constitutes intelligence are rooted in unfair assumptions about education and democracy, and thus fail to provide an alternative to the tendency towards professionalization that she argues is unique to the neoliberal university. Even if we set aside the race-blind character of her analysis here, Brown's equation of liberal arts education to democracy is fundamentally elitist: its corollary is that those without such an education are unfit for participation in self-rule, as if exposure to Plato and Aristotle rather than accounting or marketing better qualifies one to truly understand one's own interests. This line of thinking is of course disengaged from the lived experiences of those who voluntarily seek vocational training (there is no voluntary activity for Brown), or those whose livelihoods depend on such preparation. One's contribution to society is determined through one's access to a particular kind of education. In making such claims Brown paradoxically accepts the neoliberal logic she writes against, and she does so without questioning the undemocratic nature of pre-neoliberal institutions themselves. Brown's democracy implies a flattened understanding of power, one that takes the notions of citizenry and nation-state for granted.

In particular, the claim that a university-educated citizenry precedes democracy performs a theoretical sleight of hand, as it inadvertently refers back to a logic of social intelligibility that codifies competency via institutional validation. Brown calls for a return to the vague democratic pluralism that has been eroded by the requirement for "skilled human capital, not educated participants in public life and common rule." [10] This understanding of democracy actually occludes an engagement with power, as such pluralism is distinct from the power-ridden selection process that determines which desires are legitimized and enacted. If we follow Brown's claims about the democratic nature of the post-war educational system, then it is puzzling as to why such a system would have eroded in the first place, unless neoliberalism is the natural outcome of a democratically engaged polity. In this sense, construing neoliberalism as a paradigm shift in governing rationality from the Fordist-Keynesian period-while avoiding a serious discussion of that regime's engrained racialized inequities, its economic contradictions, and its deepening militarization-fails to examine how the intensification of these tendencies under neoliberalism is endogenous to capitalism itself. This shortcoming is particularly acute when it comes to the academia: the professionalization Brown laments is part and parcel of the university under capitalism.

Here we may find Harney and Moten's work on the university instructive. In contrast to Brown's view of the pre-neoliberal, liberal arts university, Harney and Moten aver that self-identified critical academics must by nature of their position recognize and be recognized by the university. In other words, some buy-in is required. So-called critical education, apropos of Brown's appeal to the liberal arts, is thus constituted "in an opposition to the unregulated and the ignorant without acknowledging the unregulated, ignorant, unprofessional labor that goes on not opposite them but within them." [11] Academia's purpose is not to encourage a free flow of ideas-it is a striated and hierarchized field that envelops and regulates, but is also fallible in its own capacities. In contrast to Brown, Harney and Moten understand the university as a space of conflict that can serve as refuge but never enlightenment.[12] True subversion lies not in the call for a more critical education, but in stealing from the university what one can, in rendering oneself unintelligible within its mode of professionalism. Critical education's paradoxical relationship to professionalization entails a negligence of those who operate both within and outside of the university through a politics of deception, of theft, and of a true unprofessionalism. Such negligence then constitutes the crux of professionalization, while this professionalization is the means through which negligence is carried out.[13] To recognize or accept this logic is to simultaneously render oneself intelligible to it, and thus to adhere to Brown's call for pluralism. Such reasoning does not include this unprofessional group (for Harney and Moten, "the undercommons") in its understanding of democracy, and in so doing it accepts the claim that participation in the polity requires institutional codification. Meanwhile, the unintelligible sneak in to these institutions and work to bring them down. If this is what democracy actually means-institutionalization-then perhaps we need to reconsider our axes of opposition to neoliberalism. We need to go beyond the critique of the neoliberal university, to consider the intimate linkages between critical academia and the professionalizing tendencies endemic to the university under capitalism, neoliberal or not.

The problem with Brown's ivory tower critique of the neoliberalization of the university is not about an error in identifying this process's outcomes; the effects of neoliberalization are quite clear. The argument here is simply that rather than understanding neoliberalism as a new governing rationality, we should look to it as an exacerbation of capitalism's internal logics. Analyzing the conundrum of the neoliberal university in this way allows us to begin to analyze capitalism in a way that Brown is unwilling to do: we are better prepared to analyze the relationship between democracy and the state, more attuned to the experiences of the poor and the working classes, and able to move away from restorationist nostalgia.


[1] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 30.

[2] Brown, Undoing the Demos, 10.

[3] Ibid, 33.

[4] Ibid, 175.

[5] Ibid, 179.

[6] Ibid, 180.

[7] Ibid, 184.

[8] Ibid, 185.

[9] Ibid, 187.

[10] Ibid, 177.

[11] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Autonomedia, 2013), 32.

[12] Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 26.

[13] Ibid, 31.