I have come to despise the term “neoliberal,” to the extent that I’d really like to see it stricken from academic vocabularies everywhere. It’s less that I have a problem with the actual critique that the term is meant to levy than with the utterly sloppy and nearly always casually derisive way in which the term is of late being thrown about.1 “Neoliberal” is hardly ever used these days to point to instances of the elevation of market values above all others — it’s used to tar anything that has anything to do with any market realities whatsoever. Which, hello, United States, 2012. Welcome.
So to say, for instance, that the university-in-general is a neoliberal institution is to say precisely nothing. Name me one contemporary institution — seriously, an actual institution — that isn’t. Including every last one of us. None of us got to live in the places we live or study in the places we study or read on the freaking internet without market realities giving us the wherewithal to do so.2
To say, on the other hand, that some universities are more beholden to market values than others — that some have made a value of the market, to the extent that they bear only the market in mind, and precious little else — and have therefore acquiesced all too willingly to the pressures of neoliberalism, actually might mean something. As it might to say that, for instance, having marketability as our only indicator of the value of scholarship or a scholar’s work represents a neoliberal corruption of the critical project in which we as scholars are ostensibly engaged. But that’s no longer how “neoliberal” is being used, at least in my hearing. It’s instead become a blanket term of dismissal, often aimed at institutions that do not have means of fixing the inequities by which we’re beset, inequities that are way larger than any university, even the university-in-general, can take on without serious support coming from somewhere.
So no more. “Neoliberal” is henceforth dead to me. I will take seriously no more casual statements that toss it around like popcorn, no further arguments that rely on it without any sense of specificity or grounding.
(And as for the tendency to associate anything that involves a computer automatically and of necessity with neoliberalism? Don’t even get me started.3)
- What’s happened to “neoliberal,” in fact, is not all that different from what happened to “deconstruction,” when it got adopted as a smart-sounding way of saying really close reading. And in this usage, it’s never an invitation to further discussion; it’s a conversation ender, the critique to which there can be no response.
- And to fault the university-in-general for its capitulation to the market when, in the age of state abdication of responsibility for funding higher education, there is literally nowhere else to turn, strikes me as laying blame at entirely the wrong doorstep. Should universities be spaces protected from market values? Yes. Tell me how we get there, while keeping the university running in the process.
- And if you make such an argument while your fingers are resting on the keyboard of a very thin, sleek laptop? Do I need to say the rest?