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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?


  1. Or as @Ted_Underwood said, “If you want instances, seriously all you need do is search twitter on ‘neoliberal.’ It means what ‘bourgeois’ meant c1971.”

  2. I feel rather lucky not to be hanging out with people who use the term “neoliberal” these days. Would of course recommend Michael Bérubé’s What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts on (sort of) this question — in the course of that book, and indeed a lot of his writing, he talks extensively about the term “liberal,” though I can’t recall whether he talks about “neoliberal.”

  3. So, yes, neoliberal is everything, but welcome to ideology: all of it tends to be totalizing all the time :).

    I think when people use the term neoliberal, it has the clear connotation of neoliberalIZING. That is to say, the university has been a neoliberal institution for a long time, but I think it is fair to say, e.g., that the drastic drop in state funding for public institutions is a neoliberal trend.

    I agree, the term is over-used and often obscures the argument. You could simply state: public institutions are increasingly beholden to corporate funders and tuition dollars because of the rapid decrease in public funding. But to say this misses the fact that this is happening not in isolation, but within a system in which efficiency and profit are *assumed* to be appropriate values for any institution.

    I don’t like the word either. I agree that it probably has very little persuasive value: it tends to be the point where you are announcing “and here I begin preaching to the choir.” Nonetheless, I do think it is intended to mean something and is often deployed with that intention in mind. (But not by me. 🙂

  4. Spare a thought for those of us in Venezuela who have to withstand a torrent of neoliberal-as-expletives from the bully pulpit of state Television every time we question whether, say, giving away gasoline *for*free* is really a smart policy or whether we might not take some of the money the state wastes on loss-making state owned steel plants to build schools and such. “Neoliberals! Off with their heads!”

    Just sayin’…for some of us, the abuse of the term isn’t just annoying (though it *is* also that, God knows) – it’s also part of a rhetorical gambit serially used to repress dissent.

  5. Yeah, the way this term is used almost ubiquitously to refer to ‘capitalism’ or at least ‘the bits of capitalism that I don’t like’ is so annoying. It’s especially inronic when you consider that the term was originally coined as a name for the Freiburg school of economics, who held that the free market actually needed to be restrained and strictly regulated – the exact opposite of the way the term is used now, a redefinition that has taken place entirely at the hands of left-wing critics in the total absence of any push-back.

    The term is almost never actually fully defined when used in academic discourse – even applying the laxest standard, a review of academic papers found that 69% of paper focused on neoliberalism didn’t even bother to define the term at all, and most of the ones that did did so only very loosely. See this paper for more details –


  6. I got here from” Neoliberalism and MOOCs:” on elearnspace. I wholeheartedly agree with your frustrations-it is a term that is bandied around and only used in a derogatory way. Education is not, and should not be immune to market forces, in my opinion. There is no one neo-liberal country, no completely socialist country-it is a sliding scale. Market forces and regulation are both necessary efficiency and ‘fairness’. The new revolution of MOOCs is indeed a response from the private sector, with several publicly backed MOOC providers as well. Private sector mooc providers seem to work well with state funded universities, at least over here in europe. One example is iversity.org, who have 3 courses that you can get ECTS college credits from participating in and passing the final exam. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next 5 years.


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