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The terms neoliberal and neoliberalism have become ubiquitous in left-wing discourse of the past few years, ranging from discussions of government policy to critiques of mindfulness meditation. They merit a closer look.

Credit for the terms usually goes back to Michel Foucault, in his lectures collected as The Birth of Biopolitics. What is extraordinary about these lectures is that they took place in early 1979 – before Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would take office and implement the sweeping right-wing libertarian-capitalist economic reforms to which the term “neoliberal” is now most often applied. So while 21st-century writing about neoliberalism aims to describe an ideology that shapes the actions of government and social institutions, Foucault was merely writing about an ideology found in the writings of mid-20th-century German and American economists (most notably Friedrich Hayek). For this reason, Foucault now comes to look prescient – but his writing on the subject takes on a very different cast from 21st-century writers, since he is only describing a theory, and they aim to describe a practice.

There are many things to be said about the concept of neoliberalism. First off, it is an unfortunately confusing term, in the North American context at least. It probably makes sense in Australia, where the Liberal Party is the right-wing party. And the ideas and practices described as “neoliberal” do occur on both sides of the political spectrum. But the opposition to neoliberalism comes largely from people on the political left, people whom the vast majority of ordinary Americans and Canadians would still describe as – liberal.

Still, the term is in widespread use on the left now, and however confusing the term is, the bigger question is the phenomenon the term claims to describe: a phenomenon which is supposedly a new (neo) transformation of the market-oriented political ideas that have in the past gone under the name “liberal”. So we may ask of neoliberalism: is it liberal – at least in the broad sense in which Reaganite right-wingers are liberal? And is it neo – what about it is new?

The term, unfortunately, is thrown around indiscriminately enough that many of its usages describe something neither liberal nor neo. I’ll address that point in my next two posts. For now, I want to talk about those aspects which do have to do with liberal capitalism, in the broad sense, and what about them – if anything – is new.

The current popularity of the term likely owes a lot to Wendy Brown’s generally perceptive and well-informed Undoing the Demos, which applies Foucault’s concept to a variety of phenomena that go back to the Reagan-Thatcher era. The analysis is powerful; the trick is that only some of what Brown describes is neo in a meaningful sense. A lot of it is just old-fashioned liberal capitalism. Especially, there is nothing neo about cost-benefit calculation, that hallmark of utilitarianism; anything we can find in the 18th-century work of Jeremy Bentham is just plain old liberalism.

So for example, when Brown says that “broadly accessible and affordable higher education is one of the great casualties of neoliberalism’s ascendance in the euro-Atlantic world” (175), we need to remember that that kind of higher education did not exist before the mid-twentieth century. The loss of mid-century broad-benefit higher education is a dramatic and terrible loss, one that affected me very personally, but the anomaly was that brief period when we had it, not the new period in which we don’t. A world without broad-based higher education and tenure is one that would have been familiar to Bentham. The move in the direction of such a world would have been very familiar to Marx. 130 years before the Birth of Biopolitics lectures, Marx had already written that “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.” All of that predates Hayek.

What is new after the mid-century, I think – and Brown is particularly perceptive to notice this – is the concept of human capital, according to which “knowledge, thought, and training are valued and desired almost exclusively for their contribution to capital enhancement”. This is a view now pervasive through higher education that the purpose of education is to make people more employable. This view itself was inaugurated by Reagan – as governor of California, not even as president – when he proclaimed that taxes shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity”. It is now taken for granted so much that even people trying to defend humanities fields assume they have lost the battle, taking it for granted that the value assigned to higher education will be narrowly economic, and seek only to demonstrate that “knowledge of world religions builds intercultural competence that undergirds successful economic development…”

That approach is absolutely bonkers – and, importantly, would appear so even to Bentham. The idea the education should serve a solely economic purpose is indeed new, a neoliberalism not in the old. The great difference between Bentham’s utilitarianism and the economics it influenced is that Bentham never treated money-making as the primary activity of a human life. The point for Bentham was pleasure, and money was there as a useful servant to that end of pleasure. But it would have been obvious to Bentham – as it was to his inspiration Hume – that intellectual pursuits are a great and enduring pleasure, and therefore worthy in ways that have nothing to do with their money-making capacity.

Still, this significant and unfortunate change can be seen within a larger continuity. In thinking about the post-Reagan world I think there is a lot to be said for David Harvey’s analysis in The Condition of Postmodernity: there were significant changes in culture, politics and economics from the 1970s onward, but “these changes, when set against the basic rules of capitalistic accumulation, appear more as shifts in surface appearance rather than as signs of the emergence of some entirely new postcapitalist or even postindustrial society.” A world where universities exist to build human capital was not a world Marx knew – but it is also not a world that would have surprised him.