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In my previous post I agreed with Wendy Brown and other critics of “neoliberalism” that something was genuinely new, and disturbing, about the attempt to treat education as producing “human capital”, a narrow economic value. I do think, however, that such critics greatly overplay their hand. That is, they extend the critique of “neoliberalism” to phenomena that are not even liberal, let alone neo – to longstanding, deeply human concerns that predate capitalism and its ideology.

In Brown’s case, the problem comes across most clearly in a footnote attacking David Brooks. Some years ago in the New York Times, Brooks had written a moving defence of traditional humanistic education:

Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”

This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.

The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.

Brooks’s defence, it seems to me, is quite the opposite of the “human capital” approach: it defends exactly those aspects of education human cultivation left behind by the employability marketplace. “Care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage”, let alone “the dark vast forest” of “the human core”, won’t get you a job as a software engineer or accountant.

Yet, in Undoing the Demos, somehow Brown manages to twist this defence into its exact opposite. She footnotes Brooks’s piece as somehow illustrating ways in which the humanities “align with the neoliberal notion of building human capital.” (187n23) Why? Apparently because Brooks’s approach is about “building the mind and hence securing a more gratifying life for the individual”. (187) But a conceptual slippage has happened here. Now, suddenly, the “neoliberal notion of building human capital” is not about narrow economic value, but about any way in which individuals cultivate themselves at all. And once “neoliberal” starts being used in that way, I submit, it becomes a completely incoherent concept, describing something neither liberal nor neo.

Brown presents Aristotle as implicitly offering a “sharp critique of a neoliberal table of values”. On that I think she is right: the world of human capital and narrow economic value is very alien to Aristotle. Her characterization of Aristotle’s view is not wrong:

Human life wholly bound to the production of wealth, whether laboring to produce it or hovering over its accumulation, is small and unrealized. The same is true of human life that does not develop creative or intellectual capacities and does not seek to govern its own affairs. (189-90)

Yet it seems to me that to “develop creative or intellectual capacities” is exactly what is being advocated in defences of the humanities like Brooks’s, that specifically refer to refining and cultivating the soul. The “care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage” Brooks praises are nothing if not virtues – and even a passing familiarity with Aristotle is enough to know that cultivating virtue is at the very heart of his concerns.

Brown, then, somehow manages the remarkable feat of turning a defence of Aristotelian self-cultivation into a supposed attack on it. How is this possible? It seems to me that once Brown has picked up the hammer of anti-neoliberal critique, everything comes to look like a nail. In a further telling passage, Brown laments that in Brooks’s view the liberal arts “are not conceived as providing the various capacities required for democratic citizenship. Rather, they are conceived as something for individuals to imbibe like chocolate, practice like yoga, or utilize like engineering.” And somehow, to her, “This is a measure of how far neoliberalization has already gone.” (187-8)

The reference to yoga is instructive. While modern posture-based yoga is a hybrid phenomenon that can be many things, including a competitive sport, its instructors still often stress its philosophical roots in the classical Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: a text which emphasizes the cultivation of self-discipline and serenity, with the ultimate goal of kaivalya, “aloneness”. Thus classical yoga is certainly not about participating in democratic citizenship – but a special kind of obstinacy would be required to describe a text from the fifth century or before as “neoliberal”. The cultivation of individual virtue is, and always was, something far deeper than the capitalist economic transformations of the late 20th and 21st centuries.

But from this passage it seems that as far as Brown is concerned, everything that is not tied to her ideal of collectively pursuing democracy counts as “neoliberal” – even if it predates original liberalism! Such a view bespeaks a historical blindness, which is a shame coming from Brown, as Undoing the Demos contains a richly detailed, deep, and thoughtful understanding of Western thinkers from Bentham onward. But one can only describe all attempts at individual improvement as “neoliberal” by ignoring the many pre-liberal views that focus on exactly this. Even leaving aside non-Western traditions like the Yoga Sūtras and Buddhism (on which more next time), it ignores the Epicureans, who withdrew from the polis to “govern their own affairs” in a monastic garden, and Martin Luther, for whom the individual stands alone before God.

Notice that Brown doesn’t even stop with individualism. In this passage it appears that, for Brown, even things that are necessary parts of collective action count as neoliberal – most notably, engineering. Surely Brown knows that the postwar welfare-state universities that she and I admire could not have been physically built without civil engineering! If engineering as a pursuit is necessarily neoliberal, then the realization of Brown’s own ideals requires neoliberalism and is parasitic on it.

In this passage of Brown’s, then, the concept of neoliberalism has run amok, to the point where it has become completely nonsensical. I do think the term “neoliberalism” has some worth in describing the worldview according to which everything (including formerly non-economic spheres like education) should be viewed in the capitalist terms of economic growth or property rights. But that worldview is not the worldview of Brooks’s precapitalist humanities, of yoga, or even of engineering taken as a whole. (Most engineering might view itself in a neoliberal way – but if engineering as such is inherently neoliberal, then any battle against neoliberalism is and must be already lost.) “Neoliberalism” was never a great term to begin with, given that it means roughly the opposite of what it sounds like it means. If the term cannot be kept on a short leash – confined to its proper meaning that refers to capitalist economic logic – then we are likely better off without it.