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Neoliberalism, Democracy and the University as a Public Sphere

Posted on Apr 24, 2014

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By Victoria Harper, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Henry Giroux speaks with Truthout about his new book and its exploration of how neoliberalism makes it harder for poor children to attend college and forces debt-ridden students into an intellectual and moral dead zone devoid of imagination.

Truthout contributor, director of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project and Truthout board member Henry A. Giroux responds to questions about how the excesses of neoliberal politics have reshaped and subverted the democratic mission of higher education, as expressed in his new book.

Henry A. Giroux | Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education
Haymarket Books (March 18, 2014) Chicago, Illinois, 240 pages

Victoria Harper: Welcome, Henry. In your latest book, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education, neoliberalism is a central organizing idea in shaping your view of education. Can you provide a general working definition of what it is and how it threatens higher education?


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Henry A. Giroux:
Neoliberalism has many forms, but these forms share a number of characteristics.  Not only is it the latest stage of predatory capitalism, but it is also part of a broader project of restoring class power and consolidating the rapid concentration of capital, particularly financial capital. More specifically, it is a political, economic and political project that constitutes an ideology, mode of governance, policy and form of public pedagogy. As an ideology, it construes profit making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and upholds the irrational belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but serve as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help, individual responsibility and is purposely blind to inequalities in power, wealth and income and how they bear down on the fate of individuals and groups. As such, it supports a theater of cruelty that is scornful of any notion of compassion and concern for others.  As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life driven by a survival of the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to accrue wealth removed from matters of ethics and social costs.

Under neoliberalism, desire is wedded to commodities and the private addictions of the market. As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, the dismantling of the connection of private issues and public problems, the selling off of state functions, the elimination of government regulation of financial institutions and corporations, the elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, and the marketization and commodification of society. 

As a form of public pedagogy, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that as a form of casino capitalism it legitimates a culture of harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.

What is new about neoliberalism, especially in the United States is that it has abandoned the social contract and any viable notion of long-term investments in social goods. It is indifferent to human fragility and suffering, and remakes everything into commodified objects or reified financial transactions. It creates emotionally bleak landscapes for the 99% and excessive fantasies of greed and power for the 1%. Its vision of the future is dystopian, and it is driven by machineries of social and civil death. Given the scope and power of neoliberalism, the book attempts to illustrate how it works politically, economically and pedagogically.

In what ways does neoliberalism threaten higher education?

Higher education is one of the few public spheres left where students can learn to think, engage in critical dialogue, be self-reflective about their relationship to themselves, others and the larger world, all the while steeping themselves in the best ideas, values and skills that various modes of science, history, culture, literature and other traditions can teach them.  Under neoliberalism, any public sphere that educates young people to be critical and engaged citizens is seen as dangerous to the established order. This is one of the reasons that the right hates the legacy of the ‘60s, because it reminds them of the power of students to question the established order and make power accountable while demanding that education function as a democratic public sphere. Moreover, education provides opportunities for those multiracial and working-class individuals previously unable to get a decent education. This is viewed as a threat to a largely white dominated public sphere. 

These are some of the reasons why education is being massively defunded while students are trapped into tuition increases that decrease the possibility of poor students from going to college, while forcing existing students into a intellectual and morally dead zone that robs them of their imagination and forces them to think about their lives and careers solely in terms of survival tactics - how to pay off their loans as quickly as possible in order to be free of debt. The current assault threatening higher education and the humanities in particular, cannot be understood outside of the crisis of disposability, public values, ethics, youth, and democracy itself. What is also important to recognize is that since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, a new model for running the university emerged that relied on corporate management styles, values, and institutional formations. This marked the rise of the corporate university which now defines all aspects of governing, curriculum, financial matters, and a host of other academic policies.  The corporate university is the ultimate expression of neoliberal values and social relations, which are defined by a top-down authoritarian style of power.

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