This is the full version of the article that was published in an edited form in The Australian Higher Education on 28 November.
Time to Let Go of Neoliberalism
A very familiar situation now plays itself out around Australia, and around the world, at academic conferences. You may attend a session on some topic of current interest – climate change, reality TV, Bollywood, university restructurings, urban riots, etc. – and then the speaker will pin down what it is that really riles them. And the answer is nearly always the same: neoliberalism. Whatever the object of one’s discontent, it can be tracked down to the single, demonic force that is neoliberalism.
The irony is that neoliberalism is a term that circulates mostly among academics and graduate students. Outside the academy, and certainly in policy circles, issues are typically seen as complex and multi-causal. But the impulse to identify neoliberalism as a single, overarching cause of everything that is wrong has a strong presence in the higher education sector.
It is almost as if, as critics of the term allege, it has become a version of the Masonic handshake. If use the term “neoliberalism”, it signals that I distrust markets, and you can trust me because I am of a like mind with you. Certainly those accused of being neoliberals would not describe themselves as such; the concept has acquired what political scientists Taylor Boas and Jordan Gans-Morse have termed a “negative normative valence” i.e. it refers to the bad ideas held by others.
Neoliberalism referred originally to the transformation in liberal economic thought that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. In apparent reaction to the difficulties faced by Keynesian economics in accounting for inflation and unemployment rising simultaneously, long-time critics of Keynesianism such as Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman proposed a more robust defence of free markets, a critique of government intervention and the mixed economy, and an emphasis on “sound money” and fighting price inflation, even if this led to a rise in unemployment.
Expressed in this form, neoliberalism was a highly influential political-economic doctrine. It is most obviously associated with the Reagan presidency in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher’s period in office in Great Britain. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, such ideas also gained considerable currency in Eastern Europe, as it appeared that the capitalism market economy had finally vanquished its great 20th century foe, the communist planned economy.
While such ideas came to have a strong influence in parties of the political Right, they also transformed thinking among parties of the centre-left. If one were to compare Barack Obama’s presidency today to that of, say, Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, one feature would be more caution about the capacity of government policies to transform society. A similar point could be made in the U.K. if one compared Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to Harold Wilson. Indeed, it was a British Labour Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who warned in 1976 that his comrades needed to realise that government could not solve every social and economic problem simply by spending more money addressing it. In Australia, the period of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments was obviously pivotal in opening up the Australian economy to greater international competition.
But the question can reasonably be asked as to whether such ideas are waning in political influence, and have been for much of the 2000s. The re-election of the Obama administration in the United States would be the most obvious case in point, but I doubt that neoliberalism in its more doctrinaire forms has much hold even among political conservatives these days. Certainly if one thinks about the Howard government, signature policies such as the Baby Bonus and the First Home Owners’ Grant would appear to be the opposite of what any self-respecting neo-liberal critic of middle class welfare would be calling for, and there is plenty of anxiety among Tony Abbott’s “drier” colleagues about his plans to extend maternity leave entitlements.
In Australia, a number of writers have accused the Gillard Labor government of pursuing a neoliberal agenda towards schools and universities. But government spending on education, and particularly higher education, has increased since 2008, in both teaching and research. And if the development of the MyUniversity web site is to be labeled a neo-liberal initiative inspired by von Hayek, one could imagine the famous Austrian economist proclaiming from beyond the grave that “I am not a Hayekian”. I doubt that Hayek saw a role for government in advising prospective students about the availability or otherwise of on-campus parking.
A certain banality has settled into the use of the term neoliberalism in academic circles, where it can be invoked as something that generates a negative response, without ever having to be explained. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the burgeoning range of essays using the term in studies of reality television. One finds in paper after paper the proposition that reality TV programs are neoliberal because: people perform activities on camera – cooking, dancing, dating, drinking, sitting around – for which they are not paid; people compete with each other for cash and other prizes; and people experience some sort of personal transformation, like the much loved “food journey” on Masterchef, in the course of being on these programs.
The fact that some or all of these features have been a part of entertainment television since its inception, and hardly needed to wait for Milton Friedman’s ideas to become popular, does not seem to stop people from proclaiming that they are the completely new by-product of an insidious neoliberalism. In this respect, neoliberalism has become the newest incarnation of an old feature of the critical humanities – the dominant ideology theory.
Suspicion of the mass of the population for holding the “wrong” ideas, combined with cultural pessimism about the products of the commercial market, has a long history. Neoliberalism has become the latest incarnation of this suspicion of popular culture. Work that wants to engage with current developments in society and culture in more depth will need to get beyond the cliché that neoliberalism has become, where it can account for anything and everything to which someone may object. It has become time to let go of neoliberalism.
Terry Flew is Professor of Media and Communication at the Queensland University of Technology, and the author of The Creative Industries, Culture and Policy. During 2011-2012, he headed the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of the National Classification Scheme.