Am I a (Good) Neoliberal?

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Sociology (2018a), I sought to describe how something as abstract as a political rationality is experienced in the everyday lives of scholars. The growth of audit cultures, managerial power and new languages for describing academic work are each a focal point of a broader arena of political changes to higher education and academic research. In another recent paper (2018b), I have also argued that we currently practice scholarship in a culture of authenticity, in which our personal values and identities are often inseparable from how we evaluate our work and careers. I find the intersection of these papers – of political economy and self-identity – an unavoidable part of everyday early-career academic life. After a good half-hour of catching up with friends and describing our small victories, stressful setbacks and unexpected re-routings, an apologetic tone may find its way into our conversation. Like a proper middle-class apology for excessive behaviour, one of us will acknowledge, “aren’t we good neoliberal subjects?”

This trope, of confessing how embedded we are in an individualist, boastful ritual, is representative of an identity tension at the heart of early-career academic life. Peter Bansel and Bronwyn Davies (2010) described the longer, later-career version of this conversational trope in a book chapter, where they interview a highly successful professor who works to make ‘neoliberal’ (managerial) forms of government work because of ‘a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk’. The professor is resigned to working within the system to achieve ends that he claims are beyond them and informed by Christian values and a sense of duty towards his colleagues and students. But the apology trope comes in the form of an admission that there is no freedom from working with management. Freeing oneself from neoliberalism is akin in futility to trying to buying your way out of capitalism: the means are as important as the ends.

It’s very easy to feel very small in comparison to a school, an organisation, a nation-state, and especially a political rationality. Like capitalism, the concept of neoliberalism seems to pursue scholars in moments of vulnerability: in speculating about the future, in career planning, and in justifying self-serving behaviours. But what I want to clarify here is that this political rationality, though wide-spread and deeply embedded in parts of everyday life, is not mysterious nor all-pervasive. Rather, what Philip Mirowski (2013) describes as ‘everyday neoliberalism’ is experienced through specific spaces, technologies and habituated moments in everyday life. Neoliberalism is felt to be so pervasive because of its successful normalisation into the cultural repertoires through which we make sense of, organise and act upon ourselves and others. That is, the methods for thinking about the world encouraged by neoliberalism seem pervasive because they colonise not only our present, but also speculation about myriad future possibilities.

Let’s use the example of academic career planning. In my doctoral study of 29 Australian academics, career planning emerged in conversations as a key practice through which academics felt that they negotiated their values and put strategies into practice. Academic career planning in an exercise premised on uncertainty. Participants often described the ‘luck’ of securing full-time work, ‘resilience’ to downturns in career prospects, and having to cultivate a ‘go-getting’ attitude. Individualised strategies and explanations were the standard for accounting for career planning in the presence of systemic risks, such as limited job opportunities or time-constraints placed on activities by departmental management. To cope with the cognitive dissonance of thinking of the career as both a personal responsibility and a ‘lucky’ (impersonal) process, academics may engage in what Caroline Clarke and David Knight (2015) call ‘careering’ or what Ruth Müller (2014) identifies as the ‘anticipatory acceleration’ of work. However, these strategies are not conceived of and executed in isolation: schemas must be learned through socialisation. Neoliberalism is apparent in both policy frameworks that incentivise competitive behaviours, but also in institutions that socialise strategies for coping with competition. Career planning is a key site for encouraging this socialisation.

If we take the idea that career planning is a site of governmental socialisation seriously, then cultural norms that prescribe career trajectories are themselves part of a governmental apparatus. Career planning connects the conduct of academics with the idea of ‘risk’ as a narrative tool, shaping how academics confront uncertainty in their careers. As Mirowski claims, for the neoliberal subject, risk is a test of virtue: ‘The modern denizen of neoliberal society has not demonstrated real flexibility of personal identity until they have prostrated themselves before the capricious god of risk’ (2013, p. 120). In early-career planning, risk can be experienced as performance of ‘hope labour’ (Kuehn and Corrigan 2013) – that is, labour performed (usually gratis) with the intention of gaining experience or professional kudos. Careering, anticipatory acceleration and hope labour are not only career-management practices, but also entwined with the socialisation of academics into neoliberal policy frameworks.

So, coming back to the conversation at the beginning of this post: Aren’t we good neoliberal subjects? Perhaps. It would be difficult to build a case for employment or promotion without paying attention to how you measure up. But the question of identity does not fit well with a theory of political reason such as neoliberalism: our identities are only frozen moments with processes of socialisation and self-formation. Perhaps the more valuable question to ask here is: how have we come to learn and accept these practices for self-management? Only once this empirical work has been done can we trace these modes of self-formation back to the rationalities, discourses and technologies of power that enable their operation. So, in place of the question about our subjecthood, I instead ask: How do we make good neoliberal subjects?

 

Works cited:

Bansel, P. and B. Davies (2010) Through a love of what neoliberalism puts at risk, in J. Blackmore, M. Brennan and L. Zipin (eds.) Re-positioning University Governance and Academic Work, pp. 166-146, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Cannizzo, F. (2018a) Tactical evaluations: Everyday neoliberalism in academia, Journal of Sociology 54(1): 77-91.

Cannizzo, F. (2018b) ‘You’ve got to love what you do’: Academic labour in a culture of authenticity, The Sociological Review 66(1): 91-106.

Clarke, C.A. and D. Knight (2015) Careering through academia: Securing identities or engaging ethical subjectivities? Human Relations 68(12): 1865-1888.

Kuehn, K. and T.F. Corrigan (2013) Hope labor: The role of employment prospects in online social production, The Political Economy of Communication 1(1): 9-25. Available at http://www.polecom.org/index.php/polecom/article/view/9.

Mirowski, P. (2013) Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, London: Verso.

Müller, R. (2014) Racing for what? Anticipation and acceleration in the practices of academic life science postdocs, Forum: Qualitative Social Research / Sozialforschung 15(3): Art. 15. Available at http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/2245.

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5 thoughts on “Am I a (Good) Neoliberal?

  1. Thanks Fabian. My current work is looking at how we create alternative conceptions of the academy within and alongside the neoliberal academy, and how activists working within the academy create and sustain alternative co-existing realities.

    • Hi Ann. That sounds awesome. Please let me know if you need a proof-reader or second opinion on anything. I’m keen to head about what possibilities you find or create! Cheers, Fabian.

  2. Grant Banfield says:

    Thanks for this wonderful piece Fabian. I couldn’t help thinking of the immortal Frank Zappa while reading it. He once said ‘I’d rather be kneeling than bending over’. Neoliberalism bends academics (and all of us) into contorted positions but, as you correctly stress, we can make other choices.

    • Cheers Grant! My concern in this space is to draw out the socialisation of economic normativity in workplaces. If workers/academics are unaware of how power flows or, worse yet, acknowledge that policy shapes possibilities and yet still feel that they are powerless to influence it, I fear they may end up asking existential questions (“how should I be?”) at the expense of tactical ones (“how can I change this?”). The existential question is individualising because it is about ourselves (in an era where we are supposed to be responsible for making ourselves – very middle class, I know), whereas the tactical question invites the possibility of seeing ourselves as part of a collective strategy. I mean, we’re part of a collective strategy whether we are aware of it or not (i.e. socialisation), so best not leave it up to chance or the benevolence of management. I’m reading a little bit into what happens to unionism when ordinary spaces of workplace community are eroded (I’m thinking of shift-workers not sharing meal times, or even management dispersing lunch rooms altogether). With no sense of shares space/place, where is the trust between colleagues that may lead to solidarity supposed to develop? I fear that the meaningful “other choices” we might make can only be made with others.

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