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

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


Does Career Building Produce Neoliberal Subjects in Academe?

Career building is a fundamentally imaginative activity. In envisioning how our lives and working circumstances might be projected into the future, career-seeking individuals engage in conceptual mapping. Our career imaginations are influenced by personal values, perceptions of ourselves and environments, our relationships both in the workplace and beyond, and any number of discourses and practices of institutionalized career development.

Career building activities in academia have been critically discussed in relation to the instrumental place of universities within our global knowledge economies. Simon Marginson, among others, have been prolific in describing the impact which globalization is having on universities around the world. Universities are broadly described as being corporatized, privatized, metricized, managerialized, economized, audited – amidst any other number of verbs implying the disempowerment of collegiate governance. Far less attention has been paid to the impact which these broad processes are having on the cultural imagination of academic career planning itself. In an industry characterized by precarious labour arrangements, tribe-like professional groups, status games and portfolio development, career planning becomes weaponized in the struggle for professional survival.

Firstly, a brief overview of the battlefield: Academic careers are often both protean (Hall) and boundaryless (Arthur and Rousseau) endeavours. Although university human resource departments go to lengths to formally distinguish each level of the formal academic hierarchy apart from one another, practicing staff are under no illusion that each step of this career ladder is gated and monitored by financial management as much as peer assessors. Unable to rely upon their seniority to assure promotion, academics are charged with the duty of creating their own case for formal advancement, through building portfolios, self-marketing to future employers and roles, and gathering allies (“networking”) to boost the presentation of one’s peer-esteem. Career progression is in a sense self-created or protean. As D.T. Hall has described, the successful protean career is determined by “internal” (i.e. psychological) criteria, rather than one’s place on a formal career ladder.

It is not uncommon for academic staff to trade off opportunities for formal ladder climbing for the opportunity to engage in work which is perceived to be fulfilling and worthwhile. Consequently, there may be, theoretically, a high degree of inter-organizational mobility  which contributes positively to an academic’s sense of career advancement (sometimes described as a “boundaryless” career orientation). The commonality of protean and boundaryless characteristics within academic employment implies a high degree of flexibility in how academic might imagine their ideal careers. The “tenure track” towards professorship might be a hegemonic ideal, but it is by no means a totalizing ideal.

Academic Careers in Knowledge Economies

Although scholars may strive to fulfill personal aspirations, the economic and political reality of managerialism in universities, neoliberal education policy reforms and increasingly legitimacy of student choice, qua education consumer, shape the possible roads ahead. Departmental amalgamations and closures seldom occur on grounds of scholarly merit. For the neoliberalising university, some career aspirations are more ‘efficient’ than others; some achievements are more ‘effective’.

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Alongside the metricization of academic value, so too have the conditions of professional ‘survival’ become enmeshed in short-hand indicators of teaching and research excellence. Publication counts, journal rankings, h-indicies, Altmetrics and numerous other metrics which signify academic value allow for potential academic employees to be sorted, graded and compared against one another – a short-hand useful to academic management in an age of trans-national knowledge labour. Staff are not blind to the competitive advantage offered by demonstrating an ability to score highly on these measures. Although successful academic careers might be built around achieving personally meaningful outcomes, the need to survive professionally within universities creates additional career demands. Not only must academics construct viable career narratives around their duties, but this narrative must form a recognizably valuable commodity. To imagine a ‘career’ in academe is to aspire to professional survival through the commoditization of one’s self as a ready-made product for input into the university’s production processes.

The eerie image of an academic career described on this battlefield is (evidently, I hope) a characterization – or perhaps an ‘ideal type’ – intended to sensitize us to the negotiations facing academics in corporatizing universities. Of course, real academics may engage in other modes of career building and planning – i.e. career building as skills development, as networking, as quest for social justice – and a real academic may use any number of these schemata in practice. Although I have not yet found an empirical study addressing the issue, I suspect that early career academics and others in precarious employment conditions may be more inclined to adopt a model of career-building-as-self-commoditization to the degree that self-commoditization promises greater employment security. The isolation of individuals in precarious employment conditions are a primary driver towards a the neoliberal subjectivity of the self-responsible labourer.

Career-building in a precarious environment becomes a mechanism of control, encouraging academics to engage in self-surveillance and evaluate their conduct against the criteria signaled by performance metrics. Professional ‘survival’ is a practice which encourages academics to approximate the self-responsible, rational self-producer – a kind of labourer central to advanced liberal modes of governance. More than just subject of capitalism (i.e. academic-as-commodity), career ‘survival’ introduces academics to a field of competition where their energies are not simply exchanged for goods in an academic capitalist marketplace, but they must also compete to have the value of their labour recognized alongside other – perhaps equally qualified – academics. Neoliberal modes of governance do not only encourage competition, they increasingly define the criteria by which value is judged.

Although academics may travel between universities and over continents, the metricization of ‘value’ in universities creates new boundaries for career development. I describe the importation of managerial accounting tools (i.e. the audit culture) and digital techniques for approximating ‘esteem’, ‘reach’ and ‘impact’ of academic activities (i.e. citation counting, ranking) as neoliberal in that the function they perform is to marketize academic labour and also act as a “site of veridiction” (Foucault 2008, p. 32). Though procedures and tools of metricization are contested and often critiqued in academic discourse communities, their outputs are often taken up as evidence of academic merit and achievements, thereby – to a large degree – legitimating managerial and scholarly decisions alike.

Do we have to Measure Up?

There are perhaps good reasons for suspecting that career building encourages the neoliberalization of universities in our present culture of audit and managerialism. Management is as political as it is technological. An anonymous professor (and former associate dean) recently wrote to The Guardian that academics not only “need to be managed”, but must also themselves become involved in their institutional management through taking up managerial roles.

Resources are stretched. Students, funders and the government all make demands, and the university must weigh these up against other interests and requirements. I’ve often found myself conflicted: on one hand I see the need to manage and on the other I also see the value of academic autonomy. The trick universities have to pull off is balancing these different forces.

The concern which this professor expresses for “the need to manage” is symptomatic of a political subjectivity predisposed to an allegiance with capital through academe. Although few academic staff would contest the claim that academic autonomy is valuable, the values of university management are often, as above, seen to be legitimate in and of themselves – as needed to be “balanced” against scholarly needs, rather than reconfigured or protested.

In a highly individualized work culture, academics often find themselves negotiating their ‘survival’ through competition, under threat, precariously and by reaching out for signifiers of legitimacy – metrics, peer esteem and tokens of validation. To engage in career building individually through appealing to these metrics, or to collectively contest which numbers best reflect our intentions is to fail to address the fundamental question of government: Why measure at all? Measurement fulfills several layers of truth-making (or “veridiction”, for academics, universities, governments, etc.), but what sort of truth are we constructing? For academics to be intellectual leaders who are more than highly paid public servants, these basic questions must be objects of discussion, demolition and – vitally – delegitimization. Metricization eases the squeaky wheels and tightens the assembly line belts. It is our duty to see the factory for the cogs and rearrange the mechanisms to produce not only good ‘outputs’, but also good reasons.