This is the first of a three part post. Check back soon for part two.
Fenwick W. English
R. Wendell Eaves Senior Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership
School of Education
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Neoliberalism has been defined as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well being can best be advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey,2005, p. 2).
Neoliberals look to the state in a paradoxical fashion. First, they want the state to stand back and advance only the most meager of rules and regulations, believing that the market itself is the best regulatory mechanism available for bad behavior, and secondly they use the political power of the state to move formerly public services (education, health, environmental pollution) into the private, for-profit sector. In-other-words, the state is to “back off” regulatory supervision of the markets or at least engage in laissez-faire oversight, but use its statutory authority to create alternatives to public agencies or to outright privatize them. This is a relentless pursuit of the commodification of public space.
Harvey (2005) indicates that, “the process of neoliberalization has, however, entailed much ‘creative destruction’ not only of prior institutional frameworks and powers, but also of divisions of labor, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, reproductive activities, attachments to the land and habits of the heart” (p.3). Bourdieu (1998) called neoliberalism “a very smart and very modern repackaging of the oldest ideas of the oldest capitalists” (p. 34). The “creative destruction” Harvey (2005) discusses is called by the Germans a Regressionsverbot, “a ban on backward movement with respect to social gains” (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 41).
The Neoliberal Assault On Public Education
As a socio-economic-political ideology, neoliberalism has appeal across party lines. Prominent neoliberals are largely Republicans, but there are also some prominent Democrats among them, notably Eli Broad. This is the reason that the Obama administration’s educational policies have been called identical to that of the Bush’s administration (Chennault, 2010). And the Obama administration’s Race to the Top is a prime example of traditional neoliberal “cures” for public education (see Robelen, 2011).
However, there is a huge investment by right-wing think tanks and conservative foundations which are using their financial muscles to pursue and implement the neoliberal agenda in education. Among them are the Gates Foundation (Dillon, 2011) and the Broad Foundation (Samuels, 2011). But they are by no means the only players in the neoliberal assault. Other neoliberal advocates include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable (Emery & Ohanian, 2004; Ravitch, 2010).
Brian Barry (2005) summarized the neoliberal grand strategy in this way, “a network of lavishly financed foundations, and the books and journals that they promote at enormous expense, have rationalized all the most mean-spirited impulses of affluent American whites” (p. 233).The neoliberal assault on public education has taken on a number of familiar attacks and targets. Rarely are these targets assailed directly from a socio-political perspective. Instead, they are bombarded from other standpoints which mask the mantle of their ideological agenda. The neoliberals know how to hide their politics behind the façade of “disinterest” and “objectivity” by shaping their criticism along lines of efficiency (it costs too much, as for example teacher salaries, union contracts and retirement programs contained in collective bargaining agreements); scientism (pseudo-science management ideas); and the continued economic domination in the global market as synonymous with patriotism (the U.S. will fall behind advancement in global markets, (Spence 2011).
Check back soon for part two - "Current Neoliberal Targets".