The Big Lie of Neoliberalism

If you have received a tuition bill lately, or looked for a job in academia, you are bound to have noticed that higher education in this country is in crisis. Much of this is supposedly the result of the economic recession that began in 2007. Some say it’s the result of the housing bust—the consequence of irresponsible actions by homeowners and banks—or the financial meltdown on Wall Street in 2008. Sometimes immigrants are blamed as a drain on public resources, in order to justify budget cuts and tuition increases and layoffs.

They say there’s just not enough money in the state coffers to sustain public universities as we have known them. This is a contemporary crisis, we are told, unique to the last two or three years.

Actually, it’s anything but. The recent attack on public education—on students and teachers and government workers in general—is only the latest and nastiest episode in a long-running movement against all things public.

Since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, progressives have struggled to define this movement and these policies. It was hard to call it conservative, because both Republican and Democratic, Labour and Conservative parties have embraced parts of this platform over the last thirty years.

The word that activists and scholars eventually came up with to describe these policies is “neoliberalism,” which refers to a new version of classical economic theories based on the idea of the free market and laissez faire.

Neoliberalism is often understood as an assault on the state—policies that advocate privatizing schools, Social Security and all kinds of public services, while cutting taxes and deregulating the economy. Its rallying cry has been opposition to “Big Government.”

In some ways, this program looks real and inexorable. The policies have been exported to other countries in the form of the “Washington Consensus,” whereby developing countries have been forced to cut their expenditures on health, education and other public services in order to qualify for loans from the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions that are controlled by the US and Europe. Such polices have, in turn, generated real social turmoil and discontent in countries such as Argentina and Egypt over the last ten years. It is not a popular program.

At home, we have seen this ideology put into place with the deregulation of Wall Street and the media in the 1990s, with the ending of welfare by Bill Clinton in 1996, and with the Bush tax cuts in the last decade.

For education, this neoliberal idea has taken the form of steady declines in state support for public universities, which used to depend for much more of their budgets on state subsidy. The original idea was that a public university would be primarily supported by taxpayers, to provide access to education to the broad citizenry who could not afford an expensive private education at Harvard or Duke or Emory. Tuition would be charged in most cases, but the majority of resources would come from the public purse.

In New York, you even had City College, which was free for all city residents until the late 1970s. Some of our greatest writers, scientists and artists rose up from poverty to attend City before going on to do great things. In 1976, the City University of New York (CUNY) began charging tuition, and the possibility of a free, public higher education disappeared.

Since then, colleges have increasingly been remodeled to run like businesses. University of Florida President John Lombardi proudly said in 1997, “We have taken the great leap forward and said, ‘Let’s pretend we’re a corporation.’” I’m not sure Mao’s Great Leap Forward is the best frame of reference, but then again, based on what has happened to our colleges and universities in the last twenty years, maybe Lombardi was right.

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Some college presidents have started calling themselves CEOs. Private corporations give millions of dollars to fund research, and expect to get the patent rights for the discoveries that are created by departments where our professors and grad students work on public salaries, often with considerable support from federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation.

Meanwhile, state governments tell us that we need to cut back—we have to pull up our socks and pay higher tuition for the ever-rising cost of college, even as the state cuts its share of financial support. Professors have to accept declining wages, and fewer full-time professors are hired.

Perhaps most shockingly, this education that keeps getting more and more expensive is increasingly farmed out to grad students, adjuncts, and temporary professors who get paid peanuts and often have no benefits. It’s the Wal-Martization of education.

This means that those grad students will not find decent-paying, secure jobs to apply their knowledge and training when they get out of graduate school, because all the teaching is being done by grad students and adjuncts. The product is getting more expensive, the quality is arguably getting worse, the labor relations are more exploitative, and we are told that that’s just the way things have to be.

It is not just a reaction to the current fiscal crisis. This is all part of a general movement to undermine public institutions, particularly schools, that has been going on for decades. The budget deficit is just the latest pretext.

We are told everything that is public is bad. Anything that won’t turn out a patent and profit is viewed as useless. Goodbye English and History and Sociology. Hello corporate-funded research and faculty chairs sponsored by the very same rich businessmen who are buying our elections.

What do you think a professor whose job is sponsored by the billionaire Koch brothers is going to teach? The party line, parroting the same neoliberal talking points and conventional wisdom that make our institutions so anemic, dysfunctional, and profoundly unfair.

It does not have to be this way. They say there is not enough money. They say privatization is inevitable, and public education is on the way out. This is nonsense.

The big lie of neoliberalism is that it’s about reducing the state. It’s not. It’s about using an anti-public rhetoric to stop the government from doing certain things—educating the poor, the working class, the middle class, immigrants; taking care of the sick and indigent and elderly—and directing those resources to projects that serve the rich and powerful and well-connected.

Politicians who support this idea have done nothing to shrink the size of government overall or cut down the deficit. It is piquant concidence that the godfather of neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan, has his name on the biggest federal office building in Washington, DC (other than the Pentagon).

Despite the government’s continuing penchant for lavishing largesse on certain favored interests, they say there’s not enough money for your education. But there’s plenty of money for prisons. We incarcerate more of our people than any country in the world. There’s plenty of money for a fence on the border. No one so much as batted an eyelash about whether there was money for the war in Iraq, though its cost has been immense.

When Wall Street destroyed itself, there was no trouble finding $800 billion for the banks. But they say you need to learn to live with less, and take on ever more debt to have a chance at some kind of decent life—an increasingly elusive possibility in today’s low-wage, low-price, low-tax society.

This is not about numbers or money. It’s about priorities, and we have a choice. I would rather build public schools than private prisons, but they say one’s possible and the other isn’t. Don’t believe the superficial rhetoric of neoliberalism, privatization, and the free market. This is all about picking our pockets and then telling us its our fault that we’re broke.

It’s not about the size of government or how much government we have, but what we want government to do. The first thing we have to do to save our universities is to reject the false choice between fairness and fiscal responsibility.

This talk was part of a panel discussion organized by Georgia Students for Public Higher Education called Crisis in Georgia: Austery, Racism, and Resistance, which dealt with current budget cuts, tuition increases, and anti-immigration measures enacted by the University System of Georgia.  To find out more, visit the group’s Facebook page.

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