Neoliberalism and the Academy

I traveled a bit last week and didn’t have much time to blog, but I did read David Graeber’s Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015).

While the book is actually a series of essays rather than a systematic unpacking of bureaucracy as a phenomenon, Graeber does offer a few gems. The one that struck me the most relevant in the context of academic is the idea that neoliberalism was “the form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. That is: given a choice between a course of action that will make capitalism seem like the only possible economic system, and one that will make capitalism actually be a more viable long-term economy system, neoliberalism has meant always choosing the former.”

Unpacking this observation Graeber largely follows David Harvey and other critics of neoliberalism in their observations that it is primarily a redistributive system that followed the divergent course of political and social power and economic power in the postwar era. Under neoliberalism the politically and socially powerful capitalist classes redistributed capital from the workers and public institutions and declared this to be growth and the triumph of the market. As this system has matured, of course, economic growth and productivity has slowed, and the “free market” is increasingly bolstered by austerity schemes, border-protected labor pools in the global south, so-called “crisis capitalism,” and corruption.  In short, as Graeber wryly observes, neoliberalism creates the appearance of the triumph of the free market while changing the political and economic culture of world into one that is increasingly less free and more dependent on the invisible hand of the political class.

This reminded me of a post that I wrote a few months back on the University of North Dakota’s Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research. In the post, I speculated on whether this project was a billboard or a factory. A billboard is a way for an institutions to amplify the public impact of existing research; a factory is a way to streamline and coordinate the production of new knowledge. In the end, I suspected that the IUAR was primarily a billboard designed to promote the interests of the university more than the work of individual research. In the context of neoliberal schemes, it is more political than productive and serves to present the appearance of dynamic, cutting-edge, market-driven research more than cultivating it (at least at present). 

In a slightly broader context, I suspect that the various calls for “data-driven decision making” across campus also serves as a way to present the administrative workings of campus appear to share the impartial authority of the market, while obscuring the indelicately placed thumb on the scales. Again, the impartiality of data mimics the appearance of the market and the inevitability of competition between courses, departments, disciplines, and colleges. On UND’s campus a new funding model is supposed to rationalize funding and encourage competition between colleges and programs on campus, but colleges and courses (and to a less extent disciplines) are fundamentally arbitrary or at least not based on contingent contemporary concerns. Rationalizing funding on the foundation of an irrational system does not reflect, to my mind, the triumph of the marketplace of ideas, but rather the tyranny of history, institutional and bureaucratic inertia, and the disingenuous approach of the administrative class whose investment in the success of the university is secondary to political goals. The most prominent political goal is to reinforce the idea that the impartial market makes their own positions indispensable, or “everything is coming up Associate Vice President!

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