Flow of Ideas


Dr. Glenn Rikowski
School of Education
University of Northampton

Guest Lecture to the Teacher Education Research Group

22nd March 2012
The Cass School of Education and Communities
Room 2.02
University of East London
Water Lane
London E15 4LZ

“The university has rotted itself from the inside: the “human capital” of staff, teachers, and students would now no more defend it than they would defend a city of the dead … University life finally appears as just what it has always been: a machine for producing compliant producers and consumers” (Research & Destroy, On the Terminus of Student Life, p.8 – original emphasis).

“British universities have become spineless lackeys of central government, lickspittles at the trough of subsidy. They plead they are a “golden investment” in the nation’s future, yet they cry “higher purpose” when this claim is challenged. Those who went to university, including captains of industry, go along with this confidence trick to justify the advantage they gained from the experience, and hope their children can benefit too” (Simon Jenkins, ‘These academic lickspittles need the guts to break free’, The Guardian, 16th March 2012).

“The university is in crisis. It is up to us to decide its future” (The Really Open University, Three Reforms for a Different Future, 2010, p.14).


This paper was presented to the Teacher Education Research Group in the Cass School of Education and Communities at the University of East London (UEL) on 22nd March 2012. I would like to thank Gerry Czerniawski for inviting me to speak at UEL. A second draft of the paper was produced on 3rd April: a few references were added, a couple of points were refined and some typographical and grammatical errors were dealt with. This was circulated to a only very small number of friends. This third draft is for general public consumption. Once again, I have made a few expressions more reader-friendly and erased some typographical errors – but I have not made any substantial changes or additions from the draft of 3rd April. The fragmentary Part 4 remains in its original state – even though I regard it as the most important section. The ideas expounded there begin to flesh out some ideas on the social relations of production in contemporary higher education. When time, opportunity and the logic of the development of my ideas are in alignment I will return to these issues.

Since the 3rd April draft, I have explored Colin Crouch’s excellent book on The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (2011). Crouch argues that neoliberalism has not ‘died’, post-Lehman, as a set of organising principles for running national economies and societies. Nor has is been thoroughly discredited or discarded amongst international capitalist elites. Instead, it has been rehabilitated amongst ruling classes as the old capital-friendly hook on which to hang economic and social policies. However, a reading of Crouch’s book suggests to me more than ever that ‘neoliberalism’ as an organising and explanatory concept is well past its prime. It tends to obscure key dynamics of labour and capital in contemporary society – at least so in the educational field of enquiry (and maybe beyond). Again, this is a topic I will return to when it is appropriate.

Glenn Rikowski, London, 27th August 2012


The university in contemporary society is in crisis. Indeed, it appears to suffer from multiple maladies, and here in England the Times Higher Education and daily newspapers have charted the hydra-like forms of these ailments in micro-detail. Rising tuition fees and associated student debt (generating resistance and protest), burgeoning graduate unemployment (sometimes tempered with internships and unpaid work experience), the attack on staff pensions, the withdrawal of funding for arts and humanities HE courses, increased marketisation and commodification – are just a few of the symptoms of crisis apparent in relation to higher education (HE) in England. The very aims and purposes of HE have come under greater scrutiny and debate, with Stefan’s Collini’s (2012) What Are Universities For? becoming one of the bestselling education books in recent years. Thomas Docherty (2011), pre-empting Collini, attempted to provide such aims and purposes for contemporary academic life and the university by crafting some foundational principles for governing the university of the future. Faulkner (2011) pursued the question of what a ‘university education’ is for, which is different from the question of what universities are for in toto.

There is a double crisis, it seems. Not only is HE in a crisis situation but ditto capital and capitalism. Following the post-9/15 demise of Lehman Brothers, and the onset of the banking crisis and deep recession, capitalism was also viewed as being in a critical state, or at least requiring ‘moral’ support. Thus, even some pro-capitalist journalists were querying the future of capitalism in the days just before and after the Lehman crash. Anatole Kaletsky of The Times, a few days before the Lehman debacle, in panic mode, asked:

“Whatever happened to the triumph of global capitalism? … But just as the triumph appeared to near complete the innermost sanctum of the global capitalist system suddenly collapsed. The nationalisation last weekend of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two largest financial institutions the world has ever known, signalled the complete failure of the biggest, most dynamic, most innovative and competitive markets that have existed in the history of capitalism – the Wall Street stockmarket and the market for US bonds … An historic turning point has been reached: the West is ditching its faith in free markets and private enterprise” (2008).

Even some on the Left appeared to be echoing Kaletsky’s analysis, with Eric Hobsbawm (2009) arguing that ‘socialism is dead’ but that the game was also up for capitalism. The prospects and outlook for capitalism seemed so dire that, ten days after Lehman, the Daily Mail wheeled out Richard Branson (2008) to write a two page article In Defence of Capitalism. A few weeks later, Harper’s Magazine ran a high-powered forum debate (Harper’s Magazine, 2008, pp.35-36) featuring Joseph Stiglitz, Elizabeth Warren and others on ‘How to Save Capitalism’. More recently, in January-February 2012, the Financial Times ran a series of articles on ‘Capitalism in Crisis’, though by then, the frenetic, sensationalist, doom-laden and paranoid modes of writing as witnessed immediately after the Lehman fold-up were less in evidence (e.g. Kay, 2012; Plender, 2012, and Rogoff, 2012).

However, as capitalism failed to implode as these paranoid and unrealistic analyses surmised (its further life bolstered by unprecedented bank and business bailouts, money printing and fiscal stimulus by the major Western capitalist powers), pro-capitalist representatives attempted to provide it with some moral purpose amidst all the banker-bashing and references to greedy capitalists. A couple of months after Lehman, Samuel Brittan and Edward Hadas (2008) debated where capitalism was ‘morally bankrupt’. As Rifkind (2011) noted, capitalism survived but there was a strong urge to regulate and control it and, above all attempt to justify its continued existence. This was all the more so as the financial crisis morphed into recession, sovereign debt crisis, a Eurozone crisis and austerity economics and politics – with the working class footing a big share of a bill for a shindig they were excluded from. The persistence of a ‘bonus culture’ in the major banks (some of which has been part or wholly nationalised) and burgeoning CEO pay in many major corporations exacerbated the need for restatements regarding the wonders of capitalism.

In the UK, David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea attempted to paper over some of the cracks (and public services cuts). Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s ‘Good Society’ notion gave the impression that capitalism could be controlled and tamed for the wellbeing of the majority. Even Rifkind (2011) saw through these feeble responses to capitalist failure and the associated austerity measures peddled by all major parties:

“The fact that neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Miliband have hit upon a solution to curbing capitalism however, should not blind us to how remarkable it is that both are trying. Younger readers may be unaware, but, but this sort of thing used to be controversial. No, really. You try going back 30 years and telling Margaret Thatcher that capitalism ought to be nicer. You’d have got handbagged. Ronald Reagan would have given you his disappointed look. Like his confused look, but sadder. This was crank stuff, they both would have thought. The unserious views of deeply unserious people.”

Whilst questioning the extent to which both Cameron and Miliband are serious in relation to wanting to ‘curb capitalism’ – especially as both squabble over who is really the ‘party for business’ – there is no doubt that both yearn for some moral underpinnings and positive community engagement with British capitalism. Miliband, in particular, has some influential forces batting for his ideas on capitalism. Will Hutton, writing in The Observer (2011), argued for a ‘Good Capitalism’, especially as ‘Britain is in the gravest economic position in modern times’, and he set out a programme for attaining this goal. Only a few days ago Hutton (2012) was at it again: this time speaking up for ‘new models of capitalism’, which must include drastic changes in the ownership of capital; i.e. more diverse and longer term ownership being the magic potion. Others, such as El-Erian (2008), a Goldman Sachs business book of the year award winner, looked to save the global economy with some ‘new thinking’. Even some in the Tory party, such as Jesse Norman (2011) divined a need for a cleansed capitalism and the end of ‘Crony Capitalism’ allied to a reform of markets. Meanwhile, following Lehman, the ideas of John Maynard Keynes were dusted down for saving capitalism from itself and ‘good old Keynes is back in fashion’ (Sander, 2009, p.1).

According to Sander, perspectives making a distinction between ‘good; and ‘bad’ capitalism, with the latter apparently resulting from ‘greed, mismanagement and deregulation’, or taking the view that capitalism can be reformed into socialism, rest upon a common error:

“They both critique capitalism, to various degrees, but their critique is a positive one. They share and propagate the belief that capitalism can be improved upon. That makes them the most crucial defenders of capitalism today (Ibid.).”

Of course, resistance to austerity-driven economic and social policies has accompanied the urge to save the system at all costs. Mass protests and strikes in Greece and elsewhere, students protests (against rising fees and other HE costs) riots of the poor and disadvantaged and the world-wide Occupy Movement have given a greater urgency to the manipulations and machinations involved in attributing a moral core to capitalism.

Hence, there appears to be a ‘dual crisis’: of higher education on the one hand, and of capitalism on the other, and, it could be argued, these two crises are related: that cuts and downsizing in HE flow from the sovereign debt crisis. This is not how the situation is viewed in this paper. It will be argued that the HE as a public service is in a far more critical condition than capital. Indeed, the current crisis of higher education appears to be facilitating the capitalisation process: it provides opportunities for the business takeover of higher education and the expansion of private HE provision. Capital’s insertion into HE seems to be intensifying.

The educational and wider Left (and not so Left) have responded to the crisis in higher education in a variety of ways. Simon Jenkins (2012, opening quotation above) favours ripping off the lid on tuition fees and supports a fully privatised HE system. Research & Destroy (2010, opening quotation above) believe the HE system in the capitalist system to be beyond hope, and not worth saving: it is a thoroughly capitalist HE system. Much more common is the notion that HE should be defended as a public service: the future university should be a public university (e.g. Holmwood, 2011; Scherrer, 2012; Campaign for a Public University, und.). Finally, there are a growing number of ideas and strategies from the Left on how to transform, transcend and to go beyond mainstream and conventional forms of HE – some of which will be explored later (e.g. the Student as Producer).

The problem with some of these responses to the crisis of higher education is that they are unclear regarding what it is a crisis of: there is uncertainty concerning the nature of the current crisis (or crises) of HE. Focusing on higher education in England, this paper explores this issue. Given the time (i.e. lack of) at my disposal, the form of the paper will be epigrammatic and aphoristic, especially given the ground covered and the number of issues raised. The following Introduction outlines the paper’s agenda.


This paper is divided into four Parts. Part 1, Higher Education and Crisis explores briefly the nature of crisis in general, and then the ideas of ‘capitalism in crisis’ and ‘neoliberalism in crisis’. It ends with a brief exploration of neoliberalism in higher education.

Part 2, Marketisation, Commodification and Capitalisation, drawing on the ideas of Karl Marx, begins to pinpoint more precisely what ‘crisis’, in relation to higher education, means. It clarifies what is at stake for the future of the HE system in England (although parts of the analysis can be applied to other countries).

Part 3, Social Relations of Production, building on Part 2, focuses on the nature of the social relations of production in higher education today. This is the core of the paper. It indicates key features of the life-world of higher education in contemporary England whilst hailing trends making for certain dystopian futures for HE.

The final part of the paper examines modes of student being in HE today (and in projected futures). These modes of being are premised upon changes (or otherwise) in the social relations of production in HE and associated developments (e.g. marketisation, capitalisation, and commodification). These student modes of being also have consequences for university academics, the personal relations within academic production and the social relations of production – within capital, against capital and beyond capital.



“Both during the Great Credit Crash of 2008 – and now also in the wake of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that began in early 2011 – media coverage has been awash with references to crisis. To confirm this, simply open up a newspaper or turn on the television; without doubt, you will be confronted by a seemingly endless parade of politicians and pundits invoking the idea. A crisis of confidence, a crisis of finance, a crisis of neo-liberalism, and a crisis of sovereign debt; a crisis of European integration, a crisis of global capitalism; even a crisis of the global left. The list goes on” (Amin Samman, 2011, p.4).

“The real crisis is the threat of slump which haunts the capitalist economy” (Gamble & Walton, Capitalism in Crisis, 1976, p.2).

Or rather, expunging the reification, it haunts the human representatives of capital. Gamble and Walton note that:

“Crisis is a complex phenomenon, and the term itself has many meanings. It was first used to denote the point in the progress of a disease at which an important development or change takes place which is decisive for recovery or death” (1976, p.2).

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED, 1988) also notes that ‘crisis’ denotes the ‘turning-point of a disease …’ or more generally a ‘Turning point in the progress of anything; also a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent’ (p.457). Thirty-three years on from his book with Paul Walton, Gamble (2009) expanded further on the meaning of ‘crisis’:

“One of the oldest uses of the term is medical; the crisis is a moment of danger but also of opportunity, the point in the progress of a disease when a change takes place which is decisive for recovery or health. Here crisis is understood as a distinct moment in a process which has a much longer time frame. This process is the disease itself, and the crisis is the turning point in that disease, the moment when the body either starts to shake off the disease or succumbs to it … [And] … this notion of crisis as the turning point of resolution is also present in drama and music. Plays are often structured so that they build to a climax … The conception of crisis in drama also suggests a very important feature of social and political crises which goes beyond the medical analogy. Crises are constructed by particular narratives and interpretations of events, which legitimate particular ways of resolving them. In this view an economic crisis is not just something that impinges on us with the force of a natural event. It is something we construct for ourselves. Another very important aspect of crisis is that it always involves an element of suspense. In a crisis people are waiting to see what will happen” (2009, pp.38-39).

Gamble writes further on the nature of crisis (pp.40-43), leaving an impression that it is always partly a matter of interpretation. Thus, whether it was the Lehman bankruptcy or when the economic cycle in the current downturn reached its lowest point constitutes the current critical, turning-point is always open to interpretation, agues Gamble (2009, p.41). Choonara (2009) emphasises that the determination of the turning-point in any economic crisis demands that ‘statistics, data and commentary by mainstream economists’ should be perused in making the judgement (pp.88-89). The turning-point perspective on crisis is also shared by Panitch and Gindin (2010, p.5).

Following the empirical and interpretive perspectives of Choonara (2009) and Gamble (2009), Albo, Gindin and Panitch (2010) also note that ‘The classical meaning of crisis is turning point’ (p.9), but they also stress the need to ask whether the current crisis has ‘actually marked a turning point in the balance of class power and organization of the state’ (Ibid). This is a crucial question that can be addressed to the current capitalist crisis; but, it can also be framed in relation to developments in higher education in England just as pertinently. This point is to be forwarded.

Capitalism in Crisis

“At the moment of crisis we stand in a glaciated landscape of frozen abstractions” (Benjamin Noys, 2011a, p.45).

The task in this section is not to go into some lengthy analysis of crises in capitalism in general, nor to explore the precise cause(s) of the current crisis of capital, or when it sprang forth: was it 2007, 2008 or on the 15th September 2008 precisely (with the Lehman crash)? On this final option, for some economic commentators, the 15th of September 2008 marks a special event: the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank heralding the most serious crisis of capital since the 1930s. According to journalist Jonathan Freedland, Labour MP John Cruddas held that:

“... that the economic calamity could not be more significant. He suggests that 15 September 2008 should be etched in the history books as the day the world changed. For that was the moment when Lehman Brothers declared itself insolvent. (Perhaps we should refer to it as 9/15)” (in Freedland, 2009, p.2).

The whole financial system stood on the brink of the abyss following Lehman’s collapse (which had been preceded by the ‘Credit Crunch’ of 2007-2008). However, it was held to be crucial by representatives of capital that the capitalist system must be saved, at all, and almost any, cost. Hence: bank bail-outs, nationalisation and part-nationalisation of banks, fiscal stimulus (especially in the USA), rounds of crisis meetings for heads of state, and rises in government debt, unemployment and business failures and depressed housing markets. Economic slump beckoned and drastic measures (and bank bailout nationalisation stuck in the throats of American and UK governments in particular), along with ‘quantitative easing’; £200billion worth in the UK up to November 2010 (Islam, 2010, p33), and some more since, were designed to avert it, with some success. These momentous events led Gideon Rachman (2010) to argue in the Financial Times two years after Lehman that ‘9/15 changed more than 9/11’.

Despite all of this, Robinson (2012) has argued that the crisis did not lead to serious, widespread questioning of capitalism itself. In the US, she argues, ‘big government’ and bloated public services have taken the blame for many. In the UK, the Coalition government has been astute in fingering New Labour’s apparent ‘reckless’ spending up to 2010 and welfare ‘scroungers’ as villains of the crisis (whilst also taking measured shots at the greedy bankers at opportune junctures). Thus, even when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, floats the idea of lowering the top rate of income tax, and the Coalition develops plans for part-privatising the police, privatising the Royal Mail and persisting with its business-oriented plans for the National Health Service – the Tory Party goes up three points in the latest ICM opinion poll (Wintour, 2012), even though 67% are against George Osborne’s proposed income tax cut for the rich. As the Friends of the Classless Society (2011) put it:

“Crises have always strengthened the position of capital vis-à-vis the proletariat. The falling demand for labor power undercuts the workers’ bargaining power and austerity programs cut social spending precisely when it is needed most. In absence of a revolutionary perspective – which is currently not visible anywhere – the workers’ interest is first and foremost to keep their jobs, and the interest of the unemployed is to get one. … [Yet] … what we are currently experiencing across the world is the flaring up of new interlinked movements than can happily do without traditional political forms. If they realize the clout they could gain, much could be won. If, on the other hand, they stay at moral indictments of bankers and politicians, a historical opportunity will go to waste” (p.6).

Nevertheless, there is a crisis of capitalism; indeed a signal failure of capitalism to provide stable growth, economic security and wellbeing for the vast majority of people in the world today. The work of Andrew Kliman explains why this is so.

The Great Recession

The rest of this section focuses on the work of Andrew Kliman (1999, 2003, 2009a and 2009b, 2011, and 2012), who provides the most prescient analysis from which to view the crisis of higher education in the UK. If Kliman’s view on capitalist development since the Second World War is largely correct, and in my view it is, then the consequences for education in general and higher education in particular are momentous.

According to Kliman, if we want to grasp the nature and cause of the current Great Recession then starting out from some of the usual destinations proves less than satisfactory. In his new book, The Failure of Capitalist Production, Kliman argues (on the basis of a close and painstaking analysis and interpretation of U.S. official economic data) that theories of underconsumptionism, Robert Brenner’s ‘overproductionism’ (see Kliman, 1999, pp.9-10, on this), financialization (the increased dominance of finance capital in economy and society) and neoliberalism all fail to provide satisfactory accounts of the Great Recession. Kliman’s alternative is to begin from Karl Marx’s law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit. Kliman (2003) notes that this law is:

“… not a law of capitalism’s collapse. Nor is it a theory of long-run stagnation, in which the system grids to a halt as the profit rate falls ever closer to zero over time. Marx explicitly denied these ideas, writing that when Adam Smith said that the profit rate tends to fall as more capital is accumulated, he was referring to a permanent effect – but he was wrong. “Permanent crises do not exist.” Marx also argued that the tendency of the profit rate to fall is constantly overcome by way of crises” (p.1 – original emphases).

Thus, capitalist crisis cannot be permanent as this would undercut the very notion of crisis itself: there would be no ‘turning-point’, no resolution. Rather, argues Kliman, economic crises function to counter the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

It does not follow from this that capitalist economies face an ‘indeterminate seesaw between the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, on the one hand, and countertendencies that raise it, on the other’ (Kliman, 2003, p.1): the ‘opposites, tendency and countertendency, unite to produce economic crisis’ (p.2). The destruction of capital resulting from these crises allows capital accumulation to proceed at a higher rate of profit, for:

“Unless and until sufficient destruction of capital occurs … there can be no new, sustainable boom. This is because the destruction of capital restores profitability; without enough destruction of it, profitability will remain low” (Kliman, 2009a, p.1).

The destruction of capital resulting from the slump of the 1930s allied to the Second World War facilitated the Post-War Boom of 1945-1973 (Kliman, 2012, 2009a and 2009b). As Mattick (2011) noted:

“The depression [of the 1930s] was a long one, and the level of physical and economic destruction of capital unusually high (especially during the war into which it opened). It is not surprising, therefore, that the revival led to a period of prosperity, lasting until the mid-1970s, that economists dubbed the Golden Age for its length and amplitude” (pp.2-3).

However, since the 1970s, policymakers have shunned allowing crises to do their vital cleansing work for the health of the capitalist system as a whole. Fearing the massive disruption a regenerative level of capital destruction would cause, and the resistance and political backlash that might ensue, perhaps calling the whole capitalist system not just to account but into serious question, policymakers have ducked the hard choices. Instead, they have favoured inflation (at times, particularly from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s) and especially the huge expansion of credit and debt to avoid the dénouement (Kliman, 2009b). Thus:

“Policymakers, unwilling to allow capital to be destroyed to a significant degree, have repeatedly chosen to “manage” the relative stagnation by encouraging excessive expansion of debt. This artificially boosts profitability and economic growth, but in an unsustainable manner, and it leads to repeated debt crises. The present crisis is the most serious and acute of these. Policymakers are responding to the crisis by once again papering over bad debts with more debt, this time to an unprecedented degree” (2009b, p.1).

This just raises the stakes. Putting off the reckoning does not help, for ‘the “long-run” rate of profit – the level toward which the rate of profit tends in the long-run, all else being equal – is chronically too low to permit a healthy rate of economic growth’ (Kliman, 2009b, p.2 – original emphasis). The expansion of credit, argues Kliman, ‘does not negate Marx’s law of the tendential fall in the profit rate. It does not negate the resulting crisis. It merely displaces them’ (Kliman, 2003a, p.2 – original emphases). Hence, in response to pumping up debt levels, profits rates do not always fall in the short run: instead we get ‘debt crises and the fiscal crises of the state that have led to the smashing of the welfare state’ (2003a, pp.2-3).

The economy never recovered from the slump of the 1970s as sufficient destruction of capital to restore profit rates was ruled out as an option by policymakers (Kliman, 2012):

“[And] … since so much less capital value was destroyed during the 1970s and early 1980s than was destroyed in the 1930s and early 1940s, the decline in the rate of profit was not reversed” (Kliman, 2012, p.3).

The strategy of using debt and borrowing to camouflage and boost inadequate profit rates rests on the ability of nations states to borrow sufficient funds to do this (Kliman, 2008). Eventually, the bond markets and rating agencies will set a limit to such state-capitalist stratagems if debt repayment seems risky, or if working-classes are not sufficiently compliant as public services are cut or slashed, taxes raised and real wages fall to pay for the crisis. For Kliman (2012), capitalist states (individually and collectively), when faced with looking into the abyss of a mega-slump (as on 9/15), will do all that is possible to save the capitalist economy and society – even if this means that some sectors of capital disproportionately suffer, significant numbers of businesses go to the wall, further debt is piled up and widespread suffering is visited on the working class. The ‘organic’ way out of the crisis is eschewed:

“In a sense, the organic way out of the crisis would be a gigantic destruction of capital: bloated financial values would have to be wiped out, banks left to fail; the market would purge itself through company bankruptcies; wage levels would fall even further. After that, the “old filthy business” (Marx) would start from scratch in a new cycle” (Friends of the Classless Society, 2011, p.2).

Should governments continue down their current route – what some might describe as neoliberalism – then the prospects for public higher education systems seem to be bleak. Furthermore, policies of “co-payment” (where users of state services pay an increasing proportion of the costs of these services, hence rising HE tuition costs), cuts and privatisation, a declining ‘unit or resource’ (state funding per capita for students), and the concentration of state funds in ‘strategic’ subjects in higher education (e.g. the STEM subjects in the UK: science, technology, engineering and mathematics) – seem desperate but understandable strategies for major representatives of capital in the worlds of politics, business, finance, and media (and even for some Vice-Chancellors of UK universities).

For these same representatives of capital, the capitalist system seems relatively safe for now, as compared with September 2008 – January 2009. Even back in October 2008, an FT/Harris poll of Europeans found that:

“The crisis was attributed largely to abuses of capitalism, however, rather than to the failure of the system itself” (Atkins, 2008).

Bankers came in for particular opprobrium from the poll respondents. The Coalition government’s targeting of New Labour (for being a spendthrift government), benefit scroungers and immigrant labour for the crisis and its aftermath (e.g. poor economic growth and unemployment) has been especially successful according to more recent opinion polls, thereby further lessening the likelihood that capitalism takes the rap. As Emmott (2009) argued:

“Meanwhile, note, this is not – yet – a true “crisis of capitalism”. That would arise if confidence never seems likely to return, if unemployment has soared and if hope seems truly to have been destroyed. It cannot be ruled out. But let us, as the future US president [Obama] said in his book, have the audacity to hope that it won’t happen, and the sense not to announce it until and unless it does.” By which time either Fascism or barbarism might be leading options for the powerful, the strong and the experts of post-Freudian manipulation for social domination.

However, some have concluded that as the termination of capitalism is not currently on the agenda, nevertheless, a particular strategy for running capitalism (both nationally and internationally) and a particular ideology supporting capital has (or will) become history: neoliberalism. This also has consequences for the higher education of the future.


“Since the late 1990s activists have used the word ‘neoliberalism’ for global market-liberalism (‘capitalism’) and for free trade policies” (Paul Treanor, 2005, p.1).

“When people hear the word ‘neoliberalism’, they think of the protests at Seattle and Genoa, and the associated social movements. The underlying causes of these events are related to the historical expansion of liberalism” (Paul Treanor, 2005, p.2).

For over 30 years, neoliberalism has been the dominant economic ideology. It has had effects far beyond the economy: for education, health services, welfare, foreign aid an in many other areas of contemporary capitalist life. On 15th September 2008 something appeared to change: Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy brought the world’s financial system to the edge of collapse. Neoliberalism, as an economic ideology, and in terms of its practical application (deregulation of all forms of capital flows, giving priority to capital accumulation, each country trying to coax international capital into its orbit, etc.) came under intense criticism. The following section explores whether neoliberalism’s time as dominant economic ideology and policy-generator has passed. This section attempts to pin down the nature of neoliberalism.

Treanor (2005) argues that the State and the market are not necessarily separate entities, and that historical analysis shows how they have come together in the late 20th century to form the “market state”. David Harvey suggests something similar:

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within a framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money, It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture” (Harvey, 2005, p.2).

However, drawing on the Open Marxist tradition, and the writings of people such as John Holloway and Werner Bonefeld, I would argue that the concept of “market state” is too restrictive (as it focuses only on the market level, and not the level of production, whereas both aspects should be incorporated within a concept that characterises the state in capitalist society), and it also fails to pinpoint the nature of the state in capitalist society. In contemporary capitalism, the state is a form of capital: it is not just integral to the functioning of capitalism within nation-states (which is the case); neither does it just tend to operate in the interests of the capitalist class, or for the interests of capital-in-general (which is mostly true).

The state is a mode of existence of capital, which can be most clearly observed in the phenomena of taxation, state revenue, and, most recently, sovereign debt; and can be known as the state-form of capital. The concept of state-capitalism partially, but not fully reflects this situation. These points cannot be elaborated on here – and demand a lengthy exposition in themselves.


Neoliberalism has a history. DeLong (1999) argues that neoliberalism was a consequence of the end of the post-war boom. Up until 1973, it seemed that the Keynesian policies of demand management had succeeded quite well. It appeared to ensure that there was largely full employment and no deep recessions. After the Second World War:

“Social democratic or socialist governments would establish strong redistributive social insurance states to severely reduce the income and wealth inequalities that had been characteristic of Bismarckian Germany … They would put into place the physical infrastructure to reduce infant mortality and disease that the aristocracies and bourgeoisies of northwest Europe had not thought profitable. They would spend money like water on education” (DeLong, 1999, p.4).

But this set of circumstances came to an end by the mid-1970s with the termination of the Post-War Boom [1]. Stronger remedies were required for the economy; Keynesian demand management was no longer adequate, argues DeLong:

“By the end of the 1970s, however, it was clear to all except blinkered ideologues that something had gone very wrong with social democracy at the periphery” (1999, p.5).

The neoliberal age began formally in 1979 with the Thatcher-Reagan era. Neoliberalism as ideology and policy spread throughout the world. Its principles became (state) practice.

“Neoliberalism is a set of economic principles that have become widespread during the last 25 years or so. Although the word is rarely used in the United States, you can clearly see the effects of neo-liberalism here as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer” (Martinez and Garcia, 1997, p.1). So, what are these ‘principles’? In order to answer this question it is necessary to go into the genesis of neoliberalism.

The Genesis of Neoliberalism

Michael Peters (1999, 2001) indicates the intellectual history of neoliberalism began with Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992). However:

“It was during the 1980s that Hayek’s political and economic philosophy was used by Thatcher and Reagan to legitimate the neo-liberal attack on ‘big government’ and the bureaucratic welfare state with a policy mix based on ‘free’ trade and the establishment of the ‘open’ economy: economic liberalisation or rationalisation characterised by the abolition of subsidies and tariffs, floating the exchange rate, the freeing up of controls on foreign investment; the restructuring of the state sector, including corporatisation and privatization of state trading departments and other assets, ‘downsizing’, ‘contracting out’, the attack on unions and the abolition of wage bargaining in favour of employment contracts; and, finally, the dismantling of the welfare state through commercialisation, ‘contracting out’, ‘targeting’ of services, and individual ‘responsibilization’ for health, welfare and education. On this view there is nothing distinctive or special about education or health; they are services and products like any other, to be traded in the marketplace (Peters, 1999, p.3 – my emphasis).

These policies became known as the Washington Consensus [2].

As Treanor (2005) notes, neoliberalism has a history as an idea that is based on Classical Liberalism, which has the following features (pp.4-5).

Classical Liberalism

* Society should be an outcome of social processes that are interactive and involve all: the market is a prime example. Liberals do not like interference with these social processes. Thus: the market distribution of wealth and opportunity is seen as inherently just.

* Liberals reject any plan, grand design or blueprint for society (religious, ethical, utopian). Society should not have goals: social processes (left to themselves) should determine the form of society.

* Liberalism is anti-utopian, so it is against centrally planned societies (e.g. the old Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc).

* Liberalism is hostile to competing non-liberal systems: these are not just different but wrong (e.g. Islamic societies, ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ states such as Cuba or North Korea).

* Yet Liberalism has assumed a form of non-liberal ideology: nationalism – society made up of ‘nations’ (formed on ethnic, with a common history and language).

* Liberals view liberalism as ‘freedom’: thus, it would seem that consent is not required for the imposition of a liberal society (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan).

* Some liberals would argue that a war to impose liberalism was a ‘just war’.

* Classical political liberals reject the notion of externally imposed moral values, whilst viewing liberty as a value.

* Liberals believe in formal equality, but inequality of talent.

In addition to classical liberalism, Treanor (2005, pp.5-7) outlines a variant labelled as Market Liberalism. This can be summarised in the following way.

Market Liberalism

Market liberals believe in “market freedoms” and the rule of “market forces”:

“A minimal liberal free market needs at least three parties, with two of them in competition – for instance, two competing sellers and one buyer. The resultant pressure on the two sellers to lower prices, is the simplest type of ‘market force’. Such a force comes into existence without any conscious action on the part of the three parties. In modern markets there are millions of parties, and complex market forces. Market-liberals value this characteristic of the market. Their belief in the moral necessity of market force in the economy, is probably the defining feature of market liberalism. The second is the belief in entrepreneurs themselves, as a good and necessary social group” (Treanor, 2005, p.5).


* In market liberalism, the market is the primary social process * Market liberals believe that economic transactions should take place in a framework that maximises the effect of each transaction on other transactions (i.e. the market signals, such as house sales) * Liberals view the market as inherently good, and “often as semi-sacred” * Liberals are hostile to economic self-sufficiency * Market liberals are hostile to trade barriers (e.g. trade in educational services) * Market liberals believe that crucial aspects of society should be ‘left to the market’ (e.g. distribution of income and wealth, school choice and school finance) * All market liberals are hostile to interference and regulation of markets (e.g. by the state, religion or other institutions) * The entrepreneur is “a person whose profession is to respond to market forces” (p.6). Without the entrepreneur, there is no free market: thus, “market liberals demand a privileged status for the entrepreneur” (p.7). The final step in the genesis of neoliberalism as an intellectual process, and as an ideology is to set out the principles underpinning this concept.

Neoliberal Principles

“Destroying the quality of public-sector education is necessary for the full marketization of education” (William Tabb, 2001, p.6)

A general characteristic of neoliberalism is the desire to intensify and expand the market, by increasing the number, frequency, repeatability, and formalisation of transactions” (Treanor, 2005, p.7).

According to Treanor (2005, pp.7-10, with examples added by Rikowski), neoliberalism (‘neo’ = ‘new’) liberalism incorporates the following aspects:

* A new expansion of time and space of the market: ‘the markets never sleep’ (the 24-hour economy), and neoliberals find new areas of marketisation (e.g. education and health care).

* An emphasis on property (classical and market liberalism) is replaced by an emphasis on contract.

* Contract maximalisation (to try to ensure that that responsibilities are carried out through a legal process): e.g. privatisation of the British rail network led to 30,000 new contracts.

* The contract period is reduced (especially in the labour market, with more temporary, part-time, agency and other precarious forms of work flourishing), so the frequency of contract is increased.

* Market forces are intensified by intensifying assessment: e.g. employees are continually assessed.

* New transaction-intensive markets are created on the model of stock exchanges.

* New forms of auction are devised – a method of creating transaction-intensive markets.

* Artificial transactions are created, to increase the number and intensity of transactions (e.g. derivatives markets – trading options on shares, futures markets – all dependent on computer power, which increases).

* Automated trading.

* Neoliberal societies become ‘network’ societies; not the ‘open societies’ of classical liberalism.

* With contract expansion, transaction costs play an increasing role in neoliberal economies (e.g. the 30,000 BR contracts had to be drafted by lawyers, and neoliberalism seeks to reduce these costs).

* Growth of the financial services sector (London is still the premier city for financial services).

* Speed of trading increased.

* ‘Derivative’ professions are created: e.g. with the psychological-test coach, lifestyle coaches and a plethora of psychology-related occupations, so the intensity of assessment has increased.

* Creation of sub-markets (e.g. within an enterprise – internal markets in health and education).

* Supplier maximalisation: increasing the range of enterprises that compete for each contract.


“Neoliberalism is not simply an economic structure, it is a philosophy” (Treanor, 2005, p.10 – my emphasis).

Its core doctrines for Treanor are as follows:

* Competition: including between nations.

* “Why are we here?” Humans exist for the market.

* Every human being is an entrepreneur: managing their own life; the primacy of individual responsibility.

* Employability: there is a moral duty to arrange our lives so that our ability to get a job is maximised.

* There must be nothing which is not an element in a market.

(A summary based on Treanor, 2005, pp.10-12).

On the other hand, if a shorthand version of the principles underlying neoliberalism is required, then turning to Pierre Bourdieu might help:

“What is neoliberalism? A programme for destroying structures which may impede the pure logic of the market” (Bourdieu, 1998, p.1).

For me, this characterisation of Bourdieu’s is too minimalist; it focuses too much on markets and marketisation at the expense of production, accumulation and capitalist social relations of production. Thus: the basic principles at the heart of neoliberalism might be viewed as:

* Breaking down barriers to capitalist production and capital accumulation (including resistance to these processes).

* Development of the ‘infrastructure’ and elements of capitalist production (e.g. markets) and the protection of these (through force if necessary).

* State-sponsored (sometimes inter-state, as in times of crisis) facilitation of capital (in all its forms), capitalist production and capital accumulation.

* The establishment, intensification and development of capitalist social relations of production.

* Saviour of capitalism as a mode of production and social formation in times of crisis (sometimes at the expense of particular sectors of capital and/or particular businesses, and working class wellbeing).

However, it would be quite possible to focus on these social phenomena in explaining pertinent contemporary events without using the concept of neoliberalism at all.

Indeed, John Clarke (2007) has questioned the utility of the concept of neoliberalism: it appears to be used so widely and indiscriminately, argues Clarke, that it is difficult to think what neoliberalism is not (p.240). It has become a general, all-purpose ‘boo’ word for anti-capitalism and Left commentators and activists, it seems. It is losing any explanatory force it may once have had.

Finally, if a distinction is made between neoliberalism as national state policy and ideology and its international dimension is made, then Hill and Kumar (2009, pp.3-4 – with minor modifications) provide a detailed descriptive account based on empirical generalisations. For national states, neoliberalism requires:

* Inflation controlled by interest rates, preferably by an independent central bank

* Budgets balanced and not used to influence demand – or at any rate not to stimulate it

* Private ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange

* The provision of markets in goods and services – including private-sector involvement in welfare, social, educational and other ‘state’ services (such as air traffic control, prisons, policing, pensions, public building works financed by private capital, and railways)

* Within education the creation of “opportunity” to acquire the means of education (though not necessarily education itself) and additional cultural capital, through selection

* Relatively untrammelled selling and buying of labor power for a “flexible”, poorly regulated labor market, and deregulation of the labor market for labor flexibility (with consequences for education)

* The restructuring of the management of the welfare state on the basis of a corporate managerialist model imported from the world of business (as well as the needs of the economy dictating the principal aims of school education, and the world of business is also to supply a model of how it is to be provided and managed)

* Suppression of oppositional critical thought and much autonomous thought and education

* A regime of denigration and humbling of publicly provided services, and

* A regime of cuts in the Post-war welfare state, with the withdrawal of state subsidies and support, and low public expenditure.

Internationally, neoliberalism requires that:

* Barriers to international trade and capitalist enterprise be removed

* There will be a “level playing field” for companies of any nationality within all sectors of national economies, and

* Trade rules and regulations underpin “free” trade, with a system for penalizing “unfair” trade policies.

Hill and Kumar (2009, p.4) also indicate that powerful countries, corporations and bank try to bend, circumnavigate or avoid or evade these international requirements.

Neoliberalism Jokes:

Marxist: “The workers have nothing to sell but their labour power”
Neoliberal: “I offer courses on How to Sell Your Labour Power Like a Shark” (Treanor, 2005, p.13).

Marxist: “Workers of the world Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Neoliberal: “I can sell you standard-sized chains at 10% lower price than Home Base” (Glenn Rikowski, March 2004).

But is neoliberalism, as ideology and policy-generator on the wane as a result of the current crisis? Has its apparent failure in light of the current Great Recession led to a fundamental rethink amongst world and national leaders in government, business and the media? The following section explores these questions.

Neoliberalism and Crisis

Some researchers, academic writers and journalists argued that neoliberalism’s ‘number was up’, and critics such as Birch and Mykhnenko (2010) could bring together a volume on The Rise and Fall of Neo-Liberalism: The Collapse of an Economic Order? Their book raised questions about the enduring strength and relevance of neoliberalism for contemporary society. Fortunately, Birch and Mykhnenko left a question mark at the end of their book title: it is far from clear that there has been any ‘fall’ of neoliberalism.

Certainly, some on the Left indicated that neoliberalism was exhausted post-Lehman. For example, Sabado (2009) pointed towards the ‘exhaustion of the neoliberal model of accumulation’ which ‘has been exploded by the US economy’ (p.16). However, Kliman (2012) has shown – using US official data – that it was not the case that a distinctive “regime of accumulation” characterised as neoliberalism was adequate to and responsible for explaining an apparent recovery in the rate of profit during the neoliberal era (post-1979). Furthermore, argues Kliman, it is misleading to see in the Great Recession a ‘crisis of neoliberalism’ rather than a crisis of capitalism itself.

Others, however, seemed to want to focus of neoliberalism, rather than capitalism. Thus, Labour MP Tony Wright argued that ‘the neoliberal ascendency of the last 30 years has crashed to the ground’ (2010). Wright called for a return to ‘fundamentals’ and ‘big ideas’ to replace neoliberalism as the dominant economic and social reference point for policymakers, whilst retaining capitalism.

The failure to seriously curb bank bonuses has been the touchstone of this issue for some. Governments, banks, many mainstream economists, the media and business interests seemed all too keen for things to ‘return to normal’, back to pre-Lehman times.

However, some commentators did not think this possible. For example, Seumas Milne argued a few days after Lehman bust, that:

“What is certain is that the dominance of the free-market model of capitalism, which has held sway across the world for more than two decades, is rapidly coming to an end. When its high priests in Washington are forced to carry out the largest nationalisations ever undertaken outside the communist world, while intervening on an unprecedented scale across markets that were supposed to be self-regulating in order to keep the system afloat, the neoliberal order is transparently falling apart” (2008).

Michael Neary (in Glancey, 2010) argued something similar, saying that we had just witnessed: ‘A decade in which neo-liberal economics and the business model for education and politics, as well as business itself, appeared to have triumphed. Yet, it’s all over now. Finished’. William Bowles (2009) asserted that ‘The brave new world of neoliberalism lies in ruins’ (p.1).

Others saw things very differently; a post-Lehman world where neoliberalism bounced back, in some ways stronger than ever. Surveying the acts of the Coalition government in the UK, Stewart Hall (2011) noted that the ‘coalition’s neoliberal agenda is the most radical social revolution in decades’. Hall viewed the current crisis as rupture but not an ending of “the long march of the Neoliberal Revolution”. He outlined a five-pronged neoliberal surge in the UK under the Coalition government. Monbiot (2012) indicated that UK plc was being rebuilt in the shadow of corporate interests. Furthermore, whilst Seamus Milne (2008) had announced that neoliberalism was ‘coming to and end’ in September 2008, by March 2011 he divined that ‘Ministers seem determined to reinstate a neoliberal order that is beyond repair’ (Milne, 2011). Then again, a year later, Milne (2012) argued that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was taking Britain back to 1979: the year of the dawn of Thatcherism and the triumph of neoliberalism – though he does not mention ‘neoliberalism’ by name, preferring to call it the ‘failed economic model’. But this is surely what he must mean in the face of perceived error.

Albo, Gindin and Panitch (2010) seemed disinclined to agree with Milne’s initial perspective on the demise of neoliberalism, and outlined how neoliberals set out to defend their creed as soon as the shock of financial meltdown had subsided following the bailouts and fiscal stimuli enacted in the US and some European countries, post-Lehman, and not only to repair but to advance neoliberalism (see pp.28-29). In my view, this perspective seems to make more sense: there is a determined effort amongst ruling classes and their ideological representatives not just to get back to ‘business as usual’, but in some cases (and certainly in the UK) to go ever further with neoliberal policies. There is a desire to make the most of the crisis for neoliberal economics and politics.

However, the key point is what can be made of this for education in particular. Is education an exception in England? Has the Coalition government in England abandoned neoliberalism in education in general, and higher education in particular?

Neoliberalism, Education and Higher Education

According to William Tabb (2001) there are ‘three main elements involved in the neoliberal model of education’ (p.1):

* Making the provision of education more cost-efficient by commodifying the product

* Testing performance by standardising the experience in a way that allows for multiple-choice testing of results

* Focusing on marketable skills (GR: human capital)

Dave Hill (1999) indicated how New Labour’s education policy for schools was significantly but not entirely (there were some neoconservative, social democratic and even a few socialist policies in the mix) neoliberal in nature. Alex Callinicos’s now classic pamphlet Universities in Neoliberal World (2006) examined the impact of neoliberalism on HE in the Britain, though he did not have much to say about neoliberalism as such, focusing more on New Labour’s commitment to developing a knowledge economy and the implication of this for HE. On neoliberalism specifically, Callinicos argued that:

“Neoliberalism in higher education means that … [the] … logic of competition is internalised deep into how universities work. As we shall see, this serves to ensure that they teach growing numbers of students and perform increasingly vital research as cheaply as possible” (2006, p.11).

However, in an American context, Craig Calhoun reminds us that this was going on in US universities well before the neoliberal era. It could also be argued that the processes that Callinicos refers to are more generally to do with processes of capitalist development, or capitalisation, as explored in Part 2 of this paper, rather than being a specifically neoliberal phenomenon.

Simon Jenkins writing in The Guardian (2011) shows how many university managements bought the neoliberal model of university development and snuggled up to some strange characters (e.g. the LSE liaison with Gaddafi) to maximise their income. Interestingly, Jenkins’ ‘solution’ to this is a hyper-neoliberal one: universities assuming financial autonomy with fees higher still and increased patronage from businesses! He repeated the same message in another article a year later (in the opening quotations, Jenkins, 2012).

However, it is Peter Wilby that who has indicated a disturbing legacy of neoliberalism for education. In the capital-friendly, de-regulated neoliberal world, all hopes of the UK establishing a ‘knowledge economy’ have been dashed, argues Wilby. Not only has formerly UK production gone to Eastern Europe, China, India and the Far East through neoliberal policies operating at national and international levels, but the design and ‘knowledge work’ is also going the same way. Drawing on the work of Phillip Brown and his colleagues (Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, 2011), it seems that knowledge workers in these countries have rapidly developing higher education systems and relatively low wages for ‘knowledge workers’, argues Wilby. Our government needs to rethink its education policy; for education will not generate jobs (via human capital development for a ‘knowledge economy’) as both New Labour and the other major political parties have been telling us.

Jim Wolfreys (2011), writing on behalf of the Education Activist Network, argues that the HE White Paper (BIS, 2011) constituted a ‘neoliberal assault on higher education’ (see Wolfreys, 2011, pp.24-29). Couldry (2011, pp.38-41) provides a compelling analysis of the Browne Review (Browne Lord, 2010) – precursor to the White Paper – in terms of its neoliberal pedigree. McGettigan (2011) provides some disturbing information regarding how private sector outfits are seeking to enter and takeover HE institutions in the current neoliberal climate.

What is clear, is that neoliberalism, far from being ‘finished’ or in terminal decline, is growing in strength under the current Coalition government. Furthermore, in terms of higher education policy in England, it has surged forward in opening up the sector to marketisation, commodification and capitalisation.

The next Part of the paper explores briefly these phenomena.

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