Flow of Ideas
Postmodern Dereliction in the Face of Neoliberal Education Policy

Glenn Rikowski, London, 27th April 2008


It has been some time since I wrote anything on postmodernism and education. This may be the last time. Certainly (if one can be certain in the light of postmodern thinking), postmodernism in educational writing appears to have declined in terms of its impact in recent years. What moved me to write this article was how postmodernism seems to be at a loss regarding our understanding of neoliberalism in education policy today. Before I move on to this issue the opening sections outline neoliberalism and some of its consequences for education policy.

Neoliberalism …

Neoliberalism is the dominant organising ideology for global capital today. As Ross and Gibson (2007) indicate:

“Neoliberalism is the prevailing political economic paradigm in the world today and has been described as an ideological “monoculture,” in that when neoliberal policies are criticized a common response is that “there is no alternative” (aka TINA)” (p.2).

Thus: it appears to be a juggernaut that invalidates alternative perspectives regarding the organisation of socio-economic social life. In leading capitalist nations, the main political parties tend to converge on its efficacy for running economic and social affairs, and:

“Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum … in that the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations define social and economic policy. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, deleterious effects of government regulations, and so on, are the tenets of neoliberalism” (Ibid.).

Martinez and Garcia outline neoliberalism as: the rule of the market; cutting public expenditure for social services (such as education and health care); deregulation (reduction of government regulation that might hit profits); privatization; and the elimination of the concept of “the public good” or “community” – and replacing it with “individual responsibility”, forcing people to find individual solutions in education, health care etc. (2000, cited in Ross and Gibson, 2007, p.3).

… and Education

According to 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; and focusing on marketable skills (i.e., human capital). For Tabb:

“The three elements are combined in different policies – cutbacks in the public sector, closing “inefficient” programs that don’t directly meet business needs for a trained workforce, and the use of computers and distance learning, in which courses and degrees are packaged for delivery over the Internet by for-profit corporations” (2001, p.2).

These policies indicate that neoliberalism in the field of education is not just a fancy pro-capitalist ideology. It has material consequences for education. Thus:

“Neoliberalism is not just a market ideology. It is a real social process, a particular response to the capitalist crises of the 1970s … The basic point is that neoliberalism, as I understand it, in general and when applied to the schools system in England, is about the development of capital, as well as markets: which takes us into the realm of the commodity and commodification – with value, surplus value and profit in tow. Neoliberalism nurtures the development of capital and seeks to crash down any barriers to capital accumulation” (Rikowski, 2006, p.5).

Once this is acknowledged, then the penetration of neoliberalism into education policy needs to be understood as an aspect of capital accumulation. This in turn involves exploring capitalist education through concepts central to capital’s functioning: value, surplus-value, profit, labour, labour-power, the commodity and other ‘structuring’ concepts pertinent to understanding the nature of capitalist society and education. This enables us to explain neoliberalism in education and educational reform. Whilst postmodernists are clearly involved in critique of (neoliberal) education, they are less concerned with explanation of neoliberal trends in education. This becomes clear when the ideas of Elizabeth Atkinson, the UK’s leading postmodern thinker in education, are explored.

Postmodern Dereliction

Atkinson views postmodernism as: resistance toward certainty and resolution; rejection of fixed notions of reality, knowledge, or method; acceptance of complexity, of lack of clarity, and of multiplicity; acknowledgement of subjectivity, contradiction and irony; irreverence for traditions of philosophy or morality; deliberate intent to unsettle assumptions and presuppositions; refusal to accept boundaries or hierarchies in ways of thinking; and disruption of binaries that define things as either/or (in Atkinson and Cole, 2007, p.123). This perspective on social life makes explanation problematic, especially given the first two aspects. It seems all we are left with is a multiplicity of perspectives that fall short of a theory, i.e. an explanation of any particular social phenomenon. Indeed, I have argued in Cole et al (2001) that “… they [postmodernists] are just not interested in explanation!” (p.39). Refusal to explain something as crucial to an understanding of educational reform today as neoliberalism constitutes dereliction of responsibility. This dereliction makes an anti-capitalist politics of education impossible.

In a dialogue with Mike Cole (in Atkinson and Cole, 2007), Elizabeth Atkinson takes Cole to task in arguing:

“You say it’s important to theorize the world because we need to provide a way of understanding it; postmodernism doesn’t provide a way of understanding the world, it provides ways of looking and seeing and interpreting and constructing, not an answer to a problem” (Atkinson in Atkinson and Cole, 2007, pp.123-124).

Thus, on Atkinson’s account, postmodernism is only concerned with providing a range of alternatives, perspectives or possibilities for understanding social phenomena. It has no conception of one explanation being better than another; hence, no real grasp that political action in education and other areas should be based on the most powerful explanation of what is going on there. This is made clear when Atkinson states:

“I’m saying that we need to look at a range of alternative possibilities, not to weigh them up, but to see how complex the reality of these things is; how very complex the intersections of different discourses in any situation can be, and what we can make of those intersections” (Atkinson in Atkinson and Cole, 2007, p.124).

But weighing up and assessing perspectives and explanations (theories) of educational and related phenomena, and contemporary and historical experiences in the class struggle in education, is central for a viable politics of education. If this is given up to musings about possibilities then strategic thinking in educational and social transformation goes out of the window. All we are left with is endless question posing, for:

“… postmodernism is not trying to provide you with an answer as to why society is at it is. It is trying to ask more questions … It is asking the questions, it is not being so sure, that makes a difference” (Atkinson in Atkinson and Cole, 2007, p.124).

A ‘programme’ for educational and social transformation based on ‘not being sure’ is unlikely to get many takers, I would wager. People would be right to demand more; to ask for an analysis of neoliberalism in education, for example. This analysis would need to delve deep into the core of capitalist society. In light of this, postmodern dereliction is not good enough.


Atkinson, E. & Cole, M. (2007) Indecision, Social Justice, and Social Change: A Dialogue on Marxism, Postmodernism, and Education, in: A. Green, G. Rikowski & H. Raduntz (Eds.) Renewing Dialogues in Marxism and Education – Openings, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cole, M., Hill, D., Rikowski, G. & McLaren, P. (2001) Red Chalk: On Schooling, Capitalism & Politics, Brighton: The Institute for Education Policy Studies.

Martinez, E. & Garcia, A. (2000) What is neoliberalism? A Brief Definition, updated 26th February, online at: http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/econ101/neoliberalDefined.html

Rikowski, G. (2006) Caught in the Storm of Capital: Teacher Professionalism, Managerialism and Neoliberalism in Schools, a paper prepared for Education, Culture & Society (EDU3004) Students, School of Education, University of Northampton, 30th October: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Caught%20in%20the%20Storm%20of%20Capital

Ross, E. Wayne & Gibson, R. (2007) Introduction, to: E. Wayne Ross & R. Gibson(Eds.) Neoliberalism and Education Reform, Cresskill NJ: Hampton Press.

Tabb, W. (2001) Globalization and Education as a Commodity, Clarion (summer), at: http://www.psc-cuny-org/jcglobalization.htm

© Copyright, Flow of Ideas, Ruth Rikowski and Glenn Rikowski. Website by [whiteLayer]
Call for Authors
Printer Friendly
Order by DateAlphabetical[Close menu]