Knowing neoliberalism

(This is a companion/’explainer’ piece to my article, ‘Knowing Neoliberalism‘, published in July 2019 in Social Epistemology. While it does include a few excerpts from the article, if using it, please cite and refer to the original publication. The very end of this post explains why).

What does it mean to ‘know’ neoliberalism?

What does it mean to know something from within that something? This question formed the starting point of my (recently defended) PhD thesis. ‘Knowing neoliberalism’ summarizes some of its key points. In this sense, the main argument of the article is epistemological — that is, it is concerned with the conditions (and possibilities, and limitations) of (human) knowledge — in particular when produced and mediated through (social) institutions and networks (which, as some of us would argue, is always). More specifically, it is interested in a special case of that knowledge — that is, what happens when we produce knowledge about the conditions of the production of our own knowledge (in this sense, it’s not ‘about universities’ any more than, say, Bourdieu’s work was ‘about universities’ and it’s not ‘on education’ any more than Latour’s was on geology or mining. Sorry to disappoint).

The question itself, of course, is not new – it appears, in various guises, throughout the history of Western philosophy, particularly in the second half of the 20th century with the rise (and institutionalisation) of different forms of theory that earned the epithet ‘critical’ (including the eponymous work of philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School, but also other branches of Marxism, feminism, postcolonial studies, and so on). My own theoretical ‘entry points’ came from a longer engagement with Bourdieu’s work on sociological reflexivity and Boltanski’s work on critique, mediated through Arendt’s analysis of the dichotomy between thinking and acting and De Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity; a bit more about that here. However, the critique of neoliberalism that originated in universities in the UK and the US in the last two decades – including intellectual interventions I analysed in the thesis – lends itself as a particularly interesting case to explore this question.

Why study the critique of neoliberalism?

  • Critique of neoliberalism in the academia is an enormously productive genre. The number of books, journal articles, special issues, not to mention ‘grey’ academic literature such as reviews or blogs (in the ‘Anglosphere’ alone) has grown exponentially since mid-2000s. Originating in anthropological studies of ‘audit culture’, the genre now includes at least one dedicated book series (Palgrave’s ‘Critical University Studies’, which I’ve mentioned in this book review), as well as people dedicated to establishing ‘critical university studies‘ as a field of its own (for the avoidance of doubt, I do not associate my work within this strand, and while I find the delineation of academic ‘fields’ interesting as a sociological phenomenon, I have serious doubts about the value and validity of field proliferation — which I’ve shared in many amicable discussions with colleagues in the network). At the start of my research, I referred to this as the paradox of the proliferation of critique and relative absence of resistance; the article, in part, tries to explain this paradox through the examination of what happens if and when we frame neoliberalism as an object of knowledge — or, in formal terms, epistemic object.
  • This genre of critique is, and has been, highly influential: the tropes of the ‘death’ of the university or the ‘assault’ on the academia are regularly reproduced in and through intellectual interventions (both within and outside of the university ‘proper’), including far beyond academic neoliberalism’s ‘native’ context (Australia, UK, US, New Zealand). Authors who present this kind of critique, while most frequently coming from (or being employed at) Anglophone universities in the ‘Global North’, are often invited to speak to audiences in the ‘Global South’. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the lasting influence of colonial networks and hierarchies of ‘global’ knowledge production, and, in particular, with the durability of ‘White’ theory. But it illustrates the broader point that the production of critique needs to be studied from the same perspective as the production of any sort of knowledge – rather than as, somehow, exempt from it. My work takes Boltanski’s critique of ‘critical sociology’ as a starting point, but extends it towards a different epistemic position:

Boltanski primarily took issue with what he believed was the unjustified reduction of critical properties of ‘lay actors’ in Bourdieu’s critical sociology. However, I start from the assumption that professional producers of knowledge are not immune to the epistemic biases to which they suspect their research subjects to be susceptible…what happens when we take forms and techniques of sociological knowledge – including those we label ‘critical’ and ‘reflexive’ – to be part and parcel of, rather than opposed to or in any way separate from, the same social factors that we assume are shaping epistemic dispositions of our research subjects? In this sense, recognising that forms of knowledge produced in and through academic structures, even if and when they address issues of exploitation and social (in)justice, are not necessarily devoid of power relations and epistemic biases, seems a necessary step in situating epistemology in present-day debates about neoliberalism. (KN, p. 4)

  • This, at the same time, is what most of the sources I analysed in my thesis have in common: by and large, they locate sources of power – including neoliberal power – always outside of their own scope of influence. As I’ve pointed out in my earlier work, this means ‘universities’ – which, in practice, often means ‘us’, academics – are almost always portrayed as being on the receiving end of these changes. Not only is this profoundly unsociological – literally every single take on human agency in the past 50-odd years, from Foucault through to Latour and from Giddens through to Archer – recognizes ‘we’ (including as epistemic agents) have some degree of influence over what happens; it is also profoundly unpolitical, as it outsources agency to variously conceived ‘others’ (as I’ve agued here) while avoiding the tricky elements of own participation in the process. This is not to repeat the tired dichotomy of complicity vs. resistance, which is another not particularly innovative reading of the problem. What the article asks, instead, is: What kind of ‘purpose’ does systematic avoidance of questions of ambiguity and ambivalence serve?

What does it aim to achieve?

The objective of the article is not, by the way, to say that the existing forms of critique (including other contributions to the special issue) are ‘bad’ or that they can somehow be ‘improved’. Least of all is it to say that if we just ‘corrected’ our theoretical (epistemological, conceptual) lens we would finally be able to ‘defeat neoliberalism’. The article, in fact, argues the very opposite: that as long as we assume that ‘knowing’ neoliberalism will somehow translate into ‘doing away’ with neoliberalism we remain committed to the (epistemologically and sociologically very limited) assumption that knowledge automatically translates into action.

(…) [the] politically soothing, yet epistemically limited assumption that knowledge automatically translates into action…not only omit(s) to engage with precisely the political, economic, and social elements of the production of knowledge elaborated above, [but] eschews questions of ambiguity and ambivalence generated by these contradictions…examples such as doctors who smoke, environmentalists who fly around the world, and critics of academic capitalism who nonetheless participate in the ‘academic rat race’ (Berliner 2016) remind us that knowledge of the negative effects of specific forms of behaviour is not sufficient to make them go away (KN, p. 10)

(If it did, there would be no critics of neoliberalism who exploit their junior colleagues, critics of sexism who nonetheless reproduce gendered stereotypes and dichotomies, or critics of academic hierarchy who evaluate other people on the basis of their future ‘networking’ potential. And yet, here we are).

What is it about?

The article approaches ‘neoliberalism’ from several angles:

Ontological: What is neoliberalism? It is quite common to see neoliberalism as an epistemic project. Yet, does the fact that neoliberalism changes the nature of the production of knowledge and even what counts as knowledge – and, eventually, becomes itself a subject of knowledge – give us grounds to infer that the way to ‘deal’ with neoliberalism is to frame it as an object (of knowledge)? Is the way to ‘destroy’ neoliberalism to ‘know it’ better? Does treating neoliberalism as an ideology – that is, as something that masses can be ‘enlightened’ about – translate into the possibility to wield political power against it?

(Plot spoiler: my answer to the above questions is no).

Epistemological: What does this mean for ways we can go about knowing neoliberalism (or, for that matter, any element of ‘the social’)? My work, which is predominantly in social theory and sociology of knowledge (no, I don’t work ‘on education’ and my research is not ‘about universities’), in many ways overlaps substantially with social epistemology – the study of the way social factors (regardless of how we conceive of them) shape the capacity to make knowledge claims. In this context, I am particularly interested in how they influence reflexivity, as the capacity to make knowledge claims about our own knowledge – including knowledge of ‘the social’. Enter neoliberalism.

What kind of epistemic position are we occupying when we produce an account of the neoliberal conditions of knowledge production in academia? Is one acting more like the ‘epistemic exemplar’ (Cruickshank 2010) of a ‘sociologist’, or a ‘lay subject’ engaged in practice? What does this tell us about the way in which we are able to conceive of the conditions of the production of our own knowledge about those conditions? (KN, p. 4)

(Yes, I know this is a bit ‘meta’, but that’s how I like it).

Sociological: How do specific conditions of our own production of knowledge about neoliberalism influence this? As a sociologist of knowledge, I am particularly interested in relations of power and privilege reproduced through institutions of knowledge production. As my work on the ‘moral economy’ of Open Access with Chris Muellerleile argued, the production of any type of knowledge cannot be analysed as external to its conditions, including when the knowledge aims to be about those conditions.

‘Knowing neoliberalism’ extends this line of argument by claiming we need to engage seriously with the political economy of critique. It offers some of the places we could look for such clues: for instance, the political economy of publishing. The same goes for networks of power and privilege: whose knowledge is seen as ‘translateable’ and ‘citeable’, and whose can be treated as an empirical illustration:

Neoliberalism offers an overarching diagnostic that can be applied to a variety of geographical and political contexts, on different scales. Whose knowledge is seen as central and ‘translatable’ in these networks is not independent from inequalities rooted in colonial exploitation, maintaining a ‘knowledge hierarchy’ between the Global North and the Global South…these forms of interaction reproduce what Connell (2007, 2014) has dubbed ‘metropolitan science’: sites and knowledge producers in the ‘periphery’ are framed as sources of ‘empirical’, ‘embodied’, and ‘lived’ resistance, while the production of theory, by and large, remains the work of intellectuals (still predominantly White and male) situated in prestigious univer- sities in the UK and the US. (KN, p. 9)

This, incidentally, is the only part of the article that deals with ‘higher education’. It is very short.

Political: What does this mean for different sorts of political agency (and actorhood) that can (and do) take place in neoliberalism? What happens when we assume that (more) knowledge leads to (more) action? (apart from a slew of often well-intended but misconceived policies, some of which I’ve analysed in my book, ‘From Class to Identity’). The article argues that affecting a cognitive slippage between two parts of Marx’s Eleventh Thesis – that is, assuming that interpreting the world will itself lead to changing it – is the thing that contributes to the ‘paradox’ of the overproduction of critique. In other words, we become more and more invested in ‘knowing’ neoliberalism – e.g. producing books and articles – and less invested in doing something about it. This, obviously, is neither a zero-sum game (and it shouldn’t be) nor an old-fashioned call on academics to drop laptops and start mounting barricades; rather, it is a reminder that acting as if there were an automatic link between knowledge of neoliberalism and resistance to neoliberalism tends to leave the latter in its place.

(Actually, maybe it is a call to start mounting barricades, just in case).

Moral: Is there an ethically correct or more just way of ‘knowing’ neoliberalism? Does answering these questions enable us to generate better knowledge? My work – especially the part that engages with the pragmatic sociology of critique – is particularly interested in the moral framing and justification of specific types of knowledge claims. Rather than aiming to provide the ‘true’ way forward, the article asks what kind of ideas of ‘good’ and ‘just’ are invoked/assumed through critique? What kind of moral stance does ‘gnossification’ entail? To steal the title of this conference, when does explaining become ‘explaining away’ – and, in particular, what is the relationship between ‘knowing’ something and framing our own moral responsibility in relation to something?

The full answer to the last question, unfortunately, will take more than one publication. The partial answer the article hints at is that, while having a ‘correct’ way of ‘knowing’ neoliberalism will not ‘do away’ with neoliberalism, we can and should invest in more just and ethical ways of ‘knowing’ altogether. It shouldn’t warrant reminding that the evidence of wide-spread sexual harrassment in the academia, not to mention deeply entrenched casual sexism, racism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, all suggest ‘we’ (as academics) are not as morally impeccable as we like to think we are. Thing is, no-one is. The article hopes to have made a small contribution towards giving us the tools to understand why, and how, this is the case.

I hope you enjoy the article!

——————————————————-

P.S. One of the rather straightforward implications of the article is that we need to come to terms with multiple reasons for why we do the work we do. Correspondingly, I thought I’d share a few that inspired me to do this ‘companion’ post. When I first started writing/blogging/Tweeting about the ‘paradox’ of neoliberalism and critique in 2015, this line of inquiry wasn’t very popular: most accounts smoothly reproduced the ‘evil neoliberalism vs. poor us little academics’ narrative. This has also been the case with most people I’ve met in workshops, conferences, and other contexts I have participated in (I went to quite a few as part of my fieldwork).

In the past few years, however, more analyses seem to converge with mine on quite a few analytical and theoretical points. My initial surprise at the fact that they seem not to directly engage with any of these arguments — in fact, were occasionally very happy to recite them back at me, without acknowledgement, attribution or citation — was somewhat clarified through reading the work on gendered citation practices. At the same time, it provided a very handy illustration for exactly the type of paradox described here: namely, while most academics are quick to decry the precarity and ‘awful’ culture of exploitation in the academia, almost as many are equally quick to ‘cite up’ or act strategically in ways that reproduce precisely these inequalities.

The other ‘handy’ way of appropriating the work of other people is to reduce the scope of their arguments, ideally representing it as an empirical illustration that has limited purchase in a specific domain (‘higher education’, ‘gender’, ‘religion’), while hijacking the broader theoretical point for yourself (I have heard a number of other people — most often, obviously, women and people of colour — describe a very similar thing happening to them).

This post is thus a way of clarifying exactly what the argument of the article is, in, I hope, language that is simple enough even if you’re not keen on social ontology, social epistemology, social theory, or, actually, anything social (couldn’t blame you).

PPS. In the meantime, I’ve also started writing an article on how precisely these forms of ‘epistemic positioning’ are used to limit and constrain the knowledge claims of ‘others’ (women, minorities) etc. in the academia: if you have any examples you would like to share, I’m keen to hear them!

One comment

  1. Love your article. Thx. It seems to me that if everyone would be honest with themselves and just call it a religious theology we could probably get a lot further, at least ethically. 🤘🏾. But of course the critical theorists will not call their effort a religious effort because critical theory is at the heart of capitalistic production, which is to say, the production of of excessrough which to make profit.

    But then of course I’m not sure whether it could have that so kind of self reflection upon itself either. Because, what religion does is expel that which offends its own subjective cosmological position.

    But it sounds to me like you’re saying something very similar but saying it in the language of academic critical theory. Which is fine; just as you say, I’m not attempting to say somethings wrong with it being a religion, I think it’s just more honest to call a religion.

    Because the question Hass to be: is there any religion that understood it self as a religion before there was some other way of understanding the world which it came up against?

    I would say no. The truth of every religion was exactly true until it was defeated or confronted , whether it be an out right war, or cultural negotiation.

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