restricted access Neoliberalism, Austerity, and the Academy
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Neoliberalism, Austerity, and the Academy

What I would like to do here is trace a path, in broad strokes, from neoliberalism writ large to the current regime of austerity, with its attendant effects on the condition of the academy. By neoliberalism, I mean that familiar cocktail of deregulation, privatization, reduction of taxes and diminution of social programs, emphasis on the bottom line, efficiency, competition, private property rights, et cetera that has been the drink of choice since the 1980s but which, as Jamie Peck underscores in Constructions of Neoliberal Reason, has roots extending back to the 1930s. As many critics have underscored, neoliberal policy prescriptions increasingly have been situated as a kind of common sense, explicitly or implicitly promoted with the mantra immortalized by Margaret Thatcher, “There is No Alternative” (tina). As many critics emphasize, neoliberalism also tends to heighten social and economic inequality, in large part because deregulation leads to concentration and to a winner-takes-all mentality most in evidence during the global financial crisis whose repercussions continue to reverberate around the world. A host of financial institutions, operating in a deregulated, highly profitable international trading regime, perilously leveraged themselves while peddling highly opaque and risky financial products. This casino mentality led to a global financial collapse, [End Page 29] a widespread freezing of lending, a cataclysmic erasure of wealth, and in many countries a bailout that numerous critics describe as the privatization of profit and the socializing of loss. As Castells, Caraça, and Cardos put it, “a financial crisis triggered an industrial crisis that induced an employment crisis that led to a demand crisis that, by prompting massive government intervention to stop the free fall of the economy, ultimately led to a fiscal crisis” (2).

Looking at the present atmosphere of austerity within that big picture, it is important to recognize that on the one hand it is an outcome of this global calamity, but on the other hand it can be seen as merely an intensification of an ideological campaign that has been under way at least since the 1980s. Reflecting that ideological shift, higher education has been progressively (and by that I do not mean in an enlightened way) reframed over the last few decades, through the increasing corporatization of academic institutions, through decreasing government support and skyrocketing tuition, and through what some call the neoliberalization of the university (see, for instance, English Studies in Canada’s Rethinking the Humanities issue, edited by Len Findlay). There is an increasing push to align the activities of universities with the needs of capital that constitutes a significant threat to the free pursuit of knowledge and especially to the very viability of the social sciences and humanities. This reframing, of course, has typically been conducted under the banner of necessity—that such free (that is, non-utilitarian) pursuit of knowledge is something that Canadian society can no longer afford.

The behaviour of university administrations as a result of this shift is complex and often Janus-faced; on the one hand they are (or at least can be) the defenders of the university against this ideological and financial incursion; on the other hand they are the reluctant, or sometimes enthusiastic, bearers of the message. tina is alive and vocal on campuses across Canada. But what I want to emphasize, as many others have before me, is that the mantra “There is No Alternative” routinely serves as ideological cover for the fact that imposition of neoliberal policy options and, more specifically, austerity regimes is always just that: the implementation of options, choices (with, of course, those choices made under varying degrees of exigency). Our own country, sadly, provides plenty of fodder to illustrate; in contrast with the message of financial necessity used to justify the Harper government’s assault on public sector jobs, scientific and other forms of research, environmental advocacy, et cetera, et cetera, there is a long litany of less-than-necessary expenditures on the other side of the ledger: excessive infrastructure and security for the G20 summit, [End Page 30] “advertising” for the government’s Economic Action Plan, establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom, and the pageantry to celebrate the War of...