- Once More, with ConvictionDefending Higher Education as a Public Good
If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as a guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or menage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us.Toni Morrison, “How Can Values Be Taught in This University?”
No doubt it will take some of us time to recover from the confident delusion that the global economic recession of 2008 would reveal once and for all the destructive force of neoliberal capitalization, the “vampiric octopus” masquerading as free-market efficiency and neutrality. But once again citizens in the overdeveloped West find themselves puzzling over stories of billion-dollar bonuses for the very business “leaders” who were responsible for the meltdown—an inky black trail of endless zeros from whence red ink once bled out of the gaping wound of an impaled public trust. Four decades of neoliberal social and economic policy have strangulated not only the middle class and the poor but those social institutions organized in large part for their protection—an assault seen most aggressively at all levels of education in the United States. The consequence has been an entrenched political illiteracy [End Page 117] (among other forms of illiteracy) across the electorate, which has fueled populist rage, providing an additional political bonus for those who engineered massive levels of inequality, poverty, and sundry other hardships. As social protections are dismantled, public servants are denigrated, and public goods such as schools, bridges, health care services, and public transportation are left to deteriorate, the Obama administration unapologetically embraces the values of economic Darwinism and rewards its chief beneficiaries: megabanks and big business. Neoliberalism—reinvigorated by the passing of tax cuts for the ultra-rich, the right-wing Republican Party taking over of the House of Representatives, and an ongoing successful attack on the welfare state—proceeds once again in zombie-like fashion to impose its values, social relations, and forms of social death upon all aspects of civic life.1
With its relentless attempts to normalize the irrational belief in the ability of markets to solve all social problems, neoliberal economic fundamentalism puts in place policies designed to dismantle the few remaining vestiges of the social state and vital public services. More profoundly, it has weakened if not nearly destroyed those institutions that enable the production of a formative culture in which individuals learn to think critically, imagine other ways of being and doing, and connect their personal troubles with public concerns. Matters of justice, ethics, and equality have once again been exiled to the margins of politics. This is not to suggest that morality does not come into play under the regime of neoliberalism. Morality in this instance focuses largely as a legitimating and shaming device. Fueled by a discourse of austerity, personal responsibility becomes the only morality that counts, conceiving social and economic problems largely as a result of individual failings. As morality is stripped of its social registers, it appears in the privatized discourse of family values and individual responsibility. The most vulnerable are now blamed for not sacrificing enough or are viewed with disdain because they argue for social protections, new infrastructures of sociality, and a new democratic imaginary. Ethical and civic disengagement has become the defining characteristic of neoliberal relations, and one consequence, as Zygmunt Bauman insists, is that “just as we as individuals feel no responsibility [End Page 118] towards the other, so does the sense of political responsibility for social problems weaken.”2 Anyone who does not adhere to the ideology of individual entrepreneurialism and unchecked narcissism is now viewed with disdain, if not contempt. Never has this assault on the democratic polity and public values been more obvious, if not more dangerous, than at the current moment when a battle is being waged under the rubric of neoliberal austerity measures on the autonomy of academic labor, the classroom as a site of critical pedagogy, the rights of students to high-quality education, the democratic vitality of the university as...