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  • Beyond Neoliberalism: Academia and Activism in a Nonhegemonic Moment
  • Jeff Maskovsky (bio)

There is no doubt that neoliberalism is having profoundly harmful effects on the academy and the world at large, and that it constitutes a major ideological and material project to which the academic Left must respond. Many academics have done so by, for example, opposing the advent of consumerist, market-driven learning; the privatization, corporatization, and branding of the university; the decline in public spending on higher education; the speed-up of the academic assembly line; audit culture; outcomes assessment and other efficiency-oriented interventions; and the casualization of academic labor, to name several developments that can be usefully glossed as neoliberal.1

Yet targeting neoliberalism for critique raises some significant theoretical and political challenges. Where does neoliberalism begin and end? What, and where, are its limits? How has it influenced academia? How does it interact with other political projects that influence academia and public intellectualism today? To my mind, these questions have a direct bearing on how we conceptualize the current relation between academia and activism. If exciting new protest movements, such as Occupy the University, are to effectively challenge business-as-usual on college campuses, they will have to grapple with the ways that neoliberal economic imperatives have undermined the idea of the “free university.” They will also have to invent new programs that deepen democracy and that decommodify academic (and other) spaces.2

Yet we should be careful not to overstate the omnipotence of neoliberalism or to exclude from our attention other forms of power, authority, and government. Major power dynamics can be overlooked when the concept is used without a great deal of nuance.3 For example, recent public university budget cuts are but one expression of a new austerity that has swept across the United States (and Europe) in the aftermath of the 2007 economic meltdown. Although it is tempting to gloss these developments as part of a broader neoliberal assault on public education, including public universities, the austerity measures that states have adopted are a direct consequence of the Tea Party’s right-wing (not neoliberal) populism. This populism outflanked Obama’s centrist pragmatism [End Page 819] in the wake of the failure of neoliberal economic orthodoxy to guarantee economic growth and social welfare in the long term. As this example suggests, neoliberalism’s limits, limitations, and failures create spaces for other political projects to succeed, affecting the academy in ways we should not disregard.

In fact, acknowledging the variety of political and governing projects—from the libertarian to the neoconservative, to the social democratic, among others—that circulate inside and outside the academy seems crucial if we are to properly account for the broader landscape in which academics operate, and to which we may wish to respond politically. What seems necessary today in fact is much harder than contesting a generalized “neoliberalism.” Instead, we must grapple with an unstable and contradictory scene in which no one project is hegemonic. Three interconnected crises that influence academia-activist dynamics deserve our attention.

First is the crisis of delegitimation affecting the academy, a crisis that reflects neoconservative politics as much as or more than neoliberalism. The demands of consumer-oriented teaching, the destructive effects of the academic “star” system, and the wider academic employment crisis are among many developments that limit academics’ capacity to participate in social justice work. Yet we must remember that these challenges emerged alongside the New Right’s attack on “ivory tower” elitism. Indeed, the New Right has been particularly effective at putting the academic Left on the defensive with its politically disabling portrayal of academics as overly privileged “tenured radicals” whose romance with the counterculture and overzealous pursuit of “illiberal” causes such as affirmative action, multiculturalism, and political correctness corrupts the academy and undermines the quality of higher education. So too has its use of think tanks and other nonacademic institutional contexts from which to launch attacks on the academy and challenge academic findings. We must acknowledge also recent right-wing attempts to intervene directly in tenure decisions, to record and publicize controversial lectures and public statements by academics whom they oppose, to organize and coordinate cross-campus student...


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