A Class Production: Higher Education, the Neoliberal Metrics Fetish, and the Production of Inequality/Insecurity.

AuthorRobbins, Christopher G.

The Spellings Commission Report, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US Higher Education (US Department of Education 2006), seems like a distant memory since its release more than a decade ago. Its release completed a 23-year process of reimagining public education by the political and economic elite in the United States that began with the release of the Reagan-commissioned report A Nation at Risk (Berliner & Biddle 1996, Berliner & Glass 2014). The Spellings Commission did not merely call attention to what its members thought were glaring problems of flagging college access and completion rates, diminishing affordability and accountability, lackluster evidence of innovation, and variegated quaff ty in US institutions of higher education. The Spellings Commission, wittingly or unwittingly, also consolidated the varied elements of a rationality--neoliberalism, the animating rationality of the last 30 years--in the report's analysis and the imaginary significations it provided for thinking about, existing within, and acting in relation to institutions of higher education. It officialized the idea that education, especially higher education, would be primarily a private good that could act as a catapult for social mobility, with vast, critical implications for the national economy. Institutions of higher education would now address students as consumers reprocessed as workers and part of a workforce to make the US competitive again in the global economy.

My concerns rest less with the Spellings Commission than with the series of interrelated effects it normalized. Rather than existing as a distant memory, the assumptions and recommendations of the Spellings Commission act in and as a variety of altered institutional arrangements between the state, higher education, and extragovernmental groups (Hall & Thomas 2012); between relationships that faculty and students embody, as strong discourses on accountability, competition, and self-interest edge out other organizing values and identifications; in fetishistic and exclusionary discourse on metrics, data, and analytics; and in a number of comfortable elisions regarding the relationship between the state, higher education, and inequality under neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism: A Brief Interpretation

Neoliberalism exists as a philosophy or doctrine that has informed a brutal political economy for more than 30 years (Couldry 2010, Giroux 2004, Harvey 2007). As a philosophy or doctrine (e.g., the Washington Consensus), neoliberalism rests on a number of principles despite ever more glaring contradictions in practice. Neoliberalism or market fundamentalism--the free market in US parlance--privileges limited government interference in corporate activity, or deregulation as interlocutors since the Reagan era have euphemistically called it. This principle holds true until and up to the point where the government needs to open markets, or until corporate interests need the state to privilege or protect market interests in order to squeeze nonmarket interests that could be otherwise commodified. Hence, the privatization of public goods and services, along with the enclosure of the commons, must be pursued for both profit maximization and the creation of conditions in which individuals--not shameful collectivities--can participate. Limiting government interference in enterprise, the argument goes, allows individuals to exercise their individual liberty in fair competition (Friedman 1962/2002, Hayek 1944), producing an economic nirvana in which individuals engage in frictionless economic intercourse--the good guys prevail and are rewarded, the bad ones rightly suffer for their poorly calculated choices. Consequently, in this doctrine the disinterested market, not a meddling government, acts as arbiter of worth--even existence for increasingly more people--and the institutional arrangements on which it relies. With collective identifications and shared responsibilities out of the way, the competitive, self-interested individual unencumbered by mutualistic--moral--bonds reigns as the standard bearing agent, the one to be celebrated, emulated, embraced, and embodied, or else.

These principles do not always cohere in practice. Calls for limited government, for example, do not jive with bloated military expenditures used to open and secure markets. Pinching domains of government to make it smaller or to "get it out of the way" of personal freedom happens alongside a continually burgeoning police and prison apparatus deployed to protect propertied interests, diminish dissent, and discipline classes of people expelled from the brave new world of free markets (Bauman 2003, Giroux 2015, Wacquant 2009). Despite appeals to unfetter markets and corporate interests in the name of extricating individuals from constraints placed on the exercise of personal freedom, the opposite has occurred. In western democracies, especially the United States, neoliberal market fundamentalism has taken root alongside deepening inequality. In 1983, the top 20 percent of wealth holders controlled 81.3 percent of the nations wealth compared to the bottom 80 percent having access to only 18.7 percent of the wealth. By 2010, the top 20 percent controlled 89 percent, leaving merely 11 percent of the wealth for the bottom 80 percent (DomhofF 2013, see also Yates 2016). Changes in wealth and income inequality over this same period only sharpen when one disaggregates by race, gender, geography, and educational attainment (Carnevale et al. 2016, Lister 2010). Deregulation too has not involved an equitable free-for-all for playing fast and loose in a regulation-free competition. The opening and underregulation of private, for-profit educational markets has entailed, for instance, hyperregulation of--and state disinvestment in--public education institutions coupled with the production of a crisis of mission, vision, and values for these institutions (Lipman 2011, Saltman 2012).

This seemingly random set of neoliberalism's many contradictions points to a critical element of market fundamentalism for which one cannot account by looking only at a cruel political economy: its discursive power. Many of these contradictions and the conditions that reproduce neoliberal values would be less possible, or less powerful, without a set of conditions, social relationships, and practices through which people give them meaning (or, alternately, that could challenge the given meanings of neoliberalism's organizing metaphors, images, and values). In this way, Couldry (2010, 5) suggests looking at neoliberalism not only as a philosophy and doctrine that organizes particular institutional arrangements in and between national contexts, but also as "meaning," as the "embedding of neoliberalism as rationality in everyday social organization and imagination." Neoliberalism is about the economy and the myriad processes, relationships, and practices "extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action" (Brown 2005,40).

Proponents of neoliberalism have extended and disseminated market values in ways that range from the obviously symbolic to the profoundly material in terms of how we embody, experience, channel, and redirect neoliberalism's core values. If private enterprise shall prevail, then public institutions, goods, services, and spaces need to be shamed and stigmatized, along with the collective identifications on which such institutions rely. Public institutions operate inefficiently and ineffectively. Public goods are costly. Public spaces are dangerous. Public services are excessive. Social support systems create dependency of the undeserving, while burdening the deserving. These nostrums, repeated for decades, provide the negative imaginary significations that neoliberalism's society of individuals should accept (Bauman 2008a). Accordingly, citizens should see themselves in the corporate-run charter or private school that they individually choose rather than the neighborhood public school, the mall or country club rather than the park, the self-help book section in Barnes and Noble rather than community counseling, in employment and penury (or worse) rather than on public assistance.

While neoliberalism as philosophy does not foreground consumerism, it valorizes individualism in practice, something only enhanced and centered in daily experience by shifting individuals' identifications and behaviors from those of a citizen concerned with mediating between private interests and common responsibilities to those of a consumer concerned only with immediate self-interest and competitive advantage (Bauman 2008b). On the level of consumerist individualism, neoliberalism thus fuses the symbolic and the material, especially in terms of how people embody these relationships and practices. And it does something else: not all shoppers are created equally, but all individuals are individuals by decree of market fundamentalism, free to make choices, for better and worse, on their own volition. Neoliberalism, in part, consequently rationalizes existing inequality, if not actively produces new forms of inequality, and introduces new strategies for managing it. By focusing attention--symbolic and material--on people's capacities to act as self-interested individuals who choose on their own accord regardless of the conditions and agendas with which the choices are made, neoliberalism frames the effects of these choices as consequences of individual choice, rather than as consequences of one's position in an economic structure one did not choose, construct, or organize, much less govern (Rank et al. 2003).

Yet, as meaning or rationality, neoliberalism positions people differently in how it reorganizes and redirects, not erodes, the state and its various arms like public education, including institutions of higher education. This reorganization, in Foucault's (2003,253) theory of governmentality, is...

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