Neoliberalism – how it travels, and how it can be resisted

by Professor Stephen Ball, UCL Institute of Education


This article is based on chapter 3 of Flip the system: changing education from the ground up, a new book published in association with teacher unions around the world. It explains some of the ways in which the economic and political project called Neoliberalism impacts on children’s education and teachers’ work. 

I want to make clear that I use the term neoliberalism with some trepidation. It is used so widely and loosely that it risks becoming meaningless. Neoliberalism is not simply a concrete economic doctrine, nor a definite set of political projects, but (in Ronen Shamir’s words)

a complex, often incoherent, unstable and even contradictory set of practices organised around a certain imagination of the “market” as a basis for the universalization of market-based social relations, with the corresponding penetration in almost every aspect of our lives of the discourse and/or practice of commodification, capital-accumulation and profit-making.

We can distinguish between neo-liberalism with a big ‘N’ – the ecoonomization of social life and the creation of new opportunities for profit – and neoliberalism with a small ‘n’ – the reconfiguring of relationships between the governing and the governed, power and knowledge and sovereignty and territoriality. Neoliberalism is about both money and minds, and is a nexus of common interest between various form of contemporary capital and the contemporary state.

We can see three phases:

  • ‘proto’ neoliberalism – Hayek and Friedman’s intellectual project, the alternative to a Keynesian welfare state
  • ‘roll-back’ neoliberalism – the discreditation or even active destruction of Keynesian-welfarist and social collectivist institutions
  • and finally, ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism – the construction and consolidation of neoliberalized state forms, modes of governance, and regulatory relations in order to stabilize neoliberalism.

What is the impact of neoliberalism?

I think it has had a profound impact on the relationships between people in the public domain. It reshapes a sense of purpose and notions of excellence and good practice. Targets, accountability, competition and choice, leadership, entrepreneurism, performance-related pay and privatization articulate new ways of thinking about what we do, what we value and what our purposes are. They work together to render education a ‘commodity’ rather than a public good.

But they also provide a new set of roles, positions and identities within which what it means to be a teacher, student or parent are all changed: it speaks in terms of ‘client/consumer, competitor, manager/managed, appraiser/inspector/monitor, and marginalizes previous roles. This change what is important and valuable and necessary.

The language we’ve started to use is important. New public management organizations are now ‘peopled’ by human resources that need to be managed. Learning is re-rendered as a ‘cost-effective policy outcome’. Achievement is now a set of ‘productivity targets’. The scope and complexity of these reforms are breathtaking.

However, and I’d say crucially, this is not the abandonment by the state of its controls over public services, but the establishment of a new form of control, what we can call ‘controlled decontrol’, the use of devolution and autonomy as ‘freedoms’ set within the constraints and requirements of ‘performance’ and ‘profitability’. The manager is therefore a relatively new actor on the stage of public sector organizations. The term ‘educational management’ began to be used in the 1970s, and brought with it a set of methods, ideals and concepts from the private sector.

We can see increased emotional pressures and stress related to work: an increased pace and intensification; and changed social relationships. There is increased paperwork, systems maintenance and report production, used to generate performative and comparative information systems; an increase in surveillance; a developing gap in values, purpose and perspective between senior staff and teaching staff, and their divergent concerns.

How do these policies travel?

In my work I have researched the complex spread of these practices across national boundaries. But the complexity of adaptation also shows that neoliberalism is neither natural not inevitable; it is being done and planned and enacted.

Neoliberalism is well organized and very practice in mobilising ideas and advocacy. So capital, through philanthropic foundations, invests in the work of think tanks and advocacy networks and policy entrepreneurs. Neoliberals mobilise against what they see as hangovers from a discredited past: public enterprise, bureaucrats, red tape, regulatory agencies, unions, cooperatives, welfare dependency, and so on.

How can teachers resist?

This is quite different from our previous struggles, because it also entails resisting our own practices. It is about confronting ourselves and what teaching has become. Resisting the dominant discourses implies that we must change our understanding of what it now means to be a teacher.

Over the years I’ve received many emails from teachers about the effects of neoliberalism on their work. These are, I believe, a part of the process of struggle against… of critique, of making things intolerable, of ‘unsettling’ and the struggle to be different. Possibilities emerge in relations with others who share the same discomforts.

These others might not be available in the school or in the staffroom, but they may be within everyday social relations, union meetings, on Twitter, Facebook or on blogs.

The point is that these commonalities are not established from a priori political positions, but through work on and over and against practices and on what it means to be a teacher, what it means to be educated, and what it means to be revocable.

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