The exclusiveness of a “Neoliberalist” discourse

By Shachi Mokashi ‘21


“The Seismologist,” an altered found photograph. All artwork by Julie Cockburn © The artist. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

“The Seismologist,” an altered found photograph. All artwork by Julie Cockburn © The artist. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

“Neoliberalism” is an ambiguous term, increasingly thrown around in discourse about modern society. It is flung at you when you least expect it. The term has recently been revived by economists, academics, and journalists to describe the major economic policies in power today. It is the term that is supposed to articulate the ideology that governs this era; yet, it manages to articulate very little. We are seeing the extent of this discursive revival in colleges across the world where there are academic courses attempting to unpack neoliberalism. This semester at Bennington College, social psychology professor Ella Ben Hagai is offering a course entitled, “Neoliberalism and its Discontents,” along with a neoliberalism lecture series that wrapped up last week. What does neoliberalism signify and what role does this discourse play at Bennington?

Neoliberalism builds upon the ideology of a liberal, free-market economy. It is predicated on the ideology that economic transactions do not need state intervention, as market forces have the ability to regulate the economy. This model propounds that competition is the only form of human engagement. This creates vast inequalities in the market as it privatises public interests and hands them over to private ownership. But, we already have terminologies like “capitalism” and “liberalism” to describe free-market economies. Why are we so obsessed with assigning a single term to articulate the complexities of different societies? By assigning universal terminology to different ideologies prevalent in our societies, we are erasing their complexity. The word, “neoliberalism” appears to help us understand the prevalent forces that drive people’s actions in their daily lives. But, does it accurately portray the complex world around us?

The rhetoric surrounding neoliberalism is devastatingly subject-specific. Even before I finished typing the word in the search bar, a variety of menacing phrases like “fiscal austerity” and “deregulation” popped up in the suggestions box.  There is something absurd going on. If the term “neoliberalism” is attempting to define an ideology prevalent in our era, shouldn’t it have a language outside of the economic realm? This is where we realise that ‘Neoliberalism’ is not an ominous entity propounding illusions about itself. The rhetoric around ‘neoliberalism’ is purported by us because we have inherited a deeply misleading and ambiguous discourse of the relationships between economic, political, and social realms in modern society. There is no doubt that there are multiple, complex ideologies at play in the world that support inequality and the privatisation of public interests. However, keeping the dialogue about these ideologies subject-specific allows the discourse to happen in an elite realm. The public is left with ambiguous words like, “neoliberalism,” which we think convey a lot, but don’t let us discuss anything meaningful. We need to change the way the discourse around “neoliberalism” happens and between whom.

Ella Ben Hagai, the faculty leading the course, started a Neoliberalism reading group while living in San Francisco. When I asked her why she brought this concept to Bennington, she stated that, “I wanted to explore how neoliberalism manifests in young adults’ formative years in college”.  That’s necessary. There was a lecture series, forming a supplementary part of the course, which brought in speakers to define “neoliberalism” and discuss its implications. This discourse enabled us, as students, to speak about particular agendas we previously did not have a language to describe. However, we use the term “neoliberal” to describe policies and agendas that purported inequality. This is where we use terminology as rhetorical weapons. Economic policies do need to be critiqued, but, with terminology that directly denotes what we are critiquing. We cannot use ambiguous terminology to describe specific issues and convince ourselves that we are offering a constructive critique.

I was discussing the term with Elio Jahaj ‘18, a senior taking the neoliberalism course, when he pointed out the difference between institutional dialogue and internal dialogue in colleges. Encouraging a discourse about neoliberalism internally, which is between students, is possible. In an age of cynical thinking, we are able to gather together to critique things that we do not understand. It does not take away from the discourse; if anything, our ignorance of the subject often allows us to use language free of historical baggage. However, the institutional discourse about the ideologies that we want to critique is necessary. Let’s take Field Work Term as an example for Bennington. The chance to experience what your discipline looks like in the real world is a brilliant idea. However, the institutional rhetoric around Field Work Term shows us that we are part of the bigger economy and not as alternative as we like to think. The Bennington website quotes a survey wherein more than 50,000 employers have stated, “The single most important credential for a college graduate entering the workforce is internship experience. Take it from employers, Bennington interns have what it takes.” What kind of employers are we working for and what do they represent? We need to be aware that when we choose to work for a particular organisation, we are accepting the underlying agenda the organisation fosters. Additionally, in using the term “workforce,” what are we putting institutional emphasis on? Are we training independent thinkers or productive workers?  

We need institutional discourse around the term “neoliberalism” because many colleges have put private interests over issues of social justice. Sexual assault on college campuses across the U.S. is an issue that has been rapidly garnering attention and fury in the past decade. There is immense pressure on colleges to handle this problem institutionally and many college administrators fail to meet the mark. We have seen perpetrators who have social and economic security getting away with sexual assault. One of the most well-known cases is that of Jameis Winston, a student-athlete accused of raping his classmate at Florida State. Florida State’s attorney, Willie Meggs, repeatedly emphasised that they did not have enough evidence to prosecute Winston. Florida State and the Tallahassee Police Department did not have enough evidence because they did not collect it.  The investigation was later dropped because Winston did not answer questions. This case is reflective of the way justice is handled in the world. We cannot forget that educational institutions are part of the economic system. Thus, the way they deal with certain issues is a reflection of the larger agenda to serve private interests. We cannot accuse our institutions of being “neoliberalist” because we are ending the dialogue before it can start. We are taking away our power from the actually productive and meaningful discourse when we term it so ambiguously with heavily charged terminology. Students have the power to put emphasis on the community and not individualistic gains. We can force our institutions to see how sexual assault is not an individual’s problem, but a community’s.  We need to point out to our institutions that college is where we can begin to change mindsets about sexuality.

College is the place where we can begin unpacking “neoliberalism,” a term that stops us from engaging in a more fruitful, authentic and less jargonized conversation. As students, we are immersed in academia and popular media. We have the ability to communicate with each other and learn about the specific social and economic issues happening around us. However, we need to approach this information with a critical lens. We cannot forget that media and academia are also ideological forces. Its language might have been written by the powerful and its ideology doesn’t serve the public at large but certain private interests. We cannot be left paralyzed amidst excessive information, moderated discourse, and be stripped down of our political and intellectual power. We need to cultivate our minds independently and critically. Then we need collective discourse as active students and catalysts of social movements.

One of the ways to politically and socially involve ourselves as students is to help our institutions foster a discourse around issues of social justice and current conditions of the market. The current discourse around neoliberalism on Bennington campus affects our participation in the public sphere. Elio Jahaj ‘18 vehemently wanted to change the discourse around ‘Neoliberalism’ and said that “if there’s anything we should do, it is that we go and demand for more economics teachers who can teach us about the market. We need more teachers who know about neoliberalism to talk to us about it.” This is the time where we can create a more intimate link to our institution, which demands constant discourse surrounding different topics and transparency in institutional decision-making. This is the time where we can change the rhetoric around political and social issues. We can learn and assign new terminology to make this discourse accessible to everybody. We need to reclaim our political power in our communities.

If this doesn’t start in college, where else?