Neo-liberalism: an over-worked concept?

Neo-liberalism has to be one of the most frequently used terms in the social sciences. Barely mentioned at the end of the 1980s, it was pretty popular by the turn of the century, and is now commonplace. But what does it mean – and particularly why is it so common in educational research?

I should probably start by justifying my claim that the term is commonly used. A text search of the Journal of Education Policy since 1997 shows 196 items that use the word ‘neo-liberal’, and 53 in the British Educational Research Journal. This may reflect a British tendency to engage in policy commentary, as there were only 23 such items in the Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, and only five in the American Educational Research Journal.

If I had enough time, I’d look systematically at how the word is used. But here are my impressions, based on ways in which I’ve noticed people using the terms at conferences and in their publications.

First, and foremost, neo-liberalism is usually denotes something bad; it is a highly normative term, and it is almost always meant to be derogatory. The (usually unstated) understanding is that neo-liberalism is to be contrasted with social democratic welfarism, which is the implied positive to neo-liberalism’s negative.

Second, the word is rarely defined. In a review of 148 articles on neo-liberalism in politics and development journals in 2009, two political scientists found not one that focused on the definition and usage of the term. The same is true of many other social sciences, and if there is any such definitional discussion in educational studies, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Third, people who use the term rarely provide any references to neo-liberal writers and thinkers. Like Stephen Ball in his recent book, if they identify any sources at all, then the reference is to thinkers who share their negative view of neo-liberalism. This strikes me as poor scholarship, and something we criticise our students for when they do the same. But not naming the writers means that you don’t need to discuss their ideas.

Fourth, you then don’t need to discuss how they came to exert any influence. Neo-liberalism is an abstraction. Like ‘globalised/globalisation’, it serves as a floating adjective, or a disembodied force.Neo-liberal stuff happens. Well, yes, perhaps it does, but why did these ideas become popular and who puts them into practice? Who resists them, or fails to resist them, and why?

And finally, the term is so loose that it gets applied to any policy or approach one chooses. New Labour in Britain, Merkel in Germany, Clinton and Bush, the World Bank and Alex Salmond – all can be viewed, and have been, through the furry lens of neo-liberalism.

Of course, these are all generalisations. I’ve come across plenty of exceptions, such as Simon Marginson’s powerful analyses of markets in higher education: he references Milton Friedman, the anti-Keynesian who led the Chicago School of Economics (who defined himself, if anything, as a ‘classical liberal’ – nothing ‘neo’ about him!).  And Marginson sort of defines the term, if rather loosely, as a ‘discourse’ that promotes the role of markets. Otherwise, he neatly fits my portrait, using ‘neo-liberal’ as a floating adjective (most frequently, ‘neo-liberal discourse’ and ‘neo-liberal imaginary’).

In an interesting paper some years ago, the Marxist Chris Harman said that the problem with ‘neo-liberalism’ was that it obscured an important distinction: it became unclear whether the author or protester who used the term was objecting to capitalism as such, or only to a particular regime of capitalism. Harman himself doubted whether neo-liberalism really had any substance, arguing that there was little evidence of a rolling-back of the state, and plenty of evidence of continued faith in Keynesian government spending funded by borrowing.

Without buying into all of Harman’s critique, I think he hit on something important. Slippery concepts serve a purpose, and neo-liberalism is nothing if not slippery. It allows us to scorn that which we are against without scrutinising why these ideas found any purchase, and without saying what we would like to see instead: weak scholarship and watery politics.