A Neoliberal Education: Humanities on the Free Market

By Whitney Campbell

In 2010, after two years of global economic recession, the British government cut funding to social science courses at UK universities by 100%.1 Under the duress of dwindling budgets, the British government and many others were entreated to reassess the distribution of public funds in order to maximize what they perceived to be the best education for the most people. Social science funding cuts like the ones the UK universities experienced, rather than indicating that 21st-century politics regard humans as nonsocial, instead represent a neoliberal logic that evaluates the value of all endeavors in relation to their impact on a theorized competitive market. I will argue that for the British politicians who made these budget cuts, the social sciences seem to be less instrumental for competing in international markets than other disciplines, such as engineering and mathematics. Their 2010 decision to defund social research seems to be motivated by neoliberal calculations, specific assumptions about political economies, and certain ideas about the labors that are required by modern globalized capitalism.

For a more developed explanation of the usage of “neoliberal” employed here, it is helpful to turn to the theories of Michel Foucault. From 1978 to 1979, Foucault gave a series of lectures at the Collége de France entitled “The Birth of Biopolitics,” in which he articulated neoliberalism’s genealogy. Although it does share a free spirit with classical liberalism, for Foucault, neoliberalism does not refer to “the reactivation of old, secondhand economic theories” such as those of Adam Smith, nor to Marxist notions of fixed classes or plots of “insidious” oppression.2 “No less dense, frequent, active, and continuous than… any other system,” for Foucault, neoliberalism refers to the political economic practices that privilege the freedom of competition, not the classical economic freedom of exchange.3 Neoliberal practices of the freely competitive market allow for and produce a multiplicity of figures, including “the entrepreneur” and “the consumer,” as well as a particular version of a modern capitalist laborer, who Foucault refers to as “an abilities-machine.”4 “[T]he neo-liberals,” Foucault said, “ lay stress on the fact that what should be called educational investment is much broader than simple schooling or professional training and that many more elements than these enter into the formation of human capital,” and went on to wonder, “What constitutes this investment that forms an abilities-machine?”5 For the British government in 2010, this investment was of federal funds, and the abilities that were determined to be worthy of investment were other than the skills a social science education provides.

This neoliberal attitude conceives of humans as the conduits to capital, but a different view of what it means to be human might be related to radically altered conceptions of public policy, fund distributions, and education. Those who believe in non-neoliberal views of humans, for example, might conceive of them as suffering bodies, as obliging beings, or even as not exclusively human at all. In the texts discussed here, Alan Klima’s The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand, Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, non-neoliberal views of being human are considered that reject the idea that humanity and its activities can be reduced to the ability to contribute to a free market. By reflecting on the political stakes of certain views of being human, I will demonstrate how the British government’s 2010 decision to defund the social sciences may actually have been in the service of neoliberal policies in more ways than one. The first way this decision may indicate a particular ideological view of the human will soon become clear with a brief assessment of neoliberal theory; the second way the decision may indicate this view will become clearer more gradually through a review of the texts mentioned above.

Foucault’s formulation of the concept of human capital captures a sense of the neoliberal view of what it means to be human — to be human is an experience of accruing value. Within this rubric, the abilities that people learn throughout their lives correspond to certain educational investments, income remunerations, and capacities to promote themselves in the professional market. The decision to fund other disciplines more than the social sciences, according to this understanding, depends on the perceived human capital that is attributed to specific professions. With this reading of neoliberal logic, engineering and physical science departments produce large amounts of human capital, while history and sociology departments produce less. In October 2011, the US governor of Florida, Rick Scott, expressed a similar view of social science’s human capital, saying that Florida does not need “a lot more anthropologists in [the] state…” and that he would rather “spend money getting people science, technology, engineering and math degrees …”6 In response to this evaluation, arguments for receiving more federal funds for social science education could be grounded in demonstrating how valuable these disciplines really are. In fact, this is what anthropology graduate student Charlotte Noble and her colleagues from the University of South Florida did with their interactive online presentation “This is Anthropology,” which offers further insight into the neoliberal view of the human.

Noble’s presentation rotates through images of various scenes — white-coated technicians in a laboratory, farmworkers carrying produce, children in a schoolroom — and pairs them with testimonials from anthropology graduate students justifying their high human capital. By scrolling through the slides, one learns that anthropologists work with school districts, parks departments, and environmental agencies, and that they frequently make suggestions that lead to financial savings and more effective governmental practices. As such, the logic behind the presentation operates entirely within a neoliberal framework, a view of being human that relates specialized skill to income and value to market value. Noble and her colleagues, while defending the state’s financial interest in funding anthropology departments, actually validate the state’s reasoning for depriving them of funds. In relating the state of Florida’s decision to the British government’s, it seems that in both evaluations the human capital produced by social studies departments was deemed not to be worth the investment of public funds. For their views of what it means to be human, a neoliberal premise led to an expression of personhood and education in terms of worth and financial contribution.

But how would alternative perspectives of being human approach this issue, and what would be the political reverberations of such reconfigurations? In Alan Klima’s The Funeral Casino, the logical extent of this neoliberal mode of evaluation is explored and other perspectives on personhood are offered alongside it. The ethnography tells an account of modern globalized markets from a particular place during three distinct events: 1973’s “October 14,” 1976’s “Bloody October,” and 1992’s “Black May” in Bangkok, Thailand. In each case, unarmed protestors were killed by government forces in numbers ranging from dozens to hundreds. Whereas in 1973 the mostly student protestors led a successful political coup of the Thai military regime that had been in control for twenty-six years, in 1976 they were demonstrating against the return of that regime’s leader to the country. In regard to this discussion, the 1992 protests seem to be even more directly related, as in their case the students rallied against a regime that was explicitly attempting to forge neoliberal relations with international partners. These events took place a week and a half after the first Miss Universe pageant ever held in Thailand and, as Klima maintains, in an environment where the Thai government tried to give the appearance “of the nonviolent ordering power of the global market.”7 With grim irony, Klima argues that this goal in turn leads to another mass killing, as the values of projecting a certain image to institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and of earning their macroeconomic structural adjustments were considered more valuable than the worth of individual Thai lives. In these sections of The Funeral Casino, Klima conveys how the neoliberal notion of human capital can have devastatingly fatal effects when taken to its practical extremes.

In other sections of Klima’s work, however, a different view of being human is suggested, one that centers on practices and representations of embodied suffering. Klima does not posit this view as an ideological alternative to neoliberal conceptions of personhood, but rather elucidates it by attending to public hunger strikes, to markets of “crime gore” Black May imagery, and to asubha kammatthana, a Buddhist practice in which practitioners meditate on death and the decomposition of the human body. These recognitions of other modes of being human challenge the views neoliberal perspectives maintain and introduce new political stakes. If a government incorporated into its policies notions of suffering with full awareness, for example, the impressions it gave investment bankers would be less likely prioritized over protecting human lives. Such a government could consider the management of pain its greatest responsibility and could foreseeably prioritize health care over all other programs.

Conversely, Klima gives an additional view of being human — that of an absolver of obligations — which is accompanied by a different realization of political accountability. Klima references the notion of the reciprocal human, but in The Gift, Marcel Mauss develops the concept more fully. In that classic text, Mauss describes a system of gift-giving in Polynesian societies that binds social groups together through a material exchange very different than that of neoliberal transactions. These circulations, Mauss shows, are not driven by forces like supply and demand, but are maintained rather through norms of generosity and honor that produce social solidarity. For Mauss and for Klima, this reciprocity is more than a peculiarity of Polynesian societies. Instead, both authors contend that “the obligation to give has a much wider distribution.”8 Mauss implies that these impulses exist in his own society, while Kilma claims his book is about “the politics of telling history under obligation, an attempt to write The Gift into history.”9 In regard to the events he describes, Klima writes that there is “something about anger that is akin to this gift exchange. Once anger is given to you… either returning it straight back to the original donor or keeping it to yourself is problematic.”10 Yet with this interpretation, Klima’s borrowing of Mauss allows him to posit humans as beings of reciprocation, rather than as beings of capital. In addition to the view of humans as aware sufferers, this almost Kantian, non-neoliberal formulation lets people be ends unto themselves, rather than being the means to capitalist ends.

The political stakes of a widespread adoption of this view are significant and are visible in debates among politicians who accuse each other of promoting socialist or selfish policies. When viewed on a greater political scale, these stakes and debts grow accordingly. If there is no such thing as a cost-free investment, or as Mauss expressed it, no such thing as a free gift, what exactly has the neoliberal economic order given Thailand in lessons about the value of humanity, and the worth of life and death, and what can it expect in return? If being human referred to the obligation to give, then policies that prevented this imperative or encouraged hoarding would be, by definition, inhumane. One only has to imagine how different taxation laws and practices would be with this understanding to appreciate the potential impact of its acceptance. Citizens could be notified by the government of the taxes they owe and be expected, as a matter of social solidarity, to repay them later when they feel the moment of reciprocation had arrived.

The apparent absurdity of this taxation system indicates how pervasive neoliberal views of personhood are. If a fourth view of being human is accepted, that of Jane Bennett in her Vibrant Matter, even the boundaries that separate humans from non-humans merit political interrogation. For Bennett, “human agency is always an assemblage of microbes, animals, plants, metals, chemicals, word-sounds, and the like—indeed, that insofar as anything ‘acts’ at all, it has already entered an agentic assemblage.”11 In this view, the disciplinary distinction between the fields of social research and those of engineering and chemistry becomes untenable, the very distinction the British government employed in 2010 to defund the former. If the British government had a view of personhood that claimed that humans “are also nonhuman and that things, too, are vital players in the world,” then their assessments of where to invest educational funding would be radically altered.12 One might imagine an increase of funds for environmental programs and for initiatives that analyze multispecies and material interactions.

Considering the neoliberal view of being human and the profits of maintaining that perspective, the British government has much to gain from rejecting the versions of humanity offered by Bennett, a political theorist, and by Klima and Mauss, two anthropologists. Depriving the social sciences of financial support may actually be a neoliberal government’s most effective way of preventing the articulation of non-neoliberal views. In light of the political ramifications of the other views of being human discussed here, it does seem that these competing perspectives are ones that neoliberal governments cannot afford to fund.

1 Hannah Richardson, “Humanities to Lose English Universities Teaching Grant” in BBC News Education Reporter, 2010.

2 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collége de France 1978-1979, ed. Michel Senellart and trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2008), 130.

3 Ibid., 145.

4 Ibid., 229.

5 Ibid.

6 Michael Bender, “Florida Doesn’t Need More Anthropology Majors” in The Miami Herald, 2011.

7 Alan Klima, The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 81.

8 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W.D. Halls (London: Routledge, 1923, 1990), 16, Mauss’ emphasis.

9 Klima, Funeral Casino, 7.

10 Ibid., 235.

11 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 121.

12 Ibid., 4.