How ‘neoliberalism’ stifles debate

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I have always considered myself to be politically centre-left. I understand that this is a broad category and on some issues I might be more to the left than on others. Yet I haven’t really agonised about this because I thought my views were pretty mainstream.

Two factors have made me stop and think about this in recent times. Firstly, my promotion of teacher-led methods tends to be associated with the political right. Many – but certainly not all – of those who follow my blog might describe themselves as small ‘c’ conservatives and I suppose this is understandable because teacher-led instruction is a traditional approach (even if ‘progressive’ education has a longer history than you might think). But this is not the reason I am convinced by the need for teacher-led ‘explicit’ instruction. The evidence shows that explicit instruction is more effective and leads to more equitable outcomes and this fits well with my egalitarian beliefs.

The other factor that has given me pause for thought is the increasingly polarised political debate. In England now, anyone who is not an unthinking supporter of Jeremy Corbyn is labelled a ‘Tory’. And across the world, any proposal spanning a mass of ideas from centre-left to far-right is labelled ‘neoliberal’. I see centre-right think-tanks condemned in the strongest possible terms and I think, “I quite like some of these people and some of their ideas.”

I wasn’t aware until today that the term ‘neoliberal’ has been hijacked and now means something quite opposed to its original meaning. Whereas it used to imply economic liberalism with a friendly, social face, it is now used entirely negatively. As Colin Talbot explains in this post, nobody self-identifies as a neoliberal and this fact should make us pause and consider whether it describes an ideology that anyone actually subscribes to.

In the current climate, is it even possible to debate the merits of Charter Schools or their English equivalent, Free Schools? This is an issue that I’m keen to discuss. Some of these schools have been set-up to apply the kinds of teaching methods that I advocate. Yet I worry whether they will only ever be of niche value; a cottage-industry for the sharp-elbowed. If we examine the case of Sweden, we might conclude that Free Schools became dominated by the same monolithic student-centred philosophy as many state systems, perhaps to an even greater extent. Maybe this isn’t the mechanism to improve schools. I don’t really know and we’re not talking about it.

And it would seem odd to describe Free Schools as a program of privatisation because they are non-profit and are funded and regulated by the state. The academies programme, the forerunner of Free Schools, was even set-up by the British Labour Party, but I suppose that we are now meant to consider the British Labour Party of the early 2000s as neoliberal too.

Schools need some kind of reform. I am sure of that. When a concept such as whole-language reading instruction can arise and come to dominate entire school systems years after thorough research has shown its methods to be ineffective, then we have a broken system. But if all directions out are labelled ‘neoliberal’ then it makes it hard to think.

If neoliberalism means the opening-up of state-funded services to the voluntary sector, local autonomy, independence and choice, with information made available about levels of performance – as many seem to currently use the term – then it is just one tool that a politician could potentially utilise. There is still an argument to be had over what needs fixing and whether this is the best tool for the job.

I would agree that there are elements of the political right who are ideologically committed to more markets as a good in itself, just as there are elements of the political spectrum that are committed to all sorts of silly things. But that doesn’t have to affect sensible people like us. We can make decisions on the merits of any particular case. Rather than shutting away ideas in a closet labelled “neoliberalism”, the political debate would be much better served by a detailed examination of specific proposals. We might then be a little better informed.


9 thoughts on “How ‘neoliberalism’ stifles debate

  1. P.W. Zuidhof (2012). Ayn Rand: Fountainhead of neoliberalism?
    Review of: Hans Achterhuis (2010) De Utopie van de Vrije Markt. [Free market utopia] Rotterdam: Lemniscaat. Krisi, issue 1.

    This book has not been translated into English. It has taught me a lot about the main strand of neoliberalism: Friedman (Chilean fascism), Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, financial crisis of 2008 Makes one shiver.

  2. David says:

    Hi Greg,

    For a decent discussion of neoliberalism as economic policy, see the IMF article “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”

    It’s a complicated and convoluted story on how ed reformers and idealogues have mixed, particularly here in the US. Neil Selwyn does a fantastic job of unpacking this in his book Distrusting Educational Technology. What used to be pretty far to the left ideas about open access, freedom of knowledge and anti-authoritarianism has been converted into a totally different political agenda.

    In my own encounters with this story, I’ve found that many conservatives who seek to undermine teachers’ unions support a technological “solution” to education, so they push student-centered pedagogies combined with ed tech, thus converting teachers into facilitators (who would be paid less or be part-timers). Think Sugata Mitra on steroids. See here from the 2016 Davos meeting on education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

    For me, I’m far to the left politically, but just want education not to continue being forced into doing stupid stuff–Dan Willingham’s Educator’s Bill of Research Rights is spot on.

  3. Mike says:

    “Neoliberalism” has become simply a catch-all term used by self-appointed guardians of all things progressive and decent for “opinions/ideas/acts we don’t like”. And it is genuinely a shame that this extends to the world of education where certain “progressive” ideas implemented over the past half-century have been absolutely catastrophic for social mobility, as Greg and others have regularly pointed out.

  4. Bart says:

    Hi Greg
    Have to disagree with you with this one. I’m not saying people don’t misuse the term and label something completely un-neoliberal as neoliberal but it is useful for describing the broad belief in society that competition is inherently better, that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector and that decentralisation is better than systems. This belief was challenged in the past but has rarely been challenged since the 80s when all parties moved to the ‘right’. Now this definition may not be absolutely academic but it is the broad everyday use of it. With this definition I would definitely say that the British Labour party of the early 2000s was indeed a neoliberal party just like the labor party here in Aus is and the democrat party of the US. With the centre left parties, gone is any reference that there is something good about socialism or nationalisation. They may be socially liberal but with the economy they generally end with regulation and ‘safety nets’. Neoliberal beliefs are different to conservative beliefs which is why centre right parties often have a conflict inside them between those often contradictory beliefs.
    Now many people may not label themselves as neoliberal, perhaps preferring the terms libertarian on the right or social democrat on the left but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the term to label them, after all very few people label themselves racist.

      • Bart says:

        I’ve just read the Talbot article now and I don’t quite agree with that either, after all we have a whole major party that is centre right and calls itself the Liberal Party. I feel most people say neoliberal so as not to confuse this idea of liberalism with the frequent american connotation of liberalism.
        If it is an unhelpful term I would ask what is a better one to encapsulate the philosophies (competition, free trade, pro-private, decentralisation) that are central to both major parties? The “sensible centre”?

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