Pushing Past Neoliberalism, Jamming, 01/02/2016

I used to work in the university sector as a humanities researcher and writer. Now I work in the business sector, mainly in marketing, communications, and the arts. As a career, it looks like a solid break, like the two eras have nothing really to do with each other.

In many circumstances, they don’t. Academics are trained to write in very specific, technical ways whose habits are hard to break, and their only other skills are teaching (though many don’t even have teaching skills). 

But I kept writing in a lot of styles, writing short stories and even publishing a couple during my grad school years. Also, I was lucky to have had a supervisor who helped me develop a non-fiction writing style that combined trippy concepts with accessible prose. Blogging has only helped me improve that style of open, accessible weirdness.

As a result of all this, I’ve fairly easily transitioned between a career in the university sector and a career in the business world. But another kind of convergence between university and business sectors is much more controversial: the influence of corporate money and priorities on universities.

State University of Arizona, flashes of green in a desert.
There are plenty of things to criticize about this relationship. I’ve criticized quite a lot of it myself. But I want to write today about an attempt to situate the university as the forefront of scientific research. In the words of Arizona State University President Michael Crow, such a leadership role is how the modern university can “own the future.”

Take a few minutes and read the article Crow published on LinkedIn about Arizona State’s new Institute and School for the Future of Innovation in Society. I linked it in the quote, so take a moment and read it.

Yeah, I had the same reaction. What the fuck did those 500ish words of buzz-talk and empty PR even mean? Others have explained the basics of the Institute and School’s mission statement to me.

Basically, Crow’s vision is that the research and teaching of Arizona State take a lead in innovation, educating people to innovate, and developing a progressive vision for humanity’s future. Resurrecting the hopefulness of the Jet Age and Atomic Age in the Internet Age and the Holocene Extinction.

My friend, Social Epistemology colleague, and occasional Twitter sparring partner Steve Fuller has expanded on and critiqued aspects of Crow’s vision. Read his response at the SERRC here, because my own critical remarks are about to begin.

The ideological bugbear of the modern left is neoliberalism. And that’s for more than just – in Steve’s words – the left’s focus on the injustice, unfairness, and pain of who loses in a given economic and social framework. 

Neoliberalism is an ideology that praises uprooting, especially uprooting in the name of profit and economic growth, and that can be very dangerous. Communities are disrupted and destroyed, traditional labour arrangements are destroyed and people are left adrift. The extreme individualism of neoliberal ideology can shatter families and starve welfare states. 

Some of the best social media conversations I have are
with Steve Fuller.
Yet Steve sees benefits to neoliberalism as a philosophy of economics and society. And frankly, so do I. The benefits come out when you read authors like Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. 

Some of their clearest political messages are about undermining and critiquing the power of the state. The state can be a terrifyingly powerful agent of control – it enforces nationalistic (and so fundamentally racializing and racist) cultural uniformity, conformity, submission to authority, and the steel fist of the police at their most pervasive and powerful.

All of this must be resisted, and the political philosophy of deterritorialization – Deleuze and Foucault’s – is about tearing down the power of the state to control people’s lives and bodies. Breaking down state power and processes is essentially neoliberal.

This is the heart of Daniel Zamora’s biting critique of Foucault that showed up in Jacobin Magazine just over a year ago. But the solution to the injustices of neoliberalism won’t be found in a return to the state. That just brings back the old authoritarian suppression of universalizing state control.

At the same time, as much as I sympathize with the liberatory aspects of neoliberalism (smash the state, end biopolitical police control), as a political and business philosophy, triumphal individualism has crested and left us with the exploitation of loneliness and despair.

I’d say the most oppressive characteristic of neoliberalism* is its presumption that relations between individuals are always fair, despite vast material differences. This is the sacredness of the contract, the fair agreement between a business owner and a businessman providing a service.

* I may say something else is the most oppressive another day, but this is today.

The caption on this photo literally describes this man as
picking up cupcakes and champagne to bring to a party
to celebrate someone's promotion. His income from a
day as a Tasker will probably work out to less than the
minimum wage in his state. Standard compensation for
workers in the most recent radical business innovation
to emerge from Silicon Valley: how to make millions
skirting laws that protect workers from exploitation.
Preserving the freedom to make contracts is the philosophical heart of neoliberal opposition to unions. A collective agreement is a negotiation that individuals didn’t necessarily sign on to, but that determines the conditions of their labour. They don’t have the freedom to negotiate a deal on their own terms.

The problem is that “freedom to negotiate” in all instances leaves many workers vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. Silicon Valley, and its culture of extreme liberalism, may be as Steve says, the cultural home of the modern business era. 

But its biggest recent innovation – the sharing economy – makes losers out of almost everyone. Exploitation and underpayment of workers is a condition that sharing economy businesses rely on to survive.

Standing against the oppression of authoritarian state power, the deterritorializing philosophy of neoliberalism was a vehicle of liberation. But now we must, as Antonio Negri describes, push through individualist principles to develop a path of liberation from the oligarchic oppression of permanent underemployment.

And I doubt Michael Crow at Arizona State is going to do that with his buzzwords and pitchman’s logic.

Editor's Note. Thanks to Steve Fuller for correcting me that Crow is actually President of Arizona State University, and not University of Arizona, as I originally thought. It's not the first time I've mixed up a state's "University of" with its "State U." Holy hell.

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