How neoliberalism disenfranchises us…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the impact of the neoliberal culture on our organisations and the way we operate within them. The imposition of the current HE environment (and it is imposed, there is nothing democratic about it) is causing a massive shift in the way universities are run. Increasingly, we see universities becoming competitors with each other. There is a renewed focus on “the brand”, of how to stand out from the crowd/competitors of how to drive up student applications and to increase revenue etc. There’s nothing new here. We all see it and read about it every day. This is what it was designed to do. There are, it goes without saying, consequences of this shift for all of those that work in this environment.

As has been demonstrated throughout history, neoliberal environments tend to come hand-in-hand with authoritarianism. We’ve seen this, for example, in Chile during the 1970s where the Chicago Boys had their opportunity to embark upon their economic experiments whilst the Pinochet regime kept the Chilean people at bay. We know that neoliberal reforms are unpopular, undemocratic and, ultimately, disenfranchise the populace – taking away publicly owned institutions and placing them in the hands of private companies. We see this manifest itself today in the student protests. The post-2010 reforms to HE (which, let’s not forget, have their roots in the Blair era) have re-awakened the spirit of student protest that has for so long remained dormant. Neoliberalism is unpopular with all but those who wield the power. And it is through neoliberalism that those with power reinforce it.

As I said before, this has consequences. For the Chilean people, for example, it led to a life of fear and terror as the Pinochet regime set about dismantling all of the public institutions that had developed and prospered. The people had no say in this dismantling, they had to endure it and stand by helplessly as power was concentrated in the hands of a small elite. This concentration of power is part and parcel of the neoliberal process. The two are inextricably linked because neoliberalism encourages a system where power is concentrated.

Contrary to how advocates of neoliberalism portray it, it is not an ideology that frees people, it constrains them. In an organisational context, we find replications of authoritarian structures the more neoliberal the environment around that structure becomes. So, for example, we find in many large corporations there is a very top-down, authoritarian approach to how they do their business. Everything is centralised, controlled from the centre and individuals within the structures (particularly those at the bottom end) often have no influence on the system. They are cogs in a machine. Everything is controlled for fear of potential damage to the brand. And so we find that large corporations often replicate the structures we find in authoritarian regimes. Centralisation of power for fear of failure of the regime if power is too widely dispersed.

But what relevance does this have to HE? Well, we have found ourselves in an environment that is neoliberal by design. It has created a sense of competition, a Darwinesque survival of the fittest, where the weak will perish and the strong will prosper. This creates a fear factor: a fear of the failure of the regime. The only way to respond to this fear, as they see it, is to centralise power. By centralising, so the theory goes, you can gain control and minimise rogue elements potentially unbalancing the regime. This centralisation, therefore, restricts the freedoms of the individuals working within these structures. The ability to influence the organisation is rapidly diminished.

The consequence of this is that we have less control. We are less able to do the things that perhaps we might like to do, because we are disenfranchised. As structures become centralised, the importance of consistency throughout the organisation becomes key (because this is more efficient¬†according to the capitalist class¬†– “efficiency” being a key mantra of the neoliberal ideology). No longer can we communicate with users in the way we see fit, but instead we have to communicate in the way the organisation sees fit. There is no freedom in the sense of control over our own work and immediate environment. We have to submit to the will and concerns of the over-arching structure within which we reside, this is the danger of the neoliberal environment created around the structures we inhabit. This goes for library services as much as any other aspect of HE.

To ensure we have the freedom to do our jobs in the way that we, as professionals, believe they should be done, we must surely first resist the shift towards a neoliberal culture? For it is this neoliberal culture that will inhibit our freedom and prevent us from fulfilling our roles as professionals, with the knowledge and expertise to perform our roles in the ways we see fit. If we are to be subsumed by the neoliberal culture, we will not have that freedom. We will not be able to perform in our roles as we see fit. We will become consumed by the structures that have developed around us as part of this cultural shift. We can talk as much as we like about the things we should be doing, the approaches we should take, how we can reach out beyond our traditional role. But, ultimately, if we do not fight back against the structures that are growing around us, this shift towards neoliberalism in libraries, then we will not have that freedom. We will not have that power. Perhaps, ultimately, all we will be is a cog in a machine? And if we are to fight against the culture, how do we do it?

  • This is *exactly* what’s happening at my library just now. It’s all about ‘better customer service’, say the powers that be, but they never bothered asking those of us who actually work with the public what the “customers” want, and a lot of what’s being changed is exactly why people like our library. There are already far too many corporate entities in most people’s daily lives – the library used to be one place that was real. Now they want us to be robots. (Never mind that they’re devaluing everyone’s job by cross-training us so that we can be slotted into any department at the will of management, regardless of education or affinity.) But how do we fight back? I can’t afford to lose my job just to make a point.