Neoliberalism, language and ‘The Alternatives’

Neoliberalism n. a political philosophy that argues in favour of privatisation, deregulation, and shrinking of the state to the benefit of the private sector.

(Image c/o Michael Thompson on Flickr.)

Neoliberals have a peculiar belief system. They believe that neoliberalism is about shifting power away from the state, freeing us from its “oppressive” influence on every aspect of our lives. It is about freedom and liberty. It is about the individual having more control over our lives. Of course, this doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. Whenever neoliberals are in a position of power, they have to deceive the people to ensure that their political philosophy can be put into action. Deception because, ultimately, the people will often reject the reforms proposed if they were offered to them in advance and with total transparency (see the NHS). It’s why very often the most extreme neoliberal reforms take place under authoritarian regimes (Chile being the obvious example).

Deceit is one weapon they deploy frequently and with ease. But more broadly, their weapon is language. It is through language that they are most effective in winning arguments and closing down perfectly rational opposition to their political philosophy. It is their chief weapon against dissent.  As Greene and McMenemy argue (£):

“The introduction of the concept of choice for individual public service users is an example of a neoliberal rhetorical tool used to overcome any foreseen resistance to marketisation and restructuring of the public sphere.”

Terms such as ‘choice’ are deployed in such a way as to ensure that opponents of neoliberal philosophy are seen as somehow opposed to ‘choice’, opposed to the individual being able to exercise their right to ‘choose’. Thus any dissent is effectively neutered. After all, what right-thinking person could be opposed to the inalienable right for an individual to choose?

This neutering of debate and hijacking of language is apparent in much of the language we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Presenting a new initiative as ‘efficient’ or ‘progressive’, for example, ensures that anyone who disagrees with these positions is easily labelled as somehow ‘anti-progress’ or as a defender of inefficiency (it’s worth noting that in the UK and US the term ‘progressive’ is used in very different ways by the right-wing. In the UK it is a term embraced by the right for political expediency, the US right-wing sees it as a term of abuse). Neoliberal maneuvering can, therefore, ensure that opponents are seen by the majority as old-fashioned and out-of-touch, even when the opponents are perhaps even more radical and forward-thinking.

We see this frequently across society in general and in terms of our own profession. Those who object to certain language or who question certain new ideas are seen as obstructive, outdated refuseniks who merely hold back both the profession and the institution as a whole. However, I would argue that such voices are not merely naysayers, refusing any hint of ‘progress’. They can and do hold ‘forward-thinking’ ideas that are often truly radical in the sense that they offer an alternative path that sits outside established orthodoxies.

One example of the infiltration of neoliberal ideology is the growing use of the word ‘customer’. This is a problematic term for a public service to utilise. Reflecting on an interaction in an art exhibition with a representative of “customer liaison”, Doreen Massey notes in her article “Neoliberalism has hijacked our vocabulary”:

“The message underlying this use of the term customer for so many different kinds of human activity is that in all almost all our daily activities we are operating as consumers in a market – and this truth has been brought in not by chance but through managerial instruction and the thoroughgoing renaming of institutional practices. The mandatory exercise of “free choice” – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one’s children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.”

Indeed, as the late Tony Benn explained in an interview for Michael Moore’s Sicko, the term ‘customer’ implies a financial transaction, one where money must pass hands. The implication, therefore, is that if you do not have money you cannot be a customer as you do not have the means to pay for the service. This, of course, gets to the heart of neoliberal doctrine – that everything has its price. The risk of employing such terminology is that it validates neoliberal ideology. Not only validates, but also opens the door to commercial influences and, ultimately, commercial “expertise” (this is why language should be carefully deployed, it ultimately erodes the influence of the professional). After all, if you are going to argue that concepts such as ‘customer services’ are integral to the delivery of library services, why not get in the ‘experts’? However, there are alternatives visions to the relationship between the user and the service. Visions that are not old-fashioned and archaic, but fresh and “forward-thinking” (to adopt clumsy terminology).

Take, for example, Noam Chomsky’s view of on an alternative future for higher education:

“First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.”

That seems to me to be a truly forward-thinking and radical idea. Although it is radical only in the sense that the current social and political climate makes it appear radical. Who could argue that this is not a ‘forward-thinking’ proposition? It rejects standard orthodox thinking, replacing a hierarchical system with something more democratic. Replacing a traditional approach with something alternative, untested and, ultimately, revolutionary.

The alternative path to a customer/service relationship need not be old fashioned and traditionalist. It can be radical, bold and resolutely non-traditional. Rejecting the customer/service relationship need not mean that the refusenik lacks a radical, alternative vision. Indeed, the alternative may be more radical than that which accepts traditional hierarchical structures and operates within broader environmental and political norms. To a certain extent, this radical alternative to the neoliberal customer/service relationship is already being tested in Spain.

Whilst not a perfect example of the kind of structures that could exist as an alternative to the neoliberal model, Mondragon University does offer a more democratic, co-operative system. In comparison to the neoliberal model, it is somewhat radical in that it rejects orthodox hierarchical structures. As Times Higher Education discovered last year:

“The university has a highly democratic governance structure. Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation [note: Mondragon Corporation is the overall federation of workers cooperatives which includes Mondragon University]. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team. (It last used this power in 2007 when one manager was dismissed, according to Altuna.)

“Mondragon is also highly decentralised. “We say that the chancellor [also known as the rector] has less power than the deans,” says the current holder of the top post, Iosu Zabala Iturralde. (Zabala appears to be the only member of staff who wears a tie – but he does not go as far as wearing a suit jacket.)”

This alternative to the neoliberal model is forward-thinking in outlook. Embracing a system that enables all stakeholders to be actively involved in the governance of the institution. The alternative to neoliberalism is not, therefore, backward or ‘anti-progress’. It is clearly more forward-thinking and ‘progressive’ than the neoliberal model that merely shifts hierarchies whilst factoring in cynical exploitative economics.

Opponents of increasing neoliberal language and ideas are not always, therefore, regressive unreconstructed dinosaurs. The alternative vision is not necessarily one that sees a return to an old fashioned way of delivering a service. It can be just as forward-thinking and ‘radical’, if not more so as it abandons the hierarchies beloved of traditionalists and neoliberals. And yet still to question neoliberal language and ideas is to be seen as a defender of an ‘old order’. As an ‘obstacle’ to progress. As someone that is holding back the profession and the institution. Why should this be?

There is an alternative to the neoliberal model. We can create a system that rejects neoliberal ideology and embraces something new, alternative and radical, something that is distinct from existing norms.  We can create a system that is co-operative, democratic and that ensures all stakeholders have an equal say in the delivery of services. This alternative is forward-thinking and radical. The problem is, how to deploy language?

At present there is a lack of clarity regarding what makes a radical, non-traditional alternative to the customer/service or neoliberal models that seem so dominant at present. It is difficult to coherently express this vision when the terms of debate and language have been co-opted by a neoliberal agenda. But it is vitally important to ensure that those that reject the current terms of the debate are not dismissed as irrelevant or as a block on ‘progress’. The alternatives are radical. The alternative is a break from existing orthodoxies. It just hasn’t yet been communicated effectively. If we can communicate the alternative effectively, maybe it could be possible to construct a model that re-casts the relationship between the institution and the user as less cynical and more co-operative.