How librarians enable neoliberalism and inequality, and what we can do to resist it

Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange, by David Edwards on Flickr

We live in an era dominated by the corrosive ideology of neoliberalism. Since the abandonment of the postwar settlement just over forty years ago, neoliberalism has become the dominant socio-economic ideology. The notion that an unconstrained private sector (via the profit motive and supposed greater efficiency) is best placed to deliver public service has been broadly accepted by the political establishment. Its successful dominance of political thought was confirmed with the arrival of Tony Blair and his embrace of a liberal economic agenda, casting aside the virtues upon which the Labour Party had been founded in favour of the market. But how has this ideology come to dominate? There is no single solitary component that has enabled its acceptance, rather a series of complex and varied factors that have been complicit in its dominance.

Neoliberalism disenfranchises citizens, converting individuals from citizens to consumers. No longer does the individual have ‘rights’ as citizens, rather they have the gift of “choice”. Choice in so far as the capitalist economic system permits. As Doreen Massey argues in Vocabularies of the economy [PDF]:

“It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told (as we saw at the outset of this argument) that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by ‘choices’, many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.”

Image c/o Alex Proimos on Flickr.

The shift away from citizenry to a consumerist culture is one that particularly benefits those with the financial means with which to engage in such a culture (enabling access to the best healthcare, the best education and so on). It follows, therefore, that such a culture penalises those who lack the financial means with which to make the choices available to those who do. This, obviously and inevitably, breeds inequality. Neoliberalism is, essentially, a system that creates and entrenches inequality (and, arguably, inefficiency as a result) – see Piketty’s much reported (if little read) analysis.

Of course, neoliberalism needs a foundation upon which to grow and thrive. Arguably, no system would be able to do so without certain institutions of power enabling its spread. Without the enabling of such institutions, neoliberalism as an ideology would barely sprout roots. It needs the nourishment that only vital, trusted, public institutions can provide.

In Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Louis Althusser argues that dominant ideologies are enabled primarily through the non-violent operation of “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs). Chief amongst the ISAs referred to is the “educational apparatus”. Althusser argues that:

“…behind the scenes of its political Ideological State Apparatus, which occupies the front of the stage, what the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant Ideological State Apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant Ideological State Apparatus, the Church.”

Althusser argues the educational apparatus is key to consolidating the influence of the dominant ideology, and drawing on Gramsci’s (Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971) concept of cultural hegemony, that it plays a role in ensuring that the establishment worldview is accepted as a cultural norm, as universally valid. Education is not the sole enabler of a neoliberal, consumerised society, but it plays a key and fundamental role in ensuring it remains dominant. When the language becomes embedded within an educational apparatus that is perceived to be apolitical in nature, the dominant ideology is strengthened. As Althusser goes on to argue:

“The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology…”

This lends itself to the defence utilised when employing neoliberal language: the terms are harmless as they are used in a neutral context, purged of ideology. We can employ these terms because we are not political and we’ve stripped away all political context.

In their article, The Counterhegemonic Academic Librarian: A Call to Action (Progressive Librarian #40), Stephen E Bales and Lea Susan Engle contend that higher education institutions are well positioned to perform this indoctrination considering their “place of high authority in western society”. They go on to argue that the academic library is a “necessary and inseparable component of the educational ISA, reproducing the political milieu through its collections and library staff or faculties”. The effect of this normalisation is a student class that is “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production”. As David Sweeney, director for research, innovations and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, recently argued, the UK has:

“…comprehensively failed to get away from the social elite in higher education…Do we want people like us leaving universities? Do we want our graduates to be engaged with society or part of an elite? Would it not be good to act as models for people who will tackle the big global challenges?”

Our system of higher education does not produce students who challenge the status quo, rather it produces graduates that will protect it, perpetuating and reinforcing the over-arching ideology of the political establishment. The educational ISA is a powerful tool in perpetuating the dominant ideology, ensuring its dominance and primacy. Any attempt to breakdown this dominant ideology, therefore, relies on challenging the status quo in our education system. Only by weeding this ideology out of our education system can we hope to breakdown the structures that create division and inequality.

Image c/o Pierre Metivier on Flickr.

This causes a number of problems in terms of the role of the librarian within the educational ISA. Our position as “neutral” figures of professional standing is a fallacy. Whilst we may strive to be “neutral” our actions are anything but. For example, as Bales and Eagle argue, the ALA “Code of Ethics” can be interpreted to mean that librarians must take a neutral stance on social justice issues, giving equal access to items that preserve the status quo and those that promote the advancement of marginalised groups (this is also reflected in point 7 of CILIP’s Ethical Principles – that we should remain “impartial” and avoid “bias”). The logical conclusion of such equal weighting, appearing to remain impartial, is to create a kind of equilibrium whereby to maintain inequality is as valid as to challenge it. When explored to its logical conclusion, is maintaining neutrality truly fitting with our ethical values? By giving an equal platform to materials that entrench social division, are we not taking a political position? In doing so are we not also undermining the very values we espouse?

Bales and Engle go on to argue that our position should not be of neutrality as imagined by the ALA “Code of Ethics”, but rather it should be:

“…one of social and moral responsibility to challenge the academic library as an ISA, to contribute to the creation of authentic knowledge and history, not simply the reiteration of canonical indoctrination.”

One of the key ways in which we can challenge the academic libraries as an ISA is through awareness of the language we utilise. The growing adoption of neoliberal language, normalises and legitimises it, reinforcing the consumerist culture. Through this use of language we endorse the use of words that are neoliberal by nature and have meaning that is contrary to our ethical values. Endorsement leads to acceptance of the terms as normal modes of language, as orthodox terminology. Using terms such as “customer”, “brand” etc imply an acceptance of the neoliberal driven transformation of citizens into consumers. This is, of course, problematic on a number of levels, not least because this normalisation embeds the discourse of the market in the minds of those who will join the ranks of the social elites, ensuring the consolidation of the dominant ideology. It also causes problems in terms of both our professional ethics and the future of the profession in general. As John Buschman argued in an address at Rider University in 2004, as such “business buzzwords” become ubiquitous:

“Thus does a privatized and economic vision of the library come to dominate discussions and assumptions about its future and define its purposes.”

The transformation of citizens into consumers results in the corruption and, ultimately, the destruction of publicly funded higher education (which has been privatised “further and faster than anywhere else“) and our public services. This transformation results in the adoption of market strategies, gradually eroding the notion that we are entitled to free education, healthcare etc.; instead convincing us that we are consumers without rights, only choice. For a profession steeped in the values of free and unimpeded access to information without discrimination, such an ideology presents a serious threat. A move towards marketisation means a move away from a service provided free and without discrimination, and towards a service for the few. We cannot tolerate a situation whereby we discriminate against those without the means to access the services we provide. Aping the language of business will not, as Buschman concludes:

“…save libraries, it transforms them into something else. We’re a profession and an institution in crisis because we have a structural contradiction between our purposes and practices as they’ve historically evolved and our adaptation to the current environment.”

Without challenging the use of the language of the dominant elite, we essentially become agents of the ruling bourgeois elites. The neutral academic librarian becomes, effectively, an agent ensuring that the dominant ideology is reinforced. As Massey points out [PDF]:

“The vocabulary we use, to talk about the economy in particular, has been crucial to the establishment of neoliberal hegemony.”

In Education Under Siege, Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux (quoted in Bales and Engle) described academics that work passively in the service of the controlling interests of society as “accommodating intellectuals” (expanding on Gramsci’s distinction between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals). These “accommodating intellectuals” stand:

“…firm within an ideological posture and set of material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups. Such intellectuals are generally not aware of this process that they do not define themselves as self-conscious agents of the status quo, even though their politics further the interests of the dominant classes.”

Image c/o Daniel Horande on Flickr.

Such “accommodating intellectuals” are essentially, unaware that their posture reinforces and strengthens the status quo. They would not recognise, Aronowitz and Giroux argue, that that is what their actions enable, but they are working passively and, perhaps, unwittingly in the service of the elites, employing their language and ideology within the dominant ISA. The same might be said of the neutral academic librarian who through their passivity reinforces the ideology of the dominant classes. Whilst they might consider their passivity “neutral” it is, on the contrary, overtly political. They take a political position through the adoption of “material practices that support the dominant society and its ruling groups”. The normalisation of the language of the dominant class legitimises it, that process of legitimising is a political act because it validates language that is a key part of the political agenda. By utilising their language, the librarian demonstrates acceptance of the ideology of a political movement that wishes to transform citizens into consumers. They have, effectively, become active enablers, reinforcing the dominant ideology and ensuring its normalisation.

So, if the neutral academic librarian, or “accommodating intellectual”, is an agent of the dominant classes, what is the alternative? The alternative must surely be to position ourselves as, what Aronowitz and Giroux describe as “transformative intellectuals”? According to their definition, “transformative intellectuals” are those who:

“…earn a living within institutions that play a fundamental role in producing the dominant culture… [but] define their political terrain by offering to students forms of alternative discourse and critical social practices whose interests are often at odds with the overall hegemonic role of the school and the society it supports.”

In order to be consistent with our professional values and to work to create the conditions for an alternative to the dominant ideology that asserts information as a commodity, we must surely become “transformative librarians”? Rather than adopting the language and strategies of the dominant class, we should be challenging or rejecting it. The language of the market has become the dominant discourse within our profession, our libraries and higher education in general. We are too accommodating of neoliberal ideologies that are at odds with our ethical values. Remaining “neutral” is no longer an option. “Neutrality” makes us both accommodating intellectuals and enablers of the dominant ideology. Why should we enable an ideology that is in conflict with our values?

Neoliberalism is a corrosive, destructive ideology. It leads to an unequal society that transforms, without consent, citizens into consumers. Adopting the language of this dominant ideology legitimises and normalises it, ensuring a steady flow into the establishment of graduates “steeped in the norms of the dominant culture that ultimately controls the means of production” [Bales and Engle, PDF]. Rather than passively and uncritically accepting the use of terminology that is alien to our professional values, we should challenge its use and instead of accepting the language of the dominant ideology, we should offer students forms of alternative discourse that reject and challenge it. The prevalence of what Buschman terms as “business buzzwords” legitimise this dominant discourse and therefore cannot be considered neutral, but purely political. It is up to us to refuse to act as passive agents that reinforce the power of the dominant classes and to reject the legitimisation of language that act as tools of inequality. When neutrality reinforces a dominant ideology that runs counter to our values, we are no longer neutral. There is a choice before us: we either act as enablers or we act as transformative agents.