Thinky Thoughts on Neo-Liberalism (and an Admission of Hypocrisy)

by Gordon Haber

This morning Al Jazeera ran an op-ed from one Tarak Barkawi, who teaches at the New School here in my beloved New York City.* Barkawi is rightfully upset about the “neoliberal assault on academia” — meaning the reliance on contingent labor, the budget-slashing and the combining or shutting down of entire departments.

It’s an interesting piece, and I recommend you read it, because it places the destruction of higher education in the US and the UK within the larger economic context of ruthless efficiency and austerity.

A few things I wanted to point out (because I am unable to let someone else utter an opinion without putting my 2¢ in):

  • I was a student in England when Thatcher called for doing away with grants and instead supplying low-interest loans. (I published a novella loosely based on my time there, shameless plug.) There were giant protests, and it was easy to understand why: I seethed with envy when my British friends got a nice check every term and their tuition paid by the government. It was the same with the NHS — two giant stressors for many Americans, tuition and health care, were simply not a problem for students in the UK, leaving them free to focus on their drinking. But I’d like to point out, if only as a basis of comparison to the nausea-inducing cost of an American education, that these days for UK and EU students, tuition isn’t terrible: a maximum of £9,000 per year in England and Wales, £3,575 in Northern Ireland and free in Scotland. (Salmon! Whisky! Free tuition! How could you not love Scotland?)
  • What was I talking about? Right, the editorial. Professor Barkawi focuses on the US and the UK, but this shit is happening all over the Anglosphere and in France as well.
  • Barkawi seems to have a general contempt for austerity but I am going to be a contrarian here and point out that in the UK unemployment is falling and the GDP is growing modestly. Calm yourself, dear reader; I am not suggesting that neoliberalism is wonderful and yay Thatcher, only that the full picture is more complicated than many folks acknowledge.
  • Now here I have to admit that I am a hypocrite. Because recently I heard that a producer at Al Jazeera was looking to interview adjuncts. I wanted to shill for my second novella (which is about an adjunct) so I emailed the producer immediately. So clearly I am not above using Al Jazeera to my own ends. Nevertheless I am starting to find it kind of ironic that we’re seeing a lot of writing about workers’ rights in the U.S. from a media company owned by Qatar, where guest workers have a strange habit of dying. Its website, to its credit, does report on human rights issues in Qatar, but funny how these articles never seem to mention that Al Jazeera is owned by the ruling family of Qatar.
  • I think it’s very important to see, as Barkawi does, the adjunct crisis as part of a larger crisis in higher education. And yet simultaneously I found it hard to get too upset about the “undermining of faculty self-government” when adjuncts can’t pay their bills and said self-governments don’t really give a rat’s ass about adjuncts. So while I do agree the thesis of the editorial, ultimately it’s just another example of professors getting all thinky while adjuncts starve.

* I have returned to New York City after five years in Los Angeles, and I am relieved to find that I still love it, even though the kinds of people who I fled the suburbs to get away from now run things.