Stanley Fish, Neoliberal

Fish seems to cop to that charge, at least a bit, in his column today, and I suspect he's going to try to justify it in his coming columns. Just so we're clear, neoliberalism, in economic terms, refers to the Friedman/Hayek school of laissez-faire on steroids capitalism. And I'd say Fish does a fairly good job of defining neoliberalism in his piece. I'm not so comfortable with his discussion of the objections to it.

The objection (which I am reporting, not making) is that in the passage from a state in which actions are guided by an overarching notion of the public good to a state in which individual entrepreneurs “freely” pursue their private goods, values like morality, justice, fairness, empathy, nobility and love are either abandoned or redefined in market terms.

Short-term transactions-for-profit replace long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society. Everyone is always running around doing and acquiring things, but the things done and acquired provide only momentary and empty pleasures (shopping, trophy houses, designer clothing and jewelry), which in the end amount to nothing. Neoliberalism, David Harvey explains, delivers a “world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.” (”A Brief History of Neoliberalism.”)
It's not that there's anything incorrect in this discussion--it's just that this is really limited. One of the huge problems with neoliberalism is that it makes no allowances for power disparities between the parties to a transaction. In the example Fish cites earlier of the creek owner and the polluting factory upstream, the neoliberal suggestion is that the factory owner and creek owner would weigh the economic benefits and the one that provided more would come out the winner. The reality is that the factory owner is likely to keep polluting and tell the creek owner to get bent, barring some external force telling him to do otherwise. In a neoliberal system, that external force doesn't exist. Everywhere else, we call it government, and some of us are pretty glad it's out there.

So how does this affect universities? Fish reports--and I agree--that once a society has started down the neoliberal path, even "institutions that don’t regard themselves as neoliberal will nevertheless engage in practices that mime and extend neoliberal principles — privatization, untrammeled competition, the retreat from social engineering, the proliferation of markets." In the case of universities, this has been exacerbated by the withdrawal of the state from the university funding system. When universities don't have public money, they look for private money, and that money comes with more apparent strings attached. The result is academics who are less willing to rock the boat publicly, lest their funding be cut off. We wind up with corporate hegemony of the university system, in practice if not in name.

And what Fish urges is that academics not rock the boat, at least not in the university setting, and especially not in the classroom. I can agree with him on the latter, at least in part. I try to leave partisan politics out of my classroom unless it's relevant to the discussion of the material we're covering. But at times it is relevant--tomorrow we'll be talking about Mark Bowden's "The Dark Art of Interrogation" in my composition class, and since it deals with--indeed, advocates for--the Bush administration's torture policy, there's no way to get around it. And in my poetry classes, we'll be doing some Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, among other works--how do you not get into the election of Barack Obama in a larger discussion of race in America as a subject for poetry? That doesn't mean that I would advocate for a particular candidate or course of political action from my position as a teacher--I think that would be a misuse of power insofar as students (who in my case tend to be first- and second-year students) might be uncomfortable with challenging my point of view.

But I don't see anything wrong with being an advocate inside the university community, or even organizing with former students on particular issues or for candidates. Any potential conflict arises only in the classroom, so far as I'm concerned. Not so for Fish, and that's a big reason why I think his calls to locate civic involvement not only outside the classroom but outside the university are problematic. Academics--those lucky enough to be tenured--are already being hemmed in by corporate interests and risk-averse university administrations. I won't even get into the chilling effect that those groups have on us temporary types. Fish, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, is worsening the problem by serving as an advocate from inside academia. He's undercutting our argument when we have enough problems to deal with. He's Joe Lieberman or Bill Nelson or Mary Landrieu, only in academia.

And the way he ends this column really makes me think it's about to get worse.

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