“Neoliberalism” is always an unsatisfying category, but as it does broadly designate a cluster of policies and institutional logics, it tends to stick around as an ideal type. David Harvey puts it like this:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.
I usually prefer to talk about “New Public Management” instead of “neoliberalism,” though, because it more directly picks out a set of governing techniques (audits/markets/contracts + incentives) and leaves aside the question of the “philosophy” (if any) that lies beneath.
One of the papers that made a major impression on me in thinking about neoliberalism/NPM, in any event, was Alexander Mitterle’s excellent “Un socialisme académique?” Mitterle shows that many of the institutional governance mechanisms that we call “academic capitalist” were already found in socialist East Germany. As I summarized his findings in my review of the edited collection where he published:
GDR research was largely funded by contracts that insisted on direct industrial applications; researchers were incentivised to compete for performance bonuses and symbolic rewards, subject to ‘comparative performance evaluation’ (p. 573), and expected to show individual initiative (while simultaneously being good interdisciplinary teamworkers). The system as a whole was oriented towards regional economic development, pushed towards ‘efficiency’, and perpetually reformed ‘against mediocrity and self-satisfaction.’
Mitterle’s sensible conclusion is, again, that governance mechanisms are one thing, ideologies are another. If state socialists can use neoliberal governance mechanisms, then clearly “neoliberal governance” is not necessarily linked to capitalist ideologies of the kind that Harvey describes.
I’m returning to this argument now because I came across an interesting comparison case that we can contrast with Mitterle’s interest in “things that look neoliberal under socialism.” This case comes from post-independence socialist Tanzania, in particular from its first president, Julius Nyerere. In 1967, Nyerere published a fascinating essay about post-colonial socialist education, “Education for Self-Reliance.” One of his most provocative arguments is that all secondary schools should contain farms. The claim is that having schools combined with farms will help break down the unhealthy distinctions between “the educated” and manual laborers, and will be educational in a quite holistic sense.
But look at how Nyerere thinks about the farm as a form of governance:
The most important thing is that the school members should learn that it is their farm, and that their living standards depend on it. Pupils should be given an opportunity to make many of the decisions necessary — for example, whether to spend money they have earned on hiring a tractor to get land ready for planting, or whether to use that money for other purposes on the farm or in the school, and doing the hard work themselves by sheer physical labour. By this sort of practice and by this combination of classroom work and farm work, our educated young people will learn to realize that if they farm well they can eat well and have better faculties in the dormitories, recreation rooms, and so on. If they work badly, then they themselves will suffer. In this process, Government should avoid laying down detailed and rigid rules; each school must have considerable flexibility. Only then can the potential of that particular area be utilized, and only then can the participants practice — and learn to value — direct democracy.
Three points here are deeply reminiscent of “New Public Management” managerial techniques.
1) The government will fund schools, but it will not dictate their exact practices: it will instead give schools the “flexibility” to allocate their resources in whatever way is most effective for their context.
2) Instead of getting sufficient government funds to cover all its costs, the school’s budget becomes dependent on its own economic output. Schools are encouraged to sell their spare produce on the open market, and thereby to supplement their regular revenues, or to cut costs in buying food for their students.
3) This integration into the economy is also supposed to be a form of self-reward or self-punishment. If you are good at your farm, you will reap the proceeds. Otherwise, you “suffer.”
I have no idea whether Nyerere’s school-farms were ever put into practice. His paper is a sort of manifesto for socialist education; it doesn’t report on the results of its ideas. (If anyone knows more about what happened on the ground, I would appreciate tips.) Nevertheless, I find it interesting that these NPM-like governance techniques could (yet again) appear in a radically non-capitalist context. Nyerere’s project had standard socialist ideals:
We have said that we want to create a socialist society which is based on three principles : equality and respect for human dignity ; sharing of the resources which are produced by our efforts ; work by everyone and exploitation by none.
And indeed, Nyerere’s schools were not supposed to make students compete with each other. They weren’t neoliberal in the Harvey free-market-philosophy sense at all. But collective ownership and investment nevertheless seemed to be key to the farming pedagogy that Nyerere envisioned. And if you were bad at collective investment, you got economically punished. I’ll have to think more about why Nyerere felt this was compatible with his principle of general equality.