Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Neoliberalism and Corruption

with 4 comments

By Wiz

The core assumption of our neoliberal moment, of course, is that markets are the best ways to distribute goods and organize society. Right-neoliberals end there, and declare war on all public goods and any attempt whatsoever to regulate that market. Left-neoliberals maintain that individuals should have access to some basic social welfare, but always reject the idea that the state should be in charge of distributing it. Thus you end up with bizarre, hideously complicated, and inefficient systems like Obama’s health care plan. Since it is almost literally unthinkable that the state could provide a good better than the Market could (every time you say the word Market, by the way, an angel should be playing flutes inside your brain), left-neoliberals have to invent complicated ways to bribe, coerce, and manage the Market God into sort-of-kind-of-not-really providing the resource that left-neoliberals admit is essential.

This critique of neoliberalism is well known. Two recent stories, though, have reminded me just how much this brand of brain-dead market worship isn’t just inefficient and wasteful, but contributes directly to corruption and the erosion of our democracy. First, this one from Albany. Charter schools are, of course, neoliberalism’s wet dreams– you get abundant public money, little oversight, and, best of all, get to hide behind cute disadvantaged kids, all while doing Goldman Sachs’ bidding. Problem is, of course, they don’t actually perform any better than most public schools, so given a choice parents might not send their children to charter schools. The first solution, of course, is to spend money on advertising, a horrible waste of public money, which doesn’t in any way contribute to a better educational experience. The second option we see in Albany, where Charter Schools are spending their money, which comes, remember, from the taxpayers, to advertise against the local school budget. Why? Well, the budget didn’t affect them at all, but it would increase support for the city’s public schools. So they used public money, in order to try to lower the funding for their competitors, who happen to be public schools. Cute, huh? Public money in order to hollow out public institutions.

Next, we have the prison industry, where the New York Times reports that private prisons are no cheaper, and often more expensive, then public government run prison. If Dostoevsky famously said that the conditions of prisons demonstrates the level of your civilization, then the fact that we have turned our prisons over to faceless, unaccountable corporations seems appropriate. But even more appropriate to our time, is that the prison industry often uses their money, which comes from the public, to advocate for brutal racist immigration policies that are guaranteed to produce more prisoners. Specifically, they were behind the push for Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 law, cracking down on undocumented immigrants.

Connecting both stories, obviously, is that fact that the market is not some neutral “tool” that can be manipulated to serve the ends of the state. By turning public goods over to private entities, we empower people who have a particular interest in public policy. The (attempted) underfunding of Albany schools and the racist immigration laws of Arizona, then, are partly the product of seemingly separate political decisions about how to provide certain services.

Left-neoliberal’s love to wrap themselves up in the language of hardheaded pragmatism (generally the sign that you are about to do something fucked up) and say that they don’t care how people get, say, health care, education, or safe streets. And if they have to resort to the market, they don’t mind doing it (implication– they care more about these issues than you, you dogmatic ideological leftist). Problem is, the market is not just some tool, that is completely neutral. Rather by using it as a means, we predetermine a set of ends that we never agreed upon in the first place: ends like anti-immigrant laws and poorly funded public schools, since those things are in the interests of the entities that we are funding to provide our services to us.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

May 19, 2011 at 20:55

Posted in neoliberalism

4 Responses

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  1. Well said. Agreed. Ditto. -TL

    Tim Lacy

    May 20, 2011 at 13:08

  2. Great post. Why no pictures?


    May 20, 2011 at 13:14

    • Its the problem with posts about sort of abstract things. How do make a picture for “neoliberalism?” Its like that simpsons episode where they have to draw “dignity” in the pictionary game.


      May 20, 2011 at 18:07

  3. I love reading this blog, and I’m generally in line with most of what the contributors have to say. Regarding charter schools, you may need to reconsider the broad brush you’re painting with and casting some of those left neoliberals in education.

    I am a current Teach For America corps member and I teach at a high performing charter school in Denver with an almost 100% Latino student population. After several years in a history PhD program (ABD with prospectus approved) researching international labor politics at the height of Keynesian Fordism, I left and joined TFA for a two year stint. For what it’s worth, I accept TFA for what it is and I do not have a glossy, rosy view of its failures or accomplishments.

    My kids recently tested as making two year’s worth of academic growth. (I realize the questionable nature of data and assessments.) I work with driven, committed individuals who struggle harder than a fair amount of teachers to bring our kids to grade level. I’ve never heard a teacher or admin see building a network of charter schools as bending to the market or as a way to shut down public schools. Instead they view it as seeking new means to resolve a problem that is left behind due to the failure of public schools. (I can see a comment about social inequality a mile away and how levers of the state can be used to resolve these problems.)

    It’s foolhardy to say that public schools are failing, when, in fact, most perform highly or produce students who are proficient. Nevertheless, it’s a ridiculous assertion to claim that urban and some rural public schools are not in need of reform or innovation in delivery of education. Charter schools, for all their imperfections, have stepped in as a way to resolve some of those dilemmas. Parents send their kids to charters because they genuinely want a better future for their children, and they recognize the failings of a host of urban public schools.

    I can see how someone could reply that charter founders and teachers are unwitting minions of the market or somehow oblivious to how they’re manipulated, going back to Friedman’s ’55 article. There is ample room to criticize charters, however, if you want to complain about charters it’s only realistic to advocate for reform that has contributed to the poor condition of schools in urban and rural areas. Nor should public school teachers, administrators, or school district leaders be whitewashed in an attack on charters, as the Atlanta cheating scandal revealed.

    I realize the connection between charters and broader shifts in economics. I’ve read the literature and done the research on neoliberalism, and I’m a faithful reader of Ravitch’s work. It’s okay to admit that public institutions fail and they need reform. Throwing money at them and eliminating charters is a head in the sand answer that does very little to help children in disadvantaged areas, and it is more than a spurious attempt to hide ulterior motives behind poor kids. Yes, some suffer from savior complexes and it’s worth questioning who that serves. Regardless, people are trying something and the kids deserve better.


    May 22, 2011 at 13:43

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