‘LSE is the epitome of the neoliberal university’, reads the first line of Occupy LSE’s list of demands. Neoliberalism, the occupiers feel, ‘turns the university into a degree-factory and students into consumers.
But is neoliberalism still the major enemy? In his recent article on the LSE occupation, Eric Royal Lybeck thinks not. Even if neoliberalism ever coherently existed, an idea he tacitly dismisses, the term no longer captures the psychology-riven terrain of post-2008 economics.
Certainly, neoliberalism is the latest phrase in a lineage of nebulous socio-economic definitions. ‘Thatcherism’, ‘advanced industrial society’ and ‘late capitalism’ have all had their day — now neoliberalism’s time is apparently up too.
Lybeck wants to dress the big political other in a new frock, one that lurks nefariously outside of the antiquated university system: neuroeconomics.
Never mind that neoliberalism was always essentially indefinable — it is dead: a lifeless ‘zombie’ for naïve schmucks to shoot at, unaware that their latest foe has slipped past unnoticed. Turn around quick, because neuroeconomics is already poisoning the village well.
What is neuroeconomics? Lybeck does not provide a single definition and, in his defence, information about the field is somewhat scarce. According to the Society for NeuroEconomics, it ‘is a nascent field that represents the confluence of economics, psychology and neuroscience in the study of human decision making.’ So far, so sinister.
Lybeck’s article goes on to suggest neuroeconomics is based on a belief in the foundational irrationality of the humanity. Whereas neoliberalism—which Lybeck here conflates with neoclassical economics — believed in the rationality of the human subject, neuroeconomics believes we are intrinsically irrational, and that we need to be controlled.
In light of this rechristening of our antagonists, should the current swathe of university occupiers across the world deflate their blow-up mattresses and go home? Surely the demands they premised their occupations upon are, with the new world of neuroeconomics, an outdated fallacy.
And yet, if pluralistic economic thinking is at last beginning to take hold of economics departments, it is bizarre that universities consistently reject their occupiers’ demands. Last week’s events at the University of Amsterdam — in which the police forcefully raided the student occupation — testify they are also willing to do so violently. Clearly, there is more political potency to the current occupations than Lybeck’s ‘death of neoliberalism’ argument would have us believe.
Moreover, neuroeconomics is not wholly distinguishable from the facets of neoliberalism that Occupy LSE finds so objectionable. We could even posit that it is a morbid extension of neoliberal ideology. Once again, the quantitative logic of economic science is imposed on the qualitative reality of life. The LSE occupation’s position still stands; one could even argue that it intensifies the urgency of the protest. Neuroeconomics’ central lair may be in business schools, but that makes a re-imagining of the 21st-century university all the more crucial. Without having universities geared towards critical economic and political thought, rather than quotas and investment opportunities, who will challenge neuroeconomic’s psychological nightmare?
While Lybeck undoubtedly has the best intentions by critiquing Occupy LSE’s fixation on neoliberalism, his article is playing into the sticky hands of an academic system that, for the last forty years, has stalled any meaningful political action.
Of course, a healthy pantomime of student protest, too, is integral to a university’s self-marketing. At an open day shortly after the LSE occupation began in early March, the university actively drew attention towards the ongoing occupation. During their presentations to the prospective students, they claimed that the occupation demonstrated the vibrancy of the LSE brand. (However, as it became clear that the occupation was going to be a long-term affair, the university management has since threatened students with legal proceedings.) This is obviously a classic ploy of power politics. By creating the illusion of plurality, voices of discontent are drowned out through absorption into the machinery of a dominant institution. Whether we consider assimilation a mechanism of neoliberalism, neuroeconomics or the dark lord Lucifer, it happens. Student fees, meanwhile, continue to rise.
Likewise, a quest for conceptual coherence, pace Lybeck, lapses back into the sanctioned inertia of the modern academy. Granted, neoliberalism is an imperfect term to describe the post-crash economic landscape. That may simply be because perfect terms do not exist. Irrespectively, even if all the big players in corporate finance have moved from economics departments to business schools as Lybeck claims, should we thus ignore the injustices that take place within the UK’s university system? The LSE and the London Business School alike are not threatened by Lybeck’s thesis. Existing structures of power will always approve of taxonomic nitpicking, because it challenges nothing.
Occupy LSE is taking another approach. They are demanding what the university management does not believe to be possible. Rather than losing ourselves in labyrinthine discussions about what a neoliberal university is, we should act upon a consensus of what a university can be. That is the principal aim of the LSE occupation: to establish an autonomous space in which an education is not propped up by market forces, the discrimination of workers and politically stalling webs of bureaucracy. The occupiers intend for their ‘Free University of London’ to become a permanent feature at the LSE and the other University of London colleges. Open to both students and staff, the Free University provides an intellectual platform inside – but independent from – the University of London, a forum ‘organized around the creation of workshops, discussions and meetings to share ideas freely’ in isolation from a university that is currently in ‘subordination to corporate interests’.
Neoliberalism may be ‘dead’, yet the demands of the occupiers still strike the LSE’s management as unfeasible. Thus far, in a bid to bring the occupation to a close, the university management has only been able to offer the occupiers ‘discussions’ — a chance to chat about their demands once the heat has died down. In the summer term, management claims, its representatives and the students can sit together around a table and talk about their demands in a proper, serious environment. As Occupy LSE well understands, such a resolution would constitute a gradual whitewash of their demands, a victory for bureaucracy. The boardroom would once again be validated as the only possible site for university politics. Occupy LSE does not want its demands diluted by the hierarchised and business driven structure of the LSE administration. They want an agreement to be reached after consultations in their own space and on their own terms.
By rejecting the politics of the boardroom, Occupy LSE’s demands are affronting to the university’s management; judged by the rationality of contemporary capitalism, the occupiers are dislocating and strange. And this is true regardless of whether a coherent doctrine called neoliberalism exists or not. From Roland Barthes to Michel Foucault to Eric Royal Lybeck, announcing the death of a concept is an academic cliché. We should stop aping the behaviour that institutional power expects of us. It is time to start behaving strangely.
This article is partly a comment on a recent piece by Eric Royal Lybeck on this site.