The evangelical neoliberalism which erupted in the US House of Representatives in 2008 and spread like the mange to the UK House of Commons is coming soon to an English university near you. The free market rapture comes courtesy of a man so dreadfully incompetent he couldn’t even be trusted to run BP: Edmund John Philip Browne, or as he is properly titled in our droll little fiefdom, Baron Browne of Madingley, who has decided that higher education is really no different from petrol or plastic and should be manufactured according to the same industrial standards that govern oil companies. Yes, this was the man replaced by crackerjack Tony Hayward. Deepwater Uni is on our horizon.
Evangelical neoliberalism is a commitment to privatisation so devoutly ideological that it will court capitalistic suicide for the sake of free market purity. It burst like a boil in the lower congressional house during the early days of the financial crisis, forcing Minority Leader John Boehner to strong-arm several apostates within his own party into backing a Wall Street bailout which they deemed dangerously “socialist,” and has been suppurating outward from Washington ever since. Its scripture reads something like this: be fruitful and multiply the market until it covers the world; above all protect its sanctity from the corruption of the profane state – at any and all cost, including the utter collapse of capitalism itself. This isn’t about economics so much as faith. It’s a bastard child of laissez-faire dogma and puritanical Bible-bashing, with all the requisite self-flagellation painfully savoured by its own acolytes, and in that sense it is a singular denomination within the broader neoliberal church. If it’s ringing any fascist bells, you’re in the right pew.
Browne’s holy writ, the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, was commissioned by the last Labour government, which first introduced tuition fees for undergraduates under Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Doomsday fell with its long-awaited publication on October 12, 2010, whereupon the government seized with ecclesiastical fervour a proselytising opportunity which the opposition could hardly contest with any credibility, having themselves initiated the conversion.
There are four horsemen in this apocalypse and they share a broad Parliamentary stable: David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, George Osborne, Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills (a British cognate of what is usually called the Department of Higher Education in more civilised countries). This ministry of Oxbridgers, whose collective personal wealth could buy my college and everyone in it several times over, comprise the pastorate of what is euphemistically called the “coalition government,” otherwise known as the biggest democratic scam since Watergate.
For those of you who failed to tune in to the scintillating British election: nobody won. The Tories scraped into pole position with a menial margin over Labour, then slithered into government through a greasy collusion with the third-place Liberal Democrats, a party which presciently painted its political flag the colour of moral cowardice in anticipation of this day. The result was an unholy alliance in which the supine Lib Dems genuflect to every Tory diktat, all the while perversely claiming victories for “fairness.”
The higher education sellout is a stunning example. In the run-up to the election, the Liberal Democrats made a six-stage strategy for scrapping tuition fees a central plank of their party manifesto; to boot, they signed a pledge drafted by the National Union of Students to oppose any rise in the fee ceiling, currently set at £3,000 per year. Six months down the road, they’re desperately boasting that they’ve managed to hold what they now call an “inevitable” fee hike to a mere 300 percent with the added sop of letting graduates avoid paying off their loans until they’ve reached the lower links of the middle class food chain at £21,000 annual. The Guardian reveals that they had secretly abandoned these pledges months before the election in anticipation of their deal with the Tories, but it’s six of one or half dozen of the other at this point. The craven depth of the act means whatever soul of which they could claim possession must have been sold decades ago, so who cares when the devil came to collect his due? Now, stitched like a decorative third leg to the arse of the Tory trunk, the Lib Dems try to walk backwards and forwards at once and succeed only at flailing. Cable changes his mystical economic prognostications on an hourly basis while Clegg, whose name one columnist predicts will go down in history as a shorthand for “agonised, doe-eyed apologist” smiles through the bullshit and calls it a fair deal.
The Tories, meanwhile, are giving them a run for their money in the faux fairness heat. In a masterful display of the Orwellian two-step that has become all the rage with the Bullingdon set, the Tories have gone from the party of No Society to the party of Big Society (or, as a friend put it upon learning that the fast food industry has just been commissioned to write national health policy: Big Mac Society). This cynical appropriation of hippy communitarian lingo, when subjected to even a casual hermeneutic deconstruction, boils down to the three basic Rs of neoliberalism: Retrenchment, Revanchism and cRiminalisation, especially when it comes to young people. With schools, unemployment benefit, social housing and now universities on the chopping block, the youth of this country have been thrown to the dogs. If they get hung out to dry by the bootstrap system, there’s always the prisons. If they protest against it, well, two birds with one stone.
The dirge that accompanies the death of the English university was composed in the decade which begat neoliberalism in the first place. The trumped-up national debt chorus, through which the ugly spectre of the 1980s has arisen with a vengeance far more sadistic than synth pop or shoulder pads, is once again ringing out from every steeple with tedious regularity. And it’s just as contradictory as it ever was, chapter and verse. The privatisation plan banks on the same logic of risk which recently brought global capitalism to its knees: extend dubious amounts of credit to borrowers (students) on the assumption that they’ll make a killing off their investment (degrees); it’s subprime for sociology majors. Debt is bad for the state but good for the individual, or so goes the refrain, delivered with a large dose of moralising dross about “personal responsibility” and “education as privilege” in a psyops offensive calculated to induce self-regulating Panopticistic guilt. The social benefits of higher education through the creation of an informed and critical democratic citizenry are expertly disregarded; in this credo the student wins so the student pays. The coalition is sweetening the deal for buyers by peddling the old shibboleth of consumer choice. There’s only one lesson in this gospel and that’s free marketeerism; as long as students embrace that, they can pick any degree they like from the Higher Education Stop’n’Shop. When consumer demand fails, then esoteric and expendable disciplines are rightfully weeded out in the brave neoDarwinian educational order.
The privatisation of universities isn’t likely to net the state any money, according to more orthodox financial creeds. The Browne doctrine is predicated upon shifting the cost of higher education onto the backs of students and their families; this, according to the Mad Baron of Madingley, will allow the government to slash the central teaching budget by 40 to 80 percent (for starters) depending on which end of the disciplinary scale an institution falls. But the numbers don’t add up. According to the Higher Education Policy Institute, the state cost of servicing student debt could well offset any savings, and most of the actual producers on this assembly line, from physicists to philosophers, agree that the quality of the commodity in what amounts to a £24 billion per year industry – bigger than advertising, aerospace or pharmaceuticals – will decline, further alienating its ostensible investors. The variables are so legion that prophecy is a losing game no matter how you throw the bones, but the fundamentalists are in all likelihood offering snake oil at best and toxic Kool Aid at worst. That’s precisely what puts the zeal in neoliberal zealotry: it’s not really about the money. The maths don’t add up because the maths never mattered in the first place. The assault is first and foremost political. It is no accident that the coalition is threatening to beggar the arts, humanities and social sciences while ringfencing the STEMs. The key architects of privatisation all have degrees in these disciplines (Cameron in PPE, Clegg in anthropology, Osborne in history, Cable in economics); they know their capacity for imparting creative analysis and they’d be pleased as punch to see them reduced to a whimsical item of conspicuous consumption for north London luvvies like themselves. An informed and critical democratic citizenry is the last thing they want for their waning post-imperial bishopric.
Unfortunately for the market missionaries, forty years of disinvestment under Thatcherism and Thatcherism 2.0 haven’t produced an entirely docile congregation. The government learned that lesson the hard way last week, when thousands of students occupied Tory headquarters, lit a fire in the courtyard and engaged in some minor scuffling with a suspiciously accommodating line of cops (also facing swingeing budget cuts as the public purse strings tighten). The direct action followed a 50,000-strong march through Westminster, a typically shouty but generally orderly affair which filed joyfully down Horse Guards and only really turned serious at the bridge. Predictably, the mainstream papers have dutifully guffed out a stream of platitudes fed to them by the Tory press machine (once they came out from beneath their desks) condemning the “violence” of the impromptu post-Fawkes bonfire night. But calls for further direct action are growing, and not just from students. As one poster put it on the Guardian boards in the wake of the latest Lib Dem side show, “I’m a grandmother and been totally law abiding all my life, but watching the students breaking windows the other day I was tempted to think what alternative is there?” Indeed. It is the dawning realisation of the utter dearth of alternatives which poses the greatest threat to the neoliberal state today, and it’s a rod it has made for its own back, a consequence of the blinding absolutism of another form of zealotry, the military kind. Beneath the chants and slogans, beneath the echo of shattering glass at Millbank, there’s a far more dangerous potential. It comes not in a resounding shout but a gathering storm: you ignored us on Iraq; you won’t ignore us this time. The futility of that largely law-abiding effort has conceived, I suspect, a fury that will not be contained by invoking the sanctity of private property or the threat of incarceration this time around. It could be that the restless students, and maybe even a few aged and biddable ents on the faculty, are about to wake up and find that they are strong. If the neoliberal opiate fails to anesthetise the intellectual masses, the Tories will have to fight to regain control of the universities before they can sell them out from under us.