Features of Neoliberalism

Experiment: Explaining the part that I do understand.


This is Neo

The term “neoliberalism” is very confusing for an American. We tend to use “liberal” as a nickname for those who are socially liberal. In the broader scheme of politics, “neoliberal” is used for the new wave of capitalistic thinking that calls for a liberalized economy with less government involvement and more market involvement. Social services, like education and health care, are seen as inefficient when run by the government and would be improved by competition in the market. In US politics, this might be associated with “neoconservative”. I do not claim to be an expert in politics or in the history or the development of neoliberalism, but I’ll attempt to explain the part that I do understand. Here are some features of neoliberalism evident in schools.

Maurizio Lazzarato is a sociologist and philosopher who studies capitalism and its effects. Stephen Ball has analyzed this work in an educational context. I’ll give some examples I’ve experienced. 

Lazzarato’s five states of being in neoliberalism: 

  • Individualization–separating groups, framing problems as individual instead of systemic
    • Individual teacher evaluations to improve schools rather than group orientation
    • The “over-visibility” of teachers – doors are open, constant evaluations, posted lesson plans
    • Self-help, individual goals, personal professional development
  • Inequality–envy and striving, competition, rivalries
    • Performance-based pay
    • “Head of Department” or “Lead Teacher” with separate meetings to give unequal access to information and within power structures
    • Competition set up between departments, divisions, teachers
  • Insecurity – taking responsibility for our individual needs, being made fearful of the consequences of inaction
    • Flexibility valued over professional judgment
    • “Do something” rather than “Do the right thing”
    • Constant change as the norm
    • Local risk (no unions, classroom based management)
  • Depoliticization – collective concerns turned into personal problems and political decisions into individual failings
    • Educational values reduced to technical issues
    • Systemic problems left to be worked out in the classroom
    • Efficiency, transparency, cost are valued over right or values
    • Individual teachers implement poorly conceived mandates
  • Financialization – privatization, professionals have their judgment and expertise stripped in favor of cost effectiveness
    • Professional values are overtaken by commercial value
    • “Goal displacement” of profit or cost saving over education


This is just a quick explanation of the facets of neoliberalism that have become embedded in schools. The difficulty now is to find a competing rhetoric. As a former colleague of mine frequently pointed out; Many of these examples from schools are difficult to argue with. If an administrator requires individual goal setting, refusing to do it seems like an indefensible stance. Proposing the necessity of group growth may just end up adding a group goal on to personal goals rather than really change the mindset of an organization. This is simply an “intensification” of the work rather than a reshaping of educational philosophy or practice. We must find a cohesive and thoughtful way to disrupt the dominating discourse of neoliberalism in schools.


This post was heavily influenced by:

Ball, S. (2013). Foucault, Power, and Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lazzarato, M. (2009). Neoliberalism in Action. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(6), 109-133. doi:10.1177/0263276409350283

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