I’ve been teaching a “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” course for a few years. I begin the course with a section on classical and modern liberalism, before moving to neoliberalism, because liberalism is a foundational theory for most issues in Global Studies. What has struck me over the years is how little ideological attraction most students feel towards neoliberalism. Although I have taught the class multiple times, I have only ever had a single student who was an ardent proponent of neoliberalism. They also wrote one of the best papers that I’ve ever received, and are now working in an excellent job in the financial sector. Still, most of my students have an almost visceral distaste for neoliberalism, and this has strengthened over time.
What’s interesting to me is that there seems to be a mismatch between neoliberalism’s political power -its ability to shape trade policy, financial decisions and political platforms- and its rejection by many Western populations. In the 1990s, the collapse of Marxist states, the failure of import-substitute industrialization in developing countries, and the success of nations such as Chile, made neoliberalism was a globally dominant ideology. The stunning rise of China also strengthened the attractiveness of neoliberalism, even though China itself has an economy deeply shaped by the state sector.
Still, since the financial crisis of 2007, neoliberalism has lost much of its attractiveness globally. This is anecdotal, but my students today are very different from those I taught 20 years ago, in terms of both their political and their economic opinions. It’s surprising to me how many of my students are veterans. Of course, veterans are a diverse group, but many of my students have returned from serving in the Middle East with a critical take on U.S. Foreign Policy. At the same time, they are also sometimes alienated from American civil society, including their student peers. More broadly, students not only blame corporate greed for the 2007 Financial Crisis, but also believe that the political system has failed to hold those responsible to account. In my introductory class they ask me, “Why did no major bankers go to jail after the crisis?” They believe that the U.S. political system has been captured by major corporations, and denounce the idea of corporate personhood. When I teach about this topic, I find that some of my students have already viewed a wide array of documentaries on the topic, and sometimes have a more detailed knowledge of the crisis than I do. For them, it was the definitive event that shaped their view of the U.S. political and economic system. While this is just one opinion, having taught thousands of students over 20 years, I believe that the students in my classes have a much more negative view of our political and social system -and their hopes within it- than the students that I taught early in my career in Joplin, Missouri or Portland.
In the past, in the first week of my “Introduction to International Studies” class I would ask students about their career plans. I would ask “How many of you want to work for non-governmental organizations?” Typically, the majority of the hands in the class would go up. Then I would ask how many students wanted to work in the business world. A small number of hands would now raise in a class of 70 or 90. When I ask the same question today, almost all hands are raised by students who want to have a business career. This seems paradoxical, given students’ political views, but I think that it largely reflects the rising cost of tuition, and students’ reliance on loans. They know that they will graduate deeply in debt, even though they are typically working at least one job (sometimes more), and often for long hours. I think, however, that their decisions are shaped by more than student loans. My students are deeply anxious about their futures. In my class, they articulate a deep fear that they won’t have a stable job like their parents, that they won’t be able to afford a house, that they’ll never escape their student loans, and that their retirement won’t be as well funded as their parents. I think that students believe that a business career provides the best hope for a stable future.
In my introductory course, we spend an entire week talking about careers in International and Global Studies. As the internship coordinator in INTL, I’ve place students with organizations such as the Portland Business Alliance, a local art gallery, and other local business organizations. As a program, we accept the business minor towards the “connected learning” requirements in our degree. We are currently working on a “4+1” program with a graduate business program at my university. I want my students to be aware of their options, and I work with them to find careers in business. We are very proud of our students who find successful business careers, and we currently have alums working in businesses from Nike to banks.
At the same time, there is a deep mismatch between my students’ beliefs and their choices. Like many people, I think that their fears and perceptions have helped to drive the rise of Bernie Sanders. I am writing this in Portland, Oregon, after all. More broadly, however, even my students who plan business careers feel no attraction to neoliberalism as an ideology. They are not reading Ann Rand. They will only read “The Road to Serfdom” if I assign it in my “Foundations of Global Studies” class. In general, they despise neoliberalism, the political power of corporations, and a political system that they see as being rigged. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are attracted to socialism. My students are very aware of the Venezuelan experience. I think that it’s more accurate to say that they reject neoliberalism’s power.
This is of course only my experience with my students. Still, I think that it reflects larger global trends. Martin Jacques has an excellent article, “The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics,” in the Guardian. I often find myself frustrated with this newspaper because it has no diversity of views.You’re never going to come across a political opinion that surprises you in the Guardian; it is not the place for rigorous intellectual debate. This article, however, captures the long, slow decline of neoliberalism, and the political crisis that this collapse is now causing throughout the Western world. Much of Jacques’ arguments resonated with me. Many people in the West are completely alienated from the economic model that has shaped public policy over the last 20 years. As I write these words, Bernie Sanders has lost the nomination, and Trump’s candidacy seems a failure. I don’t think, however, that their defeat changes in any respect the popular frustration with elites who hold to neoliberal ideals. The article captures the mood of the times, and presages long political struggles to come, not only in the United States, but also throughout the West.
You can read more of my posts on theory here.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University