Moral Obligations and Occupations: Resisting the Neo-Liberal University

I grew up on picket lines. My parents were public sector workers, in London, during the late 80s and early 90s – they were forever on strike. Or so it felt. And so, like swathes of people my age, the notion of crossing a picket line is anathema to me – a bone deep aversion. Still, when I was presented with the prospect of 14 days without pay earlier this year, I had a fleeting wobble: I’m precariously employed, I don’t know if I’ll have a job come October, and I’m altogether frightened about my future.

In the end, my whole heart, if a little grudgingly, slipped into unfaltering support for this months industrial action. Such a move was just and it was right. My support grew not from my pension related fears (I’ll never be old), but from my deep concern – sometimes genuine distress – regarding the marketisation of Britain’s Universities. This pension dispute, as I understood it, was but one concrete manifestation of a noxious and pervasive neoliberal ideology, infecting civic society the world over. On reaching the physical and digital picket lines, I was cheered to find that my feelings on this matter were positively commonplace – academics and professional services staff alike came together over pensions, and found themselves bonded by a common hope for, and fear about, the future.

In what follows, I want to contribute to the dialogue which has arisen, is arising, from that bond – those hopes, those fears. Most of all I want to say something about neoliberalism: what it is, what it can do, and what we need to do about it. I have do so in meandering ways – because those are the shape of my thoughts and the time I have to write.

I feel an unusual sense of trepidation in lending my voice to this particular fray. The strike has, to some degree, rendered the intellectual and creative weight of British academia transparent – and it is a seismic thing to behold. In the face of such power, my nascent academic voice feels if not small, then naive and infant. But, for what its worth:

Defining Neoliberalism 

Disclaimer: I am about to speak about neoliberalism as if it were a sentient and embodied beast, possessed of an endless malice. Clearly, that is not the case, but I am hopeful you will forgive the shorthand.

Whilst neoliberalism is perhaps best known for promoting radical free trade, financial deregulation, privitization and government austerity, it should arguably be conceived as more than a series of troubling economic policies. Neoliberalism is a political rationale, a normative constructive project which seeks to reshape and restructure all facets of the civic world in accordance with market ideals. Its promulgation involves the promotion and naturalisation of a logic: a framing which organises experiences and materialities, and renders them meaningful by reference to a market rationale.

The promotion of this market rationale in realms previously organised according to alternate logics, e.g. universities, is arguably what differentiates neo-liberalism from its closest kin, e.g. classical liberalism. For whilst the former celebrates the ubiquity of market ethics (championing its adoption across the public world) proponents of the latter tend to advocate for the protection of non-market spaces.

Neoliberalism also posits a normative subject, a citizen we should aspire to be. This subject is a rational and self-interested character, who takes full and unfaltering responsibility for her own well-being and strives endlessly for the excellence of economic gain. She finds the notion of dependence, and its reality, grotesque. Subsequently, she frames sociological arguments regarding the determinative role of social forces as the pathology of a victim mentality, and the preponderance of progressive political movements as a symptoms of a diseased citizenry – unable and unwilling to take responsibility for their conduct and experiences. Where possible these movements are refashioned – individualised and rewritten as guides for self help, e.g. choice feminism.

In keeping with its constructivist aims, neoliberalism often seeks to create the citizen of its dreams: through the careful calibration of social intervention and hegemonic discourse, it endeavours to ‘hail’ its subject into being. This is a process known, within much critical social theory, as interpellation. In its most basic manifestation, interpellation occurs through framing and positioning – we are labelled customers, clients, and find ourselves in markets wherever we go (e.g. the hospital, the school etc.). We find ourselves performing the role allotted to us, because it makes sense to do so. In its advanced forms, and as Foucault describes it, interpellation leads us to develop governmentalities, e.g. tendencies to self define and self-govern in accordance with the interests of power. At this stage, we need not be framed or positioned, rather we become tools of our own oppression.

Our ‘Moral Obligations’ 

The promulgation of neo-liberalism as a normative narrative, apt to interpellate neoliberal subjects, has been highlighted by academics in a variety of fields. Criminal justice scholars have, for instance, demonstrated how emergent rehabilitative interventions – ostensibly designed to divert alleged offenders away from punitive sanctions and towards ‘therapeutic’ treatment – are in fact premised on a desire to reshape and reconstitute citizen subjects. These interventions require offenders to take full responsibility for their well-being – asking them to ignore  the structural determinants of their poverty and marginalisation – and improve their lot via individual endeavour. Failure to do so results in punishment. This is interpellation by carrot… and then by stick.

Closer to the question of this months industrial dispute, Ruth Levitas has explored the promotion of neoliberal narratives in discourses of poverty and work. In so doing, Levitas has identified the promulgation of a moral order discourse, which frames work as a moral prerogative and its ‘avoidance’ as an ethical failing. This is perhaps best typified by the kind of stigmatizing rhetoric often aimed at those in receipt of certain working age benefits – who are framed as shunning their moral responsibilities in favour of a life of indolence and dependency. Neo-liberal subjects do not blame poverty on the state, or gross income inequality – they work and feel grateful for whatever salary they receive. To do otherwise – to malinger and depend on ‘hand-outs’ – would be to become immoral.

At Edinburgh, we are familiar with the purported connection between work and morality, are we not?

In emails which circulated prior to this months industrial action, University of Edinburgh staff were reminded that we had a ‘moral obligation’ to our students. The phrasing of the email suggested that the constitution of such an obligation were a foregone conclusion – and its breach, by strike, inevitable. This framing took it as granted –  a matter of common sense – that lecturers were morally obliged to deliver a commodity which had already been paid for, that to breach the educational contract of service was to abnegate an ethical responsibility. The possibility that defending Universities against neo-liberal normativity might constitute the observance of a moral obligation, was never considered. Neoliberalism was elevated, naturalised and its alternative silenced, denaturalised.

The focus on teaching over other academic and professional activities also rendered some of us invisible. Those of us not easily shoe-horned into the role of sales representative or service provider have been summarily ignored by VCs and journalists alike. Honestly, with all the focus on morally obliged teaching, I felt unclear about whether my employer recognised my  labour as a research fellow, let alone valued it. Of course, researchers are framed as sales representatives all the time – discourses of ‘impact’ permeate the sector, but the more diffuse and less individualistic processes of knowledge production and dissemination can make an easy neoliberal packaging more difficult to muster. That is by no means to say, that research is more revolutionary than teaching – just that some relationships are more vulnerable to neoliberal resignification than others.

Whenever I am prompted to question the value of my research I remind myself of this: Professor Peter Higgs once said he had ‘no idea’ what the higgs boson was ‘for’. The higgs boson has no practical application. Knowing about the higgs boson is knowing for knowings sake. Some things defy the measurement of money.

A Neoliberal Grammar 

A neoliberal frame changes the grammar of an issue and positions us, as subjects, in certain discursive spaces, delimiting and shaping the efficacy of rhetorical tools we have to hand. In so doing, it can make us complicit in the reproduction of a neoliberal hegemony. Take for instance an argument which circulated on the digital picket line: namely that pensions should be protected to prevent university staff fleeing to the private sector, in pursuit of a better deal. This argument may be effective, persuasive – but if it is, it is because it resonates most deeply with the neoliberal discourse of competitive marketing. Accordingly, its enunciation reifies that discourse. A better argument, perhaps, would be that an institution marked by integrity, decency, and humanity provides for its workers, recognises their contributions, values them beyond their monetary value – and that Universities should be integrous, decent and humane spaces.

Similarly, the argument that universities should reimburse students for services not delivered (e.g. missed teaching), reproduces discourses of consumerism. To claim consumer rights when one has been constructed as consumer, made to pay like a consumer, is entirely understandable – but nonetheless works to reproduce and re-ingrain the commodification of education. A perhaps preferable argument would be that students should get their money back because they shouldn’t have been made to pay in the first place. That such an argument seems more far fetched, less effectual, than the above, is testament to the power of some discourses over others.

These examples evidence an enduring struggle, a tension which has long beset progressive political projects everywhere. Do we play the game of the dominant, accept their rules, and value whatever small and qualified gain doing so allows; or do we refuse to participate, reject the very premise of the game, and risk losing everything in the process. Are we anarchists in suits – changing the system from within? Or anarchists throwing rocks at the windows of a building we’re perennially barred from?  To paraphrase Bourdieu: domination can be liberating, resistance can be alienating.

In terms of discourse, playing the game can mean accepting neo-liberal hegemony as inevitable, accepting our interpellation as competitive workers and consumer students, and wielding the power that affords, e.g. better benefits and refunds. Whilst refusing the game can mean promoting an altogether different discourse, pursuing a radical future, knowing full well that doing so might render us less efficacious at best and unfathomable at worst.

In this instance, playing along seems to hold the very significant risk that we become complicit in the reproduction and reification of a normative project which will slowly constrict our space for action until it chokes us. And in this instance, we have a voice and a platform from which to broadcast it – advantages rarely enjoyed by the rehabilitated offender or the (other) working poor. So I say: rock throwing.

An Alternative Vision 

It is not sufficient to resist marketisation and neo-liberalisation, in its material and discursive forms. To question its presumptions and critique its symptoms. Revolutions must be equally destructive and creative. We must therefore articulate an alternative vision of our public universities – one which foregrounds human flourishing, which elevates compassion and trust and integrity above economic gain – which provides a new grammar, a new identity, and a new space to learn. We should not, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, use the masters tool to dismantle the masters house – doing so only strengthens the hegemony.

We need new tools.

I am particularly taken by bell hooks’, and latterly McKibbin and Harris‘, suggestion that we embrace values hitherto devalued in the civic realm and relegated to the private domain – values like kindness, care and, above all, love. What better to counter the cold, dehumanizing economic rationality of liberalism, than a politics of love.

A politics of love would serve us well beyond our resistance to neoliberalism, which is helpful because neoliberalisation is not the only challenge we face. Manifestations of gender inequality, racism and colonialism continue to plague institutions throughout the UK – and not as separate issues, but as intersecting and compounding forces. It is, for instance, well known that women often suffer the brunt of neoliberal policy.

Recognising the Revolution of Occupation 

I want to close my contribution to the dialogue of this strike by honouring the students currently occupying University buildings, in Edinburgh and beyond. These students are not only brave – they are doing work which needs to be done. Because an occupation straightforwardly and powerfully challenges prevailing discourses of neoliberalism: in occupying University lecture theatres, students resist the normativity of neoliberalism and their interpellation as consumers.

When students accept the identity of consumer, university buildings become spaces for the sale of education – owned and operated by service providers, temporally inhabited by students for the length of service delivery. This is in keeping with the contractarian principles which underpin so much neoliberal fare: students pay for the delivery of an education, not for the University itself, and therefore cease to have ownership of the materiality of the University beyond the close of class.

To occupy a building beyond the delivery of a service – to re-purpose it, to take control of it, and make it a common space – is to reject the consumer identity and construct oneself anew. Student-consumers become students of another name. Which name remains to be seen.

I must confess that I can become so immersed in the study of discourse as speech – in ruminations of how we avoid the reproduction of hegemony without excluding ourselves entirely from debate – that I rarely stop to consider that the answer might be: talk less, do more (almost a Hamilton reference, almost). Don’t ask for permission, don’t argue, just be a different subject. I thus find myself learning from, taking inspiration from, the students of Edinburgh’s occupation – confirming Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogical proposition that we, academics, are students among students – all pioneers walking the same plain, with nothing to sell, nothing to buy and everything to lose.


Brown, Wendy. 2003. “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event 7(1)

Freire, Paolo. 1996. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 2nd Revised Edition. London: Penguin.

Harris, M. & McKibbin, H. 2015. “The Politics of Love” The Aotearoa Project.

hooks, bell. 2016. All About Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks

Levitas, Ruth. 2004. “Let’s Hear It for Humpty: Social Exclusion, the Third Way and Cultural Capital.” Cultural Trends 13(2):41–56

Stringer, R. (2013). Vulnerability after Wounding: Feminism, Rape Law, and the Differend. SubStance, (3), 14

This  blog was edited on 01/04/2018 to amend a minor factual error: I called Peter Higgs, Peter Higgins. 


2 thoughts on “Moral Obligations and Occupations: Resisting the Neo-Liberal University

  1. Great write-up, thought provoking and extremely valuable.

    Minor factual comment/ correction: you refer to professor Peter Higgs as Peter Higgins ….



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