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Neoliberalism and Human Capital

Organizing Committee:


Fueled by the rise of the Chicago School of neo-classical economists, the Reaganite and Thatcherite revolutions of the 1980s initiated a 30-year run of neoliberalist reform that has profoundly reshaped global trade through policies and institutions that foster both national and international deregulation.  From the privatization of everything from public works to prison systems, the measured excision of state oversight and control has been conjoined with a systematic rollback of expenditure for social services.  A myriad of major multilateral and bilateral trade agreements like NAFTA (1994) MAI (1995_1998) have reduced tariffs and facilitated the unchecked flow of capital across national borders; GATT’s formation of the WTO in 1994 has since made it the dominant supranational institution that dictates global economic policy; and the last vestiges of Keynesianism have been squeezed out of the IMF and the World Bank, which have now become the global strong-arm to convert the world’s poorer national economies to the neoliberalist agenda. Overall, this wave of neoliberalist reform has meant a diminishment of state sovereignty. Seeking to open new channels for the flow of capital that were previously limited by nationalist protectionism, the state has become an agent of multinational corporations, as one can easily glean from the ominously sequestered G8 summits.  All this is happening under the ambiguous, divisive designation known as globalization--outsourcing production to the global south, systms of flexible accumulation, the production of financial speculative wealth--which has lead to the current economic downturn and intensified the crisis of global precarity.


This description offers a standard macro-economic perspective on the reigning global economic paradigm, but it does little to explain how neoliberalism actually functions at the micro-levels of culture, politics, and society.  How does this economic doctrine produce and articulate forms of subjectivity, identity, and affect?  How does it connect to parallel scientific paradigms such as cognitive psychology, chaos theory, or rational action theory?  How is it realized through the myriad operations of biopower and biopolitics?  How is it transmitted in forms of cultural production?  How does neoliberalism fundamentally change our understanding of human labor power, techno-politics, and the attention economy?  This course will concern itself with these and other question by tracing the story of how a recondite economic doctrine was extended into every aspect of social, cultural, and political life through the theory of human capital.  If neoliberalism is the reigning global economic paradigm, human capital refers to the way that paradigm becomes installed through discrete technologies of power and the self toward the management of populations.


The course will consist of a set of close critical readings of primary sources that directly advocate or contest the development of a theory of human capital.  Readings may include: Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Gary S. Becker, Milton Friedman, Frederick von Hayek, T.W. Shultz, Leo Strauss, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Nikolas Rose, Brian Holmes, and others.


ssbothwell's picture

I found an interesting editorial from the wall street journal last month about Chile.

"Milton Friedman has been dead for more than three years. But his spirit was surely hovering protectively over Chile in the early morning hours of Saturday. Thanks largely to him, the country has endured a tragedy that elsewhere would have been an apocalypse."

Hello Ken, everyone -

This is a great class, brilliant resources, I am inspired and impressed to see such work going on. It would be nice to hear a recording of the session, but I understand that may not be desirable for those actually doing it!

For the pursuit of the topic, what seems most important is the so-called "public choice theory" of Buchanan and Tullock. I was first alerted to it in one of Curtis's films (must be The Trap) and I still haven't read the primary texts. It has spawned a veritably galaxy of technical literature, because it offers a calculus for itemizing the return on investment in public services. It claims in particular to show when "rent seeking" is going on, ie private appropriation of public funds - and that extremely strong argument has been wielded very extensively to get rid of welfare-state programs. The question of how to invest in society as a whole, and even more, how to argue that investing in the health, education and well-being of certain groups redounds to the benefit of society as a whole, has really been knocked out of the water by public choice theory.

It turns out that most of Buchanan's work is available online. The two key books seem to be these:

The Calculus of Consent (w/Tullock)

The Demand and Supply of Public Goods

Have a good class this Sunday and let us know what your conclusions were!

best, Brian

dinermode's picture

Hey All:

Okay, all the reading has now been posted to aaaarg for this week. I looked over André Gunder Frank's letters to Arnold Harberger and Milton Friedman and they are amazing documents, which I think will enrich the discussion next week, so let's add those to the list along with the intro and first three chapters of Valdes' Pinochet's Economists. And of course the March 28 Foucault lecture will also be fore next week. A few more pages than last week, but reading that will move faster, I think.

For additional background reading, I've also added Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine to the aaaarg list, the appropriate sections of Chile of course.

See you on Sun,


dinermode's picture

Hi Everybody,

Another thoughtful class. I've decided to focus on the Valdes, and then try to focus on the Andre Gunder Frank response if I can access it in time. I'm having trouble uploading the whole text at the moment because of the file size and so far have only posted the introduction on But will work on resizing the rest so that you can have the other 3 chapters by tomorrow. Will update you soon on that status, for now you can at least get started on the intro.

More soon,


Hi Ken,
I just found the Schultz texts. Will read the one from 1961, cited explicitly in the Becker, as starting point. Let's see if it's readable.

dinermode's picture

Hi All,

Solomon, thanks for the Wiener post.

Jason, I doubled checked and the two Shultz articles are, in fact, posted. Let me know if you have a problem accessing them. Yeah, I think we do have a full plate for Sun; I was only suggesting that you glance at them to see what might be worth reading down the line. I am at UCLA special collections right now trying to get ahold of Andre Gunder Frank's critique of Neoliberal economic genocide in Chile. I'll try to access and post as a PDF before our meeting on the 28th. Think it could make for an interesting read.

Productive consumption is a also a very interesting thread, I'll see what I can dig up on that.


TPS's picture

hi everyone,

class will be held at the previously scheduled time of noon.

see you all sunday.


Hi Ken, hi everyone:

Really enjoyed last Sunday.

Ken, I would love to check out some of the Schultz texts. I don't think they are posted yet, though? could be my incompetence in searching.

That said, if we have the Foucault and the Friedman and Hayek, plates could be full. Maybe I could try to read one of these Schultz texts and summarize in two minutes? Like homework...

Also, I would love to get a better handle on the idea of "productive consumption" as Becker had it, which would include activities as seemingly unproductive as "sleep" and "relaxation."

But, yeah, let's read the ideologues and junta advisors.


TPS's picture

don't know about the time yet. the other class is going to try and push back their time so we can stay at the noon slot.

will keep everyone posted.

ssbothwell's picture

Sorry to post again but did we decide on a time for this Sunday's class?



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