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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'm paraphrasing but Ken asked about pioneers of cybernetics writing any sort of critiques of on the field. I posted an essay by Norbert Wiener I think is relevant to this question.

It starts out as a history of the field but the last two pages are especially critical.

dinermode's picture

Hi Everybody,

Great start on Sunday. Really excited about the direction of the conversation.

It it seems that one of the main threads we thought it would be useful to follow into this Sunday's session would be the Chicago School's implementation of a new political philosophy of freedom and the free individual. Thus it makes perfect sense that along with the next Foucault lecture (March 21) the other primary readings for this week should be the three Friedman essays:

"The Power of the Market"
"The Relation between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom"
"The Role of Government in a Free Society"

and the one Hayek essay:

"The Use of Knowledge in Society"

Think it will be interesting to move from Becker, the technocrat, to Friedman and Hayek, the ideologues. That should be more than enough to cover in the next session, but I also posted two T.W. Shultz essays that we talked about reading, one on Human Capital and one on Disequilibria, which I mentioned during class. Jason you were particularly interested in reading some Shultz, so would you want to look over those and maybe recommend which might be better to supplement the Friedman and Hayek?? I'll do the same, so maybe you and I can post our thoughts by the end of the week.

The two Shultz essays are:
"Investment in Human Capital"
"The Value of the Ability to Deal with Disequilibria"

We also discussed a number of optional sources that might be worth looking at if you get a chance.

The Adam Curtis Documentary "The Trap" is an excellent expose neoliberal construct of Freedom.
You can find all three parts on my vodpod collection for the class:
(you'll also find an interesting television interview with Milton Friedman in that collection).

If you watch Curtis--or even if you don't--I highly recommend a seminal essay of political philosophy on the concept of freedom by Isaiah Berlin, "The Two Concepts of Liberty."

Other suggestions for next week that came up:

The earlier lectures on German neo-liberalism (Feb 7 and 14)
David Harvey "A Brief History of Neoliberalism"
Harvey "From Fordism to Flexible Accumulation"
Naomi Klein "The Shock Doctrine"
Brian Holmes "Is it Written in the stars" (on Black-Shoals and disequilibria)
Brian Holmes' talk at UC, Riverside "Neoliberal Appetites"

Take a look at any of that that piques your interest, but the core texts will be the Foucault (March 21), the Friedman, and the Hayek.

All on aaaarg of course, unless link is given above.

Looking forward to next week! --Ken

Hi everyone,

Quick reminder that the clocks changed last night! See you all soon.

dinermode's picture

Dear All:

Really looking forward to getting started on this material. Feels like the timing for this class is just right. After the Continental Drift last weekend, which contained a number of related conversations on precarity, finance capital, speculative economy, neoliberalism, and the excesses of privatization; February’s TPS seminar on Immaterial Labor, where Jason Smith led a very rigorous discussion about Autonomia, as well as outside events like Brian Holmes’ presentation on neoliberal subjectivity at UC, Riverside on March 3, there seems to be a number of ongoing threads that can be extended through this class to give it richness and complexity.

The idea for the class is this: the current financial crisis has broadened and intensified an analysis of neoliberal economics as it has been and continues to be critiqued from the left. But these analyses are usually founded upon the refrain of positions taken up in secondary sources without any direct reference to the primary source material that helped establish and legitimize the economic logic itself. Many of us on the left--I include myself here--are quick to engage in a critique of neoliberalism without a deeper understanding of what that word actually means in its own native sense. Thus “Neoliberalism” often vaguely stands for anything that generally seems bad about our contemporary political, economic, and cultural situation; this tends to dilute the force of the critiques behind it. With this in mind, one might say that the objective of this class is to know your enemy, to work through some of the key primary texts and discuss the generative historical context of the development of neoliberalism by carefully attending to the writings of the Chicago School, a group that was instrumental in shaping the implementation of the economic doctrine in global economic and social policy ca. 1980.

I still think we should continue to read some secondary sources to fill in the critical analysis side of things, and this brings me to the other piece of fortuitous timing of the class. It so happens that the scheduling for this class falls on the exact same dates as Foucault’s weekly lectures on American neoliberlaism 31 years ago and which can now be read in English with the recent translation of The Birth of Biopolitics. Whether written in the stars or simply a serendipitous accident, it seems a perfect time to revisit Foucault’s lectures over the next three weeks, getting his read on neoliberalism in its incipient form.

So the reading for this first class on March 14 will be the following:

Michel Foucalut, The Birth of Biopolitics, pp. 215-237. (March 14th lecture)
Gary Becker, Human Capital, pp. 1-11.
Gary Becker, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, Part 1, pp. 3-14

Next week we will read more Foucault along Hayek, Friedman, and possibly some more Becker and/or Andre Gunder Frank and perhaps something about the fascinating cultural history of the Chicago School in Chile. But this is all up for discussion.

All readings are on aaaarg of course.



commodityfetish's picture

I am excited about this class...though sadly i wont be able to attend the first gathering. Can someone possible record the conversation?
Vlad aka Luther Blisset...

ssbothwell's picture

Is there a finalized reading list for this class?

TPS's picture

this class has been scheduled!



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