Justice in the Neo-Liberal Academy

Over the past few weeks I have been having a series of interesting exchanges with a young Canadian philosopher (who works outside of academia), Adam Riggio, who has been responding chapter-by-chapter to my latest book, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. In the most recent exchange, Riggio brought up the state of the university, which figures in the book – and my writings more generally. He is understandably concerned about the role of neo-liberalism in the transformation of the university. You can judge for yourself what to make of the exchange.

The general point I wish to make here is that no type of political regime holds a monopoly on the capacity for justice. An autocrat can do justice just as well as a democratically elected assembly. But clearly they meet the demands of justice differently — and should be judged accordingly. Thus, we can have just and unjust neo-liberal regimes, in the same sense that we can have just and unjust socialist regimes. Here ‘justice’ depends on the consistency with which a politically inspired standard is applied. Of course, one may not like the outcomes, and this would be grounds for changing the regime.

In theology, the field of ‘theodicy’ was canonized by Leibniz in the early 18th century to capture arguments about God’s sense of justice. In today’s terms, we might see this as the algorithm that God uses to redistribute costs and benefits to get the results he wants. Given that we typically don’t know what God is on about until after the fact, it follows that the significance of things is not quite as they seem, and one needs to watch history play out longer to get a clearer sense. (Hegel name-checks Leibniz early in his lectures on the philosophy of history.)

Now we can imagine a human-sized deity who doles out justice in a neo-liberal academic regime. What would that look like? At the very least it would mean subjecting everyone to the same performance review standards – including the most senior professors. It would also involve being on the lookout for market bottlenecks that end up concentrating resources inefficiently – understood from the standpoint of spawning innovation and wealth creation, however broadly ‘innovation’ and ‘wealth’ are understood (i.e. not necessarily commercial). This too is likely to put professors under more severe scrutiny by preventing them from simply drawing on the reputation of their previous work to extend their current value indefinitely. At the same, investment might be shifted to junior people simply based on a compelling forward-looking proposal, regardless of prior track record — but requiring delivery by a fixed date.

In this respect, the UK Research Excellence Framework institutes a brutal version of the neo-liberal ideal, since both junior and senior academics are in principle placed on a level playing field, having to justify themselves in terms of work actually produced over a fixed period in the immediate past. To be sure, the system is far from perfect. But the imperfections are to do more with a refusal on the part of academics to fully implement it, resulting in an unsatisfactory hybrid system that often ends up doing the worst thing that a market-based regime of justice can do: namely, obscure the signals generated by the market, such that those in it aren’t quite sure how to turn them to their advantage.

The take-home point here is that justice and neo-liberalism are not mutually exclusive categories. To think otherwise is to engage in a category mistake. However, neo-liberalism (like any other political regime) may be implemented unjustly, which is to say, by compromising its own principles.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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