Education Under Neoliberal Capitalism

Neoliberalism has radically restructured the sphere of education. Under the present-day social structure of accumulation, education has been reduced to intellectual labour-power. Intellectual labour – on the most general level – refers to mental activities done for a conceptual-academic aim. Intellectual labour-power, however, is substantively different. The term designates a quantified unit of labour sold on the open market by a person to a capitalist. It is, accordingly, a commodity, sold and bought in a society whose metabolism revolves around the exchange of things. For the individual possessing education, intellectual labour-power is a commodity whose consumption can potentially produce more value than the commodity itself contains.

Consequently, education becomes extrinsic to the individual situation of the atomized consumer. “The transformation of the commodity relation into a thing of ‘ghostly objectivity’,” György Lukács writes, “stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can ‘own’ or ‘dispose of’ like the various objects of the external world.” The thingified peculiarity of intellectual labour-power is that it is a commodity which a consumer sells in order to obtain money with which to purchase the commodities that are necessary for physical survival itself. For the consumer, then, the transformation of intellectual labour into intellectual labour-power amounts to a transformation of a fundamentally human activity into an abstract unit in the total system of market flows.

Commodified Education

Now, the mere fact that educated people offer themselves on the job market does not per se create the preconditions for the commodification and reification of education. While every commodity is composed of use-value and exchange-value, the distinctiveness of commodity production lies in the complete preponderance of pure exchange value. Commodity production is truly established and generalized when the use-value aspect of the commodity holds no interest for the producer. Education is fully commodified therefore when pedagogy becomes a commercial modality of earning a larger income. The twin ideals of money-making and job placement come together to slice education into neat capsules of knowledge, ensuring that the joy of learning, grandeur of ideas and vibrancy of dialogue is replaced by the rigid transfer of skills.

A number of implications follow from the structural alignment of education with market forces. Firstly, social sciences and humanities lose their relevance in policy priorities and curricula. They are cut away in favour of subjects more clearly linked to economic growth – a process of homogenization that has been a direct corollary of the economic pressures exerted by a highly competitive global market. In the words of Zoya Hassan: “This model of education is concerned with education for economic growth and it places heavy emphasis on the skills associated with science and technology…The social sciences provide a crucial source of critical reflection and concern for the lives and interests of others that simply cannot be provided by an education system concerned only with technical skills that have immediate economic application.”

Insofar that neoliberal education involves the increasing hegemony of techno-scientism, a sterile and standardized curriculum is entrenched as a central node of marketized knowledge, converting teachers into passive executors of top-down educational plans. Teaching becomes a mechanized chain of disconnected acts with no epistemic logic beyond their sclerotic amalgamation as a set of measures for data-driven intelligence. The overriding aims of precision and efficiency – dictated by the logic of commodity exchange – lead to an epistemological foreclosure. As Prabhat Patnaik writes:

“Since commodities are a packaged, complete, thing, the notion of education, once it becomes a commodity, precludes any questioning; the emphasis on the contrary is for the seller to sell and the buyer to buy a complete package called education. The more complete it is, the less open to doubt, the less surrounded by questions, the better. As a result, creativity, concern for the people around one, excitement with ideas, and the questioning of received wisdom, all these traits which are associated with true education, recede to the background. What we have instead is a destruction of thought.”

Secondly, the wholesale encasement of education in the webs of neoliberal rationality is intimately associated with privatization. As knowledge becomes synonymous with a self-centered and self-absorbed pursuit of individual success, education’s role as a type of social power dedicated to the defense of the people declines. This weakening of a collective sense of solidarity synchronizes with the neoliberal strategy of primitive accumulation, directed toward the collection of astronomic profits from the privatization of public facilities. When one sees education as a transaction between teachers and students to augment the latter’s employment prospects, the national function of a publicly funded education system clashes with the individual impulses of profit-maximization, ultimately paving the way for the collapse of the idea of community in the form of privatization.

As neoliberal subjectivities and liberalizing reforms have combined to generate a moribund historic bloc of exploitation, a new global system of education has been installed, consisting of three different forms of capital: productive capital (e.g. private for-profit universities); money/finance capital (e.g. banks offering commercial student loans); and commercial/merchant capital (for example, large international corporations of oligopolistic academic publishers). To overcome these oppressive conditions, we need to invent a praxological pedagogy which deprives neoliberal capitalism of the social circumstances in which the creation and extraction of surplus value can take place.

Patnaik outlines the broad contours of such a method of education:

“[A radical pedagogy] sees all activities of skill-imparting as being informed by a concern for, and an awareness of, the social ambience within which the skill-imparting is taking place. This does not mean a lacing of skill-imparting with occasional homilies on society and the people; nor does it mean thrusting down the throats of the students some particular theoretical or ideological outlook on society. It means a break from exclusive preoccupation with marketability; it means a rounded education going beyond the narrowness of technical disciplines; it means inculcating in students a sense of the society to which they belong; and it means focusing within particular disciplines on research themes that have relevance for society instead of being merely copied from abroad.” •

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at