Making and Breaking: Research and Engagement in the Neo-Liberal Economy

In the neo-liberal political economy, government resources get diverted from looking after people’s welfare and infrastructure to pay for tax cuts for the very wealthy, subsidies for enterprise zones , public/private partnerships and privatized services (such as prisons), free-trade arrangements, and restoration measures when “creative destruction” and speculative financialization crashes, all the while subject to profits being accumulated increasingly outside the jurisdiction of nation states. Public universities steadily increase fees as state funding is squeezed yet continue to uphold the value of public education and community-engaged research. Faculty are exhorted to become academic entrepeneurs, to take charge of making and taking opportunities—or accept that they have to do more for less while universities divert funds to areas that might bring in grants, secure patents, and attract investors.

For the increasing proportion of contingent faculty, “opportunities” look more like piecework than investment in their future. The students we teach also have to make their work and lives in this context, to be entrepeneurial and generate products–including themselves as employable products. For now, when they are not working to pay for their tuition, rent, and digital devices—perhaps even for food and clothes as well!—they might take in that message about the future from the stars of TED talks, IDEAS Boston, exponents of the innovation economy and social entrepeneurship, and elsewhere. The corresponding neo-liberal subjectivity, as Giddens, Walkerdine and others have noted, requires a person to sustain the self without traditional ties that tell them who they are or what they can expect from others, accept the imposition of trying to “be anything you choose to be,” and be resilient when failing or floundering for lack of support.

This picture of the political economy and psychology of the present era is surely incomplete, but aspects may well resonate with faculty members who look up from the line of inquiry in which they have built their competency and career, try to make sense of the wider changing context, and wonder about where they are—or should be—headed. How do we navigate the shifting seas in which we work and live, teach and do research, engage and try to influence? As noted by characters in the 1985 novel of the cultural analyst, Raymond Williams, Loyalties: Given the “powerful forces” that shape social… change, we can “in intelligence” grapple with them “by such means as we can find” and take a deliberate path of action, but “none of us, at any time, can know enough, can understand enough, to avoid getting much of it wrong” (p. 357-8). [I]f we “go on saying the things we learned to say and it will be just strange talk, in a strange land” (p. 161).

(The above is the prospectus for a Spring 2015 faculty seminar at UMass Boston, http://sicw.wikispaces.umb.edu/ishs15 .  Additional UMass participants and comments from others are welcome.)

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

One Response to Making and Breaking: Research and Engagement in the Neo-Liberal Economy

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    This sounds very intriguing and I hope that some of it is shared here–both what was learned and done.

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