Neoliberalism and production

Neoliberalism always presupposes production. It is not interested in how it happens or how to cultivate it — indeed, its typical strategies evince an assumption that it exists more or less automatically and the goal of the market is to find and reward it. Take teaching reform. Clearly, the thinking there is that the ability to teach is a more or less inborn trait. Reform does not concern itself primarily with teacher training, and it undermines traditional ways in which teachers have governed and assessed themselves. Instead, it takes an output (test scores), assumes that it’s generated by an input (teaching ability), and then sets up a market-like mechanism to make sure that the “good teachers” rise to the top regardless of how they came by that ability.

A similar logic is at work in cultural production. What neoliberalism concerns itself with is delivery of something called “content.” How that “content” comes into existence is of no concern. The people who generate the “content” may or may not be paid, for example. The pay is not directly tied to the generation of “content,” in any case, but to the ability to attract people to the content-delivery platform. Certain niche providers do actively cultivate the direct production of original “content,” but that works in a similar way to paying high-profile content-providers — it’s a way of signaling prestige and attracting eyeballs.

It’s most interesting when the “content” involved is actual labor-power, which is unfortunately required in many more instances than would be ideal from the perspective of neoliberalism. The way that workers are produced and reproduced is not the responsibility or concern of neoliberalism. That will somehow take care of itself — either through government worker training in developed countries or through some mysterious and probably uninteresting means in emerging markets. The key is to get as cheap and flexible access to labor power as possible, and the “global economy” consists of a sprawling content-delivery system that renders the location and condition of that labor power a matter of relative indifference.

The shift from earlier stages of capitalist development is interesting here. Even Marx was fascinated by the productive power of capitalist industry — it was producing something genuinely new and unprecedented. Now, however, production always happens “elsewhere,” away from the real action, which consists of distributing whatever is produced and taking a cut. Never before has the absolute superfluity of the capitalists themselves been so undeniably clear. At some point, the world at large will have to ask the capitalist class, “What is it that you’d say you do here?

3 thoughts on “Neoliberalism and production

  1. “It is not interested in how it happens or how to cultivate it”

    I wonder if this is, as it were, true in form but not in content. By which I mean, the ways in which the “commanding heights” of neoliberalism are able to be indifferent to the specifics of production actually imply some quite specific things about how production is organised. So treating “teaching ability” as a kind of natural product actually requires that classrooms and schools be organised in ways that allow particular types of routinization (for instance, the “literacy hour” introduced into schools by the UK government which specifies, to the minute, the activities that children must do each day when they are being taught to read). And in the case of labour-power more generally this point is not so far from Marx’s discussion of the material processes that produce abstract labour.

  2. Right, indifference can be conceived as its own form of attention, demanding that labor become ever more cheap and dispensible, that people’s extra-economic satisfactions from work are fully mobilized (altruism, desire for creative expression), that workers are socialized to view work itself as an honor and a privilege (and hence, for example, work for free in the hopes of showing themselves worthy of eventually becoming full-fledged employees), etc., etc.

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