Patrick Fitzsimons: Neoliberalism and education: the autonomous chooser

Patrick Fitzsimons: Neoliberalism and education: the autonomous chooser
Radical Pedagogy, Volume 4: Issue 2, Summer 2002

Schools with foundational curricula and student isolation from experiencing the technology the society builds its economy upon, assume a sense of unreality for Dewey. ’This danger was never greater than at the present time, on account of knowledge and technical modes of skill.
[John Dewey. 1922:11].(1) (2)

This paper presents a Foucauldian analysis for the argument entitled Neoliberalism and Education: the Autonomous Chooser s - it is about the constitution of the self. The argument is that through self-constitution, the subject is implicated in its own governance. The argument locates self-constitution as a discursive formation within a neoliberal discourse that is problematic as a mode of governance: Michel Foucault’s (3) notion of Governmentality (4) as a neoliberal disciplinary mode of self-constitution.

In a neoliberal culture (as in any other), the individual is usually unknowingly implicated in creating a subjectivity that fits within the prevailing political rationality. And, as Marshall has argued through his notion of neoliberalism, (unlike liberalism) has no internal spaces within which to contest values (5) . But it is a contention of this paper that individuals actually have agency and some will seek spaces within which to critique values. To the extent that governmentality denies agency it has a problem. The dialectical nature of liberal critique implies that change is continuous and progressive. Therefore, as critique advances, neoliberal subjectivity would be an unstable entity given the additional problem that the subject is continuously involved in (re)form (6) It is also a contention of this paper that continuous reform to the economy, society, education, and hence the self, exudes a false notion of progress. Under conditions of (re)form, the self itself becomes unstable as part of this (re)forming world. The instability stems from the requirement of the self to (re)form, (re)form [and (re)form ad infinitum], to meet the challenges of neoliberal enterprise culture. Under this force, whatever form the self arrives at is merely an interactive moment in a process of (re)form.

This argument has a rationale for employing the work of Foucault. Neoliberalism and education: the autonomous chooser focuses on practices such as the infinite and strategically reversible relations of power that cannot be subsumed by neoclassical economics. Liberalism is viewed from the point of view of governmental reason i.e., following Foucault; the rationality of political government is seen as an activity rather then as an institution. Liberalism for Foucault is a rationally reflected way of doing things which functions as the principle and method for the rationalization of Governmental practices - not a type of society but as a formula of rule. The challenge of neoliberalism is outlined. Governmentality, which allows for the possibility of other than economic explanations of the self, is discussed. In this respect, Governmentality provides a more satisfactory account than neoliberalism of the way in which subjectivities are developed. From this perspective, neo-social-democratic is identified as problematic modes of discipline.


Foucault has developed a new paradigm in which to understand the operations of power in modern society. The new paradigm does not replace the theory of disciplinary power; rather modern societies are characterised by a triangular power complex: sovereignty - discipline - government or, as Foucault puts it, Governmentality. Governmentality is Foucault’s (7) neologism (new word) for governmental rationality. The term refers to a domain of research about the rationality of government. By Governmentality, Foucault meant something like a way or system of thinking about the nature or practice of government. Governmentality meant both governance of self and others. Foucault’s research focuses on questions such as, who can govern? what is governing? and who is governed? ‘In the one case it was in sum a matter of knowing how one ’governed’ the mad, now it is how one governs oneself. . . . (H)ere I would like to show that the government of self is integrated with the government of others. These are, in short, two inverse ways of access to the same question: how is an ’experience’ formed where the relationship of self and no others is linked?’ (8)

Foucault says that Governmentality means three things. ‘The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security. The tendency which, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led towards the pre- eminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, etc) of this type of power which may be termed government, resulting, on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of saviors. The process, or rather the result of the process, through which the State of justice of the Middle Ages, transformed in the administrative State during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, gradually becomes ’governmentalised’‘. (9)

Foucault asks ’how’ questions for the immanent conditions and constraints of practices. Governmentality is about critique, problematisation, invention, imagination, and changing the shape of the thinkable. Governmentality is the relation between self and itself, interpersonal relationships involving some control and guidance, relations within social institutions and community. It is concerned with the exercise of political sovereignty relations (10) . The target of the analysis of Governmentality is not, “institutions”, “theories”, or “ideology”, but “practices” -- with the aim of grasping the conditions which make these acceptable at a given moment; the hypotheses being that these types of practice are not just governed by institutions, prescribed by ideologies, guided by pragmatic circumstances -- but possess up to a point their own specific regularities, logic, strategy, self-evidence and “reason”. It is a question of analysing a regime of practices -- practices being understood here as places where what is said and what is done, rules imposed and reasons given, the planned and the taken for granted meet and interconnect’ (11) .

Foucault sees the technologies of domination and technologies of self as being the techniques used ’to make the individual a significant element for the state’ (12) . This new technology of power was originally given the name ’policing’. In examining the relation of the individual to the political technique of policing, Foucault asks; ‘What kind of political techniques, which technology of Government, has been put to work and used and developed in the general framework of the reason of state in order to make the individual a significant element for the state?’ (13)

A particular type of truth that Foucault is concerned with is the regime of power\knowledge, which permits statements to emerge and be legitimated as truth. For Foucault it is no longer feasible to conceptualise relations of power in terms of the state, class struggles, relations of production and capitalist exploitation: knowledge is not neutral or objective but is a product of power relations. Power in modern times is productive and it operates through the construction of new capacities and modes of activity. Foucault wants rather to reconstruct the apriori conceptions by means of which we have so far understood the human being. From a Foucauldian perspective, desire for education can be seen as a subject position that is constructed through the convergence of technologies of domination and technologies of self. Education then is a governmental notion, that is implicated in the production of the very desire to be educated i.e., the desire to be dominated and domination is inextricably intertwined with power. Education, then, is vitally important to the future of our society. We can continue to improve our culture or completely destroy it by the decisions we make. .

Neoliberalism: the Autonomous Chooser

Underlying this is a more general neoliberal vision that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such. In terms of moral philosophy this is a “virtue ethic”, in which human beings are supposed to act in a particular way according to the ideal of the entrepreneur. Individuals who choose their friends, hobbies, sports, and partners, to maximise their status with future employers, are ethically neoliberal. This attitude is unknown in any pre-existing moral philosophy, and is also not part of early liberalism. Such actions are not necessarily monetarised: they represent an extension of the market principle into non-economic area of life, again typical for neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is a philosophy in which the existence and operation of a market are valued in themselves, separately from any previous relationship with the production of goods and services, and without any attempt to justify them in terms of their effect on the production of goods and services; and where the operation of a market or market-like structure is seen as an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously existing ethical beliefs. The idea that everyone should be an entrepreneur is distinctly neoliberal. For neoliberals it is not sufficient that there is a market: there must be nothing which is not market.

Neoliberal philosophy of the autonomous chooser is not a logical extension of Deardon’s (14) notion of liberal autonomy. The needs and interests distinction made by Deardon (15) has collapsed in neoliberal philosophy but a range of choices will be imposed from external businocratic pressures. The theory of the autonomous chooser does not presume that choosers merely act in a choosing way but seems to postulate a ‘faculty of choice’ (. la Kant) that must be exercised in order for the individual to be whole.

In their quest for wholeness, the autonomous chooser will be exercising the proposed faculty of choice with a perpetual response to the environment that has been constructed by neoliberal philosophy. The environment consists of autonomisation of society, deregulation, privatization, freedom, continuous supply of information through for example, new technology, the media and public relations. Such neoliberal intervention intrudes into the life with the need for a perpetual response. Neoliberal interventions promote the development of an enterprise culture. The term ‘enterprise culture’ originated from Great Britain as an outcome of the economic liberalist policies of the conservatives where, ‘During the course of the 1980’s, the idea of an enterprise culture has emerged as a central motif in the political thought and practice of the conservative government in Britain. Its radical programme of economic and institutional reform has earlier been couched primarily in the rediscovered language of economic liberalism, with is appeals to the efficiency of the markets, the liberty of individuals and the non- interventionist state. But this programme has increasingly also come to be represented in ‘cultural’ terms, as concerned with the attitudes, values and forms of self understanding embedded in both individual and institutional activities’. (16)

The task of constructing an ‘enterprise’ /neoliberal culture means two things. Firstly, a large range of institutions need to be remodeled along the lines of commercial enterprises including its orientation to the demands of the consumer. Second, there needs to be a sustained attempt to neutralize and reverse all those tendencies within society that are inimical to the ‘spirit of enterprise’ (17) . At the heart of enterprise is a cultural perspective where the autonomous self is prioritized and where specific individual competitive values are esteemed. It is a very different form of capitalism from the economic cultures that function in collectivist modes (18) . Enterprise culture then, demands continual reconstruction of self but the individual response is largely shaped in its possibilities and rate of response. The type of information made available and the type of access to it shape the possibility of individual response. Neoliberal education is embroiled in the security of the state through choosing state-controlled institutional forms of organisation funded on assumptions of methodological individualism.

Lyotard’s Political Writings, credits DeGaulle and the 5th Republic for their introduction of technocratic education. “The struggle directly attacks the system. In the sphere of the university, attacking the system cannot mean demanding supplementary credits or a “democratization” of teaching or an increase in the number of scholarships. The university belongs to the system insofar as the system is capitalist and bureaucratic. . . . How do you get your diploma? By accepting the division and presentation of subjects as they are currently taught; by accepting the discipline of institutions and the discipline of the pedagogical relationship. Functions of the teacher: to consume cultural contents in order to produce cultural contents that can be consumed by the students; to produce salable students (consumable labor force). Function of the students: to consume contents (with an eye to exams, to academic competition); to consume along with them the pedagogical forms that prefigure professional and social hierarchies. . . . The real critique of the system can only take place . . .through interventions of the here and now kind, decided on and managed by those who make it. The critique of capitalism and of its university in meetings, even if they take place in the teaching establishments, is immediately digested by the system. The organization and its discourse, even if they are revolutionary in their signified, are made of the same stuff as the objects of their criticism”. (19)

Lyotard went further with this notion of autonomy. The autonomous chooser gained independence, but at a tremendous price for the community. He argued that independence in this sense was gained at the expense of discarding social obligation for the other members of the community. The faculty of choice, deeply imbedded in human nature in the busnocratic theory of the autonomous chooser, has no theoretical need for the other, for the needs of self and the other, and social justice, are “met” by the individual choices of the autonomous chooser. Hence, there is no need for obligation to the others of the community. If there is no need to consider the other, to converse and to consult, and to enter into dialogue, then the independent autonomous chooser is further cut off from a shared community form of life and more liable to be “picked off” by the information systems, consumer products and media, through which individual choices increasingly come to be policed.

This notion of personal autonomy, which was meant to lead to emancipation, was a bitter fraud according to Lyotard: ‘This “emancipation” is the story of a Faust who didn’t need to sell his soul because one had not been denoted to him, so he was under no obligation to return it to the donor, nor did he have the power to steal it from its donor’. (20) Even if Lyotard is but partly right, then so much for the quoted claim in the reform literature that a community will prosper through the consumer activities of autonomous choosers.

The 1968 saw the uprising of French students against this form of control. The view of the human being is that of the autonomous chooser who will choose from the supermarket of skills packages. The notion of knowledge in the new curriculum proposals is driven by certain assumptions. I have no problem with the idea of national curriculum principles. But there is no division between vocational and general education. There is a question about whose knowledge. There is no discussion about the nature of knowledge contained within the proposals. Knowledge and understanding are only used to elaborate other things. There is a noticeable shift to information processing which implies equal access to information and lack of cultural specifics. Knowledge is framed in utilitarian terms - it is instrumental education. Knowledge is replaced by activity modes of knowing how and skills. Learning is seen as a process but not as forms of understanding. Learning of information means that it will continually need to be replaced by new information. What is learnt is rapidly consumed as technology develops more of the same in an information-based economy. New fashions and information keep coming. Assessment will be based on testing bits of information. The notion of skills are assumed to be neutral tools to help access the information. Skills however, are context based, not as generalisable as they are made out to be and require minimum knowledge. Defining what is and what is not a skill is a political act.

The curriculum framework skills reduces knowing that (propositional knowledge) to knowing how (behaviorism). This has implications for decision-making and for problem solving. Assessment is separated from teaching. Teacher’s work is becoming competitive, privatised and is intensifying that Apple considers will eventually deskill teachers. Teachers who cannot renew their knowledge and receive emotional support from within the social context of their work place, will eventually either become out of date professionally or retreat into psychologically defensive positions. Teachers are workers and their industrial concerns are as educational as the following quote shows. ‘Intensification represents one of the most tangible ways in which the work privileges of educational workers are eroded. It has many symptoms, from the trivial to the more complex - ranging from being allowed no time at all even to go to the toilet, have a cup of coffee or relax, to having a total absence of time to keep up with one’s field. We can see intensification most visibly in mental labour in the chronic sense of work overload that has escalated over time’ (21) .

Apple gives a further an example of the intensification of the work of newspaper reporters that is analogous to teaching. The increased need for efficiency in the newspaper business has meant an increased workload in the form of demands for a greater production in the quantity of articles to be written. The chances of in-depth investigative journalism is therefore less: the quality diminishes through no fault of the individual journalist. Quality of reporting is of great importance to the reader as much as the professional journalist. Teachers too are human service professionals whose sense of professionalism is also based on quality of the service they deliver. Intensification thus tends to contradict the traditional interest in work well done ’in both quality product and process’ (22) .

Neoliberal intervention intrudes into education with the need for a perpetual response. Enterprise culture demands continual reconstruction of self but the individual response is largely shaped in its possibilities and rate of response. Neoliberal education is in the security of the state through choosing state controlled skills -based forms of knowledge. This enterprise puts the individual in a continuous exercise of self reformation to be what they must become in order to deal with the next skill that technology demands that they consume. No other legitimate response is available such as an emphasis on propositional knowledge from which the individual can evaluate the environment or its effects on them.

‘Following Nietzsche, Foucault calls this form of reflection on the nature and development of modern power “genealogy” (23) . Foucault seeks to conceive culture as practices and not as a search for hidden meanings. What he means by this, according to Fraser (24) , is that genealogy takes it as axiomatic that everything is interpretation all the way down. Genealogy is not about belief systems or content of ideology but is rather ‘concerned with the processes, procedures, and apparatuses whereby truth, knowledge, belief are produced, with what Foucault calls the “politics of the discursive regime”’ (25) . It is not a history of ideas that is wanted but, on the contrary, it is oriented to discontinuities. It is through these productions of truth, knowledge and belief through the exercise of power that we become governed and governable. Such an approach to the analysis of power critiques the governmental rationality of neoliberalism as a set of given precepts inherent in the policy reforms and as a form of sovereignty.

Marshall argues that Foucault offers educational research a new framework: not for studying the past, but for assessing the present. (26) ’The general framework is constituted by an analytic grid of power - knowledge, the method of genealogy, and new notions of time, especially of rupture and discontinuity’. What is required is an analysis of power that shows the possibility for the governance of the soul through the construction of subjectivities. Marshall says that an analysis of power relations should be conducted under five main headings.

1. The systems of differentiations established by law, traditions economic conditions, and so on, which give some prima facie position for power relationships to be brought into play. For example, the legal, traditional, and pedagogic status of the teacher provides conditions for bringing power into play.
2. The types of objectives pursued intentionally by those who act upon the actions of others when power relations are brought into existence. For example, the teacher may be pursuing pedagogical objectives yet bringing modern power into play through normalization procedures.
3. The means of bringing power relations into play, by force, compliance, consent, surveillance, economic reward, and so on.
4. Forms of institutionalisation. These may be a mixture of legal, traditional, hierarchical structures such as the family, the military, and the school.
5. The degree of rationalisation that, depending upon the situation, endows, elaborates, and legitimates processes for the exercise of power. (27)

Hacking (in commenting on Foucault) says, ’Every new way in which to think of a person - and hence a way in which people can think of themselves, find their roles, and choose their actions - is the pursuit of war by other means’ (28) .

The relationship between the individual and the state adopted in this proposal has been aptly stated by Foucault thus, ‘I don’t think that we should consider the ’modern state’ as an entity which was developed above individuals, ignoring what they are and even their very existence, but on the contrary as a very sophisticated structure in which individuals can be integrated, under one condition: that the individuality would be shaped in a new form, and submitted to a set of very specific patterns’ (29)

In thinking about the ownership of knowledge, I am reminded of the article, ’Pleasure in Work’ by Donzelot (30) who describes the ideology behind the techniques that are used in modern development programmes. The aim of these programmes is to modify the relation of individuals to their work. The aim is to breakdown the statutory perception the worker has with the psychological ties he or she establishes with their work. Workers are helped to reconceptualise the idea that work defines the individual and stamps their place on them like a destiny, robbing them of their identity if they lose their jobs and making and change in the place or content of work potentially threatening. The new approach involves putting the accent instead on the individual’s autonomy: their capacity to adapt. It invites them instead to become an ’agent of change in a world of change. Instead of defining the individual by the work they are assigned to, it regards productive activity as the site of deployment of personal skills. Whereas the individual freedom previously meant the possibility of either accepting of refusing the assigned status, it is now seen as meaning the possibility of permanently redeploying one’s capacities according to the satisfaction one obtains in one’s work, one’s greater or lesser involvement in it, and its capacity thoroughly to fulfil ones potentialities. Thus we have continued retraining of the whole new psychological culture. This approach assumes a change in the status of work and the management subject - it is in fact a cultural shift if it were to be adopted.

What is at stake is; a political obliteration of the very concepts and explanations which could permit groups to overcome their oppression; a reduction of education to Freire’s (31) banking account, and a further advance of instrumental reason by fragmentation of education into commodities at the expense of a critical understanding of social phenomena in which education plays crucial roles.

The rational ‘autonomous chooser’ is the subject that is required to operate within the methodological individualism of human capital theory. The assumptions inherent in the language of the reforms is that it is part of the make up of the individual to want to make continuous consumer choices. The promotion of the notion of autonomy assumes a lack of manipulation, economic difficulty, power relations etc. These issues construct the individual to want to make limited choices given the conditions they find themselves in and from which they are either not aware of or cannot change. The space that has opened up for the making of these choices comes from the notion of the minimal state introduced under neoliberal philosophy. The notion of an autonomous chooser naively assumes that the consumer (i.e., usually the student) knows more about education than the providers. This type of knowledge is needed for the chooser to support rational choice. One is left wondering why the students would even bother to choose any provider at all if they already assumed that level of knowledge. If they already know what they are to be taught, they would not choose to be educated.

Individualism has become a necessary characteristic of many western states and is almost a condition for their very security. However the form of individualism offered by the autonomous chooser is not the free person offered by Enlightenment thought and liberal education. Needs, interests and choices can themselves be manipulated because the autonomous chooser is manipulable. This is not the sort of person that I would wish to be.


Although many people will agree with certain aspects of both points of view, the philosophical gulf that separates the two sides – capital/liberal, neoliberal/enterprise - is immense. Both sides, however, recognize that control of the monolithic government schools system is one of the most important strategic objectives of the war. Liberals and the liberal left have had no real response to these changes, either intellectually or in practice, except to provide critique and/or to repeat the principles and policies of the past. If Foucault is correct, what is needed in response to neo-liberalism is an increased caution, and an increased imagination and inventiveness, for there is a complex problem space brought into play by such neo-liberal reforms. The form of the human being is being changed by education, language, politics and practices. A neo-social-democratic response is needed as an approach to these crises of the welfare state and the increasing demands for autonomy.

This is but another critique and it may just be to reiterate the dark side of the “progress” of the human sciences to which Foucault drew our attention. But there may well be spaces and antinomies for a resistance to a demeaning form of education and its associated demeaning notion of human being.


1. John Dewey. (1957 [1922]). Human Nature and Conduct. (New York: Modern Library):11

2. The thinking of John Dewey is alive today as it was 80 years ago when he was immersed in the debate over dual or unitary educational systems.

3. Michel Foucault (1926-1984). French philosopher, who attempted to show that the basic ideas which people normally take to be permanent truths about human nature and society change in the course of history.

4. Michel Foucault (1991). ‘Governmentality’. In: G. Burchell, C. Gordon, & P. Miller. (Eds). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality - With Two Lectures By And An Interview With Michel Foucault. Great Britain, Harvester Wheatsheaf: 87-104.

5. James Marshall (1995). ‘Foucault and Neoliberalism: Bio-power and Busno-power’. In: Alven Neiman (Ed). Philosophy of Education. Illinois, Philosophy of Education Society, 320-329.

6. I am taking the dictionary definition of reform to mean ‘to form again’ and not necessarily in the sense of progress.

7. Foucault, (1991). ‘Governmentality’.

8. Graham Burchell ‘Liberal Government and Techniques of Self’. Economy and Society. Special Issue: Liberalism, Neo -liberalism and Governmentality, 22, 3: 267. .

9. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (Eds). (1991). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality - With Two Lectures By And An Interview With Michel Foucault. Great Britain: Harvester Wheatsheaf: 102

10. Michel Foucault (1989). Foucault Live (Interviews, 1966-84). New York: Semiotext(e): 296.

11. Michel Foucault (1991). ‘Questions of Method’. In: G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller. (Eds). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality - With Two Lectures By And An Interview With Michel Foucault. Great Britain, Harvester Wheatsheaf: 73-86..

12. Michel Foucault (1982). ‘Afterword: The Subject and Power’. In: H. Dreyfus, and P Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago: The Harvester Press. 153

13. Michel Foucault (1988). ‘The Political Technologies of Individuals’. Martin, Luther H, Huck Gutman & Patrick H. Hutton (Eds), Technologies of the Self: A Seminar With Michel Foucault. Great Britain, Tavistock: 153.

14. Colin Lankshear (1982). Freedom And Education. Auckland: Milton Brookes. 109-111

15. ibid 156-157

16. Russell Keat and Nicholas Abercrombie (eds) (1991) Enterprise Culture. The International Library of Sociology. London. Routledge. 1

17. Keat, & Abercrombie 4

18. Paul Heeles and Paul Morris (eds) (1992) The Values of the Enterprise Culture. The Moral Debate. London: Routledge: 4.

19. Jean-Francois Lyotard. (1993). Political Writings. Trans. Bill Reading and Kevin Paul. University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota: 56-57

20. ibid 151

21. Michael Apple (1989). Teachers and texts: A political economy of class and gender relations in education. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall 41

22. ibid, 43

23. Nancy Fraser (1989). Unruly Practices. Power, Discourse and Gender and Contemporary Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press: 19

24. ibid 19

25. ibid 19

26. James Marshall (1990). ‘Foucault and Educational Research’. In: Stephen Ball. (Ed) Foucault And Education: Disciplines And Knowledge. London,: Routledge and Kegan Paul: 22.

27. Marshall, 24.

28. Ian Hacking (1986). ‘Self Improvement’. In: Hoy David (Ed). Foucault: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 37

29. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hemeneutics. The subject and power, 1982 Attenwood H.Dreyfus & P Rabinow: Brighton Harvester. 214

30. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon & Peter Miller (Eds). (1991). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality - With Two Lectures By And An Interview With Michel Foucault. Great Britain: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 252

31. P Freire (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Auckland: Penguin Books.

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