Stanley Fish on free markets and social responsibility, and me on what I saw on the metro.

Stanley Fish discusses “neoliberalism” and its effect on higher education with a nod to some effects on society as a whole. In short, in the neoliberal model, profit alone is esteemed as the one measure of good, and any other concern such as ethics, social responsibility, or even happiness are extraneous measures — sometimes labeled, in the austere purity of the model, as “market distortions.”

He notes that this philosophy is potently at work now, and traces its effects. It’s been observed that:

“Short-term transactions-for-profit replace long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society. Everyone is always running around doing and acquiring things, but the things done and acquired provide only momentary and empty pleasures (shopping, trophy houses, designer clothing and jewelry), which in the end amount to nothing. Neoliberalism, David Harvey explains, delivers a ‘world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.’ ”

I spent part of the weekend people-watching, and one of the things I noticed was that I felt as though I observed, in virtually everyone I encountered, a great paucity of concern for the well-being of others. This was punctuated, of course, by occasional demonstrations of out-and-out offensive rudeness, as one is conditioned to expect in cities, but what struck me more was the pervasive indifference and preoccupation with self and small social unit.

I could comfortably summarize what I saw as a whole lot of people who I would not say were “bad,” but who I would not say were actually, pro-actively, “good,” either — nor did they seem to care to be.

And if people seek success and fulfillment through the mores of our society alone, what else should be expected? I think few, if any, of the strongest forces at work in the mainstream suggest a way of life that accords to any great degree with true satisfaction and happiness, let alone any true indicator of what may be good and right human behavior, either universally or at this particular (and I think crucial) time in our history.

Instead, it seems to me that what’s extolled is, really, in fact, the pursuit of hollow pleasures. Furthermore, most people still seem to remain hypnotized by this pursuit even as what seems to me a cacophonous call to change thunders out from, basically, every observable circumstance. Most people seem to still be seeking either the pleasures themselves, or seeking to assert an ego identity that fits one of the archetypes in various tiers of the pleasure-seeking system. Again, I feel I so often see, for example, the middle-class royal who, having punched out of work, is utterly sovereign in his or her world, striding around thinking only of personal satisfaction and nothing, once off the clock, about contribution to any sort of greater social welfare whatsoever. This, across age-ranges and cultures. And those who don’t have it want it.

The reformist sub-cultures are not immune. There are plenty of radicals who can’t actually think, or whose heart would be in the right place except for the fact that they themselves are lost in an ego identity, who seek the quick pleasure in their efforts, resist contemplation, and who remain products of the very society to which they react: shallow, bawdy and callous.

Even in intimate couples you might see shallow, socially prescribed self-interests predominate. (And accompanied by confusion as to why relationships are empty, and lacking the passion you see in the movies.)

I have no doubt: Directly or indirectly, it affects EVERYONE.

In rushing off these observations, I have in no way protected myself from the embarrassment of having to retract from overstatement. But the funny thing is, I think most people would agree with me to some degree, and yet that remains the world we co-create. But really what I mainly wanted to do was point to Fish’s article, which I think is well worth the read (once your reading stamina is recharged from this lengthy and introduction). And also, I wanted to toss out an idea which has been on my mind for the past month or so:

If we *don’t* make it past the current crises, if the economic downturn becomes some kind of real collapse, if it destabilizes countries to the point of violence and that spirals, or if it prohibits enough responsible action on climate change to prevent a runaway disaster of some sort — in short, if civilization were to completely come apart for one reason or another, I think that whatever organized societies arose after us might look back and say, with the benefit of hindsight, “that civilization which came before us, and fell [ours], was corrupt and morally bankrupt.”

It actually has, I believe, something of Biblical proportions to it.

I have no doubt that it can be changed to something better. But not without effort, nor without intelligence, nor heart — and not through abiding the social status quo, in any of its current iterations, I suspect.

Think Again: Neoliberalism and Higher Education