The Neo-Barbarian University

Roy Coleman


Fig 1:‘Book’ by Pawel Kuczynski  

To any outsider today a university in the UK might appear as any other commercial concern with its high-profile branding, league tables and ‘competitive’ (read monopoly) pricing for the qualified ‘goods’ (the qualification). It is also possible for any half-interested observer to see that universities are locked into a larger growth machine concerned with internationalisation, local property markets, infrastructure sponsorship and linguistic boosterism aimed at enhancing the cultural-economic status of a city-region. Such extra-curricular activities are part and parcel of contemporary university directorship in the UK and US and reflect what many call the neoliberal university. Here, politicians, business advisers and managers talk-up ‘the provider university’ where ‘excellent teaching’ and ‘excellent research’ make for ‘impactful’ academic careers and the ‘employability’ of students. However, none of this is particularly new and cannot be reduced to neoliberalization alone: the latter points to intensification and a particular inflection of predatory habits. Therefore, the base economization of the academy has taken place over a longer term. We are talking here of the University of Modernity: an evolved form of modern institutional bullying that has implications for the emotional, intellectual and moral landscape of “higher learning” (to use sociologist Thorstein Veblen’s term).

For Veblen, the university in the modern capitalist era was increasingly “predatory” and “barbaric”. These descriptors point to cultural habits that predate capitalist modernity and force us to look at the “pecuniary bent” of barbarism within the so-called ‘civilising process’. This bent hankers after the urge to fare better than others at all costs using violent means. It is the continuation of an antiquated habit of status aggrandizement with recourse to institutional and individual coercion, threat and intimidation. In the modern capitalist period these habits come to exhibit themselves most obviously in business. And business becomes the model of ‘civilised’ conduct that others, like universities, follow. The fact that universities are subject to norms and values from the business world concerned Albert Einstein in 1912 when he spoke of the increase in academic “ink-shitting”. For Einstein such academic practice described an innovation-crushing pressure to publish and satisfy wasteful managerial/administrative tasks.

In times of national and economic crisis, Einstein stated, universities can become centres of patriotic fervour, feverish money making and subservience to state-corporate power. Einstein and Veblen agree in arguing that universities were not necessarily the best, or only, places to be creative: as Veblen put it – “the university is [now] to make good as a corporation of learning and as a business concern dealing in standardized erudition” (1918). Einstein’s revolutionary physics papers were written while he worked in a Patent Office without the ‘benefit’ of a university ‘culture of excellence’.  For Veblen, innovation-crushing stems from machinic rationalisation and infers the unfolding of auditing, metrification and marketing – all familiar in universities now.

“The excellence of sufficiency of an enlightened pecuniary egoism are … a matter of …common sense to this generation, which has experienced the current era of machine industry, credit, delegated corporation management and distant markets” (Veblen 1918)

Within this machinic process barbarism flourishes – albeit one that is pacified, rebranded, marketed and glossed with notions of ‘progress’. It is the imposition of “machine culture” in the university that Veblen attacked a century ago. What he called barbarianism is observable in any institution that displays “conspicuous wealth” and consumption of ‘goods’, “fighting capacity”, “pecuniary distinction”, “honorific values”, “prowess”, “ostentatious moralism”  and “political prestige”.  Barbarians flaunt their plunder as a further claim to combat prowess and, hence, legitimate authority over others. Like Marx, Veblen was sceptical of productiveness and utility, especially as these things are tied to ongoing violent appropriation of space and time to the detriment of emotional wellbeing, “solidarity, workmanship and truthfulness”.  As 20th and 21st century indicators of barbarism, the university and the corporation have been in the business of refining predatory habits and re-codifying them as legitimate knowledge, self-interest and dispassion.

What does the neo-barbarian university look like?  First, as Veblen noted in 1918, barbarianism is habituated in utilitarian and monetary aims. These short-term objectives lead to employers and university managers becoming “habitually impatient” of “scholarly work that does not lend itself to some practical use”. Utilitarian values in universities produce “make-believe scholarship” or a penchant for pragmatic knowledge in a “corporation of learning”. Today’s barbarians count, measure and rank as a means to evidence “combat readiness” (in research and teaching quality assessments) and to consolidate institutional prestige (assuming the assessment is ‘favourable’).

Second, lecturers and students are reduced to “graded subalterns”. Grading stretches beyond the marking of a student paper or publication in a ‘high impact’ journal. The predator enters the scene armed with output targets, impact assessments, marketing data and competitive rankings towards encouraging all kinds of “conspicuous” barbarism as Veblen would see it. One example is the notion of the academic as conspicuously connected. Often, the meaning of the connection is not as important as the prestige it holds and in the academic being ‘seen’. But to what extent is connectivity wasteful and coerced (both signs of barbarism)? We can rationalize our connectivity quotient as a means to ‘getting our research message/profile out there’ and so being able to ‘change things’. For many academics and students alike the impetus lies in ‘having a presence’, ‘being connected’. Quantifiable connectedness is, then, a form of [de]graded subservience to self/institutional promotionalism and means to asses someone’s [pecuniary] worth.  ‘Networking’, ’engagement’, ‘impact’, ‘participation’ and other assorted business-speak transform the subjective mindscape of the academe. Similarly, the machinic nature of ‘engagement’ and ‘impact’ in universities speak to a quantifiability of ‘knowledge’ but, moreover, institute a system of hierarchical predation and ranking within which the rise of ‘celebrity academics’, wanna-be celebrities, esteem chasers, and ‘losers’ are identifiable categories.

“Every feature of academic life must unremittingly be held under surveillance at every turn with a view to furthering whatever may yield a reputable notoriety, and to correcting or eliminating whatever may be conceived to have a doubtful or untoward bearing in that respect” (Veblen 1918, emphasis added) 

Veblen would not waste time asking how accurate or how reliable these kinds of measures are. That would be playing the rationalist modernizing game.  Auditing of public spending on higher education and research; policymakers pressuring for greater evidence of research impact; individual and institutional strategies for research; competition within and between institutions for prestige, students, staff and resources; citations, journal impact factors, tweets, LinkedIn endorsements and Facebook likes used to assess the quality and wider impacts of research are all – to varying degrees – evidence for “that appetite for popular prestige”. For Veblen this kind of stuff speaks of “routine and accountancy” that produces “uniformity and mediocrity” of a type that serves to “to divert and retard the work in hand”.

Third, prestige projects having little pedagogic value abound in corporate learning environments. These include the senior echelons of universities partaking in local government and state ‘growth’. This can take the form of VC’s and other university mangers sitting on ‘visionary’ local state sponsored and non-elected decision-making committees. Also, it involves universities being ‘recognised players’ in urban regeneration projects, where locally educated talent can be retained, thereby sustaining a local middle class befitting a ‘must-have’ buoyant consumer and cappuccino sipping ‘culture’. Having campuses in far off locations exemplify the veblenesque prestige-making university alongside the invidious competitions to hold flagship conferencing in liaison with the best, biggest and most expensive academic steering bodies for particular disciplines (not to mention the most expense local hotels and bespoke conferencing facilities). The proportion of university budgets spent on self-publicity and advertising (for open days, a presence in ‘new’ and ‘old’ media) has been steadily rising over the last 20 years and this invites the opportunity to display ostentatiousness, which comes in different guises to different universities. Some adorn the brand image of gondolas, ice cream and strawberries while other, ‘lesser’ universities – keen to display “fighting capacity” – embrace and sell intoxicated nights out in ubiquitously ‘vibrant’ urban scenes. Whatever the precise imaginings of political economy, academics and students are expected to be ambassadors of corporate learning and the regional growth machine more broadly.  The entrepreneurialization of the university and the self go hand–in-hand and indicate – well before Foucault – what Veblen called “the surveillance of appearances” in which we are all disciplinary agents and subjects.


World Class

Fig 2: Situating the university in the wider regional growth machine: ‘World class cities’ have ‘world class universities’ and other boosterish fantasies.

 “University publicity is not an effective means of spreading reliable information, nor is it designed for that end” (Veblen 1918)


Fig 3: The make-believe university and the cultivation of entrepreneurial prowess – picture stolen from William Davies htps://

Fourth, ostentatious moralism makes up for universities who have little or no morality, only self-interest. Such moralism can be found in the branding image or quick statistic indicating ‘a world class institution’ or the institution as self-absorbed, image conscious and dispassionate. In such a climate, past ‘glories’ are stressed, or fictionalized, and future fortunes are based on reputability, respectability and honour. ‘Widening participation’ (important for many academics on the shop-floor) is lip-serviced in corporate learning. ‘Participation’ is part of the marketing image in a postemotionalised sense and often exists as a morally ostentations flag signifying prowess in ‘empowering people’. Barbarians can utilize and sell any image: it is the power in the display that counts as a signifier of proficiency in a given field.

As Veblen noted, predation leads to conservatism and that means Inertia towards creativity and social change. The “heroic remedy”, thought Veblen, would be the “abolition of the academic executive”. He guessed that the executive’s claims to ‘risk-taking’ – a typical entrepreneurial claim for combat readiness and therein justification for domination – would become increasingly hollow. He was optimistic. But how would serious university reform now deal with the machine culture and its role in normalizing particular academic subjects: self-responsibilized, status updated, competitive and pecuniary minded? Veblen was no fool: those who refuse “make-believe scholarship” and err towards “peaceable values” and “idle curiosity” were “good for nothing” in corporate learning.

Today, make-believe universities are writ-large in The Higher Education White Paper: Success as a Knowledge Economy’ (UK, 2016). The efficient, expedient and productivist university, identified by Veblen, continues here in the business mantras of “excellence” and “outputs” found in this and other business-speak documents over the last 30 years.

Neo-barbarism in the university has destructive emotional dimensions worth noting. The rational world of business is a paradox of modernity in that the rationalization it sanctions (the “machine” it inaugurates) unleashes the irrational in ways that harness the latter to predatory means. Underneath the decrepit boosterism in the university sector (itself a wild display of pecuniary and postemotional inflation), a whole series of socially harmful processes are set in train by the imposition of ‘business models’. Durkheim thought this situation would likely lead to general unhappiness and psychic derangement because of excesses in utilitarian self-interest, demoralization and economism. Furthermore, we have a troubling separation of the emotional from the intellectual, (or, using Mestrovic’s term, the “faking” of the ‘passionate’ university and the generation of what Veblen called “perfunctory and mediocre [scholarly] work”).

In neo-barbaric institutions “pragmatism” is seen as the only measure of the social good but is really an affront to the “cult of truth” (Durkheim). This form of derangement is also mirrored in academic consciousness in the form of restless anxiety wrought by egoist-insatiability. The psychic life of the academic is entrepreneurialized in displaying ‘success’ and nightmares of endless ink-shitting. Derangement flourishes in the stress and anxiety around ones status and positioning in the conferencing / network machine; cultivating esteem; the counting and courting of citations of ones work (and who cares where and to what purpose?). The PowerPoint has become, for some, the standardized means to self-promotion, providing a career overview and publication record for other competitors and disciples to view (in imagined awe?). Such practices are ostentatious and wasteful to Veblen’s way of thinking. They bear no relation to the matter in hand: an academic talk to a potentially curious audience using ideas that can be very much in-progress. Veblen worried about the death of “idle curiosity”.

Last, it was the machine culture of capitalist modernity and its unleashing of anti-social forces that concerned Thorsten Veblen. Such a culture ‘works’ through habits. This begs the question: do we need a ‘better’ form of enlightened modern rationalism to tackle this situation? Is there a better, or more ‘progressive’, modernist way of talking about ‘impact’ or ‘excellence’? Or do we, as Veblen argued, need to rekindle our habits of “peaceable, non-invidious expressions of workmanship” which, strictly speaking, provokes a more difficult conversation about the emotional-moral character of institutional life than the tyranny of enlightened rationality allows.

Reading: Thorstein Veblen (1918) The Higher Learning in America, Dodo Press (2009)



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Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool UK.

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