Neo-Barbarian University [NBU] / Neo-Liberal University [NLU] # 1: The Problem

Roy Coleman

“As professors, we have duties which are not those of merchants” (Durkheim, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals)

Early sociological thinkers were not easy-going followers of capitalist modernity: rationalisation, economics, utilitarianism and mediated human communication. It was not a case of these thinkers turning back the clock on such developments but theirs was a concern to find a way to re-kindle emotional bonds and attachments related to compassion and love that modernity placed in danger. Durkheim argued that economics was the major concern in this respect. Free-market economics generated the social and psychic derangement of human life by encouraging excessive egoism, shredding the potential; for other, more compassionate, forms of social attachment. When such derangement becomes widespread the “individual ego” predominates over “the social ego” (Durkheim, Suicide). Durkheim called this anomie which requires “moderating forces” or a new morality to combat it (Professional Ethics and Civic Morals). These anomic conditions resonate with Veblen’s notion of rationalized barbarianism which he attacked in relation business practices that reflect and reinforce barbarian tendencies in human social relations. It is Veblen who signposts these corrosive tendencies as they came to dominate the universities in the early 20th C.

When in 1918 economic sociologist Thorstein Veblen spoke of the “barbarian university” he could have been describing the NLU. His incisive criticism of the university over a century ago invites us to move beyond the chronology of ‘neoliberalism’ [NL] as the culprit:

“The underlying business-like presumption [is] that learning is a merchantable commodity to be produced on a piece-rate plan, rated, bought and sold by standard units, measured, counted and reduced to staple equivalence by impersonal, mechanical rests” (The Higher Learning)

For Veblen, institutions like the university do – to varying degrees – display a continuation of barbarism by ‘civilized’ and economized means – creating competitive, egotistic and aggressive subjectivities and practices which any contemporary academic can recognise. With Durkheim, he agreed that such practices reinforce and appeal to aspects of human nature – for Durkheim, this was the more destructive side of “homo-duplex” The dominance of the barbarian temperament – it’s taken for grantedness – reinforces a perception among us that the “peaceable” and compassionate academic is a weak, “useless” and inflexible individual. What we today call neoliberal management-speak prefers a subjectivity of ‘competitiveness’, ‘toughness’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘resilience’ among its employees and students. As Veblen would have said, this makes wars of prestige between institutions and individuals the norm and the bedrock of ‘how to get on’. Durkheim was clear that these kinds of marketized relations encouraged feelings related to economic drives (fear, aggressiveness and pride) that underpinned unrealistic desires indicative of dogged self-interest. For all its talk of rationality, Durkheim and Veblen show us that, at root the market is emotional and demonstrative of emotional and physical violence. In fact, for Durkheim excessive freedom (to unleash one’s desires, cravings and wants which free markets purport to do) is in fact a form of coercion (you will accrue wealth, status and material goods). This is a problem of the modern psyche as well as the economic institution, where freedom knows no limits and constraint (morality) is unknown/banished or uncertain:

“Limits are unknown between the possible and the impossible, what is just and what is unjust, legitimate claims and hopes and those which are immoderate” (Durkheim, Suicide)

Like Veblen, he sees society in a “malaise” (Division of Labour) and this market-inspired malaise has institutional and psychic manifestations.

Critical scholars today discuss the possibilities and avenues to challenge the NLU. Following Veblen and Durkheim, the economization of rational-modern institutions (leading to demoralization) is not inevitable and can be resisted. For Durkheim, bringing about change is a moral challenge that can be neither forced nor imposed. The development of a morality is always emotionally based and for him an alternative morality must temper greed, envy, pride and the destructiveness resulting from economic competition. This is interesting in that he is immediately challenging rational collective agreement (or contract) as a source for change. Instead, he replaces this with a call for collective effervescent emotional resonances capable of crystalizing (or having a cognitive expression) that sustains momentum to social change. The question that arises from this is how can we cultivate what Veblen termed a peaceable morality that transforms, contains or does away with the barbarian tendencies in economic-egoism and rational self-interested grounds for action?

Durkheim and Veblen did not argue that individuals in these rational growth orientated institutions are simple dupes or victims of ‘the system’. Although these institutions are recognised as coercive there is more than a suggestion in their writing that the success of the NLU/NBU lies in combination with their cultural-emotional appeal. So, the ‘success’ of rationalized barbarism and its many forms throughout modern history, lies in what Durkheim and Veblen (and I would argue Gramsci) were clear about – practices of barbarian power are culturally (and emotionally) resonant. and their ‘successes’ reflect and remake habits and traditions that have a long history.

When Stuart Hall and colleagues inquired into the appeal of Thatcherism, they focused on the role of cultural processes and spaces in which the winning of consent for Thatcherite monetarization and its violence was partly determined. The emotional resonances of Thatcherism were key in the birthing of what we now call neoliberal capitalism. Thatchersim was a successful appeal to what Gramsci called “passional-egotistical” drives, Durkheim termed “extreme individualism” and Veblen “the pecuniary man” – have roots in the barbaric tendencies of human nature and it should be no surprise that many academics (however ambivalently) play a part in and lend consent (and their fear) to the institutional rationales that ideal-typically construct the entrepreneurial academic whose consciousness of themselves as a marketable product or a walking advertisement for their own economized worth become a notable and normal feature of the academy. This is evident in, for example, the ego-inflated “rock star academic” or wannabe variants.

These tendencies have refractions in social and individual behaviour that predate capitalism itself and, following Veblen and Durkheim, we need to be mindful of continuity and discontinuity in the history of institution-building and social change and not over-play cataclysmic breaks between historical moments – capitalism, socialism, feudalism etc. If we take these writers seriously (which most do not), then how does NLU/NBU acknowledge, extend and exploit aspects of human irrationality, emotion and other cultural habits and traditions (some of which are barbaric in Veblen’s sense)? How do intuitions obsess on performance and bond metrics and ranking to our emotion selves – whether through egoism or fear? How is the barbaric within us and how do we acknowledge it and change it without some simple notion of ‘overthrowing the structure/system’?

In what sense has the NLU/NBU resonated with and redeveloped forms of ‘the academic self’ and how do academics wittingly and unwittingly lend their support in performing this self in the process of ‘getting on’ in the contemporary university? How far are academics prepared to go in forsaking elements of the hierarchical game playing they are implicated in (career positioning and aspiration) and indicative of a barbaric structure. As Durkheim and Veblen warned, the ‘success’ of the NLU/NBU has been the almost complete eradication of compassion with the unleashing of an economized/barbaric self and the emotional dynamics of fear, joy, pride and self-destructiveness that accompany this. Without compassion we are not only reliant on mere rational agreement as the basis of our challenge (albeit one that is more just on paper, but not necessarily felt as such) but we are also disadvantaged when cultivating the moral feeling and language to arrive at a “limiting authority” placed on economic and ego growth. Paradoxically, to place limits on freedom is – under NL/NB conditions – to be less subject to coercion and the stressors of precarity. Limiting NL/NB freedoms is a restraint on capital as it is currently felt and will reduce self-harms associated with assessing ones economized worth and other contemporary barbaric tendencies.

The next blog will be shorter (!) and considers a radical Durkheimian response to the crisis of the universities which would begin with academics and students engaged in teach-ins, occupations and a renewal of political associations.


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

4 thoughts on “Neo-Barbarian University [NBU] / Neo-Liberal University [NLU] # 1: The Problem”

  1. Excellent post. As I have mentioned before this screams of toxic masculinity. Until we raise boys and men to be more fully empathetic, caring humans nothing will change. There are a lot of unempathetic and uncaring women but I focus on boys and men because for the foreseeable future men are still the dominant sex in seats of power in business and politics.


  2. Brilliant piece Roy. The whole world of work is awash with bullying and toxic. It’s sad. Very sad and very bad. Classical sociology rocks and more than endures. All this hi technology and all this useless beauty to quote a line of a song… The postmodernists have a point. Of course they do. That’s because their core concerns were those of the likes of Durkheim et al.
    I don’t think this complex and deeply harmful mess we see in Academia or in the wider world of work can be reduced to any one simple sociological category.
    Food for thought. Looking forward to the next part of the discussion.


  3. Thank you Tony. You’re right, it’s not just the university. And because early sociology has a lot to contribute to how we think about now (although much if it is ignored or misunderstood) we need to ask deeper historical q’s. This crap didn’t begin in ‘1979’. Although I’m probably wrong, I’m not a automatic fan of periodization. Continuities are key too…..albeit ones that contain change!


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