I’ve long been sceptical of the term “neoliberalism”, thinking it a boo-word to describe justifications for theft and fraud. However, the unlikely source of Piers Morgan has made me think I might be wrong. He tweeted:
Just can't get excited by Silver & Bronze medals. You win or you lose. Gold is all that matters.
This echoes Donald Trump: “I don’t like losers”.
Both statements have much in common. One thing is the ignorance of luck; people can fall short of winning for reasons beyond their control. But there’s another thing I want to focus on. To see it, recall Alasdair MacIntyre’s distinction between the goods of excellence and the goods of effectiveness. The goods of excellence consist in mastery of particular practices, which tend to be positive-sum: one man’s excellence can be celebrated by all. The goods of effectiveness, however, are things like wealth, fame, power and winning, and these are often zero-sum: for a winner there must be a loser.
What Morgan is doing is devaluing excellence and asserting that only the goods of effectiveness matter. In doing so, he is speaking as he has lived: his career is a testament to the acquisition of wealth and fame without merit. In this sense, he is the exact opposite of “losing” Olympians. To be the third best gymnast or cyclist in the world requires almost unimaginable levels of dedication and skill which most of us applaud. Chris Froome might have “only” won a bronze yesterday, but he has something Morgan will never have – the respect of reasonable people.
It’s here that neoliberalism enters the picture. As Will says, this is not merely free market ideology, but also about the expansion of managerialism and of government - for example, bailing out banks.
And it’s in this context that I might have been wrong. Perhaps there is a unifying theme behind what looks like a ragbag of disparate developments: it’s the elevation of the goods of effectiveness over those of excellence.
For example, the “neoliberal university” - in which hugely-paid vice-chancellors preside over degree factories – represents the rise of the goods of effectiveness and devaluation of excellence, scholarship for its own sake. When banks mis-sold PPI insurance and “shitty” mortgage derivatives they were pursuing effectiveness, not excellence. Similarly, target-driven new public management displaces the “knightly (pdf) motives” of public servants, again, prioritizing effectiveness (managerial power) over excellence.
It would, of course, be wrong to see this as a wholly new development. The conflict between managerial power and craft excellence is decades old: you can find it in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and in Taylor’s scientific management, as described (pdf) by the great Harry Braverman. What is perhaps new about neoliberalism is that it is a war against excellence (in MacIntyre’s sense) on so many fronts.
What’s so heartening about the backlash against Morgan – other than the fact that abuse of him is always welcome – is that it shows that neoliberalism’s victory is far from complete.
Now, you might object here that Morgan has for years been a Labour party supporter. And therein lies the problem.