Neoliberalism and the Indian Educational Apparatus

neoliberalism 1

India is currently reeling under the deleterious effects of decades of neoliberalism. It is increasingly becoming clear that the financial imperatives of neoliberalism have severely subverted social infrastructures which could have alleviated the impact the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with India ranking 3rd in the daily increase in Covid-19 cases and having experienced the migrant worker crisis, the deep-seated economic fault-lines of a nation in crisis are being crudely outlined.

While the significance of socialism, in contradistinction to neoliberal capitalism, is being highlighted by the pandemic, questions pertaining to the ideological stability of neoliberalism have been left unanswered. It is important to comprehend how neoliberalism, as a comprehensive cultural-subjective structure and an economic-accumulation regime, came to permeate the popular imaginary. How did the Indian working class, a victim of the global labor arbitrage, fail to become militantly politicized and establish intra-subaltern solidarity? In order to answer these questions, we need to take a look at the Indian educational apparatus which has been carefully calibrating, coordinating and creating neoliberal subjectivities through delicately crafted ideological subtexts.

This article will analyze the second chapter “People as Resource” of the “Economics Textbook for Class IX” written by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to decode the “cloaked neoliberalism” of Indian educational apparatus. The aforementioned chapter is a paradigmatic example of a discursive device concerned with the patterned propagation of the ideology of neoliberalism. A primary feature of neoliberal ideology is its subjectivational colonization of extra-economic spheres through the discourse of “human capital”. Human capital, considered as a cognitive power strategy, greatly facilitates the unimpeded functioning of neoliberalism by producing subjects who have internalized the imperatives of growth and productivity. Through a unifocal emphasis on the economic abilities of an individual, human capital allows for the manufacturing of “economized beings” who ceaselessly strive to completely utilize themselves as a mere resource.

The second chapter of the NCERT economics textbook is entirely devoted to the discursive diffusion of the ideology of human capital. Explicitly apparent from the title (People as Resource), the chapter aims at the exhaustive framing of the population as a commodified, human capitalized and economized entity. It defines “People as Resource” as “a way of referring to a country’s working people in terms of their existing productive skills and abilities. Looking at the population from this productive aspect emphasises its ability to contribute to the creation of the Gross National Product.” This text has two relevant aspects.

(1) It considers and distinctively singularizes the population as an economically beneficial commodity. When living human subjects are economized and sealed in the “thingness” of human capital, they lose their counter-hegemonic capability to act as revolutionary actors. As humans get progressively parcelized as fragments of productivity and shards of skills, collective critical agency is subsumed under the profit-oriented objective of enriching oneself through the enhancement of employable abilities. The overemphasis on the productivity of the people is further sharpened by the distinction which the chapter makes between an “asset” and “liability”. As per the chapter, “If people cannot be used as a resource they naturally appear as a liability to the economy.” The ideological interlinking of the negatively connoted word “liability” with the people who are not involved in the operations of capitalism unjustifiably paints capitalism with positivity. For example, it is sheer falsification to claim that the capitalists who are engaged in the operations the economy are an absolute asset for the country. On the contrary, they predatorily extract surplus value from laborer and make unwarranted profits. Another normative effect of the “asset/liability” binary is to implicitly persuade people to step out of their status as liabilities and operate within neoliberalism, thus attaining the hallowed label of an “asset”.

(2) The unequivocal reference to the goal of enlarging the GNP innocently inculcates in students the artificially created need of stabilizing a system which, in most of the cases, oppresses them. By interpellating individuals as potential contributors to the GNP, the text intertwines them with the connected mechanisms of hyper-consumption, over-production and surplus extraction. Through the normalization of GNP as something positive whose expansion has to be expedited by everyone, students are re-configured as potential producers and consumers of goods. These producers and consumers are internally regulated with the aim of constantly renewing investments in oneself, enhancing one’s skills, entrepreneurially diversifying risk-management and thus, structurally supporting and supplementing GNP.

People as a Portfolio of Investments

An integral element of human capitalization is the dehumanizing designing of the population as a “portfolio of investments”. The second chapter of the economics textbook clearly enunciates this investment-centred conceptualization of human beings at many places: “Investment in human resource (via education and medical care) can give high rates of return in future. This investment on people is the same as investment in land and capital.” and “Investment in human capital (through education, training, medical care) yields a return just like investment in physical capital.” Though the aforementioned textual information appears simply innocuous, it is able to subterraneously sculpt an entire discursive-axiological field of re-purposed actions. This happens through two ways –

(1) The text theoretically renders the attainment of basic necessities as an economized process of value addition. This is a deeply normative act in the sense that it symbolically moulds and attunes existential essentialities to the ideological machinations of neoliberalism. Seeing basic healthcare, for example, as economically entwined with neoliberalism leads to it serving the exigencies of the accumulation regime. This is most evident in the mental health sector which has been, since the 1970s, experiencing systemic changes. As neoliberalism has progressed, it has mangled the tenuous threads of sociality and fabrics of fraternity with the hyper-individualizing discourse of entrepreneurialism and competition. This has led to a growth in suicides, depression and loneliness.

In response to the social crisis of neoliberalism, the psychopharmacological sector (and the mental field more broadly) has emerged as a restorative mechanism, trying to alleviate social pain through psychotropic drugs. The medicalized strategy of mental health practices exacerbates the tensions of neoliberal sensibilities insofar that it treats mental health pathologies as divorced from larger social structures of accumulation. Consequently, psychotherapy and psychiatry attempt to “re-normalize” these “deviant” individuals so that they can get integrated with the marketized forces of entrepreneurial competitiveness. This initiates a 3-step of cycle of “contradiction containment” wherein the mental health field constantly intervenes on behalf of neoliberalism to stabilize it: firstly, individuals get psychically damaged by the fragmentational sub-systems of neoliberalism; secondly, their mental health problem is pathologized and medicalized by the asocially professionalized practices of mental health practices; thirdly, the re-normalized individuals get integrated with the mechanisms of market and are subjected to the individualizing forces of neoliberalism. The stability of this neoliberal-psychological cycle depends upon the ability of schools to familiarize students with the capitalist functions of healthcare and regard it as an investment in oneself, geared towards the economic enhancement of one’s market position.

Along with the health sector, the educational sector is also undergoing large-scale changes due to the re-composition of individuals as a portfolio of investments. In the economics chapter, it is written that a “A child…with investments made on her education… can yield a high return in future in the form of higher earnings and greater contribution to the society.” In this textual snippet, one can discern two features of neoliberalism –

Firstly, the formulation of education as an instantaneous investment in oneself advances a conservative agenda of depoliticizing and commodifying education. Rather than being an investment, education is an ever-unfinished process of humanization. It is the ethicized symbolization and social sensitization of humankind, culturally coupled with feelings of reciprocal respect, mutual sympathy and egalitarianism. In a nutshell, education is the realization of an individual as a true and compassionate human, cohesively connected to the foundational feelings of reciprocal recognition. But the consideration of education as a mere investment does not allow for the entry of ethical, revolutionary and political sensibilities. Being an investment, neoliberal education is closely interwoven with the predetermined aim of getting a job and securing a position within the stifling confines of the market. Moreover, since education is merely “consumed” to attain a specific thing, political activism and social sensitivity are seen as anomalous, deviating from the frosted and fixed path of job attainment.

Secondly, the text unites the two main objectives of neoliberalism: competitively increasing one’s personal income and enlarging the national income. These two aims are not contradictory and in fact, smoothly blend with each other to exercise proper hegemony. On an individualizing level, the discourse of entrepreneurial competitiveness exercise its dominance by consensually coiling persons as ever-expanding agents of economic success, seeking new opportunities and increasing productivity. The individual productive aspirations of specific persons are fused, consolidated and conjoined with capitalism through the totalizing dominance of “national economy discourse”.

Through this discourse, the dispersed, heterogeneous wills of separated individuals are quantified and amalgamated as the constitutive elements of capitalism. This occurs crucially through the propagandist prioritization of the national economy which is represented as a bulwark against all economic ills and whose role is indispensable in ensuring the viability of productive activities. Under capitalism, the national economy is the “bourgeoisie’s economy” and denotes the sum total of labor’s toil, peasant’s hardships and the bourgeoisie’s brigandry.  As Rosa Luxemburg once said, “Under capitalism the nation does not exist! Instead we have classes with antagonistic interests and rights. The ruling class and the enlightened proletariat can never form an undifferentiated national whole.” In order to hide this crucial fact, ideological apparatuses substitute nation with bourgeoisie and in this way, totalize the synthetically organized profit-maximizing rationality of individuals.

(2) The second feature of the construal of people as a portfolio of investments concerns the increasing mechanization of emotionally experienced and socially rooted processes. In the entire NCERT economics chapter, there have been instances where humans have been directly equated with tangible things. For example, in the chapter it is written that “When the existing ‘human resource’ is further developed by becoming more educated and healthy, we call it ‘human capital formation’ that adds to the productive power of the country just like ‘physical capital formation‘ [emphasis mine]”. This and the text mentioned initially in the section “People as a Portfolio of Investments” emphasize the imperceptible modalities through which humans are commodified.

The view of human beings as sheathed in “thinghood” is invariant throughout the chapter and though it is mentioned that “human capital is in one way superior to other resources like land and physical capital”, it does not de-commodify human beings. It only considers humans as a thing superior to other things due to its ability to operate and set in motion other objects. Therefore, humans are entirely mechanistic, devoted to the recursive buttressing of the economy through increase in productivity. Furthermore, in this neoliberal world, humans lose their ability to interact with and act upon situations. They, like passive creatures, get assimilated into the objectifying force of their historical environment and become internalized in the regulatory arrangements of material circumstances. The passivization of humans is done primarily to naturalize capitalism and sediment the acceptance of this system.  By refusing the recognize humans as active and dialogical beings, capitalism brutalizes them and as said by Frantz Fanon, “He who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me”.

Creating self-responsible individuals

In the chapter, there are the stories of two children: Sakal and Vilas. Sakal is a child whose family members are relatively educated and whose father worked on an agricultural field. His parents were highly interested in educating Sakal and sent him to a school. After completing higher secondary examination, Sakal studied a vocational course in computers with the help of the loan which his father took. Later, he got a job in a private firm where he made a new software, increased the company’s sales and got bonuses and promotion.

The abovementioned story neatly harmonizes different elements of neoliberalism. Sakal was able to get education not due to the differential coagulation of contingent circumstances but due to the free-floating interests of his parents. Radically abstracted from any materiality, Sakal’s success appears to be the outcome of the de-contextualized feelings of his parents who, severed from the rootedness of reality, felt motivated to educate their son ex nihilo. Through the ideological invisibilization of the dialectical force which material circumstances exert on individuals, an innocent story of a child is able to carefully conceal the incapacitating impacts of capitalism. Karl Marx once said that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In the story of Sakal, there is no mention of these “already existing circumstances” which condition the actions of persons.

The story of Vilas, on the other hand, is diametrically opposed to Sakal’s story. Vilas is an eleven-year old boy whose father used to sell fish. His father passed away when he was two-years old. Due to this, Vilas’s mother was compelled to sill fishes to feed the family. Due to poor circumstances, Vilas became a patient of arthritis and could not go to hospital due to the non-availability of money. According to the book, he did not attend school becauseHe was not interested in studies.” Subsequently, his mother too fell ill and was not able to sell fishes. In order to earn some money and sustain his family, Vilas too began selling fishes.

Vilas’s story shows how neoliberal capitalism is brutally indifferent to the plight of the poor. Instead of seeing Vilas as conditioned by the oppressive materiality of capitalism, the NCERT chapter invites us to view an impoverished, fatherless and physically disabled child as a “failure”. This stance is most conspicuous when the textbook says that Vilas was not interested in studies and suggests that he was self-responsible for what he did. In this type of reasoning, the context of poverty and the related imperatives which it engenders are blithely ignored. What is being posited in this neoliberal line of reasoning is the unsubstantiated statement that “people can do whatever they want”. Consequently, if someone is poor, it is their mistake that they are impoverished and have not attempted to get out of their predicament.

At first glance, the self-responsibilization preached by the economics chapter may seem to be at loggerheads with the commodification of humans advocated by the same text. While self-responsibilization leads to hyper-agency, commodification leads to sheer passivity. Going beyond the outward differences, self-responsibilization and commodification are united through their symmetrical situatedness in the matrix of capitalism and mutually reinforce each other.

On the micro-level, self-responsibilization breaks social cohesion and in this way, pressurizes people to individualistically strive for success and be totally responsible for whatever they do. It is apparent that self-responsibilization operates within the precincts of capitalism because it shadows the effects which the system has on each individual and pits people against each other in a meritocratic vacuum of ahistoricity.

On the macro-level, commodification systematizes and supports the hyper-agency of self-responsible individuals by dubbing these individuals as an unresisting physical input for the workings of capitalism. Being a mere commodity for capitalism, individuals don’t possess the capability to question the naturalized logic of capitalism and try to navigate within the boundaries of the system. Hyper-agency, therefore, gets refined as a lubricating productive motor for capitalism as individuals competitively strive to “become what they want within capitalism.”

Through educational-normative technologies, the system of accumulation is able to stabilize neoliberalism. By presenting a radically abstracted picture of existence where individuals were ostensibly unshackled from material circumstances, neoliberalism was able to unleash a new process of subjectivation. The Indian masses too got entrapped in the de-materialized emptiness of neoliberalism and did not recognize the commodification which was closely combined with this radical abstraction.

Furthermore, neoliberalism achieved a political homeostasis by using the over-arching frame of human capital to produce polyclassist pacts. In order to defuse the militancy of a class-divided society, the conception of human capital was introduced which amorphously lumped all classes together as a single productive asset. Finally, intra-subaltern solidarity was undermined through the creation of self-responsible individuals who are only accountable to themselves and live as closed monads. As self-responsibilization intensified, impoverished people increasingly lost mutual sympathy as each came to see the other as individually culpable of poverty and failed to look at the macro-structural arrangements which suppress them.

As the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies, widespread inequalities will widen and the public discontent with these systemic shortcomings will also expand. To subjectively translate this growing objective discontent, it is necessary that a new programmatic politics of inclusive solidarity be constructed. Taking cognizance of the fact that the Indian educational apparatus subcutaneously injects neoliberalism in the Indian populace will go a long way in building such a politics of inclusion. As the Indian people discern that the current education subjugates them, they will start carving a beautiful and ethical education which truly serves the oppressed people.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].



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