The elevation of neo-liberal economic discourse to a predominant place in social life appears now a normative condition, assumed as a fait accompli that deﬁes serious criticism. Social life has accommodated to this economization. People are conforming, remarkably, to the behaviour expected of the economists’ abstraction of homo economicus. More than ever, it seems, they are conducting their lives as rational, calculative and competitive individuals exchanging ever more goods through marketized relations with one another in the pursuit of the maximization of unrelenting self-interest. As well, it would seem, we tolerate with diminishing hesitation the incursion of economic logic into domains once thought of as properly protected from instrumental rationalities and market action. As more and more spheres of social life are brought under the sway of market action, and as individualized economically rational behaviour is widely sanctioned and rewarded, people can assume that particular, contemporary economic patterns and tendencies are self-evidently normative and irrefutable. Moreover, as the welfare state strains precariously under myriad social and economic pressures, many political leaders assume that market action provides an alternative, socially weak form of governance. Commentators and policy-makers can incline to the view that the neo-liberal economic dominance of society is now reasonably to be expected. Yet, of course, despite these powerful tendencies, homo economicus can never reﬂect the rich complexities of being human. It cannot account for, nor speak of, social and cultural values, motivations and bonds between people nor grasp the mysteries of the aﬀective and interior life of persons. Much critical concern has been raised in recent decades over the social and
cultural consequences of the intensiﬁcation of economic rationalization under a persistent neo-liberal political climate, which has scarcely altered since the 2008 ﬁnancial crisis of capitalism. Prominent sociologists, including Pierre Bourdieu (1999) and Alain Touraine (1995, 2001) have railed against the tyranny of the market and the dispersion of society into asocial individualism. For Manuel Castells (1998), a virtually unrestricted market logic of technologically driven “global informational capitalism” forges the segmentation of societies
into areas in which many people are structurally excluded from formal economies and globalizing markets and a minority of others are their beneﬁciaries. For Colin Crouch (2005a), a “resurgent capitalism” and the neo-liberalized recalibration of social relations that has dramatically tipped the balance in favour of capital eﬀect an “entropy of democracy”. We now witness marketized individuals retreat from a public politics that has degenerated into businessdominated demands on a compliant state. For Boltanski and Chiapello (2007), a “new spirit of capitalism” incorporates the emancipatory cultural movements of the post-war generation and directs their energies into capitalist legitimation and renovation. The social prices wrought from the rapid uptake of neo-classical economics
demanded by political and business elites and which legitimated the neo-liberal political turn away from a managed capitalism in the latter years of the twentieth century are immense. Even as a few economists, prominently Keynes (1936), Galbraith (1967) and Polanyi ( 1957), noted in much earlier years that economic forces left to themselves do not work out for the best but rather for the interests of a powerful few, the prevailing political elites of recent decades took a decisive course. In opting for the business-elite demand for greater economic freedom for private action, a path to an economically rationalized and highly marketized social arena, with markedly uneven regulatory relationships and greater social inequalities, was set in place. The state, voluntarily weakened in response to business demands (including those for requirements to bail out the market failures of the corporate ﬁrm), has assisted a wide social and cultural accommodation to market economic rationalities that now shape society. Now, political eﬀorts to challenge and mitigate the feral capitalism that neo-liberalism let loose encounter its institutional pathways and cultural accommodation which obstruct eﬀorts for imaginative and widely innovative social action. For some, the prevailing conditions are appropriately described, following Polanyi, as “market society” (Slater and Tonkiss 2001) in which the market economy’s triumph over social and cultural relations appears complete. Still others seek to understand sweeping currents of identity, expressivism, consumption, religious movements and post-materialist values (Beck 1992; Inglehart 1997; Taylor 1989) that interweave with market economic forces but which may variously contest or refuse them. The spheres of work and education lie in the middle of these currents of
market economies and cultural aspirations. It appears that work, most especially, and increasingly education have become ineluctably transfused with market economic rationalities. But the broader contexts in which education and work are embedded have historically been composed of richly varied social and cultural sources. Even as economic features have been prominent in both, they have never been exclusively so even in the world of work. Each of the spheres of work and education is now more than ever aﬀected by particular conﬁgurations of capitalist economic imperatives and their institutional conduits, including, according to Boltanski and Chiapello (2007), their sources of cultural critique in the name of emancipation. The critical connections and degrees of
autonomy of work and education in regard to economy have altered. That alteration is of profound import for society and citizens. In this introductory chapter I endeavour, from a sociological vantage point, to give an overview of the main currents and conﬂuences of economy and society with particular attention to their contextualization of the spheres of work and education. In endeavouring to understand the political economic context, a clearer light may be cast on the eﬀects and implications of neo-liberal political forces and economic rationalization on work and education. The context of the discussion is the decades at the turn of the twenty-ﬁrst century.