Global Education SA New political networks and the neoliberal imaginary

Maria Bonomi, “Balada do Terror”, lithograph on paper, 1971.


Commentary on Stephen Ball's Book.

“The unstated and generally unexamined subtext of neoliberalism is not doctrine but money, particularly and crucially in the form of profit” (Stephen Ball).

The seven chapters of the book Global Education SA New political networks and the neoliberal imaginary (Global Education Inc.: policy networks and edu-business[I], originally published in 2012), by Stephen J. Ball, address the issue of public policies in education in neoliberalism, adopting the idea of ​​a network as a central concept and tracking the path taken by money as a method. The chapters are: 1. Networks, neoliberalism and policy mobility; 2. Making neoliberalism: markets, states and friends with money; 3. Transnational networks of influence and public policy entrepreneurship: Indiana Jones, business and education of the poor; 4. “New” philanthropy, social capitalism and Educational Policy; 5. Policies as Profit: Selling and Exporting Policies; 6. Education as big business; and 7. Money, meaning and political connections. There is also an important section at the end of the book dedicated to Bibliographical References, which serves as an excellent guide for researchers in the field of Public Policy.

The concerns of this book make explicit and identify a new generation of global educational policies, pointing to the need to think about the ambitions and limits of neoliberalism, the change in forms and modalities of the State in relation to the “neoliberal”, the breaking of boundaries between the social and the economic, and the political, the economic and the mix of political rationality and forms of regulation and governance currently in play. Such concerns support the need to follow up and examine “really existing” examples of neoliberal restructuring and their geographic versatility, which the book carries out with rigorous competence.

From the outset, the author warns us that this is “a workbook, an attempt to develop a method of policy analysis adjusted to the current context of global education policy” (BALL, 2014, p.23). Based on Beck's idea of ​​“cosmopolitan sociology”, Ball, with the aim of “apprehending the dynamics of an increasingly cosmopolitan reality”, timely identifies a type of approach appropriate to his purposes: “Cosmopolitization is a non-linear and dialectical process in which the universal and the particular, the similar and the dissimilar, the global and the local are to be conceived, not as cultural polarities, but as interconnected and reciprocally interpenetrated principles” (BALL, 2014, p.10).

When addressing the reader, Ball presents a rare research for what it contains, for the way it treats and for the care of elucidation and intellectual honesty that it assumes: “what I am trying to do here is to provide tools and methods to think about neoliberalism, while rather than saying what I think you should think about it. (…) We still know little about 'what is really going on'. (…) The data is here to be explored, it is not hidden in my computer files. You can test the adequacy of my reports and analysis, you can find more examples and see more recent progress”. (BALL, 2014, p. 23)

Now, a kind of ethos of investigation based on making assumptions explicit, in respect and generosity towards the reader, who does not adhere to the repetitive superficiality of the dominant intellectual fashion and is willing to make explicit, referring – with precision of data and sources – to the objective conditions that characterize the studied phenomenon deserves to be highlighted, as it reinforces the reader's confidence and better predisposes attention to what will be exposed. It is important to stress this caution, as research in Brazilian postgraduate programs with a sociological appeal (since the most varied fields of knowledge can be approached sociologically) as a rule fall short with regard to the theoretical-methodological test of their devotions to serious, rigorous and responsible research. As such, Ball's book can be read as a wealth of insightful suggestions for structuring a research rationale, while accompanying its results, with multiple consequences.

Neoliberalism in Educação Global SA is treated neither as a concrete economic doctrine nor as a defined set of political projects. On the contrary, I treat neoliberalism as a complex, often incoherent, unstable and even contradictory set of practices that are organized around a certain imagination of the 'market' as a basis for 'the universalization of market-based social relations, with the corresponding penetration in almost all aspects of our lives, the discourse and/or practice of commodification, capital accumulation and profit generation”. (BALL, 2014, p.25)

This way of conceiving the concept reinforces the author's decision to allow the data to “speak”, which means creating ideological dispositions to, avoiding hasty judgment, seek and examine the information to constitute the minimum contours of the vagueness pointed out above. O modus operandi it also means that constituting a kind of conceptual atmosphere can remedy many confusions and arbitrariness of strict definitions, much more to the taste of rigidity than that of rigor. The web of convergences thus accepted may even allow for a more fertile heuristic field, as it is freed up for compositions of varied conceptual hue.

The research addresses, examines and deepens “studies of philanthropy, privatization and political reform in Education and related areas”. The adopted method is called “network ethnography” (BALL, 2014, p. 27). This basically means carrying out “a mapping of the form and content of political relations (…) in the field of “ethnographic analyzes of governance in action”. In justifying the adoption of such a methodology, Ball writes: “this method is defined within a broad set of epistemological and ontological changes across political science, sociology and social geography that involve a waning of interest in social structures, and a growing emphasis on flows and mobilities (of people, capital and ideas)” (BALL, 2014, p. 28). For the author, these flows and mobilities forge a “connective tissue” that represents the most durable materiality of these fleeting forms; he calls this a “network”, “a key mode and analytical device”. In this perspective, political networks are seen as “political communities, generally based on shared conceptions of social problems and their solutions”, with the caveat: “nowhere will a common understanding be found of what political networks are and how they work” (BALL , 2014, p. 29).

The model of hierarchical organization of power in the States is seen in the book as in crisis and increasingly giving way to the conception of meta-governance, instead of government. The main responsibilities of rulers are transferred from issues of managing people and programs to organizing resources to produce public value. According to Ball, it is in the peculiar dynamism of this new form of power hierarchy that the techniques and technologies of the neoliberal State are conceived, operated and disseminated, which, as a result, provide and guarantee the functioning of contemporary politics of the “one size fits all” type, prêt-à-porter. Hence the title of the book, Global Education SA

The market is analyzed by Ball, initially, from the case study of the company Atlas Liberty Network, whose mission is, in the brutal words of one of its directors: “to litter the world with think tanks of the free market” (BALL, 2014, p. 50). These think tanks they are networks of strategic knowledge with the purpose of producing previously established effects, in this case the defense of free market principles. According to Ball, quoting the Atlas website, “the prospects for free societies around the world depend on intellectual entrepreneurs in civil society who want to improve public policy debates through solid research” (BALL, 2014, p. 50). For this, the company in question has training centers for free enterprise, that is: schools of market principles. The investigation of this company allowed the author to build a diagram explaining Atlas' relationship with its associates, partners, beneficiaries and suppliers around the world. Brazil is cited, as seven of the members of this large corporation are installed here: Instituto Liberdade Brazil, Instituto Millenium, Instituto Liberal, Instituto Atlântico, Instituto Mises, Instituto de Estudos Empresariais and an initiative called Education for all Brazil.

This first investigation of the Atlas network makes it possible to identify, already by the names of the companies involved, the varied degree of appeals and fields of action: institutes, foundations, universities, research centers, philanthropy centers and, indirectly, banks. The point of convergence, in Ball's words, “is to make the market the obvious solution to social and economic problems” (BALL, 2014, p. 59). These members produce research, studies and articles, disseminate and disseminate their ideas, hold periodic meetings, promote cultural and educational goods and events, finance lobbies and participate in governments, always based on values ​​such as "individual rights", "limited government" and " right to private property and free enterprise contracts”.

According to Ball, companies “are working to change the public's perception of social problems in Brazil, including Education” (BALL, 2014, p. 60). For example, one of the programs, from Instituto Liberdade, is the well-known “Todos pela Educação”, presided over by none other than the president of Gerdau SA, steel products industry, Jorge Gerdau Johannpeter, and also a member of the board of Instituto Millenium. The action of this political network “involves the transformation of social relations into calculations and exchanges, that is, in the form of a market, and therefore, in the commodification of educational practice (…). Neoliberal technologies work in us to produce docile and productive faculty and students, and responsible and enterprising teachers and students” (BALL, 2014, p.66). That is, this standardization technology penetrates the school and/or university institution through a politically calibrated rationality that makes its public and its servers act as if they were in a market, as if they produced goods and competed for the expansion of income margins, target audience and profit. In this sense, the State that has become “bankrupt” must “naturally” emulate the model of the private sector.

At this point, the argument invokes two main subjects: schools for the poor, as a focus of interest for investments and a basis for neoliberal action in educational policy and interference in governments, and the performance of James Tooley, a “policy entrepreneur” sponsored by this conglomerate and who is a professor of Public Policy at a well-known English university. Regarded as a kind of Indiana Jones [sic] of the XNUMXst century, as he travels the world in search of “schools that serve the poor”, he is also known in neoliberal literature as “thought leader”, something like a “thinking leader”.

The fame of this character and his books, research and reports results from a mega-production based on the granting of awards promoted by the same entities belonging to the political (and business) network that he participates in. His performance is based on the detailed identification of specific social and educational needs, often needs forged by a subtle and overwhelming system of social production of needs, such as consumption, for example. Then, by a sinister maneuver, a plan of innovative solutions, equally specific, is offered. The maneuver involves calling on other members of the political (and business) network, such as microcredit banks, capital management advisory services, performance assessment consultancies and a series of entities that monitor the use of benefits. Ball does not fail to point out that the work of these political and business networks in favor of neoliberal capitalism is a supranational project capable of promoting political changes (generating more profit) and new business opportunities.

Next, Ball examines James Tooley's work in India and his research on schools for the poor as privileged investment niches and as potential areas for business expansion whose reports are sold to philanthropic associations in the global policy network in which he participates.

Faced with impasses and questions about how to solve the difficult equation of making money with schools for the poor in India, this professor received a grant of US$800 to think about the worldwide expansion of the action he carried out in India with comparative research in Ghana, in Nigeria, Kenya and China. The essay he produced as a result of these trips became known with the suggestive and perverse name of “golden essay”. Cynically, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute asserted of Tooley's work: "It is better to give students and parents help than a handout, and help should come from Adam Smith's 'invisible hand', the free market" ( BALL, 2014, p. 86).

The participation of these interferences in schools and in public and private educational systems reaches the level of development of curricula, pedagogy and the system of evaluation and rewards for students. This is the so-called “information policy”, diversified and disseminated by the key points of the articulation of the State reform, the redefinition of its economic goals privileging the market and the attempt to change the public perception on policy issues.

The so-called “new” philanthropy, or “philanthropocapitalism”, occupies what Ball calls “globalizing microspaces”, a privileged space for political production and network action, and, therefore, also an opportunity for various initiatives to meet the demands of serious and urgent problems of the world's poor. The novelty pointed out in the name concerns the expectation of financial results from investments previously taken as donations. For this, there is both a network that works as a channel of money for the causes, and others that operate as consultants, advisors, advisors and evaluators, all guided by the profit to be obtained from philanthropy.

There are other specialties in this type of philanthropy working, for example, in the planning and, when applicable, in the redistribution and transfers of philanthropic actions. One of the central denominations produced in this new era is “risk philanthropy”, but, of course, always duly protected in order to obtain the expected impacts and results. One of the sacred books of this type of investment is called “The art of giving”, by Bronfmann and Solomon, 2009. According to Ball, solutions to the demands of philanthropocapitalism must be quick and focused on difficult problems. They have three basic components: “they are technical (generally based on the application of a single new technology); they are generic (that is, universally applicable, regardless of the diversity of local contexts); and they can expand (subject to 'expanding' from the local to the national and even international)” (BALL, 2014, p.123).

The largest private foundation of this type of philanthropy operating in the US today is Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, known as “the leading brand in quick fixes”. Through philanthropic action, it is possible for wealthy individuals, families and wealthy companies to participate in public actions, fostering a type of “parapolitical sphere”. In the USA, the Clinton Global Initiative concentrates, manages and distributes these actions. The main supporter and funder is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but actors/actresses from Hollywood to Rupert Murdoch, billionaire in the information industry, also participate in the network.

These clusters "promote research on the best market solutions for humanity's great challenges", according to the website of the Clinton Global Initiative. To this end, public policy is downgraded to a mere, but valuable, opportunity for profit. As if that were not enough, it is also exported as a commodity and eventually sold directly to interested governments.

This is the moment in the book in which Ball thematizes the peculiar mode of privatization of public goods operated by neoliberal policy networks. According to him, “privatizations are complex, multifaceted and interrelated. They can be understood by the development of a set of complex and simultaneous relationships between: (1) Organizational changes in public sector institutions (recalibration and improvement); (2) New State forms and modalities (governance, networks and performance management); (3) Privatization of the State itself; (4) The interests of 'restless capital' and the processes of commodification (public services as an opportunity for profit and provision of 'effective' public services)” (BALL, 2014, pp.155-156).

This is the key mechanism that promotes cultural interference and, by producing a diagnosis of state failure, prepares the ground for the sale of quick and efficient solutions by the private sector. This is what Ball characterizes as “colonization of the infrastructures of politics” or “the retailing of political solutions and social improvement” (BALL, 2014, p.156). At this point, the author draws the attention of public policy researchers by warning: it is necessary to pay more attention to this “type of business activity in the school environment (college and university), [which] includes the sale of continuing education, consulting, training, support , 'improvement' and management services, as well as a wide range of technical, support and back-office” (BALL, 2014, p.157).

That's because most of the merchandise sold and the neoliberal message is stuffed there. And Ball does not fail to emphasize the most decisive thing: “what is being sold are the needs for change” (BALL, 2014, p.158). The text goes on to analyze cases where this type of interference – or coup, to be more explicit – happens. This means that organizing a training course based on neoliberal ideology represents the power to determine which ideological landscapes can be visited and which not. It means sketching a priori the mentality of students by defining values, domains, skills and behaviors.

The mentality, we know, is the pole from which we see, think and participate in the world. Having different limits and configurations, it is also from where we stop seeing, thinking and participating in the world. After being trained and trained in productivity, understood as the pursuit of goals established by the curriculum and based on the idea of ​​optimizing performance, students submitted to this system gradually become accustomed to wanting from themselves what the curriculum intended. Considered only as vulnerable, docile students are transformed by the neoliberal pedagogical and academic conformation into producers of results and performances, liable to be audited, inspected, evaluated and corrected. If approved, they will be considered fit for efficient professional practice. That is, for the reproduction of what they suffered, calling it learning.

The basic strategy of these programs is to capitalize on the fears and desires of the target audience. The reform speeches carry their ink and promise to save schools, teachers, students and parents from the terror and uncertainties that the State has not been able to resolve. The leaflet of Edison Schools, in the United Kingdom, brings the following text: “We work with schools that are not content to stand still, we provide schools with powerful educational tools, consultancy, professional development and pedagogical support and training” (BALL, 2014, p. 160) .

It is necessary to pay attention to the rhetorical maneuver that involves the privatization of an entire vocabulary that, after duly fertilizing the imagination, is adopted, propagated and even claimed as corresponding to the needs it boasts. They become so plausible (or rather, they enter the dimension of the plausible in such a way) that anyone who demonstrates otherwise would quickly assume the role of insane. Ball states that once the vocabulary has been “routinized”, the expedient by itself neutralizes possible resistance or blockages to the initiatives.

The program teach first, for example, was created as one of the specialists in the “routinization of innovations”. It is “a continuing education and recruitment program for teachers that aims to place graduate teachers from elite universities in socially disadvantaged schools” (BALL, 2014, p.179). In another of these drastic circumstances of privatization of the political sphere, Ball cites the case of the company Bertelsmann, on whose website it is possible to choose a policy, “put it in the shopping cart and place your order online” (BALL, 2014, p.181 ).

For lay people, it is difficult to understand how these financial mega-operations transform any situation into a lucrative business, even more so when it comes to educational solutions for poor populations. In this chapter, Ball analyzes the case of Pearson Education, the largest in the field of so-called edu-business. About investments, he writes: “primary interest assets are forms of the so-called soft capital (tangible capital), that is, patents, licenses, market share, brand, research team, methods, customer base or culture” (BALL, 2014, p.189).

In the world, this has been a branch of business activities in rapid growth. Sweden has, for example, 20% of its students educated in schools that are free but owned and managed by private providers. There are 900 of these schools, with 80 thousand students between 1 and 18 years old. The largest group of these schools is managed by the same person, John Bauer, in 20 locations. All specialize in vocational education, IT training, media, entrepreneurship, health and fitness, hotel management and provisioning. He also runs schools in Spain, India, Norway, China and Thailand. In Sweden alone, in 2007, this entrepreneur's initiative had revenues of SEK 757 million (more or less US$90 million).

Another example provided by Ball is that of the Providence Equity Partners, a group of US private equity investors that in 2009 bought Study Group, a “Global Private Education Provider” from Australia, for $570 million. O Study has 38 campuses, 55 students in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US. The firm, according to the website, manages funds with $23 billion in commitments and has invested in more than 100 companies worldwide. Since the center of these activities is the expansion of financial capital independent of its core activity, the Blackboard course management system, the group's arm, works with universities, governments and even the military (!) around the world.

The degree of cynicism in the introduction to the “products” portfolio on the company's website is shocking. Blackboard course management system: “We work with our customers to develop and implement technology that improves every aspect of education. We empower customers to engage more students in exciting new ways, getting closer to them and their devices – and connecting more effectively, keeping students informed, engaged and collaborating together” (BALL, 2014, p.192).

In more than one sense, therefore, it is necessary to understand the concept of network mobilized by Ball. Students are captured and made collaborators by an elaborate system of lures and symbols laden with neoliberal ideology. They become actors who reproduce neoliberal ideas in Education as authors. These practices forge not only a market for materials, services and ideas, but a true global market for educational institutions, a “knowledge economy”. A Laureate Education, for example, a giant in the field, owns at least two institutions in Brazil, Universidade Anhembi-Morumbi and UniPB. These institutional forms offer inexpensive professional training and cater to the market range of those in need of rapid professional qualification. And still, sometimes, they have the “differential” validity of the diploma beyond national borders, which ends up working as a marketing appeal. For Ball, this is the indisputable mark of “a new educational colonialism”.

To better understand the dynamism and complexity of these political networks, it is necessary to follow the trail of reorganizations of local and global instances in order to understand the connections between partial/local political reforms and broader neoliberal discourses. These are complex relationships of interdependence and mutual interference and sharing of power and decision centers that demand the creation of appropriate methods and techniques for researching these practices. Above all, it is necessary to “follow the money”, “policy researchers have to become regular readers of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, stock market reports, and must learn to read company accounts” (BALL, 2014, p. 221). This is also a valid indication for those interested in building a research path in any area of ​​the humanities in a capitalist society.

Meanwhile, the agenda that guided the struggle and the demands of the left movements seems to have been so debased and desubstantialized that, in addition to the lack of initiative in establishing the bases for the critique of capitalism and its ideological and even more harmful version in neoliberalism, now they just limit themselves to demanding the absurdity that the system, at least, works. The bet of these movements seems to be that demanding that the system work means the same as mitigating the effects of its inherent cyclical crises and catastrophes. And that, Ball would wager, is nothing more than one of the pernicious consequences of what Marx described as the theological subtleties and metaphysical subtleties proper to a world ruled by capital.

*Denilson Soares Lamb Professor of Philosophy at the Federal University of São Paulo, Campus Diadema.

*Marian Ávila de Lima Dias Professor at the Department of Education at the Federal University of São Paulo.


Stephen J. Ball. Education global SA New political networks and the neoliberal imaginary. Translation: Janet Bridon. Ponta Grossa, Editora UEPG, 2014, 270 pages.

Originally published on Looks Magazine, v. 3, no.o. 2, Nov. 2015.


[I] The most literal translation of the original title would be something like: Global Education SA: political networks and edu-business.


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