The neoliberal public service

Ivor Abrahams, [untitled], 1978


It is necessary to abandon, as soon as possible, the belief in the neutrality of modern bureaucracy, including that defended by a neoliberal left

As a professor at a Federal Institute for almost seven years, I have always been bothered by the way they see Federal Institutes as an almost magical solution to the problems faced in Brazilian high school. Recently, this argument was recovered, once again, during the campaign to repeal the New Secondary Education. Whenever I see unconditional praise for the Federal Institutes, I wonder: do these people imagine that the so-called Network of Federal Institutes represents institutions that have the same conditions, regardless of their region and time of existence? Do those who call for the “Federal Institutes” solution for education actually know the real way these institutions work?

The federal public service, of which the Institutes of Education, Science and Technology are part, faces a process marked by profound transformations, whether announced or silent. Budget reduction, staff deficit, for example, are just some of the problems faced by institutions and agencies, especially since the middle of the last decade – after the “golden years” that restructured several sectors, such as education and science.

In the following lines, I would like to share some notes that I made as a teacher and federal public servant; notes that relate to my work context, but that can be useful in thinking about recent changes in public service in Brazil, through a certain understanding of the effects of neoliberalism.

The element that best characterizes modern institutions, the way we have become accustomed to accessing or working in them, is bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was, therefore, the device created and mobilized to guarantee a specific way of institutional organization and reproduction. Public institutions, therefore, were structured through legislation, standards and rules (internal or external).

Standardization, on the one hand, would guarantee, even if ideally, the exercise of a public agent according to the principle of impersonality, while, on the other, it would determine the limits and duties of each public servant, dividing the work and hierarchizing it according to organizational organizational charts. Bureaucracy, in such a way, meant a routinized institutional reproduction, with a measured, methodical rhythm, marked by repetition and discipline. It is no coincidence that this cold architecture was seen by Max Weber as a counterpoint to and emptying of politics.

Obviously, the description above represents an ideal type of modern public institutions, not paying attention to the details, to their internal life, their daily life, which relativizes, for example, the impersonality and coldness of bureaucracies (see carefully: I'm not here , talking about a mistaken understanding of the functioning of institutions in Brazil, such as one that appeals to a supposed cultural/universal fact called “Brazilian way”). However, even considering the contradictions present in the Weberian framework, I would like to argue about ruptures and changes that are altering the structures of the bureaucracies that guide public institutions.

Even if gradually and procedurally, the organizing principles of such structures are metamorphosing in the face of other types of needs, which the modern model is no longer able to fully meet. Obviously, when I talk about processuality, I am not talking about automatic substitution, but about combinations and symbiosis that become guided by other elements, which I will try to describe later.

When I think about these shifts and new directions in the context of neoliberalism, I make use of a theoretical-conceptual understanding formulated, for example, by the Frenchmen Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval: “The thesis defended by this work is precisely that neoliberalism, before being a ideology or an economic policy, is first and fundamentally a rationality and, as such, tends to structure and organize not only the action of those who govern, but even the conduct of those who are governed. Neoliberal rationality's main characteristic is the generalization of competition as a norm of conduct and the company as a model of subjectivation. The term rationality is not used here as a euphemism that allows us to avoid the word “capitalism”. Neoliberalism is the reason for contemporary capitalism, a capitalism free from its archaizing references and fully assumed as a historical construction and general norm of life. Neoliberalism can be defined as the set of discourse, practices and devices that determine a new way of governing men according to the universal principle of competition”.[I]

It could be said, therefore, that at least a large part of public institutions experience a process based on the encounter between bureaucratic rationality and neoliberal rationality. In this way, the State, the institution and the public agent/servant start to produce and reproduce discourses, practices and devices that are capable of responding to the very problems and demands that neoliberalism presents: “If we admit that there is always 'intervention', this is solely in the sense of an action by which the State undermines the foundations of its own existence, weakening the public service mission previously entrusted to it. Exclusively negative 'interventionism', we could say, which is nothing more than the active political face of the preparation for the withdrawal of the State by itself, therefore, of anti-interventionism as a principle”.[ii]

In this way, this is how we can understand the starting point of the most varied reforms, budget reductions and the absence of competitions to replace public servants. But not only that: at the same time, a new language, a new way of “managing” institutions is being consolidated, as a possible response to the process of precariousness; a response that is based on the private company model. Public managers, for example, must ensure they operate with little, as if they were skilled managers in search of a positive final balance in extremely unfavorable conditions. On the other hand, as Vicente Dubois stated, we are still witnessing, even in educational institutions, a shift from public service to service to the public, now aiming at “the satisfaction of users considered mainly as customers”.[iii]

All of this starts to be read, on the other hand, as modernizing reforms, in order to replace an archaic bureaucracy, which would characterize a slow, corrupt and inefficient State. It is in this context, consequently, that a type of public servant-collaborator emerges, that is, the neoliberal public servant: an agile, multipurpose and multifunctional individual, replacing the traditional public servant, slow, bad-tempered and with a stamp on his hand. . The new public servant, much more in tune with the popularization of the entrepreneurial spirit, is not limited in the face of difficulties, individually solving, proactively, problems that are structural and/or institutional – here, I mention the way in which Wendy Brown characterizes neoliberalism .[iv]

To meet this new logic of work, therefore, the new public servant begins to oppose, discursively and in his practices, the traditional public servant. To this end, it begins to respond positively to a type of flexibilization of the limits and borders that guided modern bureaucracy, that is, those that concern the discipline of working time and the guarantee of private life time. Now, even in public institutions, work and private life become confused, blurring limits and borders.

The neoliberal public servant, whether he is a manager, a counter agent – ​​to quote Vincent Dubois's terms – or a teacher (beyond) the classroom, will prove his efficiency by breaking the barriers of his private life, making the work , thus, invade other times and temporalities of your life. This movement was facilitated, for example, with the platformization and digitalization of work.

However, the greatest symbol that accurately represents this moment is the professional use of whatsapp. By blurring the boundaries that determined the limits of work, a competitive logic between employees and, in the case that I follow closely, competition between fields from the same Federal Institute. In this scenario, we could ask ourselves: what is the objective of competition between workers who still have job security? What is the market that animates this competitive logic?

The search for efficiency, on the part of the civil servant-collaborator/neoliberal, consequently, cannot adhere to the attributions of his specific function, his position. Here, a new scenario opens up for the sociology of professions: the neoliberal public servant must accept and promote flexibility to move between various sectors and specialties – thus proving their search for efficiency. It is curious to note, in this process, that efficiency represents a way of life to be recognized by your peers, without necessarily achieving material proof – unless expressed in an Excel spreadsheet, in mathematical language, proving increasingly individual indices of productivity.

We, public servants, therefore, respond to the process of precarious work, lack of money and structure, practicing principles that, from the point of view of the public institution, are no longer the traditional ones of modern bureaucracy, but of a kind of neoliberal bureaucracy. The new bureaucracy necessarily also generates inconsistencies between legality and the daily facts of public servants. In other words, to make functions and duties more flexible, it is often necessary to make the law more flexible.

On the other hand, the law that penalizes and disciplines work is far from dispensable: for example, the server who must punch the clock that records his attendance, who must respond to all forms of control over his work, is the same person who works beyond the registered hours – without necessarily receiving, in his salary, for the overtime. Working beyond 40 hours a week, it is important to say, represents the action that proves commitment to the firm, that is, to the public institution.

And it is at this intersection between control and lack of control over work, that institutions gain new contours based on increasing arbitrariness and an environment that starts to naturalize the suffering and exhaustion, physical and mental, of workers (whether they are permanent, temporary, outsourced or interns).

The public servant-collaborator/neoliberal, who adapts to forms of control and proves efficient through uncontrolled work, to be carried out beyond institutional walls, gradually becomes the hegemonic model that meets new demands and needs of the institution. The new demands, in the context of precariousness and competition, of belief in the business model to respond to contemporary challenges, are animated, in turn, by a context of unpredictability (everything can change at any moment), of vulnerability (there are no longer positions and rights guaranteed in a perennial manner) and urgency (an accelerated pace that compresses the time of institutional deadlines), which result in the dominance of fear, as a central affect, and the spirit of competitiveness, as a conduct to be aimed at and achieved.

Given this situation, a good server conforms. In a period of scarcity, the functioning and survival of public institutions – especially educational institutions – begin to depend on individuals whose strength must go beyond their functions and specialties, until the importance of bureaucratically defined attributions is exhausted. In educational institutions – as in the case that guides my reflections – flexibility, efficiency, productivity and competition produce a strange combination with the flags and values ​​dear to movements fighting for education, such as those for social justice and democratization of education – even though the the issue of quality of teaching and scientific production become increasingly distant.

It is in this context that the neoliberal public servant must confirm his sacrifice for the institution and his commitment to the social mission of the public institution. In other words, especially in institutional spaces of education and science, faced with precariousness, scarcity and disorganization, the efficient commitment of the educational employee is measured by their dedication and sacrifice, regardless of the conditions for carrying out the work.

What is interesting, in this ongoing process, is to observe that, in some way, the coldness of modern bureaucracy is being replaced by a policy that animates the institutional context, whether in the flexibility of laws and norms, to meet the objectives of hegemonic groups, whether in the informal fight against the resistant public servant, who tries to question and oppose the institutional model and neoliberal conduct.

In the educational environment, it is clear that the criminalization of the teacher's image carried out by the extreme right,[v] finds some support in speeches against civil servants and/or teachers who do not want to work; this server and/or teacher, depending on the moment, can be anyone who does not adapt to the demands of the new times: any deviant public servant, in the midst of a state of increasing surveillance (institutional and among peers), can be classified – formally or informally – inefficient, that is, little dedicated to new institutional needs; incapable, therefore, of sacrificing themselves in order to fulfill the institutional mission.

There is, on this path, no other path for the resistant servant: it is necessary to abandon, as soon as possible, the belief in the neutrality of modern bureaucracy, as a solution to the perhaps inexorable advance of the forces that are completely changing public institutions. It is no longer possible to expect, on the other hand, any change coming from a center-left government program, as the process that is advancing on us is also legitimized by a neoliberal left. The only way out is the political reinvention of those who resist in neoliberal public institutions.[vi]

*Rafael Assumpção de Abreu He is a sociology professor at the Federal Baiano Institute, Itapetinga campus.


[I] DARDOT, Pierre; LAVAL, CHRISTIAN. The new reason of the world: essay on neoliberal society. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016. p.17

[ii] DARDOT, Pierre; LAVAL, CHRISTIAN, 2016, p. 15.

[iii] DUBOIS, Vincent. Policies at the window, policies at the window, p. 107. In: PIRES, Roberto (Org). Implementing inequalities: reproduction of inequalities in the implementation of public policies. Rio de Janeiro: IPEA, 2019. p. 105-125.

[iv] BROWN, Wendy. American nightmare: neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and de-democratization. Political Theory, Vol. 34, No. 6 (Dec., 2006), pp. 690-714. Available in:

[v] I am referring here to the speeches, the denunciation due to accusations of ideologization and partisanship that affected school curricula, curricular components and teachers. There is a lot of information that can prove my statement, but here is one of the most recent: available at:

[vi] The content and arguments present in the text are entirely my responsibility. However, no one really writes alone. Therefore, I dedicate this essay to the authors of some of the voices that populate my head: Camila Silveira, Euvaldo Gomes, Chintamani Alves, Jeferson de Andrade and Pamella Picolli

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