Universities like factories



Under the hegemony of neoliberalism, there has been a frank and brutal subjugation of all social relations to market relations, including those that take place in a university

Here is an introduction to a short and accurate article by Branko Milanovic[I] which was published on the portal Without permission on May 05, 2024, with the title above. This is what we see: under the hegemony of neoliberalism, there has been a frank and brutal subjugation of all social relations to market relations, including those that take place in a university.

Next, a translation of his writing is presented, which talks about the repressive behavior of university authorities in the face of the uprising of groups of students in the United States in favor of the Palestinian cause. At the end of her accusation – she says that universities are being run like factories – there is a comment that aims to show that this type of “governance” is immanent to neoliberalism, now hegemonic. So, first of all, see what he himself wrote on his blog:

Milanovic's complaint

I have seen and read about many cases where the police expelled protesting students from universities. The police came to the campus on orders from authorities unhappy with the oases of freedom created by the students. She arrived, armed, attacked the students and put an end to the protest. The university administration sided with the students, invoked “university autonomy” (that is, the right to remain outside police surveillance), threatened to resign or resign. This was the usual pattern.

What was new for me in the current wave of demonstrations for freedom of expression in the United States was seeing that it was university administrators themselves who called the police to attack students. In at least one case, in New York, the police were perplexed by the request for intervention and even thought it would be counterproductive.

It is quite understandable that this attitude of university authorities can occur in authoritarian countries, where they are appointed by the powers that be to maintain order in the fields. As they are obviously obedient officials, they support the police in their “cleaning” activities, although they rarely have the authority to summon them.

But in the US, university administrators are not appointed by Joe Biden or Congress. Why then would they attack their own students? Could they be evil beings who love to subjugate the youngest?

The answer is no. They simply took on a new mission. They no longer see their role as defenders of freedom of thought, as was the case in traditional universities. They are no longer trying to convey to younger generations values ​​of freedom, morality, compassion, altruism, empathy, or whatever else is considered desirable.

Their role today is that of directors of factories that are still called universities. These factories have a raw material called students, which are converted, at regular annual intervals, into new graduates for the markets. Therefore, any interruption in this production process is like an interruption in a supply chain.

It must be removed as quickly as possible so that production can resume. It is necessary to send out graduated students, bring in new ones, pocket the money, find donors, obtain more funds. If students interfere in this process, they must be disciplined, if necessary by force. The police must be called so that order can be restored.

Managers are not interested in values, but in demonstrating results. Your job is equivalent to that of a general manager at Walmart, Amazon or Burger King. To do so, they could use speech about values, or about an “intellectually challenging environment”, or even about a “vibrant debate” (or whatever!), as seen in the usual promotional speeches that senior managers of companies companies produce today at the first sign of difficulty.

It's not that nobody believes these speeches. But you have to pronounce them. This is a widely accepted hypocrisy. The point is that such a level of hypocrisy was not yet entirely common in universities because, for historical reasons, they were not exactly seen as similar to sausage factories. They should produce better people. But this has been forgotten in the race for income and donor money. As such, sausage factories cannot stop and the police need to be called [when they start a protest].

A critical comment

What, after all, is neoliberalism? A good answer to this question is necessary to better understand the historical fact reported by Branko Milanovic.

The understanding of neoliberalism, contrary to what Dardot and Laval think, cannot be found in Michel Foucault rather than in Karl Marx. Therefore, it is necessary to see that the first philosopher only provides an almost idealistic way of understanding this sociocultural phenomenon. Its striking characteristic is that it privileges discourse (which configures social interactions) to the detriment of an understanding of praxis (social action based on certain social relations of production).

Note that it is through an analysis of discourse as an apparatus of power that they arrive at an understanding of this phenomenon: “neoliberalism, before being an ideology or an economic policy” – they say –, is first and fundamentally a rationality and, as such, tends to structure and organize not only the action of the rulers, but even the conduct of the governed themselves”. (Dardot and Laval, 2016, p. 17).

The philosophy of praxis does not focus on examining discourses, as it seeks to present rather the logic of reproduction of the economic system based on the relationship of capital, the classes that originate from it, the State that seeks to seal the contradictions, as well as the ideologies that try to block a good understanding of these contradictions and their development logic, so that the system itself prospers without radical challenges. Here we only examine ideologies based on the classic studies of Ruy Fausto.

Now, ideology is not a claim to know that falsifies reality with some interest in mind, but an understanding of the social that installs itself and fixes itself in the appearance of phenomena, seeking to block an awareness of its essence. As Ruy Fausto says, “ideology is the blockade of meanings”. Thus, it “makes positive (…) what is in itself negative, what contains negativity” (Fausto, 1987, p. 299).

This understanding of ideology, which links it to social praxis in the capitalist mode of production, allows us to better understand the three great ones that prevailed in the history of capitalism, namely, classical liberalism, social liberalism and neoliberalism. Because, they give form to three ways of blocking the emergence of the contradiction that drives capitalism, namely, the contradiction between capital and wage labor. To understand them, it is necessary to see that this mode of production has an appearance, the markets in which goods are sold and bought under a competitive regime, and an essence, the subsumption of labor to capital and, thus, the exploitation of living labor. by dead labor (agency as capital) in factories in general.

Thus, for example, classical liberalism retains only its appearance as a market economy from capitalism; in this way, he affirms the equality and freedom of the contracting parties who supposedly seek their self-interest. However, when one critically examines the contractual relationship of exchange between the capitalist and the worker, as the appearance of a production relationship that links capital and labor, as a relationship between the owner of the means of production and the possessors of labor power, one sees that It is clear that capitalism rises above the denial of equality and freedom of contracting parties, on the denial of self-interest since it only consists of a subordination of private interests to the greater “interest” of capital appreciation. By fixing the appearance of circulation, liberalism as an ideology hides the contradiction that lives in production, so that the system can prosper.

In the history of capitalism, classical liberalism was replaced, first, by social liberalism (which also appeared as social democracy) and, later, by neoliberalism.

Liberalism with social concern – it was written almost twenty years ago (Prado, 2005) – emerges historically when the appearance of the mode of production is denied in social practice, when it becomes dangerous for capitalists to cling to the mere external form of the social relationship of production, when the conservation of the system becomes threatened by the radicality of social struggles and the economic crises that make them even more profound. Therefore, ideology can no longer be sustained only on the appearance of social relations, whatever they are, market circulation and competition; it now needs, in a way, to take into account the very essence of that relationship.

The formula that emerges consists of presenting the essence, not as a contradiction, but as a difference; contradiction is thus reified as clashing social forces. And these forces are distinct: one of them is weaker than the other; one of them consumes insufficiently and the other saves too much; one of them does not find employment and the other is not creating enough occupations to maintain social peace. From this perspective, it appears that it is up to the State to act as a balancing power.

Thus, Keynesian economic policy and social democratic policy, from the 1930s onwards, began to occupy a central place in the conduct of socioeconomic policy. It is no longer identity, but mere difference, which now hides the contradiction.

Classical liberalism appears as hypocrisy; he is aware of the contradiction at the basis of the system, but accepts as valid knowledge only that which dissimulates it in an objective way; the social order seems to him a natural order; self-regulation, provided by commercial competition, seems to him an objective law of this order. As Adam Smith summarized through the principle of the invisible hand: behold, mercantile selfishness creates without any good intention “that universal wealth that extends to the lowest strata of the people” (Smith, 1983, p. 45).

Social liberalism opts for reformism; he knows of the contradiction, but does not grasp it as a contradiction; admits that it targets a social system that fails to create jobs and that creates stark social differences, but maintains that good economic policies can mitigate or even fix its defects; the social order is not denied as a social order; on the contrary, it is taken as a somewhat disordered order that fails and needs repair in order to create wealth and well-being for society as a whole.

Neoliberalism, in turn, turns out to be cynicism; he is aware of the contradiction, but understands it as the paraconsistency of a complex system; This is the result of a spontaneous evolution of institutions and, therefore, must be accepted as such. To hide the contradiction, it does not assert that there is equality of contracting parties or, alternatively, that there are reducible differences between the different social positions; rather, it states that everyone is in a similar condition in the struggle for existence and that the differences arise from the lottery nature of the economic system.

Some hold capital in cash and financial securities, others own industrial or commercial capital, others still have more or less human capital. Is wealth poorly distributed, are there inferior and superior social positions, etc.? Yes, but all this must be.

For him, therefore, the possible progressive evolution must be subject to the discretionary logic of markets in general; the social order is now thought of as a spontaneous order that must be accepted as a historical emergency and, thus, as a moral imperative; commercial competition must be welcomed and revered because it constitutes the origin of an atomized society – a mere aggregation of individuals objectively linked by norms that strive to prohibit only deviant and destructive behaviors of this order. Beyond that, everything – at least for the most extremists – must be permitted: selling one's own organs, selling one's children, fake news as a political competition strategy, etc.

As Branko Milanovic's article shows, neoliberalism preaches and implements mercantile sociability; it needs to impose itself in all social spheres, with the exception perhaps of the family, understood as a paternalistic order that prepares individuals for the markets. And it does so in a lying, authoritarian and even totalitarian way, effectively leading humanity to suicide – in a tragic course in which killing the old university is just a detail. Capitalism today is just a suicidal system.

* Eleutério FS Prado He is a full and senior professor in the Department of Economics at USP. Author, among other books, of Capitalism in the 21st century: sunset through catastrophic events (CEFA Editorial). [https://amzn.to/46s6HjE]


Dardot, Pierre and Laval, Christian. The new reason of the world: essay on neoliberal society. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2016, p. 17.

Fausto, Ruy. Marx – Logic and Politics. Volume II. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1987.

Prado, Eleutério FS Value Excess – Critique of Post-Big Industry. São Paulo: Shaman, 2005.

Smith, Adam. The wealth of nations – investigations into its nature and causes. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1983.


[I] Serbian-American economist. Visiting professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He was chief economist at the World Bank's Research Department.

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