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Capitalism and Neoliberalism

The role of education in a capitalist society is to reproduce social and economic inequities. Capitalism is perpetuated by redirecting attention away from larger structural issues by blaming individuals for perceived failings. Klees (2005) states that capitalism explains economic failings as a lack of individual skills, creating the mismatch discourse that blames education for the mismatch between what is produced by education and what businesses need. Underlying the mismatch theory is the human capital discourse, and similar discourses such as the knowledge economy, in which the purpose of education is to make one more employable and productive.  Underlying the human capital discourse is the neoliberal discourse

Harvey (2005) defines neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that propose that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade” (p. 2), Neoliberal logics focus on efficiency, standardization, competition, enterprise, and market gain over equity, social justice and broader, more liberatory notions of learning. Neoliberalism conceptualizes schooling as a mechanism to prepare students for a globalized, competitive workforce in which schooling is reduced to technocratic, discrete, and often disconnected experiences that fail to account for historical, economic, and socio-political contexts. As such, students are constructed as consumers rather than co-constructors of knowledge, and success is measured narrowly through standardized testing and narrow notions of curricula that serve focus on skills needed for the marketplace. This results in a hyper focus on accountability and competition and detracts from aims to develop the whole child as critical, democratic citizens. 

In critiquing the logics of neoliberalism, we consider the following:

1. Illusion of choice – The promise of freedom of choice is at the heart of neoliberal ideologies. The problem with this theory is that there is differential access to information, resources and power. Instead, we must question freedom for whom and to what end?
2. Primacy of individualism and individual human rights: Similar to white supremacy, critiques of neoliberalism challenge liberal myths of neutrality, meritocracy, and objectivity. Neoliberalism assumes and has us believe that larger social issues such as poverty and mental health are private, individual issues, that are best solved by the individual, instead of by systems, governments, and the larger society. Neoliberals call for reducing social and economic supports and privatizing state services, accompanied by violent constructions of the poor as undeserving, lazy, immoral, and bad.
3. Prominence of deficit thinking: Individualism also leads to deficit thinking in schooling, the belief that success and failure rest with individual students, families, communities, or educators instead of examining how systems and structures produce and reproduce social stratification along lines of race, gender, gender identity, social class, ability, sexuality, language, and more. Students are therefore encouraged to be more resilient, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and work harder to overcome “individual” barriers.
4. Schools are failing and it is the fault of teachers (Klees, 2020): In addition to blaming individual students, families, and communities, neoliberal systems also identify risk as the perceived failings of individual teachers that are not talented enough to support the needs of each individual child.

By disrupting neoliberal approaches to leadership, we consider several questions:

  • How does a hyper-focus on management, accounting, and reporting, obscure possibilities for leadership?
  • How do top-down, hierarchical models of leadership engender leader–follower relationships that normalize competition, compliance, performativity, docility and subserviency?
  • What does a narrow focus on standardized test scores and narrow pedagogical approaches negate in schooling and leadership?
  • How might a focus on critical democracy encourage students to see themselves as politicized, raced, gendered, historicized, socialized being? How might it influence how schools and schooling addresses notions of difference, recognition, rights, advocacy, solidarity, community and collectivism, anti-oppression and anti-racism?


Barnoff, L., Moffatt, K., Todd, S. & Panitch, M. (2017). Academic Leadership in the Context of Neoliberalism: The Practice of Social Work Directors. Canadian Social Work Review, 34(1), 5–21.

Busher, H., & Fox, A. (2020). The amoral academy? A critical discussion of research ethics in the neo-liberal university. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-10.

Harvey, David (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Klees, S.J. (2020). Beyond neoliberalism: Reflections on capitalism and education. Policy Futures in Education.18(1). 9–29.

Kliewer, B. W. (2019). Disentangling Neoliberalism from Leadership Education: Critical Approaches to Leadership Learning and Development in Higher Education. New Political Science41(4), 574–587.