Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Neoliberal Discourses: Toward a Deeper Understanding and a Global Latino Education

  • Luis Mirón
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_528


David Harvey, the political economist and geographer, has written that neoliberalism is not a recent social phenomenon, dating at least to the policy eras of Thatcher/Reagan in the 1980s. Although not explicitly suggesting that the current fascination with neoliberalism is linked to the promises and perils of globalization, a close reader of Harvey might reasonably infer this. writings on the subject contextually link neoliberalism as a “hegemonic discourse” to global capitalism or what the author refers to as the world economic system (Mirón 2016; Wallerstein 2011; Featherstone 1990). In what follows this entry hopes to establish that, analytically, globalization and neoliberalism are separate and distinct social-economic phenomena. As such, researchers need to carefully keep these analytic categories separate, keeping in mind that within the social imaginary, they are frequently conflated.

Harvey (2007, p. 146) defines neoliberalism as a “theory of economic practices proposing that human well-being is best advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework….” Furthermore, Harvey asserts that such a framework is characterized by the following: (1) private property rights, (2) individual liberty, (3) unencumbered markets, and (4) free trade. The text below will illustrate these institutional properties of neoliberalism with examples taken from a mini case study of New Orleans’ (see Mirón 1992, 2016) post-Hurricane Katrina. In particular the social analysis focuses upon the intentionality of one social sectors and the reforms they aggressively advanced the semiprivate education sector (or charter schools). First, this encyclopedia entry proceeds with an elaboration of Harvey’s depiction of the social practices and institutional properties (design elements) of neoliberalism and then illustrates these with concrete social practices in the US context – and the consequences for marginal groups left behind in the midst of these two phenomena.

Neoliberal Discourses

At the outset one should note that Harvey’s conception of neoliberalism as a dominating, common sense discourse (“creative disruption”) suggests that State actors, and indeed the State apparatus overall, intentionally exact these discourses to serve specific, dominant class and State interests, for example, political and financial elites, as well as State bureaucrats. These multiple discourses – neoliberalism does not constitute a monolithic, abstract narrative – play out in concrete contexts that restore a perceived loss of “class dominance to sectors that saw their fortunes threatened by the ascent of social democratic endeavors in the aftermath of the Second World War” (2007, p. 145). In the sphere of poststructural discourse practices, this restoration does not proceed overnight. Specific State actors and members of the heretofore disaffected classes launch a hegemonic narrative to accomplish this goal. Put differently, varying actors across the economic sector generally, and within the State apparatus in particular, coalesce to form a hegemonic social movement (Laclau and Mouffe 2001) to ingrain an everyday, common sense understanding: neoliberalism is “good” for society as a whole. The hegemonic ideology, which elites launch, entails a profound nostalgia over the loss of individual freedoms, allowing State bureaucrats to impose taxes upon middle- and upper-income groups and, in the process, to administer social benefits to lower social-economic groups. A sense of entitlement among the lower classes results purportedly in slowing economic growth and curtailing individual freedom and liberties.

Design Elements

Private Property Rights

Perhaps the single most historically significant design element advancing the restoration of class stature among the groups designated above is the preservation of private property rights. In political-economic terms, the designation of “property” extended, globally, to slaves who provided free labor to subsidize profits in the British Empire, as well as in the antebellum South in the USA. Following the Civil War, in the abstract, slaves no longer constituted the “property” of their plantation-owning masters. In actuality, however, “Free People of Color,” emancipated slaves (Lincoln 1862), or constitutionally protected US citizens, blacks, did not enjoy full rights of citizenship in the USA until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Although the above is an extreme example of the historical context of the concept of private property rights – the entitlement by virtue of global colonization and subsequent auctioning, to purchase and to trade slaves in the USA and globally prior to the Civil War – contemporary practices of “entrepreneurial freedoms” are only slightly less pernicious when situated in local contexts (see below). These hegemonic discourses include the perceived entitlement of the ownership of private space to open new markets and exploit the social-economic space of the Internet for private consumption and profit. In a digital age, what might be branded “consumer slavery” holds the possibility of extending social bondage for a lifetime owing to potential financial losses in the stock market and beyond. The point is that the protection of individual property, when placed in a global economic context, has its historical roots in both modern forms of neoliberalism, as well as in the institution of slavery. Indeed one need look no further than human trafficking/slavery to grasp the reality of modern-day slavery, a practice far astray from Harvey’s concept of (economically centered) entrepreneurial freedoms. The present discourses have roots in the distant past. Both discourses help construct social practices that are connected to globalization, but neoliberalism is a relatively new political-economic category.

Individual Liberty

Doubtlessly, the emotional and materialistically driven protection of private property could not proceed in the absence of the assumption of individual liberty. Taken in its most fundamental terms, individual liberty (or freedom) is the taken-for-granted notion that in a free and open democratic society, individuals – translated: voting, tax-paying citizens – have the legally protected right to live life as she or he chooses – the enjoyment of protection from the intrusion of government. In common sense, everyday terms, “I” as an individual is free to do what I want – provided I do not interfere with another human being’s autonomy and freedom to act as well. What does this mean at the level of social practice?

Across the globe but especially acute in the USA and Western Europe contexts, gentrification provides an apt example. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, the Gold Coast of Chicago, London’s North End, the Mission District of San Francisco, and post-Katrina New Orleans, working-class neighborhoods replete with the lack of affordable housing, public transportation, and amenities such as accessible grocery stores, pharmacies, and, prior to the suburbanization of US cities, retail shopping – all have apparently given way to upscale redevelopment (The “New Urbanism”). Within this discourse practice, economic development means that urban planners and private-public partnerships incorporate design elements including upscale condominiums. For example, in Chicago and Williamsburg, fewer than 1,000 ft2 units can easily range in the $1 million + purchase category. The analysis of gentrification as social practice sheds light on the meaning of individual liberties in the local urban context, which arguably is a direct consequence of “global flows” (Inda and Rosaldo 2008). The two phenomena are linked, although distinct depending on place. And in the mini case of post-Katrina New Orleans, gentrification occurs in the broader context of the downsizing and decline of the public sector (government) under the hegemonic umbrella term of the remaking of the city for the purported benefit of all of its citizens. As the discussion below will illustrate, however, this rebranding may have unintentionally exacerbated inequalities.

Unencumbered Free Markets

Related to the social practice of gentrification, unencumbered markets arise “naturally,” that is, organically, when common sense suggests that strategies to help the economy such as economic development render possible the occupation of market space, heretofore unavailable. The Airbnb entrepreneurial initiative is a prominent case in point. Recently introduced in New Orleans, and now flourishing in the newly opened Cuban housing market, it enables visitors traveling to new destination sites such as New Orleans, Brooklyn, Havana and Shanghai, Singapore, and New Delhi to enjoy hotel-style occupancy at times at rates far lower than the standard in these cities. Clearly Airbnb is both a global economic practice of world economic system (witness the global markets citied above), as well as emerging local social phenomena that are embedded in globalization. Although space does not permit a discussion of the local-global dialectic, suffice to say that in the case of New Orleans (below), the unique local context, arguably, is perhaps a mere reflection of the discourses of globalization, namely, neoliberalism.

On balance, this is a positive aspect of entrepreneurial freedom, as it allows a potentially larger number of travelers to engage in short-term stays (rentals) at lower prices. On the other hand, the wealth that entrepreneurs such as the founders of Airbnb rapidly reap is startling, currently valued at $24B, according to the Wall Street Journal (2015). (It is worth noting that this multibillion company start-up began operations in 2009.) Such profits, computer engineering, and marketing resources are rendered possible only to the top 1% of the economic class spectrum. The rest are left behind, metaphorically “enslaved” through a dilemma: garner the financial resources necessary to enjoy their short-term stay in previously closed international social environments and artistic havens, such as Havana – or stay home. Although theoretically, such a dilemma constitutes freedom of consumer choice, in effect it operates as an ethical quagmire, either reluctant resignation for fear of being denied freedom of mobility or seemingly undue harsh punishments in taking a lonely ethical stand. The choice does not bode equivalent ethical consequences. To live as a global citizen implies, at least temporarily, turning away from the economically downtrodden.

In summary, this cursory review of neoliberalism as “creative destruction” has generally examined the major tenets, or intellectual properties (design elements) in the context of the processes of globalization generally, and the world economic system of capitalism in particular. To repeat, these two concepts, though closely related, are not equivalent: globalization provides the economic context and descriptive processes of capital accumulation for a host of discourse practices embedded in Harvey’s theory. In the paragraphs above, what this author characterizes as the “design elements” of these socially constructed practices are concretely highlighted, thus rendering the possibility that human and political agency can exploit the potential economically constructive aspects for the common good (furthering equity and the equality of social classes). This is best accomplished intentionally, for example, placing progressive constraints upon the displacement of affordable housing owning to gentrification (see Mirón 2016).

In the remainder of this entry, a vignette in the context of post-Katrina New Orleans – universal school choice (charter schools) – serves to capture a social “portraiture” of the distinctive social practices characterizing the centrality of place in the unfolding of actual neoliberalism hegemonic ideology, an unfolding that renders this ideology visible, as well as “disaster capitalism” (Klein 2007). The purpose in analyzing this vignette is to argue that although embedded in globalization, neoliberalism indeed manifests itself locally, at times with staggering unintended consequences as in when societies recovering from disasters such as Haiti, Detroit, and New Orleans. For example, disparities in health outcomes indicate that minority residents in neighborhoods recovering from disaster have an average life expectancy of 57 years, while similarly recovery neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white have a life expectancy of 80 years! This is shocking disaster capitalism in its extreme.

The Privatization of the Public Interest in New Orleans

Following previous writings from this author (Mirón et al. 2015; Mirón 1992) and subsequent theorizing on the effects of hegemonic neoliberal ideology (Kamat 2004), the microlevel social analysis presented below vividly foretells how discourse practices matter. Hegemonic ideologies (Laclau and Mouffe 2001) have material, concrete effects on everyday lived experience. In the case of New Orleans and elsewhere as other scholars have identified (Kamat 2004), public goods such as education and affordable housing are commandeered by State actors and entrepreneurial elites who engage in privatization, a hallmark of neoliberal ideology. Put simply, private interests are able to use public goods to further an unrestrained free market, whether the market is the global free flow of goods and services or public education. Clearly, Latinos and other poor people of color, who have previously benefited from public education, are impacted by the move toward privatization in the name of school choice (charter schools and vouchers). For example, in New Orleans, though the Latino population has nearly doubled post-Hurricane Katrina, charter schools do not routinely employ bilingual teachers or guidance counselors (Faust 2016).

A Case for Microlevel Social Theory and Analysis

In New Orleans, there is a congruence of discourse practices that are decidedly neoliberal in character, both in their hegemonic formations and their material (economic) impact on marginalized populations who are already economically hurting from global inequalities stemming from the world capitalist system. The most visible of these is school reform/choice, which in the analysis that follows moves the meta-theoretical abstractions summarized above to the microlevel of everyday lived experience. Moreover, it is an assertion of this entry that without an existential connection to lived experience, macro-level abstractions such as globalization are simply that: unspecified concepts that appear remotely related to ordinary lives. This vignette seeks to bring to everyday life these meta-abstractions.

Universal school choice began in 2005 with the unilateral dismissal of approximately 4,500 classroom teachers, the majority of whom were African-American. Coupled with the governing school board’s dissolution of collective bargaining – in effect, ending insurance coverage, pension benefits, and other labor rights – discursively treated school employees (overwhelmingly black and lower m an example of neoliberalism par excellence.

The Free and Open Educational Marketplace: Exemplifying Privatization of a Public Good

At well over 90% “market share,” the educational landscape in New Orleans constitutes, by far, the largest percentage in North America of independently operated and semiautonomous, charter schools. No city nationally comes close. Its entrepreneurial leaders characterize the neoliberal discourse in the city, which flows directly from neoliberal ideology in the form of the abolishment of traditional neighborhood schools in favor of charter schools that are often located far from students’ residences. Within the configuration of multiple charter schools populating the city, the shared meaning of universal school choice is such that, in theory, any student in the city of New Orleans enjoys the personal freedom to enroll in any public school of her or his choosing. Put simply, place of residence (neighborhoods) need not determine the educational and economic future of the citizens of New Orleans. In the rhetoric of charter school leaders, “students should not be limited by their zip codes.”

Practitioners of school choice have largely realized this ideal. That is to say, by and large, parents and their children enjoy the relative freedom to select schools of their choice, unencumbered by where they live. With few exceptions – and there are significant policy constraints – students may choose from a plethora of school organizational configurations, ranging from the arts, to math and science, to military-style academies. Although families are free to choose any school using the centralized enrollment system, there are a few, highly ranked charter schools that, to date, have opted not to abide by the school enrollment methodology, which is known as OneApp. Indeed the highest performing charter schools admit very few Latinos as they are viewed as in special need of language services and even remedial instruction. These attributes, charter leaders fear, would drag down student achievement.

Lusher Charter School, which enjoys a reputation as one of the highest student achievement rankings in the State, has, along with a few other select high-performing schools, have steadfastedly resisted the centralized open enrollment system, arguing that in so doing it would be forced to lower academic standards. For the most part, however, the OneApp process enjoys success and, while cumbersome to many parents (see Mirón and Boselovic 2015), appears fair and equitable. The majority of white families who participate in the system consistently succeed in landing a school in their list of top three choices. On the other hand, Latinos and families of undocumented Central American immigrants often struggle to navigate the fairly cumbersome application process in a language they have not mastered. Speakers of Spanish are often left behind in the reimagined public school system.

Finally in 2016, most school-level administrators enjoy professional and individual liberties – hallmarks of neoliberal design elements. For example, they can hire and fire school employees at will and setting customized teacher salaries a marked difference from collective bargaining contracts that protected person rights. As a neoliberal discourse practice, autonomy for school-level administrators means the liberty to set their own budgets, unrestrained from the central office, or micromanagement from the perceived corruption of the locally elected school board. Widely known charter operators, such as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), are able to operate mission-driven school organizations, in effect functioning like private schools. They are quasi-private in operations yet remain State funded. KIPP and other charter schools are publicly funded schools whose only accountability is to standardized tests that are used to renew operating licenses. Their mission remains void of the common good in the form of racial equity.


In conclusion, this entry has asserted that neoliberalism and globalization are separate analytical categories, the latter a disruptive hegemonic ideology in Harvey’s conceptualization. Although related, globalization characterizes the economic and social contexts in multiple societies wherein neoliberal discourse practices are embedded. What is needed, this author suggests, is a deeper understanding among marginal groups, especially Latinos, of these complex phenomena. Latinos now constitute the fastest growing population in the USA, its language spoken by nearly 6% of the world’s population. In the vignettes above, Latinos represent one fourth of the student enrollment in suburban New Orleans and, in Orleans Parish (county) proper, approximately double previous levels (Foust 2016). Latino education, thus, is best understood globally, with this population in clear need of both a theoretical understanding of the twin concepts of globalization and neoliberalism. It is only within this paradigm shift that a relevant praxis and politics to address the inherent inequities, and the historical enslavement and racism of minority populations may effectively proceed.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Loyola University New OrleansNew OrleansUSA