Experiment: Explaining neoliberalism from the “wild”
I received this letter from the Nottingham City Council after applying for school busing for my son. I’ve highlighted the part that struck me. Perhaps there is nothing wrong here, or maybe this is one of those statements that suddenly brings the hidden into the light of day.
From a rational perspective, the city council has set the policy for busing eligibility. The student must be more than two miles away from school, and must be attending the closest possible school. This is intended to be as fair as possible while offering a public service. All this sounds completely logical, but realistically, not everyone needs this service and the people who need it the most may not fit the criteria. Setting the rules as if the “playing field” is equal ignores the fact that the people who need this service the most are already at a disadvantage. This views everything as individual choice without any thought of the structural circumstances that affect people.
This is made terribly clear by the phrase “The City Council will not consider a parents/carers social or domestic situation with regards to transport entitlement”. I read that and heard “If you are a single parent, it was your choice, we won’t help. If you are living in temporary accommodations and trying to keep your child in school, it was your choice, you’re not worthy of help. If you are poor and the cost of buses is out of your budget, it was your choice, just walk in the rain, its good for you”.
This is individualism, not individuality, which I think of as more akin to eccentricity. Individualism is valuing the individual over the collective with self-interest as the guiding principle of life. In theory, this kind of stance gives the individual the ultimate freedom over their life, but there is a dark side as well. If we believe that choice and individual freedom are the most important, then any deviations from normal are attributed to the individual. Extraordinarily lucky people say “I did it with my own sweat and tears” and exceptionally downtrodden people are cursed as causing their own misery. With a focus on individualism, we fail to see the structures in place that affect our individual circumstances. Not everything is up to individual choice. Most millionaires come from millionaire families and kids growing up in poverty rarely break out of the cycle.
This example from the Nottingham City Council demonstrates that, even at a small level, the neoliberal focus on the individual has become the prevailing discourse, even around social services. I’ll make a bit of a slippery slope argument here. Considering the struggle to get my son into a school because of the “school choice” movement here, I wonder if this could also happen to getting any school place. A “fair” set of deadlines or expectations would have to be met to gain a spot in a school. Moving your family at the wrong time of year or a change in parent/carer could end up in a student losing their school spot. This kind of individualized view of school would see any loss of spot as the individual choice of the parent to not follow the guidelines or not meet the deadlines. The current system is not far off from this.
I think many people see individualism as freeing, empowering, or fair but I wonder if we are just becoming blind to the other side of the issue. If I hadn’t been studying exactly this sort of issue, I fear that the highlighted section of this letter wouldn’t have struck me as odd in any way.