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Competitive Individualism

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Competitive Individualism



by Tom


Table of Contents





The concept of competitive individualism is central to a neoliberal system. In this system there is a prevailing attitude that the individual is responsible for taking care of his/her own needs. Thus, with the onus to succeed being placed squarely on the individual, the state is no longer seen as responsible to provide for any gap in needs that the individual was not able to secure for him/her-self. Individuals work towards economic prosperity in order to ensure their ability to provide various services such as education, health care, and retirement security for example.


Here is a brief video featuring Cambridge scholar, Alan Macfarlane explaining individualism.



“What individualism means and how it developed” (3:11)


Next we get a glimpse into how the concept of individualism was politicized by Thatcher in a speech given prior to her election as Prime Minister of the UK.




“Margaret Thatcher: Free Society Speech (1975)” (1:09)


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Foucault's Governmentality


The famous French philosopher and scholar, Michel Foucault’s theory surrounding governmentality is useful when conceptualizing individualism. Governmentality allows us to think about how we act based on presumed actions of others, we do this within our understanding of out social context (Davies and Bansel, 2007, 248). Essentially, we learn to play a game. We learn the rules, we learn the tricks, we can guess how other players will behave, and we do what we can to get the best result for ourselves. When applying governmentality to the emergence of neoliberal policies we come to something of a middle ground between an organic inevitability of the emergence of neoliberalism and a full fledged conspiracy perpetrated by the wealthy against the lower classes. We can safely assume that people who stood to gain from neoliberal policies have likely promoted them in hopes of personal benefit, but there is no way that they could have “fully comprehended how that [would] play itself in detail.” (Foucault as quoted in Davies and Bansel, 2007, 248). Thus we can conceptually ride some middle ground between a free flowing progression of things that led us to a predominance of neoliberal thinking and policy direction, and a rather intimidating scenario where powerful people have orchestrated our current state behind closed doors. Olssen and Peters (2005) also discuss the emergence of what they call the “self-interested individual,” who is a “rational optimizer and the best judge of his/her own interests and needs, (Olssen and Peters, 2005, 314). Thus we have a confluence of the rationality that Foucault introduces us to with governmentality, and how this can be applied to peoples’ choices with respect to education. 


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Individualism in Education


Robert Doherty explains how competitive individualism as described above relates directly to current education systems observable in a variety of settings. “The market rewards the efficient and productive, with competition overcoming mediocrity and promoting excellence. In order to introduce such pressures, parents were given the right to place their children in any state school that had the capacity to accommodate them… the assumed effect would force poor schools to improve while allowing successful schools to expand… a new educational discourse that reverberated with ideas such as freedom, choice, standards, excellence, tradition and parents’ rights,” (Doherty, 2007, 276).


We also see influences of competitive individualism in higher education as individuals compete for research support in the forms of grants to the individual researcher rather than the host institution, (Dill, 2003, 137). Thus we can also begin to imagine a certain degree of detachment from one’s larger institution or peer group as they pursue personal benefits to advance themselves and their careers.


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Davies, B. and Bansel, P. (2007).  Neoliberalism and education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(3), 247-259.


Dill, David D. (2003).  Allowing the Market to Rule: The Case of the United States. Higher Education Quarterly, 57(2), 136-157.


Doherty, Robert A. (2007).  Education, neoliberalism and the consumer citizen: after the golden age of egalitarian reform. Critical Studies in Education, 48(2), 269-288.


Olssen, Mark and Peters, Michael A. (2005).  Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: from the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Education Policy,  20(3), 313-345.



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