Producing Subjects: A Theoretical Examination of the Effects of Neoliberal Human Capital Theory on Subjectivity and Subject Formation

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Gordon, Paddy (2020) Producing Subjects: A Theoretical Examination of the Effects of Neoliberal Human Capital Theory on Subjectivity and Subject Formation. Research Master thesis, Victoria University.


Producing Subjects is a theoretical examination of the effects of neoliberal human capital theory on subjectivity and subject formation. This thesis analyses how subjectivities are shaped by neoliberalism, considering it as a project that traverses and condenses economic, socio-cultural and political realms. Momentum is building for contesting neoliberalism at an economic level, however its colonisation of other arenas remains under-examined. Via its ‘interpellative arm’, human capital theory, neoliberalism operates at the level of ontology, shaping a ‘common-sense’ worldview that makes it difficult to imagine other realities, let alone collectively produce emancipatory left political projects. After initially outlining some salient features of neoliberal epistemology, I will contrast Marx’s social concept of capital with the hyper-individualist neoliberal concept of human capital. From this theoretical clash we can locate specific effects that indicate the presence of human capital theory in progressive discourse, and thus a ‘progressive subject’ conceived as human capital. I will explore what results politically as neoliberal subjects shape – and are shaped by – progressive political and cultural discourse, recognising always that the relationship between subjects and discourse is complex and dialectical. This exploration involves designing a reading method based on critical discourse analysis, and applying it to two bodies of progressive discourse: the online platforms VICE and Everyday Feminism (EF). This novel reading method establishes a set of markers of human capital theory, and then locates these markers in discourse produced by VICE and EF. The specific focus on progressive discourse as a data source is necessary as I contend that neoliberalism often underpins the thought and action of those who identify as opposed to its political consequences and logic. The reading method produces evidence that supports this thesis’s contention, which is reflected upon at some length in a concluding analysis: many forms of progressive discourse unwittingly reproduce neoliberal norms via the production of a subject as human capital. Indeed, neoliberal human capital theory is a structural determinant of the progressive discourse analysed via this thesis’s innovative reading method. The effects of human capital theory on subjectivity and subject formation — the ontological and epistemological implications of neoliberalism — are therefore far-reaching and profound, and call for urgent theoretical intervention.

Additional Information

Master of Research Practice

Item type Thesis (Research Master thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1399 Other Education
Historical > FOR Classification > 1401 Economic Theory
Historical > FOR Classification > 1608 Sociology
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Keywords neoliberalism; subjectivity; human capital theory; common-sense; subjectivity
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