Katie Heslop discusses ideological hegemony at one of Britain’s most venerable universities and the experience of working class students there.
If someone utters the phrase “Oxford cult,” you probably imagine the infamous Bullingdon Club: future prime ministers snorting cocaine and sipping champagne, all the while doing unspeakable things to the mouths of dead animals. But I want to introduce the idea of a culture that, in my opinion, is far more insidious- primarily because it goes unnamed and unquestioned by students, tutors, and mass media alike. This is The Cult of Neoliberalism.
Despite the stereotype, many Oxford students are quick to distance themselves from the port-swilling ranks of OUCA (the Oxford University Conservative Association), and proudly insist that they aren’t Tories, they are liberals. They despise Brexit and either insult or belittle everyone who voted for it. They attend anti Trump rallies and proclaim that the route to saving our planet is through mass veganism. People are racist or greedy or stupid; the system is none of these things. All political differences can be solved by a portobello mushroom burger and a ‘friendly chat.’ Apparently there is ethical consumption under capitalism, and true morality is achieved through one’s spending habits- ie, purchasing from companies that celebrate Pride month, or those headed by female CEOs (because, girl power!)
In 2018, I pointed out the hypocrisy of those who ardently campaigned against the presence of Steve Bannon at the Oxford Union on the grounds of his political conservatism, yet welcomed Hilary Clinton’s visit to the Sheldonian Theatre with open arms. The problem with the Oxford liberal is that they support aesthetic divergence from the status quo, not material divergence. Clinton is a woman, who (belatedly, I might add) expressed her support for gay marriage, and occasionally makes speeches about the need to reduce carbon emissions. Never mind that she has voted in favour of every American invasion in the Middle East, and had an instrumental role as Secretary of State in the country’s mass bombing of Libya. Never mind that her husband supported the deeply racist Crime Bill while in office. She once said “women’s rights are human rights,” so all is well. She is a socially acceptable face for the ugly reality of the military industrial complex.
The Oxford liberals who support her will go on to secure high paying jobs in London and New York, own multiple properties and push for a version of so called ‘kind capitalism.’ Perhaps they will own their own businesses, and get to personally benefit from the exploitation of workers that is intrinsic to neoliberalism. And they learnt it all, right here in Oxford. Fredric Jameson powerfully stated that capitalism is inherently “self mystifying,” but isn’t Oxford University- or, ‘Oxbridge,’ also best described in this way? The application and interview process, the experiences of white tie balls and formal hall, the daily realities of working in the Bodleian library and attending ‘tutes’ are all, intentionally, shrouded in romantic obscurity. Oxford has been the subject of books, films, and salacious news articles for centuries.
Once a person is granted entrance through the iron clad gates, however, the city’s reality reveals itself to be far more mundane. As a working class applicant who always dreamed of Oxford life, I was surprised to find how many privately educated students are, well, underwhelming. This isn’t to say that they aren’t intelligent people, just that they have been coached and tutored within an inch of their life. They vote Lib Dem and peruse the Fair Trade section at Waitrose like good little liberals. They always say the “right thing.” Their parents have invested in them as if they were commercial products- and, of course, in a sense they are. As rich alumni they will repay Oxford in donations and by sending their children here, and so the cycle will continue as the class divide in Britain and across the world increases.
I often joke to my friends that I experience more ‘red oppression’ at Oxford than I do sexism or homophobia. When I utter the words communism or socialism I am met with mocking smiles or virulent insults. “Yes, Capitalism has its flaws, but there’s really no need to go about dismantling the system that on the whole is our best and only viable option.” Easy to say when you own a mansion in Brighton with an indoor pool, I’m sure. There is a consensus that the youth of today are more radically left wing than ever, but I have (sadly) failed to find this at Oxford. To admit that poverty, racism, etc are systemic problems rather than individual ones would force them to accept their (privileged) place within this neoliberal system. For these students, the statue of Cecil Rhodes is the problem, not a symptom of the problem. They are not actively cruel, but they are actively clueless. For all that PPE students study the abstract nature of the economy, few have ever seriously engaged with a *gasp* working class person.
The liberals at Oxford, like most of their kind, operate in a sphere in which it is normal to attend private school and have access to a trust fund. It is only by drastically altering the applications process, to make working class students like myself the norm rather than the exception, that we can successfully defeat the cult of neoliberalism at the university.