Liberalism and Neoliberalism
- Sean PhelanSean PhelanSchool of Communication, Journalism, and Marketing, Massey University
- and Simon DawesSimon DawesDepartment of Communication, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines
Neither liberalism nor neoliberalism can be grasped coherently without talking about capitalism and democracy. If liberalism names the political ideology aligned to the historical emergence of “free market” capitalism and Western-style representative democracy, neoliberalism signifies a particular regime of liberalism, capitalism, and democracy that has been globalized since the 1970s, in the form of an active state promotion of market and competition principles that critics see as antithetical to democracy.
Liberalism also can be described as the hegemonic common sense of communication research. The political philosophy and ideology that shaped the establishment and trajectory of American democracy was inscribed in the US-foundations of the field. It was internalized in a teaching curriculum—the vaunted liberal arts degree—that inculcated the liberal reflexes of the professions and institutions that employed communication graduates.
However, for critical communication scholars—all the way back to the Frankfurt School—liberalism has functioned as an exemplary ideological antagonist: a signifier of political values inseparable from the workings and class dynamics of the capitalist system. This interrogatory view of liberalism underpinned the historical distinction between critical and administrative or empirical communication research; the former signified a desire to interrogate the presuppositions of a liberal democratic capitalist social order that were essentially taken for granted by the latter. It also textured the emergence of British cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s, which questioned the pluralist assumptions and motifs of liberal media and journalism cultures.
In contrast, neoliberalism is sometimes constructed as an ideological antagonist of both critical theorists and progressive liberal identities. Marxist scholars conceptualize neoliberalism as a particular historical regime of capitalism, more corrosive and iniquitous than the “embedded liberalism” of the post-war era in Europe and the United States. Similarly, socially progressive liberals criticize neoliberalism for subordinating public life to market forces and for displacing the welfare state commitments of the Keynesian era. Some on the political left collapse the distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism, seeing them as simply two ways of ideologically justifying capitalist rule. Conversely, some of those most likely to be identified as neoliberals are motivated by a deep hostility to political liberals, particularly in right-wing political discourses where liberal operates as code for left-liberal, even socialist, values that are opposed to a free market identity.
Any discussion of the relationship between liberalism and neoliberalism must therefore start by recognizing the contested and nebulous nature of both categories, and their variegated use as signifiers of political identification and disidentification. This article begins by outlining some of the philosophical foundations of liberal thought, highlighting the historical tensions between discourses that privilege economic freedom and those that stress the social character of liberalism. The next section considers different critical perspectives on liberalism, including discussions of the limitations of the account of free speech and press freedom inherited from 19th century liberals.
Neoliberalism’s status is examined as a distinct political project that reshaped Western and global political economy from the 1970s onwards, but which had its intellectual origins in 1920s and 1930s debates about the nature of liberalism and its antagonistic relationship with socialism. Following that is an overview of research on neoliberalism and media, where, as in other fields, neoliberalism is commonly invoked as a name for the dominant ideology and social formation. The penultimate section identifies the outlines of a future research program for critical communication researchers, based on critical interrogation of the relationship between neoliberalism and liberalism. The article ends with an overview of further reading suggestions for those interested in making their own contributions to the field.
The nature of the topic necessitates an interdisciplinary register that moves between general reflections on liberalism and neoliberalism to questions of particular interest to communication, media, and journalism researchers. There is no attempt to refer to all the communication research of relevance to our topic; liberalism’s hegemonic status would make that an impossible task. Liberal assumptions are arguably most authoritative when they are not named at all, but simply presupposed as part of the common sense framing of the research question.