Liberalism and Neoliberalism
Summary and Keywords
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.
The term liberalism first gained currency in the early 19th century (Freeden & Stears, 2013) to give conceptual definition to a political philosophy that privileged individual liberty, property rights, and market freedom over mercantilist trade restrictions. Over the course of the 20th century, the concept was “transfigured” into the “most authentic expression” of Western societies, conjoined with democracy under a “liberal democracy” banner (Bell, 2014, p. 704) that was declared the ideological victor of the Cold War (Fukuyama, 1989). The historical origins of the concept illustrate a clear affinity with how the term neoliberalism is now used to signify a market ideology. Yet liberal theories constitute a diverse ideological spectrum that encompasses different understandings of politics, freedom, constraint, ethics, rights, and progress (see Fawcett, 2014; Gaus, 2004; Gaus, Courtland, Shane, & Schmidtz, 2015; Gray, 1986), as well as disagreement over the historical origins of a truly liberal model of governance (Starr, 2007). Liberals disagree, for instance, on the appropriate extent of state involvement in socioeconomic life, on the relation between property and liberty, and on fundamental conceptions of the good and the right. Liberalism is therefore best understood as a “complex, multifaceted phenomenon” that can be conceptualized, among other things, as a “polyvalent conceptual ensemble in economic, political, and ideological discourse,” a “strategic concept for restructuring market-state relations,” and a “recurrent yet historically variable pattern of economic, political, and social organization” (Jessop, 2002, p. 453). It rarely, if ever, exists in pure form, usually coexisting with elements from other discourses, strategies, and organizational patterns (Bell, 2014; Freeden & Stears, 2013; Jessop, 2002). Bell (2014) argues that the “history of liberalism . . . is a history of constant reinvention” (p. 705), exemplified by the shifting genealogies of the concept throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While John Locke’s “foundational role in liberalism is today a leitmotiv of political thought, promulgated by critics and adherents alike” (p. 693), Bell suggests that he was “not widely regarded as a liberal” in either Britain or the United States “until nearly a century after liberalism emerged as an explicit political doctrine” (p. 695).
Generally, liberals see individual liberty as a natural human state; in some conservative and libertarian iterations it is even construed as a God-given right, a sacred principle that comes before any regime of government. When debating any particular topic, there is an a priori assumption in favor of liberty, placing the burden of proof upon those who argue for any form of restriction or prohibition (Mill, 1963, p. 262). Nevertheless, liberals do not necessarily argue that natural freedom should be unlimited, recognizing the potentially chaotic social order that would ensue if all could interfere with all, and the liberties of the strong would suppress those of the weak (Berlin, 1984, p. 17). Thus paradigmatic liberals, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill, were willing to accept that modest limitations of liberty could be justified, while qualified liberals, such as Thomas Hobbes, accepted that even drastic limitations could potentially be legitimized (Gaus et al., 2015).
Liberals have tended to see social freedoms as depending upon two principles: first, that individual rights are absolute, but individual power is not; and second, that frontiers should be drawn “within which [the rights of] men [sic] should be inviolable” (Berlin, 1984, p. 28). The focus is therefore on what Isaiah Berlin famously termed the negative and positive concepts of liberty (Gray, 1980), in contrast to an older, republican concept of liberty (Skinner, 1998), whereby to be free is to not be enslaved, dominated, or subject to the arbitrary power or domination of another. Negative liberty signifies a horizon of private life that must be curbed from public authority: an “area within which the subject . . . should be left . . . without interference” (Berlin, 1984, p. 15). It represents a domain of “freedom from” coercion (Hayek, 1960), whether in the form of prohibitive states, repressive religious strictures, or individuals acting in ways that seek to undermine the freedom of others. In contrast, positive liberty embodies a regime of freedom to, a freedom that is enabling of the subject, where the individual is given the power and sovereignty to challenge “the source of control or interference”’ (Berlin cited in Sandel, 1982, p. 15). Negative liberty is thus an “opportunity-concept” (Taylor, 1979): it captures the opportunities that are already available to individuals within a private realm, and which are safeguarded by a state that assumes the politico-judicial role of ensuring the absence of coercion. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is an exercise concept (Taylor, 1979), whereby an individual is free when they are autonomous and can act reflexively according to their own will. For Berlin, these are not just two different ways of saying the same thing, but “two profoundly divergent and irreconcilable attitudes to the ends of life” (Berlin, 1984, p. 29) at the heart of liberal theory, neither of which can be fully satisfied.
These ideological tensions are evident in the differences between two of the most influential expositors of liberal theory, Locke and Mill (Schuck, 2002). Writing in the 17th century, Locke saw individual liberty as defined through private property, contract, and market—in other words, by individual ownership of economic possessions that could not be arbitrarily usurped by the state. Freedom for Locke amounted to more than absence from external restraint; it also meant living in conformity with a nonarbitrary law (to his left critics, a protocapitalist law) to which the individual had consented. Adapting Locke’s insights to the 19th century, Mill likewise emphasized the importance of negative individual liberty—understood primarily as freedom from the state—and famously stressed the importance of freedom in the domain of speech, press, and choice (Schuck, 2002). However, Mill also departed from a narrow individualist understanding of liberty, by treating individuality and self-interest as the source of social as well as personal well-being. His enlightened conception of citizenship has consequently been referred to as “liberal republicanism” (Dagger, 2002), because of its emphasis on the educative and intersubjective dimensions of active civic engagement, although Mill’s philosophy should be distinguished from Rousseau’s “austere” republicanism, which emphasized the good of the community over that of the individual. Nonetheless, Mill’s embrace of a concept of positive liberty was later critiqued by neoliberal theorists like Hayek (1960), who saw negative liberty as the only politically coherent element of a system of market-based freedoms.
Drawing on the republican tradition in the 18th century, Immanuel Kant connected personal autonomy with political legitimacy to develop the idea of the public use of reason (Habermas, 1989, p. 99). He helped embed liberal assumptions at the heart of Enlightenment thinking about the democratic importance of “the principle of publicity” (Muhlmann, 2010, p. 51); what under the influence of Mill was later codified as a liberal theory of press freedom that made politics a public affair and promised a free market in ideas (Habermas, 1989). Kant broke with Rousseau’s view of public opinion as derived simply from a permanent and consensual assembly of passive citizens, rather than from any critical debate that occurred there. For Kant, it was precisely the rational-critical debate of an enlightened public that could form the basis for public opinion; “human beings” were only constituted as “citizens” whenever they engaged in deliberation concerning the affairs of the “commonwealth” (Habermas, 1989, pp. 106–107). Thus, the concept of the public sphere emerged as a key organizational principle of the liberal constitutional state, with civil society, including the market, established as the sphere of private autonomy. In the sociological conditions that Kant deemed necessary for a public sphere, its dependence upon the social relationships among an elite of freely competing commodity owners and traders was paramount. This took the historical form of a bourgeois revolution that established a sphere of liberal autonomy insulated from the arbitrary power of the state, which was embedded in capitalist mores and practices (Habermas, 1989).
Contemporary liberal theorists continue to debate the importance of autonomy and value to the definition of liberty. Gaus et al. (2015) point out that the positive ideal of freedom as autonomy, as differently articulated by Rousseau, Kant, and Mill, is today sometimes combined with an otherwise distinct but equally positive conception of freedom as the “ability” and “effective power” (Tawney, 1931) to pursue one’s own ends. This latter concept, which insists that an individual who is too poor to do something cannot really be considered free, has profound implications for liberal arguments about the allocation of material resources, and represents a clear point of difference from neoliberal theories of freedom (see Hayek, 1960). Another source of dispute within liberal political philosophy has been the different conceptions of value held by utilitarians on the one hand, and Kantians on the other. Kant argued against an instrumental defense of freedom and rights in favor of an ethical appreciation of the differences between individuals, and an affirmation of individual rights over the general welfare. In contrast, utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill insisted on the greatest good for the greatest number, prioritizing individual rights only insofar as they contribute to the general welfare, thus aggregating rather than judging individuals’ values (Sandel, 1982, pp. 2–3).
Aside from such debates over the very conception of liberty, liberals are also divided over the role of private property and the market. The old or classical liberals of the 19th century not only held that individual liberty and private property are intimately related (Gaus et al., 2015), but even that private property is the only effective means for the protection of liberty, and, further, that all rights are always-already property rights. Although classical liberalism is often associated with free trade, the gold standard, and a libertarian aversion to any form of state intervention, utilitarians such as Bentham (1952) and Mill accepted various forms of state intervention as necessary to alleviate the conditions of the worse-off members of society. Where these two iterations of liberalism largely converged, however, was in presupposing an individualist philosophy, where society was primarily seen as the sum of its individual component parts (Mill, 1963, p. 879; see also Bentham, 1970; Gaus et al., 2015).
However, the so-called new liberals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, figures such as T. H. Green, L. T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson in the United Kingdom and Lester Frank Ward in the United States, went further and challenged the integrity of the links between liberty and property, as well as between individuals and society (see Freeden & Stears, 2013; Gaus et al., 2015). They were emblematic of what Karl Polanyi (2001) described as a democratic countermovement against the harmful effects of free market liberalism, which looked to the state as an enabler of positive freedoms and social progress. This iteration of liberalism questioned the stability of market mechanisms, critiqued the inequality-generating capacities of property rights, valorized the attempts at economic planning by the increasingly democratic and representative Western governments, and stressed the necessity of redistributive programs in achieving social justice (Gaus et al., 2015; Freeden & Stears, 2013). In place of the radical individualism of classical liberalism, a more organic view of society emerged within liberal theory that blurred distinctions between liberal and social democratic philosophies. The development of the mid-20th century’s compromise between capital and labor—as embodied in the New Deal and the Keynesian welfare state—was a defining product of new liberalism’s attempts to re-embed the market within society and under social control (Polanyi, 2001).
The uptake of John Rawls’s work since the 1970s, especially his emphasis on social justice and the links between freedom and equality (Sandel, 1982), illustrates the enduring tensions in the liberal tradition and the contemporary political differences between neoliberals and progressive liberals. Kantians like Rawls distinguish between the right and the good; that is, between a “framework of basic rights and liberties, and substantive conceptions of the good that people may choose to pursue within the framework” (Sandel, 1982, p. 3). Sandel suggests that a rights-based ethic has been institutionally privileged in recent decades, with basic human rights doctrine replacing utilitarian and substantive measures of liberal progress. This has sometimes enabled an internalization of progressive idioms and discourses within neoliberal regimes, as illustrated by right-wing support (at least in some countries) for same sex-marriage, and hybridized identities like “neoliberal feminism” (Rottenberg, 2014). Within this rights-based conception of liberal progress, however, there are fundamental disagreements between egalitarians such as Rawls, who support the welfare state (social and economic rights as well as civil liberties), and economic liberals such as Hayek, who privilege a market economy, based on private property. The hegemony of the latter perspective in recent decades explains the now common circulation of neoliberalism as a name for our current historical epoch, as a mark of difference from the political and ideological heterogeneity of the liberal tradition.
Critiques of Liberalism
Beyond such intraliberal debates, liberalism has been criticized primarily for discouraging political participation, valorizing private self-interest, propagating inequality (Schuck, 2002), and obscuring its ideological particularity behind a “universal philosophy of openness” (Chambers & Finlayson, 2008; see also Connolly, 2005; Mouffe, 2005). In more forceful polemics, it has been denounced for its ideological hypocrisy, as exemplified by the historical complicity of liberal theorists and propagandists with political regimes that legitimized racial chattel slavery and colonial conquest (Losurdo, 2014) and subjugated women (MacKinnon, 1989). Among communication and media scholars, (neo)liberalism has been critiqued for its propagation of a market-based ideology that offers a reductive version of freedom of the press and assembly, and institutionalizes a regime of property rights that casts any form of public intervention, regulation, or ownership as a threat to liberty. In its most triumphant form, press freedom is fetishized as an unconditional right; invoked to defend various rights (the right to offend ethnic minorities, the right to invade the privacy of anyone in the public eye, the right to maintain an ineffectual system of self-regulation) that are nominally conceived as individual rights, but construed by critics as ideological cover stories for unaccountable forms of corporate power.
Foucault’s (2009) lectures on the genealogy of liberal governmentality, understood as a new form of political rationality that appeared in the 18th century (Tierney, 2008), traced the emergence of this idea of “government as a general problem” back to the 16th century. Foucault documented how concepts such as state, economy, and society were increasingly problematized, and the use of statistics and calculation became defining features of a political economy regime focused on governing the “conduct of conduct” (Foucault, 2009; Rose, 1999). For Foucault, liberal governmentality constructs “civil society” as “the necessary correlate of the state,” which begins to be “thought of and analyzed as” a natural element of the social (Foucault, 2009, pp. 349–350; 2010, p. 296). Likewise, freedom acquired a new sense in the 18th century: “no longer [signifying] the exemptions and privileges attached to a person, but the possibility of movement, change of place, and processes of circulation of both people and things” (2009, p. 49). Liberal thought develops a policy of “curbing scarcity by a sort of ‘laissez‐faire’ ethos based on the principle that ‘One always governs too much’—or, at any rate, one always must suspect that one governs too much” (Foucault, 2010, p. 74). According to Foucault, this suspicion of state regulation emerged not out of a fundamental commitment to individual liberty, as liberalism itself claims, but rather from the less noble idea that something called society can be governed by other means (Tierney, 2008).
Following Foucault’s lead, Barry, Osborne, and Rose (1996) treat liberalism less as an epoch or a political philosophy of rights and liberties, and more as an ethos or a rationality of how to govern, which enables different classical, welfarist (or new liberal) and advanced (or neoliberal) variants. Classical liberalism’s supposed separation of state and civil society, and the state’s self-limitation of what domains it can intervene in (private life, the market, etc.), are subsequently interpreted as the recognition that society cannot be penetrated through traditional forms of sovereignty or discipline, but rather necessitates new forms of implicit manipulation. At the same time, liberal governmentality also aims to ensure the existence of a political public sphere for critical reflection upon the state, consistent with the liberal ideology of preserving the autonomy of society from state intervention. Rather than representing a withdrawal of government, therefore, the emergence of the distinctions between public-private and market-state, and the very construction of society as an object of analysis, are understood as a consequence of a “particular problematization of government” (Barry, Osborne, & Rose, 1996, p. 9). Long before the influence of Foucault, Polanyi (2001) articulated a not dissimilar critique of the economic liberalism of the early 19th century. The rhetoric of laissez faire, he argued, obscured a more complex governmental architecture, structurally dependent on the political agency of the state despite the official doctrinal hostility to state intervention.
In addition to revisionist histories of liberalism, critics have drawn on alternative traditions to identify weaknesses or gaps in liberal theory. Communitarian critics, for instance, question Kantian liberals’ priority of rights over good, as well as their privileging of the figure of the free-choosing individual, and develop instead a fuller or thicker account of communal citizenship. Liberals and communitarians differ fundamentally on the question of whether membership of the political community rests on the individual or the community (Delanty, 2002a, 2002b; Walzer, 1994)—a chicken-and-egg type question: which comes first, the individual or the community? While the rights-based ethic developed its account of individual autonomy through a critique of the utilitarian reduction of the individual to the sum of multiple desires, communitarians emphasize the ways in which individuals are constituted in part by their communal affiliations. In contrast to both libertarian liberals, who defend the sovereignty of the private economy, and egalitarian liberals, who defend the welfare state, communitarians are skeptical about the concentration of power in either market or state, and critical of the erosion of intermediate forms of organic community (Sandel, 1982).
For his part, Marx articulated a clear socialist alternative to a liberal-capitalist model of the political community, and liberals have typically been pejoratively represented in Marxist thought and rhetoric (Williams, 1983), not least for their erasure of class differences. In Habermas’s reading of the socialist countermodel and its significance for both media and democracy, public control is extended to the non-property-owning portions of civil society. Autonomy is no longer based on private property, but is founded in the public sphere itself; as he puts it, “private persons [come] to be the private persons of a public rather than a public of private persons” (Habermas, 1989, pp. 128–129). Thus, instead of state citizenship being a function of naturalized property rights, the freedom of private people becomes a function of individuals’ role as citizens of society. As such, the public sphere no longer links a society of property-owning private persons within a state; rather, the autonomous public of citizens secures for itself a private sphere of personal freedoms.
The republican tradition, based on a model of the public realm as a self-governing polis of active citizens, has also proven to be a useful source for critiquing liberal discourses that privilege negative liberty and market-centric freedoms (Pettit, 1997; Skinner, 1998; Viroli, 2002). The liberal model of sovereign power, which confers citizenship rights on a society of private individuals, had its origins in the passive vision of citizenship assumed in the Roman Empire (Weintraub, 1997). The Empire’s autocratic notion of an all-powerful sovereign, premised on a separation of rulers and ruled, has plenty of correlates in other civilizations and in different periods of Western history. Classical moral and political philosophy, however, tended to approach politics from the perspective of a participatory Republic, defining the citizen as one who—in Aristotle’s words—is capable both of ruling and of being ruled (Baehr, 2003, p. xxx). Thus, in contrast to liberals’ and communitarians’ differentiated conflations of citizenship with community membership, republican citizenship entails the active participation and collective decision-making of equal members of a “willed community” (Weintraub, 1997, pp. 12–13).
The recent revived interest in republicanism tends to blame liberalism for the contemporary decline of citizenship and the reduction of politics to the self-interested calculations of the marketplace (Dagger, 2002). Republican critiques of liberalism often bemoan the erosion of true (civic) citizenship in liberal countries—citing the liberal emphasis on individual rights and liberties as causes of a decline in civic virtue—and instead champion a “commitment to the common good and active participation in public affairs” (Dagger, 2002, p. 149). Republicans therefore add to the liberal focus on freedoms and rights a thicker ethical dimension, which sees a vibrant, active polity as a necessary feature of any normative conception of the good society.
Building upon liberal, republican, and Marxist traditions, Jürgen Habermas’s account of the public sphere has been a very influential theoretical paradigm among media and communication scholars in enabling an alternative normative account of media democracy. It has armed proponents of public media and independent media regulation with emancipatory arguments to challenge those of the press freedom absolutists and privatizing marketeers (Collins, 1993). Contrary to liberal narratives of the press that see a history of increasing freedom and progress, Habermas’s analysis of the decline of the public sphere under capitalism is critical not only of press content and behavior but also of the theory of press freedom itself.
Like Marx, Habermas recognized the emancipatory benefits of a bourgeois revolution, which saw the press achieve its freedom from the state, and made politics a public affair. However, by the end of the 19th century, the rise of the press barons and a decline in content standards had already cast doubt upon the democratic legitimacy of a market-based media system as an institutional expression of public opinion. Institutions such as the press had been originally “protected from interference by public authority by virtue of being in the hands of private people” (Habermas, 1989, p. 188). Yet Habermas argued their critical functions were subsequently threatened by “precisely their remaining in private hands” (p. 188), so that, as a result of increased commercialization and concentrated ownership, they have become “the gate through which privileged private interests [invade] the public sphere” (p. 185). As conflicts hitherto considered private emerged in public, the public sphere became an arena of competing private interests. The process of enabling a reasoned public consensus degraded into forms of strategic compromise and manipulation, so that skepticism about the importance of a free press, and the autonomy of its representation of public opinion, grew.
As many scholars have argued (Baker, 2002; Curran, 1979, 1991; Curran & Seaton, 2003; Keane, 1991; Thompson, 1995), the liberal theory of press freedom makes a series of unconvincing assumptions about the status of the press as an expression of public opinion, agency of information, and independent watchdog on power. Because liberal theory conflates freedom of the press with the commercial freedoms of media owners, freedom from state regulation fails to protect the press from the negative effects of market competition and the need to cut costs and boost profits. It also allows media owners to pursue their own private interests (i.e., their speech rights are privileged over all others), and use their power to steer public policies in a market-friendly direction, thus granting them even greater political power in the name of press freedom. Such manifestations of “market censorship” (Jansen, 1991, Keane, 1991) undermine the liberal theory of press freedom, particularly when it is invoked as an unconditional right that annihilates the power differentials between corporate speech rights and the speech rights of (in the best sense) ordinary citizens. From this perspective, the liberal narrative of press freedom masks a new regime of market power, which most suggest has assumed an even more pernicious form in the contemporary neoliberal era.
The elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 are regularly identified as defining moments in the political emergence of neoliberalism (see Harvey, 2005). Narratives of the birth of neoliberalism sometimes cite developments beyond the Anglo-American context, most notoriously the Pinochet regime established in Chile after its coup of the Allende government in 1973 (see Harvey, 2005; Klein, 2007). Yet, the ascent of neoliberal policies and ideology in the 1970s and 1980s had a much longer pre-history, which predated World War II and took a clear institutional form in the postwar era. Neoliberalism was forged in an intellectual atmosphere committed to both a revival of classic liberal ideas and a critical evaluation of the legacies of laissez-faire liberalism (Friedman, 1951, 1962; Hayek, 1944, 1960).
Plehwe (2015, p. 10) traces the earliest use of the term—in the sense now familiar to us—to a 1925 book by the Swiss economist Hans Honegger. Interwar Vienna was a key intellectual site in the embryonic emergence of neoliberalism. The Austrian economist and political philosopher Ludwig von Mises articulated a defense of liberal ideas in light of what he saw as the disparaging view of liberalism cultivated among left-wing intellectuals and the institutionalization of policy regimes that undermined individuals’ economic freedom (see Gane, 2014). A principled commitment to free trade and the free market had to be the cornerstone of any authentic liberal vision, he maintained, contrary to what he saw as the contamination of liberal ideas by socialist and statist doctrines in the work of Mill and others. Like his better-known protégé, Friedrich Hayek, von Mises’s argument in favor of market competition was an epistemological one (see Gane, 2014; Mirowski, 2013; Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015), in opposition to the idea of a centrally planned economy controlled by the state. Market mechanisms enabled adjustments in price that were responsive to the situated knowledge and choices of individual economic actors, they contended, rather than beholden to the illusory, and ultimately dangerous, figure of an all-knowing state.
The argument that the market enabled a more desirable and efficient form of social order centered von Mises’s and Hayek’s participation in the so-called socialist calculation debate” of the 1920s and 1930s (Cockett, 1995; Davies, 2014), where they set out to demonstrate the epistemological incoherence of socialist economics (Gane, 2014). An ideologically diluted version of the same state/market antagonism shaped Hayek’s debates with John Maynard Keynes, which pitched the former’s epistemological confidence in the self-coordinating powers of the market against the latter’s vision of a progressive liberal state that directly intervened in market processes (Cockett, 1995). Hayek’s dispute with Keynes, his then-colleague at the London School of Economics, gave the Austrian School argument a new visibility among intellectual and policymaking elites in 1930s Britain, energized by Hayek’s desire to strategically align his position to what he saw as the best impulses of English liberalism. The wider intellectual interest in reviving the political fortunes of liberalism was illustrated by the participation of Hayek and von Mises in a colloquium in honor of Walter Lippmann in Paris in 1938, convened in response to the French translation of Lippmann’s 1937 book, An Enquiry into the Principles of the Good Society (Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). The term neoliberalism was explicitly used (Plehwe, 2015, p. 13) to describe the attendees’ shared political convictions: their wish to move beyond the problematic separation of market and state in laissez-faire doctrine.
The start of the war in 1939 thwarted the immediate development of a neoliberal identity and program. However, the publication of Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom, in 1944, gave the “new liberal” argument a revived intellectual focus, which directly informed the rhetoric of the Conservative Party at the 1945 British election (Cockett, 1995). Like von Mises, Hayek saw socialist, and social democratic, ideas as embodying a threat to liberal freedoms (Gane, 2014). He stressed the inherently totalitarian logic of socialism because it appeals to collectivist principles that, even when well-intentioned and rationally justified, have coercive effects that undermine individual freedom (Hayek, 1944, 1960). Socialist theorists and politicians invoke a dubious notion of political freedom, he argued, which privileges the liberty of the collective and displaces the political importance of individuals’ economic liberty. Hayek departed from the purer market libertarian script of von Mises (Gane, 2014) and offered more than a blanket condemnation of state intervention in the market. Rather, he formulated the outlines of what would become the defining problematic of neoliberal thought and politics: instead of planning against the market, how might the state plan for the market and institutionalize a social order that supports market norms, practices and subjectivities? (Friedman, 1951, 1962; Hayek, 1944, 1960).
Hayek’s polemical intervention did not have its desired effect on the outcome of the 1945 British election, and Britain embarked on a Keynesian trajectory that would define the postwar epoch (Cockett, 1995). Nonetheless, the publication of The Road to Serfdom (including the subsequent publication of a US edition by the University of Chicago Press in 1945) generated wider interest in reviving liberal economic principles, which crystalized in the establishment of the Mont Pelerin Society in Switzerland in 1947, by Hayek and others, including von Mises, Milton Friedman, Frank Knight, Michael Polanyi (Karl’s brother), and Karl Popper (Cockett, 1995; Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). The society established an institutional space for the incubation of neoliberal thought, which was focused more on winning the long-term “war of ideas” (George, 1997; Rodgers, 2011) against socialism and social democracy, rather than immediate policy victories. The society was selective in its membership and parsimonious in its formulation of a written program (Plehwe, 2015). It enabled the creation of an elite neoliberal class, an assorted membership of academics, politicians, business executives, and journalists who would go on to play crucial roles in the establishment of a transnational network of neoliberal think-tanks that sold neoliberal policies in the media and elsewhere (Cockett, 1995; Hames & Feasey, 1994; Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). This cumulative work prepared the ground for the emergence of different neoliberal regimes in the 1970s and 1980s, which reaffirmed “the virtues of the market and competition” (Beaud & Dostaler, 1997, p. 118). Neoliberal intellectuals and advocates were well placed to respond to the capitalist accumulation crisis of the 1970s, as national economies experienced parallel increases in inflation and unemployment that belied Keynesian assumptions. The election of Thatcher and Reagan incarnated the most state-phobic elements of neoliberal thought, championing the idea of the free market in opposition to the rule of the state, big government, and trade unions. These national shifts were given internationalist and globalist expression in the emergence of the so-called “Washington consensus” (Williamson, 1993), as neoliberal ideas were internalized in the policy prescriptions of international bodies like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization.
Yet, we can formulate quite a different genealogy of neoliberalism if we decenter the Anglo-American context and, like Foucault (2010), consider the neoliberal character of the ordoliberal regime established in West Germany after World War II. In the face of the market triumphalism of the 1980s, Germany’s so-called social market economy was sometimes represented as an ideological alternative to neoliberalism because of its more affirmative view of the state and trade unions. Yet Peck (2010) suggests this obscures the ideological similarities between the ideas embraced by the postwar German state and the policies that gained momentum elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the involvement of some of the architects of the ordoliberal model in Mont Pelerin networks. Ptak (2015) credits ordoliberals with fostering “an early understanding of the important relationship between law and economics” (p. 101) that anticipated the distinct theories of the Chicago School, and which was institutionalized in the establishment of the common European market in 1957. Similarly, the subsequent representation of neoliberalism as a uniquely Anglo-American ideology (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 2001; Lane, 2006) was belied by the fragmentary uptake of neoliberal ideas and policies in France in the 1970s and 1980s (Denord, 2015). The ordoliberal project of reconciling antagonisms between market and state also resonated with the general emergence of a third-way political program in the 1990s and 2000s, which was sometimes explicitly articulated as a political alternative to neoliberalism; indeed, the notion of a third way, or “middle way” (p. 88), was originally part of ordoliberal vernacular (Foucault, 2010). However, to its critics, the third way polices of Blair, Clinton, and others simply embedded the authority of neoliberal rule, and intensified the process of reconstituting the state as an agent of market and corporate rationality (Crouch, 2011). More recently, the logic of the neoliberal state has assumed a more fiscally punitive form in the aftermath of the 2007 and 2008 financial crisis, in the guise of austerity regimes targeting welfare programs that had survived the neoliberal era (Blyth, 2013).
In his account of the “neoliberal thought collective,” Mirowski (2013, 2015) stresses the protean nature of neoliberalism—its openness to diverse articulations that are not reducible to the image of a unitary “free market” ideology or self-contained policy blueprint. Even the Mont Pelerin society was marked by ideological tensions between “the Austrian-inflected Hayekian legal theory, the Chicago School of neoclassical economics, and the German ordoliberals” (Mirowski, 2013, p. 43; see also Davies, 2014; Van Horn, 2015) that sometimes threatened to split the network. Despite once embracing the label (see Friedman, 1951), putative neoliberals rarely avow the term as a marker of political identity; rather, neoliberal ideas have been articulated under different doctrinal headings, such as monetarism, supply-side economics, and rational choice/public choice theory (Beaud & Dostaler, 1997), or in contemporary discourses of the creative city (Peck, 2010), entrepreneurial self (Mirowski, 2013), quantified selfhood (Beer, 2015), national branding (Phelan, 2014), and the sharing economy (G. Hall, 2016). Like the concept of liberalism, neoliberalism is therefore best theorized as a heterogeneous concept—the name for a cultural formation and ideology that escapes easy definition, because of its capacity to adapt to the political context and appropriate the fragments of other political ideologies and discourses. In recent literature, analytical attention is increasingly focused on processes and developments that neoliberalize the social order, against the image of a monolithic neoliberalism that is given undifferentiated expression (Peck, 2010).
Across its variegated articulations, neoliberal regimes are consistent in affirming the value of market competition in different social scales and contexts (the state, the organization, and the individual), and in treating economic efficiency as the primary calculus of public value (Davies, 2014). Political and cultural identification with other value systems is progressively eroded, as illustrated by social regimes—including media regimes—that lose any sense of coherent normative alternatives. Neoliberalism is therefore much more than an economic program; rather, it represents a political and cultural blueprint for constructing the very image of the social presupposed by neoliberal theorists, and reconstituting the very meaning of “liberal democracy” (Brown, 2003). Politics is thus recast in a neoliberal frame—in an antipolitical sensibility that is suspicious of any normative vision that threatens the (politically constructed) autonomy of market reason (Davies, 2014; Phelan, 2014).
Critical Perspectives on Neoliberalism and Media
Media and communication scholars have primarily conceptualized neoliberalism as an economic ideology, system, and formation, often taking their cue from the dominance of a broadly Marxist analysis of neoliberalism across the social sciences and humanities (see Harvey, 2005). Much of the research has been explicitly framed from a political economy/critical political economy perspective (itself a site of theoretical heterogeneity; see Wasko, Murdock, & Sousa, 2011), though shorthand descriptions of neoliberalism as a “free market ideology” have a wider currency in the field. The dominant theoretical account is perhaps better described as quasi-Marxist, because of its manifestation as a general critique of neoliberal capitalism that lacks the doctrinal force of earlier Marxist critiques of liberal-capitalist media (see Garland & Harper, 2012).
Political economy researchers treat neoliberalism as a particular regime of capital based on a reconstitution of the relationship between market, state, and labor (see, e.g., Andersson, 2012; Briziarelli, 2014; Cammaerts & Calabrese, 2011; Fenton, 2011; Freedman, 2014; Hope, 2012; McChesney, 2012; Peck, 2015; Roberts, 2014). Serving the market becomes paramount, the state is recast as its enabler, and flexible, precarious work regimes become the norm in media industries and elsewhere. Neoliberalism signifies an elite-driven social order re-enchanted with the notion of the free market, in a fashion that recalls the laissez-faire liberalism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (McChesney, 1998). It represents the political institutionalization of a more brutal and finance-driven form of capitalist rule (Compton & Dyer-Witheford, 2014), thus signaling a clear historical departure from the comparative social securities and industrial base of the embedded liberalism of postwar Euro-American political economy (Preston & Silke, 2011).
Under neoliberalism, facilitating the “privatization, deregulation, liberalization, and globalization” (Pickard, 2007, p. 121) of markets became the defining principles of state media policy. Governments across the world displayed (and display) an increasing willingness to remove legislative impediments to the commercial objectives of media corporations, especially any progressive policies that upheld a concept of “public service” media in opposition to market forces (Barnett, 2002; Freedman, 2008; Hesmondhalgh, 2013; Leys, 2001). Neoliberal assumptions were also internalized in the governance of media institutions that remained in state-owned hands, illustrating an enthusiasm for market competition equally evident in other public institutions like the university. In extreme cases, the principles of public service media were effectively abandoned (see Thompson, 2012), as state-owned media operated in a profit-making fashion that rendered them indistinguishable from any other commercial broadcaster.
Neoliberalism has been deployed as a descriptive and explanatory concept in analyses of a diverse range of media topics, including media ownership (Herman & McChesney, 1997), media policy and regulation (Dawes, 2017; Freedman, 2008), media financialization (Compton & Dyer-Witheford, 2014), intellectual property rights (Hesmondhalgh, 2008), news production (Fenton, 2011), infotainment (Thussu, 2007), multiculturalism (Lentin & Titley, 2011), postfeminist subjectivities (Gill & Scharff, 2011), press freedom (Dawes, 2014a), and reality television (Gilbert, 2011). Studies typically stress the detrimental social, economic, and cultural impact of a neoliberal system, where media production is increasingly governed by narrow economic values. In one sense, political economy analysis of neoliberalism follows Marxists’ historical critiques of the complicity of liberal media conventions with the capitalist system. Yet, most scholars highlight how these tendencies have been exacerbated in the neoliberal era. These pressures have intensified further with the emergence of an Internet-enabled system of “surveillance capitalism” (Zuboff, 2015), where everyday media consumption and participation is subsumed into the commodifying logic and mechanisms of digital media platforms like Google and Facebook (Dean, 2009; Garland & Harper, 2012; Robert, 2014).
Political economy analyses of media and neoliberalism are usually underpinned by a critical conception of ideology (see, e.g., Dean, 2009; Peck, 2015; Preston & Silke, 2011). Neoliberalism is conceptualized as the legitimating ideology of a transnational corporate class (Harvey, 2005)—the 1% of the Occupy Wall Street slogans—who own and control the bulk of the world’s wealth, including most of its media resources. This ideology officially consecrates the values of consumer choice, individual freedom, and market competition. But the promise of a market-utopia systematically obscures the conditions of “actually existing neoliberalism” (Brenner & Theodore, 2002), based on corporatized, quasi-monopolistic media structures dominated by a small field of market players (Hope, 2012). Neoliberal ideology is thus equated, in an archetypal Marxist fashion (Eagleton, 1991), with ruling class ideas that mask the real conditions of social life in neoliberalized societies. These ideas are ingrained in the discourses, perspectives, and norms that are privileged in corporate media (Chakravartty & Schiller, 2010). Yet, they are never absolutely dominant because of liberal journalistic values that necessitate some coverage of contrary perspectives (Freedman, 2014).
While (critical) political economy is the name for a specific theoretical approach in media and communication studies (Mosco, 2009), the structuralist impulses of the tradition—as illustrated by the simple use of neoliberalism as a name for the dominant social structure—have been absorbed in the wider literature. All research on neoliberalism can be described, in some sense, as political economy analysis, since no one would argue that the economic aspects of neoliberalism can be analyzed separately from their political dimensions, or independently of their social and cultural dynamics and manifestations. Grounds for theoretical dispute instead arise in different conceptions of the relationships between politics, economy, culture, and society, especially in divergent assessments of the weight and autonomy of the economic explanations that center the political economy tradition.
Considering the historical differences between political economy and cultural studies approaches within media and communication studies (see Carey, 1995; Garnham, 1995; Grossberg, 1995; Murdock, 1995) gives us one route into thinking about the differentiated character of research on neoliberalism. Although the antagonisms between both approaches have waned over time, they had their origins in the attempts to make political and analytical sense of the neoliberal turn (Murdock, 1995). Cultural studies emerged as a theoretical rival to political economy in the crisis atmosphere of 1970s Britain, grounded in the work of Stuart Hall and his colleagues at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies (S. Hall, Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 2013). Hall (1988) sought to develop a critical analysis of the social formation that went beyond the limitations of a Marxist economism, which he argued appealed to dogmatic theoretical formulas about the nature of capitalism over and above any open-ended analysis of the forces at work in a particular historical conjuncture. Birmingham School cultural studies retained a Marxist focus on the political constitution of the social totality, drawing on the then comparatively neglected work of the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, alongside the distinct theorizations of ideology and politics formulated by Louis Althusser and Ernesto Laclau (see Morley & Chen, 1996). The result was a critical approach more attuned to the political and cultural work involved in dynamically making the social order, and less bound to the rigid class-assumptions of orthodox Marxism. The concept of ideology assumed a new theoretical import, no longer equated with a relatively superficial domain of ideas, but recast as central to the social production of forms of neoliberal(ized) subjectivity (S. Hall, 1988). Associated concepts like discourse, text, rhetoric, hegemony, interpellation, signification, subjectivity, and polysemy became staple elements of a new theoretical vocabulary for analyzing media and popular culture, which stressed the capacity of audiences to offer different readings of media representations, against the image of a passive audience overwhelmed by the propaganda of capitalist media (S. Hall, 1980; Morley & Chen, 1996).
Discussions of neoliberalism in cultural studies are therefore marked by a distinct theoretical vocabulary, where its significance as a form of discourse, subjectivity, and—more recently—affect is emphasized (Anderson, 2015; Gilbert, 2011). These concepts are sometimes incorporated into Marxist analytical frameworks (Cloud, 1994; Hearn, 2011; McGuigan, 2015). Yet, their prominence animated the theoretical disputes between media and communication scholars who embraced post-structuralist, postmodernist, and post-Marxist theories, and those who retained a fidelity to Marxist theory. Cultural studies scholars criticized what they saw as political economy’s tendency to see media, culture, and discourse as epiphenomena of economic processes, ultimately of secondary importance to an analysis of capitalist mechanisms and institutions (Grossberg, 1995). Conversely, political economy scholars critiqued cultural studies for spawning its own form of analytical reductionism, where “everything” seemed to be explainable as text or discourse (Garnham, 1995). Hall’s desire to produce a different kind of critical analysis of capitalist societies had, some contended (see Philo & Miller, 2000), produced a media studies orthodoxy that wasn’t interested in talking about capitalism much at all, because of a phobia about the dangers of a totalizing analysis of economic structures that sometimes morphed into glib celebration of audiences’ capacities to resist hegemonic media representations. Philo and Miller (2000) argued that media scholars’ focus on capitalist political economy, and even ideology (see Downey, Titley, & Toynbee, 2014), was displaced by theoretical tendencies that, despite a veneer of conceptual radicalism, were ultimately complicit with the tenets of market pluralism.
It is fair to say that one consequence of the cultural studies turn of the 1980s and 1990s (which had an impact on a wider set of critical interpretative approaches) was a relative break from the Marxist political vocabulary of capitalism and class, in favor of a heightened attention to gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity as loci of identity politics. Yet, critical media and communication scholars have remained focused on analyzing the politics of the social totality (S. Hall, 2011), even if this totality is perhaps now more likely to be called neoliberalism rather than capitalism. Garland and Harper (2012) question the value of this “discursive substitution” (p. 413), because the concept of neoliberalism sometimes presupposes a simplistic state/free market binary that obscures the role of the state in maintaining the capitalist system. Contrary to the assumption that the dominant theoretical account of neoliberalism has been Marxist (see Flew, 2009; Flew & Cunningham, 2010), they argue that critiques of neoliberalism have been too quick to presuppose liberal democratic assumptions, invoking “democracy” as the solution without clearly grasping its co-opted condition in media regimes (see also Dean, 2009). Garland and Harper (2012) valorize the comparative clarity of the “ideological battleground” mapped out in the media and communication studies debates of the early 1980s, when a theoretical division between Marxism and liberal pluralism was the defining antagonism of the field (p. 413). Thus, they suggest that the concept of neoliberalism deflects media scholars’ attention from a more fundamental ideological conflict with liberalism, as the political corollary of capitalist rule.
Foucault’s concept of governmentality has offered an alternative theoretical grounding for critical analyses of neoliberalism, sometimes articulated in opposition to the top-down assumptions of Marxist analysis and the different conceptions of ideology analysis advanced by political economy and cultural studies scholars (Dawes, 2016; Ouellette & Hay, 2008). Foucault (2009) shifted attention away from what he saw as the French left’s obsession with the state as a unitary site of power, and instead toward the ways in which government, as both internal and external to the state, makes possible the redefinition of what is within and outside of the competence of the state; in other words, what is public and what is private (p. 103). The “Anglo School of Governmentality” (Barry et al., 1996, p. 7), associated with the work of Nikolas Rose and colleagues, found in Foucault’s approach a more adequate way of capturing the productive, individualizing aspects of power that make possible a series of positive and tactical interventions, in contrast to the predominantly negative aspects captured by ideology critique. Emerging in tandem with the shift to neoliberalism, or what Rose (1999) preferred to describe as “advanced liberalism,” governmentality scholars sought to understand the character of governmental intervention into the lives of individuals in “liberal” societies, which otherwise ideologically proclaimed the limits of the state and the privacy of the individual (Miller & Rose, 2008, p. 1).
Governmentality scholars argued that Hall’s ideological critique of Thatcherism missed the ethical and technical character of neoliberalism and the ways in which neoliberalism constructively aligns diverse interests (Barry et al., 1996, p. 11). This approach moved theoretical attention away from the abstractions of political philosophy and toward governmental rationality and the close analysis of mundane techniques and technologies for governing social life. Contrary to the notion that an ethos of public service and social welfare no longer plays a pivotal role in the neoliberal way of governance (Miller & Rose, 2008, p. 82), governmental researchers suggest that neoliberalism does not necessarily preclude their continued existence in some iteration—in the form of a politically reconstituted state that retains its sovereign form and takes on new functions. Therefore, rather than simply a rejection of the policy failures of central planning, the neoliberal critique of the welfare state is better appreciated as a critique of the ideals of knowledge and power that these rationalities embody (Miller & Rose, 2008, p. 81). The reduction in welfare state intervention in neoliberal regimes is reconceptualized as less a matter of the state losing its powers of regulation, than the reorganization and restructuring of governmental techniques, and the shifting of competence onto responsible and rational individuals (Lemke, 2001, pp. 201–202). In place of a simple opposition between the individual and the collective, both are recast as moral-responsible and rational-economic actors (Lemke, 2001, p. 201); interlocking scales of a governmentality system that reconstitutes, rather than renunciates, the dichotomies of “public-private” and “state-society” (Lemke, 2001).
Different media and communication scholars have drawn on the governmentality literature to explore the place of media formats, genres, and policies in cultivating a neoliberal ethos of citizenship. Ouellette and Hay (2008) suggest that so-called reality television formats (see also Couldry, 2010; Gilbert, 2011) are best grasped as sites of a “highly dispersed” (p. 473) governmentality for how people should live in neoliberal societies and submit to the performative demands and expectations of the neoliberal workplace (McCarthy, 2007). The subjectivities appealed to in these and other cultural forms—social media, for example (Hearn, 2011)—are traceable to public policy objectives (Sender, 2006), because of how they valorize individualistic, entrepreneurial, and consumerist ways of being, and a perennial quest for self-actualization and self-improvement. Yet, they are also the product of a relatively autonomous interplay of commercial and social forces that can allow for different forms of political agency, and potentially enable “counter-rationalities” (Leistert, 2013, p. 59) to the political rationality of neoliberalism.
Some critical political-economic media scholars, such as Des Freedman (2008), suggest that the reification of neoliberalism as something that is socially dispersed and manifested everywhere risks conflating distinct aspects of neoliberal thought and missing the links between ideas and practices (pp. 42–45). He instead recommends understanding neoliberalism (Freedman, 2008, p. 41) as a range of discourses that legitimate the market, delegitimize the social (Couldry, 2006) and increase social inequality, with the aim of transforming the balance of forces so as to facilitate capital accumulation (Harvey, 2005) and subordinate public institutions to private interests (Freedman, 2008, pp. 223–224).
Freedman (2008) insists on the necessity of a singular conception of neoliberalism, even if he also recognizes the existence of different neoliberalisms. Yet, for Terry Flew, the term’s use has become “sloppy” (see also Grossberg, 2010); it is “routinely invoked to explain everything from the rise of Bollywood-themed weddings to competitive cooking shows to university departmental restructurings” and the propensity to “lapse into a kind of conspiracy theory is readily apparent” (Flew, in Dawes & Flew, 2016). Flew (2012, 2014, 2015) has recently focused on Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism, arguing they offer a much more nuanced understanding of neoliberalism than the Marxist account that, in his view, dominates media and communication research. Likewise, Dawes (2014b) draws on Foucault’s discussion of the differences between neoliberalism and classic liberalism to criticize the “rudimentary readings” (p. 705) of neoliberalism commonly propagated in media studies (see also Dawes, 2016, 2017). Contrary to the image of a simple state-market binary, he suggests Foucault’s work helps us see how neoliberalism is best understood as a particular articulation of state-market relations, where the rationality of the latter is internalized in the policy dispositions and actions of the former.
Finally, Phelan (2014) also interrogates how neoliberalism is used as a “summary label” (Peck, 2010) in communication and media studies, and draws on Laclau and Bourdieu to analyze the different ways neoliberal logics intersect with media and journalism practices. He explores the political and cultural affinities between a journalistic habitus that disavows ideology and a postideological neoliberalism that does the same thing, in contrast to more ideologically strident forms of neoliberalism. Phelan takes the antipathy to socialism and social democracy in neoliberalism as a blueprint for understanding the antagonistic character of neoliberal discourse (see also Cammaerts, 2015), alongside its contradictory manifestation in a looser, third way form. The latter discourse is more easily disavowed as a form of political and ideological commitment, he argues, because of its resonances with the liberal assumptions and reflexes of the journalistic field (see also Jutel, 2015).
Research Possibilities: Liberalism, Neoliberalism, and Critical Communication Studies
As illustrated, the relationship between liberalism, neoliberalism, communication, media, and critique constitutes a complex, heterogeneous, and multifaceted research problematic. It invites questions about the differentiated character of liberal and neoliberal regimes and practices, and the variegated ways both signifiers are conceptualized, used, and attributed in political, media, and scholarly discourse. Below are six interlinked thematics that we think could productively inform future research, especially in illuminating the relationship between our two key concepts, liberalism and neoliberalism. Taken together, they suggest lines of interdisciplinary inquiry for critical communication and media studies that take us beyond the broad-stroke narratives that have shaped how the concept of neoliberalism has been articulated in the field.
First, contemporary critiques of neoliberalism need to avoid simply rehashing an older critique of liberalism, as if neoliberalism signified nothing other than a revival of a 19th-century free market or laissez-faire ideology (Foucault, 2009). Instead, we need to better grasp the political, economic, cultural, and historical specificity of neoliberalism, including its status as a critique of progressive left-liberal discourses and identities (Konings, 2015; Phelan, 2014) that have simultaneously been recontextualized in hollowed out forms (Brown, 2003; Fenton & Titley, 2015; Rottenberg, 2014). Dichotomies of market and state, economy and society, intervention and nonintervention, regulation and deregulation, public and private, consumer and citizen can therefore get us only so far in grasping the nature of neoliberalization (Dawes, 2014b). Rather, as Foucault (2010) and others have suggested (Crouch, 2011; Davies, 2014; Peck, 2010), we need to be attentive to a political economic rationality where the state acts like a market and directly intervenes in the constitution of marketized and individualized forms of sociality, rather than limiting itself to a domain of nonprivate affairs. Therefore, instead of presupposing a unitary ideology imposed on media and communication practices from outside, we need to recognize the immanent rationality of neoliberalized regimes (while also avoiding the little more than glib assertion that “everything” is neoliberal).
Second, researchers need to be alert to the ideological paradoxes and contradictions of neoliberal regimes (Freedman, 2014), including the potential discordances between different neoliberal theories (Davies, 2014; Mirowski & Plehwe, 2015). Crouch (2011) stresses the inadequacy of popular accounts of neoliberalism that reduce it to the terms of a classic liberal confrontation between state and market. The binary obscures how neoliberalism embodies a “corporate takeover of the market” (p. 63), which is partly enabled by the internalization of corporate rationality (Hardin, 2014) within state institutions and public policies. Following Harvey (2005), many communication and media scholars have highlighted the systematic gap between neoliberal theory and practice, where media policies authored in the name of free market competition have spawned oligopolistic and monopolistic media systems dominated by a small pool of corporate firms. Yet, scholars have been slower to recognize that these corporatized structures have been legitimized by Chicago School neoliberals, who take a more sanguine view of private (as distinct from public) monopoly than the early ordoliberals (van Horn, 2015). The trend toward media corporatization therefore offers more than just evidence of the ideological hypocrisy of neoliberalism; it should also focus attention on the different theorizations of market competition within neoliberal thought, and the potential strategic benefits of exploiting these differences in critical analysis. For instance, one under-remarked feature of contemporary policy debates is that the principles of competition, plurality, and diversity in media markets are sometimes as likely to be strategically affirmed by neoliberalism’s critics as its putative proponents (see Hope, 2016; Phelan, 2016). Similarly, neoclassical concepts like market failure can potentially be appropriated to interrogate the limits of market rationality (see Baker, 2002; Pickard, 2015), enabling a mode of critique quite distinct from analytical approaches that represent neoclassical economics as inherently neoliberal. Identifying rhetorical affinities across ideological differences does not belie the possibility of radical democratic articulations of the principles of media diversity and pluralism that go beyond the terms of (neo)liberal discourse (Karppinen, 2008; see further discussion below). However, they do suggest a potential terrain for critiquing neoliberalism that has generally been underexplored in critical communication studies, where putatively neoliberal logics, principles, and idioms are turned against themselves to affirm non-market values and reasons (see, for example, Ferguson, 2009), or where the political place of market mechanisms is conceived in a radically different way (see, e.g., Unger, 2001).
Third, the concept of press freedom offers one especially important illustration of the cultural politics of how (neo)liberal signifiers are differently articulated and institutionalized. Different scholars have noted how the concept of press and media freedom has been neoliberalized (Dawes, 2014a; Fenton, 2011; Phelan, 2014). The shift is symptomatic of how neoliberals have hegemonized the language of freedom, naturalizing a negative conception of it that can be deeply hostile to the notion of the state as an enabler of positive versions. Nonetheless, the historically dominant journalism identity in Anglo-American media cultures and elsewhere (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) continues to be defined by a more open-ended liberal and Enlightenment commitment to the principles of press freedom and free speech, which cannot be reduced to the status of a “neoliberal” commitment. This perspective holds out the hope of reclaiming the idea of press freedom from the excesses of its corporate and marketized appropriation, and a first amendment absolutism that delights in ridiculing the “political correctness” of progressive liberals. It also highlights the need for radical normative and ethical alternatives to the liberal tradition (Freedman, 2014), not to renounce the principles of press freedom and free speech as such (they are never absolute principles; O’Neill, 2002; Street, 2001), but rather to recognize their manifestation in symbolically violent and racist forms that (willfully) annihilate the speech rights of different groups (Dawes, 2015). The urgency of these issues has been captured in recent debates about the need for “safe spaces” on university campuses in the United States and elsewhere, sometimes in opposition to journalism’s assumed authority to report on public events. Left activists interrogate journalism’s liberal universalism, because of its capacity to misrepresent and stymy the political agency of different groups, and misrecognize its own gendered and racialized biases. Conversely, some left-liberals—who might otherwise be sympathetic to activists’ political demands—question the seeming opposition to liberal free speech conventions (see Cooper, 2015; Read, 2015), voicing a critique that takes a more derisory, and sometimes repugnant, form in right-wing and libertarian discourses. However they are approached, these political disagreements are unlikely to be illuminated by analytical frameworks that collapse the distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism. On the contrary, the neoliberalization of press freedom rhetoric needs to be challenged head-on by critical theoretical sensibilities (see, for example, Connolly, 2005) that radicalize the best impulses of the liberal tradition.
Fourth, the question of press freedom prompts general reflection on the condition of liberal democracy in neoliberal regimes (which in turn calls to mind authoritarian forms of neoliberalism that depart from narratives that universalize a liberal democratic transition from Keynesianism to neoliberalism). Wendy Brown (2003) argues (see also Couldry, 2010; Rottenberg, 2014) that the progressive resources and potential of the liberal tradition have been colonized by “a neoliberal political rationality” that “submits every aspect of political and social life to economic calculation” (Brown, 2003, p. 46; see also Brown, 2015). Similarly, Crouch (2004) talks about a post-democratic condition (see also Crouch, 2011), where democratic rituals continue to be enacted and consecrated, but in a spectacle-driven fashion that is indifferent to the participation of most people. Fenton and Titley (2015) consider the implications of these arguments for the normative underpinnings of media studies. They suggest that media and communication scholars have failed to satisfactorily grasp that our default valorization of public sphere deliberation, pluralism, communicative freedom, participation and openness brings with it the “risk of passive consent to neoliberal hegemonies” (p. 568; see also Gilbert, 2014), because of how these liberal democratic ideals (we could also add the ideals of transparency and accountability; see Phelan, 2014) have been “hollowed out” by “market rationality” (Fenton & Titley, 2015, p. 554). Jutel (2015) makes a similar argument in his analysis of the liberal journalistic field under neoliberalism. The “normative universalism” of American journalists’ commitment to notions of objectivity, neutrality, truth and universal reason cannot grasp the political character of the reactionary forces that challenge liberal media conventions, a consequence in part of liberals’ arid conception of “the political” (see Chambers & Finlayson, 2008; Laclau & Mouffe, 2001; Muhlmann, 2010). Freeden and Stears (2013) question the value of universalist discourses that “plac[e] liberalism ‘above politics,” while nonetheless defending the liberal tradition. In place of the abstract and politically neutered codes of Rawlsian political philosophy, they long for an ideologically combative liberalism that is cognizant of its “particularistic dimensions,” for “liberalism, at its political strongest, has always been a creed that is willing to fight against its rivals” (p. 343). These different perspectives on liberal universality bring attention to the question of whether neoliberal reason has effectively colonized liberal democracy, or whether aspects of a progressive liberal inheritance—such as the concept of pluralism (Connolly, 2005; Karppinen, 2008), or even the concepts of individualism and individualization (Bauman, 2000; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Maffesoli, 1996)—might be rearticulated as part of a coherent anti-neoliberal, and anticapitalist politics (Phelan, 2014). They also summon the need for radical democratic theories of media that “begin to pry apart the comfortable dyad ‘liberal democracy’” (Chambers & Finlayson, 2008), and disarticulate the concept of democracy from its hegemonic attachments to the liberal tradition.
Fifth, we need to better illuminate how both liberalism and neoliberalism are articulated as signifiers of political identification and antagonism. Let us consider the point with specific reference to neoliberalism, a concept whose analytical status and validity has been debated in different fields (see Barnett, 2005; Flew & Cunningham, 2010; Grossberg, 2010; Phelan, 2014; Rose, O’Malley, & Valverde, 2006). Instead of simply reproducing the contours of an established debate between those who affirm the analytical value of the concept of neoliberalism and those who question its coherence, critical communication theorists are well placed to decenter the question of conceptual understanding and instead home in on the kind of communicative, discursive, and political work that social actors do when they describe something as neoliberal (or liberal). Such reflexive research becomes especially important as references to neoliberalism increasingly circulate in media and political discourses, where, to stylize the point, it is used to signify an oppressive social order, or is dismissed as a left conspiracy theory. Documenting how the signifier is articulated would still allow us to illuminate how neoliberalism is (mis)conceptualized, sometimes in a cartoonish form that presupposes an ideological identity that is absolutely opposed to the state. But it would also elucidate its place in the staging of contemporary political antagonisms, both in the expression of a collective desire for political alternatives and in a reactionary sensibility that cannot see beyond the horizons of the existing social order or, worse again, that wants to roll back the comparative gains of liberal democracy, as illustrated by the market-authoritarian politics of the Trump administration.
Finally, communication and media scholars can potentially enrich the wider interdisciplinary literature on neoliberalism by clarifying its status as a mediated and mediatized phenomenon (see Phelan, 2014, 2018). The role of media institutions and practices in legitimizing neoliberalism is widely recognized by scholars in different fields. Yet, the argument often takes the form of a basic political economy thesis about the neoliberal priorities and interests of media owners, or the mediatization of social life is represented as a relatively trivial phenomenon; a one-dimensional symptom of ideological capture and spectacle. What is relatively absent is recognition of how neoliberalization is enabled through media representations, processes, and practices (which are, of course, deeply embedded in capitalist political economy) that potentially reconstitute our understanding of what neoliberalism is. One way of approaching these questions is to treat mediated neoliberalism as emblematic of the shift from an abstract doctrinal understanding of neoliberalism to a practice-based focus on “actually existing neoliberalism” (Brenner & Theodore, 2002). Instead of presupposing a generalized caricature where journalists function as cheerleaders of free market ideology (some journalists do, of course), critical attention is focused on the paradoxical and messy ways in which neoliberal discourses and logics are articulated in corporate media spaces (Herman & Chomsky, 1988). This is where the distinction between neoliberalism and liberalism again becomes important, because of the extent to which neoliberal hegemony is mediated by journalists’ ongoing identification with liberal democratic assumptions that are construed as ideologically or politically innocent (see Phelan, 2014). Thus, as Fenton and Titley’s (2015) argument implies, centering media cultures (Couldry, 2003) reproduce neoliberal reason less so by being neoliberal in some narrow doctrinal sense, but through the neoliberalization of a journalistic habitus that is entangled in liberal assumptions and reflexes. The concept of mediated neoliberalism therefore underscores the political significance of journalistic and media practices that often go unrecognized as political, because they embody performative dispositions that are naturalized by journalists and others in media spaces. It also brings into view the discursive and performative affinities between media practices and forms of neoliberal reason that are likewise articulated as postideological and realist (Phelan, 2014; see also Aune, 2001; Fisher, 2009).
Key Texts by Liberal and Neoliberal Authors
John Stuart Mill’s 19th-century treatise On Liberty (1859), which explores the limits of freedom and power and the relation between individual sovereignty and social authority, outlined a utilitarian liberal account of basic individual liberties and the legitimate objections to government intervention. Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958) is an important reference point in clarifying the differences between negative and positive discourses of liberty. Hayek’s 1944 polemic The Road to Serfdom (1944), was a defining text in the emergence of a neoliberal identity, based on a defense of individual economic liberty and a forceful critique of socialism. Hayek developed these insights across a number of books, including The Constitution of Liberty (1960), which elaborated on the role of the state in a free market system. Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom (1962) was a landmark American book in tying the idea of political freedom to the pursuit of economic freedoms. Friedman’s short essay “Neoliberalism and Its Prospects” (1951) gives a succinct account of the political logic of neoliberalism, at a time when the term was avowed by neoliberals themselves. More relevant to media and communications, Ronald Coase’s mid-20th-century critiques of public broadcasting in Britain and America were particularly important, both for the theoretical development of neoliberalism (and its focus on competition) and for the neoliberalization of media policy and regulation. His British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), is perhaps the most significant text.
Critical and Secondary Accounts of Liberalism
Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982) and Liberalism and its Critics (1984) offer definitive accounts of debates internal to liberal theory, as well as critiques of liberalism from communitarian and civic republican perspectives. Foucault’s lectures in 1978 and 1979, on the genealogy of liberalism, published in English in 2009 as Security, Territory, Population, offer a subversive counterhistory of liberal thought. Domenico Losurdo’s aptly titled Liberalism: A Counter History (2014) offers a strong critique of the false universalism of the liberal tradition, which was given foundational expression in the legitimization of racial slavery by many of liberalism’s earliest thinkers and political proponents.
John Gray’s short book, Liberalism (1995, 2nd ed.), offers a useful overview of the liberal tradition, which, like his Hayek on Liberty (1998), significantly reevaluated its assessment of (neo)liberalism across editions. Written for a general audience, Edward Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (2014) presents a wide-ranging overview of the different historical and political iterations of liberalism. Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism (2007) offers a strong defense of the countervailing tendencies of a constitutional liberal tradition, against the doctrinaire antistatism of “laissez-faire” liberalism. Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (2016) offers a rich collection of essays on liberal renderings of empire and settler colonialism.
Critical Accounts of Neoliberalism
David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005) remains a defining text in crystalizing a Marxist, class-based analysis of neoliberalism. Foucault’s lectures of 1978–1979 on the genealogy of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics (2010) have been particularly influential on those seeking a more empirical, less normative account of neoliberalism’s emergence. In recent years, there has been a flurry of excellent historical accounts of the intellectual and institutional development of neoliberal thought, including Jamie Peck’s Construction of Neoliberal Reason (2010), Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion: Reinventing free markets since the Depression (2012), Daniel Stedman-Jones’s Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, and Will Davies’s The Limits of Neoliberalism (2014). Philip Mirowski has been an important figure in bringing attention to the epistemological grounds and trajectories of neoliberal thought. The contributions in his edited volume with Dieher Plehwe, The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (2015), explore how neoliberal ideas and policies were embedded in different national and cultural contexts. Mirowski’s 2013 book Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown examines how the authority of neoliberalism survived the financial crisis of 2007–2008, as does Colin Crouch’s The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (2011).
Critical Communication and Media Research on Neoliberalism
While much media and communication research tends to discuss neoliberalism in a broadstroke, perfunctory, or dismissive way rather than interrogate or engage with neoliberal ideas and the concept of neoliberalism itself, there are significant exceptions.
Des Freedman’s account of media power, as both a material and relational property, leads him to develop a radical approach to the critique of neoliberalism in The Contradictions of Media Power (2014). Building on weaknesses in the liberal pluralist, cultural studies and political economic approaches, and insisting on the need to critique neoliberalism as a particular form of capitalism, the book offers a solid overview of the literature from a Marxist perspective.
Sean Phelan’s Neoliberalism, Media and the Political (2014) draws on the discourse theory of Ernesto Laclau and the field theory of Pierre Bourdieu to examine how neoliberal logics are articulated and materialized in different political and mediated settings, including media politics in New Zealand, Irish austerity, neoliberal nationalism, the “climategate” scandal, and the Leveson Inquiry in the UK press. The book tries to capture the protean character of neoliberal reason and its articulation with a wider set of media and journalistic practices.
In a different vein, Tom O’Malley and Janet Jones’s edited collection, The Peacock Committee and UK Broadcasting Policy (2009), brings together communication scholars and those involved in the decision-making process behind the Peacock Report—the 1986 (Thatcher-commissioned) report into the future financing of the BBC. Mixing historical and critical accounts of neo/liberal economic thinking on broadcasting policy, the book offers a rich and original account of the significance of neoliberal thought to contemporary debates in media regulation, a theme elaborated upon in Simon Dawes’s British Broadcasting and the Public-Private Dichotomy: Neoliberalism, Citizenship and the Public Sphere (2017). Dawes offers a theoretical and methodological engagement with the ways in which concepts such as neoliberalism have been applied by media and communications scholars in the critique of media policy and regulation. By drawing on interdisciplinary debates, and on Marxist and Foucauldian approaches in particular, and by conducting analyses of broadcasting regulatory documents in the United Kingdom, he assesses the appropriateness and efficacy of such applications so as to develop a more nuanced, qualified, and historical critique of the neoliberalization of British broadcasting.
While this article has focused primarily on media research, the impact of neoliberalism has been analyzed across different subfields of communication studies. For example, working within the US-centric rhetoric literature, Jen Schneider, Steve Schwarze, Peter K. Bsumek, and Jennifer Peeples’s Under Pressure: Coal Industry Rhetoric and Neoliberalism (2016) examines the neoliberalized character of the different rhetorical strategies used by the US coal industry to advance its own corporate interests in a context of environmental crisis. And in Neoliberal Health Organizing: Communication, Meaning and Politics (2015), Mohan J. Dutta examines the impact of neoliberal discourses on the governance of health care, highlighting how development projects in different national contexts serve the interests of global capitalism.
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