Article: Foucault-Phobia and the Problem with the Critique of Neoliberal Ideology: A Response to Downey et al.


As part of a special section of Media, Culture & Society on ideology and media studies (also featuring articles from John Corner and Sean Phelan), I’ve written this response to an earlier article by John Downey, Gavan Titley and Jason Toynbee. My article’s just been published, and is available from Media, Culture & Society (38.2, March 2016) here:

Alternatively, you can read the version I originally submitted Open Access on this site (below).



Foucault-Phobia and the Problem with the Critique of Neoliberal Ideology: A Response to Downey et al.


Abstract: Among a spate of recent articles addressing the legacy of Stuart Hall’s work on ideology and the media, Downey et al. (2014) have recently argued for the urgent need to recover the key dimensions of Hall’s ideology critique. While affirming the need for an effective critique of neoliberalism, this article takes issue with two aspects of Downey et al.’s article: firstly, their principal claim that ideology critique has been marginalised within the neoliberal academy; and secondly, their flippant dismissal of the benefits of a Foucauldian approach for critiquing neoliberalism and thinking more reflexively about ideology.


Keywords: critique; governmentality; ideology; Michel Foucault; neoliberalism; Stuart Hall


There has recently been a spate of articles in this journal addressing the legacy of Stuart Hall’s work on ideology and the media. Whereas some of them have sought to situate (and revaluate) Hall’s privileging of ideology over experience within the context of debates internal to British Marxism and the humanities (Scannell, 2015), or to link the materialist ‘will to deconstruct’ in his early published and unpublished writings to that of the contemporary critique of social media (Couldry, 2015), John Downey, Gavan Titley and Jason Toynbee (2014) have regretted what they see as the selective reading of Hall’s work in contemporary research, and taken the opportunity to call for a renewed emphasis on ideology critique in media studies.


Referring back to Hall’s classic 1982 essay on ideology in media studies (1988a), the authors argue that despite occasional references to ideology in the literature, the kind of ideology critique advocated by Hall, in which the ideological legitimation of inequality and dominance is revealed, has all but disappeared (2014: 879). Further, they argue that this absence of ideology critique per se, which they see as caused by selective readings of Hall’s account that privilege identity-based politics and/or discourse analysis over a critique of the ideological support of dominance and construction of consent, is ‘indicative of just how dominant […] neoliberal ideology has become’ (2014: 886). Consequently, the authors aim to recover the ‘key dimensions’ of ideology critique, which they take to be the linking of ideology to power, the demonstration of how inequality and domination are obscured through mediation, and the uncovering of two levels of misrepresentation: ‘an account of the social world and the status of that account’ (2014: 880).


The article seems deliberately written to incite a reaction from those, in particular, that they effectively accuse of conducting ‘ideology critique lite’ scholarship. Indeed, the main targets of Downey et al.’s attack would probably be surprised to hear that what they have been doing is not ideology critique. Critical discourse analysts, for instance, tend to perform an ‘unabashedly normative’ (van Dijk, 1993b) form of critique, which often privileges the ‘unmasking’ of strategic language use, foregrounds the connections between language, power (understood more precisely as dominance) and ideology (Fairclough, 1989: 4), and which draws on theories and methods in terms of their relevance to achieving particular socio-political goals (van Dijk, 1993b).


The article also features, however, a more flippant aside that is no less inflammatory. In acknowledging that ideology involves a ‘reality effect’ larger than particular, dominant views, the authors seem obliged to gratuitously drop the conceptual F-word – Foucault – and to distance their narrowly defined form of ideology critique from what they call a ‘depth-less Foucauldian power-knowledge’ approach (2014: 880).


While affirming that there is indeed an urgent need to critique neoliberalism and, for instance, the causes of contemporary social immobility, in this short response to Downey et al.’s claims, I’d like to nevertheless take issue both with their claim that ideology critique is absent from contemporary media studies, and, more particularly, with their flippant dismissal of Foucault and a Foucauldian approach to critiquing neoliberalism. I do not dare to take on the task of trying to convert Foucault sceptics to the Foucauldian cause, or to use this space to mark my own territory and defend the broadly Foucauldian approach that I adopt over that of others; nor do I wish to suggest that I have anything other than respect for these authors and their work. What I would like to do, however, is highlight and critique the banal Foucault-phobia that I detect in this article, as well as in much of the media studies literature which I find – in contrast to the interpretation of these authors – over-privileges (albeit implicitly) an ideology critique approach to the critique of neoliberalism.



A Hegemonic Approach?


To begin with, the dramatic increase in scholarly references to neoliberalism since the 1980s (Peck, 2013) does little to suggest an academic reluctance to critique it. The commandeering of the term for the purposes of political critique has, however, meant that it has been little more than a convenient bogeyman for commentators on the disempowerment of politics by economics, particularly in the context of market attacks on the welfare state (Gane, 2012: 613). Just as the ‘inflation’ of the concept of ‘ideology’ had become a problem for media researchers in the 1980s and 1990s, ultimately limiting further exploration of the issues it had so productively opened up in the 1970s (Corner, 2001: 532), so the contemporary critical bogeyman of ‘neoliberalism’ has also been prone to inflation (Allison & Piot, 2011; Collier, 2012; Peck, 2013: 17). Such inflationism has been associated with a sampling preference to investigate neoliberalism in ‘sites located at some distance from centres of hegemonic power’ (Brenner et al., 2010: 201), and to contrast such sites with the essential features of a ‘pure variant’ in either neoliberal theory (specifically, the Washington Consensus) or a neoliberal core (invariably, the US). Rather than making this pure variant an object of analysis, however, such studies tend to presume its essential features, suggesting that it is only once neoliberal theory and practice is implemented that it becomes a proper subject of inquiry (Hilgers, 2011: 351).


But despite the abundance of the term in the academic literature, authors rarely explain what is meant by the term, assuming instead a commonsensically shared understanding of what is evoked. When greater specification is provided, neoliberalism’s essential features are ‘variously described, but always include’ (Ferguson, 2009: 170): consumer choice (Harvey, 2007: 42); private ownership and property rights, free trade, free markets, privatisation, and state withdrawal from social provision (Harvey, 2007: 2); deregulation, the restriction of state intervention, opposition to collectivism, emphasis on individual responsibility and a belief that economic growth leads to development (Hilgers, 2011: 352); valorisation of private enterprise over the state, tariff elimination, currency deregulation and enterprise models that run the state like a business (Peck, 2008); a logic of ‘DIP (deregulation, individualisation, privatisation)’ (Bauman & Rovirosa-Madrazo, 2010: 52); as well as an emphasis on the entrepreneurial self; and the social scientist’s particular bugbear regarding Thatcher’s claim that there is ‘no such thing as society’ (Mirowski, 2013). Emphasis is also placed on the encroachment of market relations into domains previously considered exempt, and on the opportunities such encroachment provides for figures, such as Rupert Murdoch, to not only extend and diversify their commercial media empires, but even to ultimately influence the political process (Harvey, 2007: 34). More broadly, neoliberalism is seen as the reinvention of the classical liberal tradition, expanded to encompass the whole of human existence, whereby the market stands as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and where freedom is recoded to mean anything the market allows (Mirowski, 2013). Other uses of ‘neoliberalism’ see it as shorthand for a new era of capitalism in more speculative times, or as an abstract and external causal force, often little more than a ‘sloppy synonym’ for capitalism or the world economy and its inequalities (Ferguson, 2009: 171). Indeed, some have warned of the problem of substituting a Marxist class analysis of capitalism with a critique of neoliberalism, accusing such approaches of complicity in the ‘making invisible’ of capitalism (Garland & Harper, 2012).


Confusion can arise, furthermore, from there being ‘so many distinct referents for the same widely used term’, leading to shallow analyses (that don’t really say much) as well as ineffectual politics (that is reduced to merely denouncing neoliberalism) (Ferguson, 2009: 171). The mechanical reproduction of over-simplifications and unquestioning presumptions ‘should at least give some pause’ (Collier, 2012: 192); but does it substantiate the claim that such critiques of neoliberalism are not proper critiques of neoliberal ideology? This ‘critical’ tendency to use ‘neoliberalism’ a little too loosely and freely, seeing it as a Leviathan (Collier, 2012) that immerses itself everywhere, and denouncing it wholesale without really engaging it as an object of study in its own right, has been located within a broader weakness of the Left to reduce politics to negation and resistance, to the extent that it is often ‘anti-everything’ but rarely ‘pro-something’ (Ferguson, 2009: 167). There are, furthermore, theoretical and methodological weaknesses to a structural and moralistic approach that ignores debates and developments that may challenge one’s own approach; a self-defeating consequence of which may be to also undermine the political efficacy of such critique.


Although it is true that much of the scholarly literature on neoliberalism is not explicitly a critique of neoliberal ideology, as Downey et al. would have it, the tendency for media studies scholars is nevertheless to follow their use of the word ‘neoliberalism’ with a reference to either Harvey (2007) or Hall (1988b, 2003, 2011). While Downey et al. would maybe take issue with the misreading or taming of Harvey’s and Hall’s ideology critiques, what surprises me is that Harvey and Hall should be the first and only ports of call, when there has been such a rich and varied climate of theoretical and methodological debate on how to effectively critique neoliberalism. Ideology critique it may not be; but neither can much of the media studies literature on neoliberalism see a way of critiquing neoliberalism beyond the (dare I say) ‘hegemonic’ paradigm of ideology critique. While Hall himself, for instance, offered an admirably nuanced account of neoliberal hegemony that refused to reduce Thatcherism to a simple phenomenon of ideological class interests, he nevertheless made the ideological impulse of Thatcherism of ‘considerable importance’ (Barry et al, 1996: 11), while refusing to acknowledge neoliberalism itself as anything other than an ideological project.


I agree that despite all the references to ‘neoliberalism’ and even ‘ideology’, and despite abundant citations of Harvey and Hall, there is little to suggest that the majority of authors have explicitly adopted Harvey’s and Hall’s approach to demonstrating how neoliberalism is an ideological and hegemonic project (Hall, 2011: 728; Harvey, 2007: 3) to disembed capital from the constraints of Keynesian interventionism (Harvey, 2007: 11), and to oversee ‘the shift of power and wealth back to the already rich and powerful’ (Hall, 2011: 721; Harvey, 2007: 42). Indeed, I suspect that the lack of critical engagement with Harvey’s and Hall’s approach, coupled with the limited acknowledgment of the wider array of perspectives on neoliberalism, suggests a certain disinterest in treating neoliberalism as an object of study in itself – that is, in understanding what neoliberalism actually is and how it actually works. But whereas Downey et al.’s issue is with the need for a less selective reading of Hall and a more explicit embrace of ideology critique, I would argue for the need to supplement that with a closer reading of alternative approaches, such as those influenced by Foucault’s engagement with both ideology critique and neoliberalism, and for a more critical engagement with the extent to which ideology critique and other approaches can be compatible.



Foucault’s Problem with Ideology Critique


There is little appetite in British media studies, however, for an appreciation of Foucault – I’ve often been advised by well-meaning colleagues to keep up the good work, but drop the Foucault. Whereas the concept of ideology has had an ‘ambiguous heritage’ (Thompson, 1990: 5) in media research – with ‘a good deal of media research’ either taming it or dispensing with it altogether (Corner, 2001: 527) – the ‘ambivalent legacy’ (Curran, 1990: 140) of Foucault in this domain has involved a great deal of ‘critical’ scholars being outright hostile to such an approach; particularly when its adoption leads to what is interpreted as a relativist celebration of commercialism and consumption (Fiske, 1987; Hartley, 1999). Whereas a British critical tradition responded to Thatcherite policies by drawing on Gramsci and Althusser (or Habermas), another tradition evolved in the Southern hemisphere that drew more on Foucault. The two have since become exemplars of opposing approaches to media research, both equally dismissive of the other with few attempts to bridge the gap between them.


However, while Downey et al. call for a ‘more fully worked-out theoretical and methodological approach’ to ideology critique (2014: 883), there seems to be no solution in sight to the problem of the lack of a ‘coherent theoretical scheme that can effectively guide the analysis of the ways in which meanings and values relate to material interests’ (Corner, 2001: 532), and to the ways in which the very concept of ideology critique suggests a ‘theoretically precise grasp of mediation processes that [is] simply not present’ (Corner, 2001: 532). Although critiquing neoliberalism as ideology paints a (conveniently) clear picture of the relationships between doctrine and practices (Cahill, 2012: 177), contemporary neoliberalism is a multi-centred and networked movement with few, if any, fixed points, frustrating attempts to draw a straight line ‘from some fixed ideology to political programs’ (Mirowski, 2013).


The contrasting sociology of neoliberalism that has developed over the past few decades under the banner of ‘governmentality studies’, however, has been motivated instead by dissatisfaction with the broadly Marxist reduction of capitalism to economic relations, of ideology to false ideas that serve ruling class interests, and of power to a falsifier and suppressor of ‘true’ human essence (Miller & Rose, 2008: 2-4). The work of the early ‘Anglo-Foucauldians’ (Barry et al., 1996; Rose, 1999; Miller & Rose, 2008) on the neoliberal assaults on the welfare state focused on the governmental rationalities that emerged during the period. Seeking to understand neoliberalism without recourse to ideology (Miller & Rose, 2008: 4), the authors found Foucault’s approach more fruitful than that of Gramsci or Althusser, and particularly useful for distancing themselves from ‘certain conceptual tools which have a powerful hold over critical thought’ (Rose, 1987: 61), as well as a more adequate way of capturing the productive, individualising aspects of power.


The Foucauldian (genealogical) approach is still about power, power relations and the interests inscribed in them, but genealogy, as a ‘critique of the present’ (in the sense of producing a counter-discourse and counter-history that feeds into resistance), adds analytical techniques that other positions (ideology critique as well as the ‘critical’ approaches to discourse analysis that Downey et al. criticise), do not sufficiently do. Indeed, it is often in the context of the attempt to bridge a critical or ideological approach with a historical and empirical analysis that many scholars (and many that are explicitly Marxist, such as Lazzarato, 2000) turn to Foucault; not as a means of proving critique wrong and embracing the alternative, but of supplementing a Marxist approach and addressing change by reference to the heterogeneity and strategically mobile character of the conflicting forces shaping it. For while the more typically ‘critical’ critiques of neoliberalism, for example, are ‘frequently revealing and insightful’ (Rose, 1987: 66), successful at capturing many of the rationales, motivations and effects of neoliberalism (whether in terms of ideology, hegemony or the withdrawal of the state), they are dependent upon the dualisms of state/market or citizen/consumer that play important roles in constituting liberal-capitalist societies (Lemke, 2001). ‘Ideology’ is helpful but insufficient for expressing the complex relations of power between them (Lazzarato, 2009: 113), as there is no relation of causality, symbolism or representation, but only ‘mutual presuppostion’. This is why, for their critique of Thatcherite reforms, Nikolas Rose and colleagues turned to the history of public-private distinctions to understand liberal and neoliberal governmental rationality, rather than merely echoing the more dominant critiques of privatisation, marketisation and neoliberal ideology. To fragment the present in this way is to be perspectivist rather than relativist, to destabilise traditional approaches (such as ideology critique) rather than to critique or dismiss them, highlighting the ‘historically sedimented underpinnings of particular problematisations’ rather than assuming a grand historical process or singular underlying cause (Barry et al., 1996: 5).


Foucault’s distancing from Marxist theory was admittedly wide-ranging and sweeping, (Fontana & Bernati in Jessop, 2007), ranging from vulgar to academic Marxism, obsessions with class and labour rather than detailed studies of subjects and modalities of class struggle, and fetishisations of ideology and dialectics. He dismissed, in particular, the political-economic critique of neoliberalism that normatively equates it with an extreme form of classical liberalism, arguing that critical accounts of consumption, consumer society and mass society ‘have no value’ in understanding consumption in neoliberal thought (Foucault, 2010: 226). He nevertheless maintained an ‘uninterrupted dialogue’ with Marx (Fontana & Bernati in Jessop, 2007) that suggests more of a ‘tactical alliance’ with Marxism, whereby his opposition to Marxist theory corresponds with his appropriation of Marx’s historical analyses and political-economic concepts (Balibar in Jessop, 2007: 35).


That said, much of the early governmental approach and the literature subsequently inspired by it have, however, been accused of relativism, or at least of lacking any specificity in their understanding of neoliberalism (Wacquant, 2012), while Rose has more particularly been criticised for his preference for the relatively nebulous ‘advanced liberalism’, over-privileging its incoherence as a diverse and contingent assemblage of techniques and rationalities, and confining ‘neoliberalism’ itself to a contingent feature of particular political formations, such as Reaganism and Thatcherism (Dean, 2012). Foucault’s lectures on the subject have themselves been criticised for having neglected an analysis of the earliest period of neoliberal thought in the 1920s, or even of the Mont Pelerin Society (Gane, 2014), and for relying too heavily on secondary French sources for an understanding of German and American arguments (Tribe, 2009: 694).


There is also the recurring accusation that Foucault was somehow an apologist for neoliberalism, which again caused some debate recently (Steinmetz-Jenkins & Arnold, 2015). Earlier this year, Colin Gordon debunked a recent book (Zamora, 2014) that succeeded in rekindling this debate as a mixture of ‘confabulations, misinformation and slurs’ (Gordon, 2015), whilst simultaneously critiquing the wider “attention-seeking claim that Foucault’s thought has become the unassailable, hegemonic discourse of our time, while its Marxist critics are now reduced to marginality within the neoliberal academy” (Gordon, 2015).


I would venture that Downey et al.’s article – defensive about the marginalisation of ideology critique, suggestive about the threat of the Foucauldian ‘other’ – is symptomatic of this very assumption about the state of contemporary academia. Indeed, it is an assumption that clashes sharply with my own experience of a tendency among British media scholars to privilege a view of neoliberalism as an ideology, and to pepper their critique of neoliberal ideology with derogatory digs at a vaguely described Foucauldian approach.



Less Dogma, More Reflexivity


The belated publication in French, and then in English, of Foucault’s lectures on liberal and neoliberal governmentality (Foucault, 2009; 2010) has offered new occasions – not only for a close and critical engagement with Foucault’s concepts, but also for the re-invigoration of the theoretical and methodological debate between ideological and governmental approaches to the critique of neoliberalism.


More recent critical engagement with the history of neoliberal thought has further demonstrated how flawed dogmatic assumptions are (Mirowski, 2009: 434), allowing us instead to see it as a vision of the ‘good society’, within which laissez-faire, deregulation and the shrinking state are far from necessities; rather, the fundamental concern is to reregulate society, marketise government and redefine the state’s role as active producer and guarantor of a stable market society (Mirowski, 2009: 434-436). Similarly, critical engagement with empirical studies of actually existing neoliberalisms around the world suggests that neoliberal techniques do not necessarily go hand in hand with the preservation of ruling class interests, nor are they automatically detrimental to the poor or to the public sphere (Collier, 2011; Ferguson, 2009). Such a critical history of the contradictory ‘origins, tenets and imperatives’ of neoliberalism (cf. Mirowski and Plehwe, 2009; Peck, 2008; Peck, 2010; Stedman Jones, 2012), as well as ‘theoretically informed, and informing, empirical work’, further refine our understandings of neoliberalisation (Peck, 2013: 19).


While the critical instinct of ‘structuralists’ is to reveal the political agency and common project behind ‘economic conditions, state formations and ideologies’, and to establish a critical counterpoint to such a project, ‘non-structural’ approaches propose a ‘different kind of critical reflection on neoliberalism’ that critically probes neoliberal ideas rather than merely denouncing them uncritically (Collier, 2012: 194). Although every approach stubbornly defends its own hard core, auxiliary hypotheses and problem-solving machinery (Lakatos, 1978: 4-5), each tradition also has its margins, and it is at the margins of ideology critique, Foucauldian and other traditions that neoliberalism can be engaged at both theoretical and methodological levels (Springer, 2012). In contrast to the ideology-governmentality binary that exists in English-language media studies between British and Southern hemisphere traditions, there has been much more vibrant engagement with these traditions, and with the extent to which they can be reconciled, in disciplines such as geography, urban studies and sociology. Authors such as Jamie Peck, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner, for example, are among those that have made the most serious attempt to find a compromise between them (Collier, 2012: 188). What is more, the failure of the global economic crisis of 2008 to bring an end to neoliberalism has further prompted reconsideration of its explanatory status, and opened up the possibility of dialogue between various approaches (Peck, 2013: 1).


Grappling – as Hall did – with ‘the perplexities of finding adequate theoretical foundations’ (Scannell, 2015: 9) for the critique of neoliberalism may, actually, pay greater homage to Hall than a dogmatic return to a framework he elaborated over 30 years ago, especially when coupled with a flippant dismissal of his critics and alternative approaches. Further, sensitivity to the theoretical arguments of multiple perspectives, and an attempt to bridge methodological approaches to actually existing practices, can avoid both the elitist, moralist and partisan tendencies of ideology critique, as well as the relativist and agnostic tendencies of some of the more Foucault-inspired studies. Potentially, it could also lead, I would suggest, to a less dogmatic and more reflexive approach, which could ultimately deepen (and make more effective) the critique of neoliberalism.





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