Here’s my review of Neoliberalism, Media and the Political, by Sean Phelan
The review was published in the journal Cultural Politics 11.3 in November 2015.
An Open Access version is available on this site.
‘On a Critique of Actually Existing Neoliberal Media’
Neoliberalism, Media and the Political, by Sean Phelan, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 256 pages, £60.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-137-30835-1
Book publisher’s webpage: http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137308351#otherversion=9781137308368
The trouble with many critiques of the neoliberalisation of the media is that they tend to be more concerned with disparaging neoliberalism than with trying to understand it. More often than not, the term is invoked cursorily and applied as more of a storytelling device than a formally explicated concept as such (16). And although there may be a political necessity to ‘name neoliberalism’, ostensibly ‘critical’ accounts that offer grand narratives of hegemony, ideology, class interests and the imposition of ‘monolithic’ neoliberalism – as politically effective and important as such accounts may be – only go so far at understanding how the process of neoliberalisation actually occurs.
Taking particular issue with this tendency among media scholars to reduce everything around us to a unitary neoliberalism imposed from outside, Sean Phelan draws upon a diverse range of theoretical sources (though he is most indebted to Bourdieu and Laclau) and a handful of illustrative case studies (Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the US) in order to diagnose the contemporary condition of “actually existing neoliberalism”. Distinct from the political capture of ideological neoliberalism in the 1970s-1980s, this current variant of pragmatic, “post-political” or “post-ideological” neoliberalism, he argues, simultaneously ‘normalizes, while also officially disavowing, a normative commitment to neoliberal policies’ (9).
Limiting the scope of the book to an analysis of the mainstream media of Anglo-American and liberal democratic media systems, and presenting the political rhetoric of the UK New Labour governments (1997-2010) as the exemplar of this “post-ideological” neoliberalism, Phelan looks not only towards UK and US contexts, but to Ireland and New Zealand too. While the latter two countries have been described by neoliberals, at different moments, as model economies to follow, they also offer pertinent examples of the normalization, generalization and internalization of neoliberal logics that Phelan sees as typical of contemporary neoliberalism. And as an Irishman currently based in New Zealand, Phelan is well placed to offer an informed account of the media and political cultures of these less well documented cases.
After a brief overview of the literature on neoliberalism within ‘critical media studies’, distinguishing between critical political economy, cultural studies and Foucauldian governmental approaches, Phelan sets out his own theoretical and methodological approach to studying something called neoliberalism. Following Jamie Peck’s recognition of neoliberalism as a variegated process (34), rejecting the false dichotomy between Marxist and Foucauldian approaches to neoliberalism, and emphasising the relational logic of the social (64), he develops a discourse-based account of neoliberalism. This approach builds on the work of Laclau (and Mouffe) on the idea of the ‘political’ as much as their approach to discourse theory, and mobilises Bourdieu’s field theory as a sociological and theoretical supplement to Laclau (35). His approach is also indebted, to a lesser extent, to Glynos and Howarth’s particular version of discourse theory, as well as their privileging of logics (57), the work of Billig on banal rhetoric, and of Couldry on media rituals.
Instead of over-relying on a reified version of neoliberalism, Phelan argues, it is more productive to see neoliberalism as a series of constitutive, discursive logics; in particular those of market determinism, commodification, individualization, competition, and self-interest (61-62). Rather than replacing, or being imposed, he contends, these neoliberal logics are dialectically internalised (32) and contextually, didactically (57) and hegemonically (64) articulated with other political, social and fantasmatic logics (32; 57).
Through the various case studies, Phelan then illustrates the ways in which such logics are internalised and articulated in different contexts. Arguing that the contemporary media discourse in New Zealand naturalises the assumption that neoliberalism is now a part of the country’s past, Phelan demonstrates, through an analysis of a political news story from April 2011 (the dramatic ‘comeback’ of an explicitly neoliberal politician), the relational construction of identities in both journalistic and political fields (71), and the ways in which neoliberal logics remain contextually articulated in present day New Zealand. In particular, he deconstructs contemporary journalism’s ‘anti-ideology ideology’ (79) as actually inscribed in the more explicit neoliberal ideology of 1980s ‘Rogernomics’ (the derogatory name given to New Zealand’s own brand of Reagonomics, named after Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas). Phelan’s account of the ‘messy and paradoxical’ press coverage in supposedly post-neoliberal times – which would have been obscured and simplified by a more dismissive denunciation of monolithic neoliberalism (72) – manages to debunk claims that New Zealand is now post-neoliberal without having to claim that nothing has changed in the last 30 years.
Critiquing this journalistic tendency to enact an ideologically and politically indifferent stance that is, in reality, ideologically charged (97), Phelan highlights the representation of the economic and social crisis in the work of a particular Irish Times journalist as another example of “post-ideological” neoliberalism. Far from apolitical, Phelan demonstrates how the habitus of the Irish journalist actually embodies basic neoliberal logics, albeit internalised as necessary and neutral rather than recognised as ideological (97). He then extrapolates from this specific example to suggest how the mainstream journalistic habitus identifies with neoliberal logics and internalises pragmatic market determinism (107), even while purporting to remain neutral, and even while ostensibly criticising such logics. And in another chapter, examining the mediation of Ireland as the “Celtic Tiger”, Phelan goes on to explore the role of media rituals and ideology across national and international discourses on this very particular neoliberal formation, drawing on Billig to develop his critique of “banal neoliberalism”.
In his analysis of the press coverage of the Climategate scandal of 2009, he focuses on the antagonistic representation of self-interested scientists embedded in a discourse, originally articulated on the blogosphere and institutionally mediated by the same think-tank infrastructure that facilitated the earlier ascendancy of ideological neoliberalism, typically hostile to politics and the state (132). Although eulogising of the free market was not necessarily explicit, he demonstrates that neoliberal logics of accountability and transparency structured the media representation of the story and the construction of the scientists involved (124), and argues, furthermore, that the scandal cannot really be understood independently of the generative power of neoliberal or rational choice logics, and the anti-political dynamics of neoliberalization (113).
Turning to the rhetoric of press freedom in journalistic criticisms of proposals for press regulation following the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, Phelan focuses on the representation of the state as a threat to (press) freedom, on the development of an anti-politics and anti-collective imaginary, and on the fantasmatic construction of enemies of press freedom. Phelan demonstrates the fragmentary ways in which neoliberal logics are articulated in the contemporary construction of journalistic (tabloid) identities and the absolutist defence of press freedom in a self-regulated environment dominated by a few corporate players (145). Acknowledging the historical coupling of free press and free market imaginaries within liberal thought (156), he nevertheless treats the contemporary rhetoric as a “post-ideologically” neoliberal variation of mid-19th Century arguments for press freedom, addressing the thorny issue of distinguishing neoliberalism from liberalism.
Avowedly, these case studies are more illustrative of the theoretical arguments the author is making than close linguistic analyses, as such (10); the theoretical and methodological approach (merging discourse theory and field theory, but also drawing repeatedly on the political economic, cultural studies and governmental approaches introduced at the beginning of the book) is hardly applied in any programmatic way; and a formal typology of the neoliberal logics discussed is never fully laid out. As the book clearly states, however, it is neither the place for an elaborate account of the theoretical and methodological problems involved in applying some or all of these approaches simultaneously, nor for a detailed analysis of every aspect of the particular case studies that may interest media scholars. Rather, the author’s aim is to understand the sedimented condition of neoliberalized media regimes, and to illuminate those aspects not covered by the typically ‘critical’ denunciation of ‘neoliberal media’, emphasising instead the dialectic interplay between neoliberal and other discursive logics, and interrogating – rather than merely disparaging – the image of a monolithic and imposing neoliberalism. By investigating the relational dynamics (3) between neoliberalism, the media and the political, Phelan aims to identify potential sites of cultural politics within the sedimented logics and immanent rationality of neoliberalized media regimes (7; 190) – the kind of sites that might be missed by more dismissive and potentially less effective, albeit more methodologically consistent and empirically substantiated, critiques (194) – so as to better elucidate the logics that might be politically acted upon in the name of a radically different kind of media and political culture (190).
By interrogating the reductive account of neoliberalism in dominant critiques yet affirming its continued pertinence as an object of critical analysis, and by maintaining a political commitment to critique despite the openness to theoretical nuance and debate, Phelan has managed to produce a book that offers both a valuable contribution to the scholarly understanding of neoliberalization, as well as a timely critique of the pretensions of “post-ideological” journalists and the disingenuous proclamations of “post-neoliberal” politics.