Liberalism and neoliberalism in communications research

My notes on Phelan, S., & Dawes, S.  (2018, February 26). Liberalism and Neoliberalism. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed.   Retrieved 18 Dec. 2018, from

Liberalism and neoliberalism are nebulous categories, used in different ways to identify and disassociate from other identities. Liberalism has long been the hegemonic common sense of communications research while also being the explicit opponent for critical communications researchers, for whom it is a value system inseparable from capitalism. Neoliberalism in contrast is often seen as an antagonistic for both mainstream communications research and critical communications research. But it is complicated by some on the left collapsing the distinction them while some neoliberals are hostile to liberalism, seeing it as a front for left-wing values which are hostile to the free-market economy. The disagreement within these categories makes their meaning even more complex. For instance liberalism have been divided over matters such as the basis for autonomy, the significance of property rights and the legitimacy of state intervention, with the authors suggesting that ‘neoliberalism’ can be understood as “as a mark of difference from the political and ideological heterogeneity of the liberal tradition”  now that a particular form of liberalism has become dominant. As the authors caution, “[l]ike 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”.

These nuances matter because they define the context in which the role of communications in social life are understood and politically evaluated. Conceptual distinctions have knock-on effects in political debates:

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.

Another example is the tendency of some to collapse the distinction between liberalism/neoliberalism and what this means for our capacity to grasp the ‘safe space’ debates surrounding universities:

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.

These political debates in turn influence how conceptual distinctions are contested, as in “the theoretical disputes between media and communication scholars who embraced post-structuralist, post-modernist, and post-Marxist theories, and those who retained a fidelity to Marxist theory” with one side criticising “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” and the other critiquing cultural studies “for spawning its own form of analytical reductionism, where “everything” seemed to be explainable as text or discourse” . The authors end by making six suggestions for future communication scholarship working with the concepts of liberalism and neoliberalism:

  1. “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”
  2. “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”.
  3. “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.”
  4. “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).”
  5. “Fifth, we need to better illuminate how both liberalism and neoliberalism are articulated as signifiers of political identification and antagonism.”
  6. “Finally, communication and media scholars can potentially enrich the wider interdisciplinary literature on neoliberalism by clarifying its status as a mediated and mediatized phenomenon”

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