In a Battle for Digital Media Literacy, Scholars Debate 'Liberalism In Neoliberal Times'

by Garret Castleberry

31 August 2017

A cabal of contributors demonstrate how collective efforts to truly achieve a lived understanding of the political theory of neoliberalism are failing at a societal if not global level.
 
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Liberalism In Neoliberal Times: Dimensions, Contradictions, Limits

Abraham-Hamanoiel, Alejandro Des Freedman, Gholam Khiabany, Kate Nash, Julian Petley, eds.

(Goldsmiths Press/MIT Press)
US: Jun 2017

In the expedient era of increased urgency and digital convergence, philosophies elevating neoliberal exchange present a logical if not rational Utopic vision for solving post-global problems. Unfortunately, the term logic can prescribe numerous competing definitions, not unlike the increasingly de-popularized word liberal. Language, as linguists would note, evolves (or devolves in the case of dead languages). Whatever passes for static, in theory, runs the risk of demotion. The same can be said not only of economic conditions, but also the social, cultural, political, and ideological conditions that govern human agents and agencies.

Such is the plight of the contemporary economic status among Western nation states and the US in particular. As political theorists and economists observe, we see these ruptures in the status quo made manifest by movements including the Arab Spring uprisings, Brexit, and the 2016 US Presidential election. Whatever kept things the way they were does not, apparently, keep things the way we want them to be now, or at least, that is the narrative shared across multi-media platforms and public perception. But part of the nagging problem starts with language and definition, or a lack of language in understanding what terms like “liberalism” or “neoliberalism” mean and how they do or do not function as intended.

Deconstructing this messy linguistic paradox of interrelated and yet fragmented terminology is but a fraction of the forceful agenda items set forth by the editors of Liberalism in Neoliberal Times: Dimensions, Contradictions, Limits. This edited volume comprises a meticulous anthology that explores complex global and political issues siphoned into smartly constructed yet easily consumable chapters. The essay collection comes from media scholars experienced in contemporary digital and political journalism, including the editing team of Dr.s’ Alejandro Abraham-Hamanoiel, Des Freedman, Gholam Khiabany, Kate Nash, and Julian Petley. Most contributors are academics with former professional experience, and conversational chapters (including numerous additional contributors) function well as either stand-alone commentaries or as a overlapping dialogic reading experience.

Liberalism’s Blind Eye to Human Rights

Liberalism in Neoliberal Times is broken into strategic units that tackle the afore-alluded to Dystopic issues that plague the struggling would be Utopia of neoliberal philosophy. After the introductory section—which includes a robust contextualization of key terms—Section I tackles the impossible struggle of liberalism’s inability to successfully govern human rights issues. Early entries (see Chapters 3-4) outline an understanding for how competing ideas navigate diverse markets and states rights at the global level of trade. Specific chapters then debate whether these ideologies hold power or not (Chapters 5-7) before Section I shifts into a critique of liberalism’s failure as a pragmatic solvency mechanism.

What works best here and in the book at large is a sense of global scale brought down to the individual level. While chapters do not slow down to anecdotally recall the plights of a Joe the Plumber, authors do wonders by making large, arguably incomprehensible issues simpler for the institutionally illiterate (aka, the voting majority across many nations).

The Progressive Problem of Media Effects and Public Education

Section II shifts into the collective staff’s wheelhouse with a focus on the relationship between liberalism and the media. What works best here (and offers a plus for political science enthusiasts) is the shift in focus from traditional domestic (e.g., US-centric) case studies to those that impact increasingly tumultuous regions like the UK and Western Europe. In peak form is Robert W. McChesney’s entry “Liberalism and the Media” (Chapter 15) assesses the troubled history of “limousine liberals” of the (alleged) past as an “incomplete representation” of what liberalism could be (89). McChesney’s micro polemic, while admittedly “glass is half full”, ends with a shot of rosy nostalgia, advocating those in tow emphasize “the best of the liberal tradition” (93). Jonathan Hardy agrees in the following chapter in his call for “Media Reform” (Chapter 16), and as subsequent entries follow similar thought patterns, the utility of offerings in Section II of Liberalism in Neoliberal Times read like required reading for those subject to digital media naïveté; a post-Brexit Trumpism timeline of the present that cooks the books by double loading definitional meaning into terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

In the penultimate unit, conversations of liberalism’s impalement gravitates toward one of significant grievance, centering on an unspoken but clear through line between “understanding” liberalism and “getting” how media operates; chiefly understood as the role education plays. Section III thus brings the conversation back to center, at least for academics, and instills a bit of virtue ethics that elevate the book’s necessity.

Authors gravitate around the continuing theme of education as modified and manipulated by the movements and motivations in service of capitalism. Priyamvada Gopal highlights the despair felt “When liberals fail to defend academic freedom” (Chapter 23, 147), while Kathleen Lynch criticizes “managerialism in education” (Chapter 25) and how the politically correct aims of neoliberalism ushers in “the inoculation of market values and practices into the regulation and organization of public services” (160). Indeed, the liberal arm of higher education—again noting how loaded terms have restructured public perception of such phrasing from virtue- to vice-laden—feels closer to a philosophical market collapse thanks to overwhelming regime changes toward administrative focus and de-funding movements by state agencies and governing bodies. This book urges that these tangled up conversations continue and intensify. Arguably, it’s the very absence of conversation and cordial disagreement (in favor of fear-mongering and clannish insulation) that leads to the very threats to democracy many perceive to be in motion today.

The Cultural Imperial Double Bind of Neoliberal Logic

Section IV concludes the book’s formal units with a five-chapter deliberative dispute over how far liberalism progresses issues of race or gender. Predictably, progress is observable if only by inches, not miles. Arun Kundnani (Chapter 35) argues the progressive status quo of liberal politics must be “transcended” if racial oppression is to cease. Meanwhile, Deepa Kumar’s short essay pinpoints “Imperialist Feminism” and re-ignites the finger pointing that reminds readers of the subdivisions facing political party in-fighting that can stall ideological line items.

Ultimately, Liberalism in Neoliberal Times is a must-read for the new millennium. The collective volume works to inform without outstaying its welcome. Essays are well sourced but do not overreach. Topics speak to immediate needs and spread in a plethora of concerning directions. Content is accessible for a broad readership and apt for lay readers or undergraduate settings. Yet unlike “word vomit echo chambers” found exploiting audiences across the cable news spectrum, these authors share space without needing to shout at or over one another.

Liberalism In Neoliberal Times: Dimensions, Contradictions, Limits

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