Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism


Nick Couldry

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    In memory of my mother, Lilian Couldry (1921–2006)


    ‘The thing to avoid, I don't know why, is the spirit of system.’

    Samuel Beckett1

    ‘We can hope for something better than the humanization of the inevitable.’

    Roberto Mangabeira Unger2

    ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When this crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.’

    Milton Friedman3

    Preface and Acknowledgements

    As Milton Friedman acknowledged more than 25 years ago, major crises can precipitate major shifts in thinking.4 In autumn 2008 the world faced a deep financial crisis, the long-term economic, social and political consequences of which are, and will continue to be, most serious. The causes of that financial crisis derive directly from the implementation and normalization of the neoliberal doctrines with which Friedman was so closely associated. While reports of the death of neoliberalism are surely exaggerated, we can at least ask whether a new shift in thinking will now occur. Only, following Friedman's insight, if the ideas that articulate those shifts are ‘lying around’. This book aims to make a modest contribution to that pool of ideas.

    The basis of that contribution lies in affirming the value of voice in response to the parallel crisis of voice that is inseparable from the long ascendancy of neoliberal discourse. Voice as a process – giving an account of oneself and what affects one's life – is an irreducible part of what it means to be human; effective voice (the effective opportunity to have one's voice heard and taken into account) is a human good. ‘Voice’ might therefore appear unquestionable as a value. But across various domains – economic, political, cultural – we are governed in ways that deny the value of voice and insist instead on the primacy of market functioning. Part of this crisis of voice is our own hesitancy in invoking the value of voice to challenge, even identify, such rules as voice-denying. Identifying this crisis and reviewing the resources that might help us think beyond it are the aims of this book.

    The resulting story gains some general interest, I hope, from neoliberal discourse's own pretence to normative universality. However, the story told here could be told in radically different ways, depending on what position in global power hierarchies provides its context, for example from China whose millennia-long centralization of power in the state now meets the more recent rise of a huge Chinese working class,5 or from countries where neoliberal discourse was violently imposed as a condition of multilateral external finance, whether in Latin America6 or (with the added burden of a racist colonial history) in Africa.7

    Instead I am writing this book from Britain. In spite of the obvious limitations, there are some good reasons for telling this story from here. Britain was not only one of the sites where neoliberal doctrine found an enthusiastic home in the late 1970s; it is also one of the developed countries most shaken by the current economic crisis. My reading and writing for this book began in early 2007 but the surrounding context has changed rapidly: a global financial crisis, the emergence of Barack Obama as a credible challenger to the neoconservative regime of George W. Bush, Tony Blair's accelerated resignation as UK Prime Minister in mid 2007. The particular clarity in Britain of neoliberal democracy's contradictions still offers a salutary tale of what is wrong with neoliberalism.

    Thanks to my colleagues in Goldsmiths’ Department of Media and Communications and Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy for providing a congenial home in which to write this book. Thanks to three institutions that hosted me during periods of working on this book: the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Toulouse, University of Toulouse; the Department of Communication, Business and Information Technologies, Roskilde University, Denmark; and above all Barbie Zelizer and the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, my hosts during the fall semester of 2008. Thanks also to two networks from which I have derived regular inspiration: the NYLON doctoral research network led by Richard Sennett and Craig Calhoun, and the Mediatized Stories network funded by the Research Council of Norway and led by Knut Lundby of University of Oslo.

    I am very grateful to Mila Steele, my commissioning editor at Sage, for her enthusiasm and support for the book's project since summer 2007. Among the friends who have given me needed encouragement in the conceiving and writing of this book, I want to single out Henry Giroux, Jeremy Gilbert, Dave Hesmondhalgh, Jo Littler and Clemencia Rodriguez, for support and inspiration over many years; Jeremy Gilbert specifically for a trenchant and timely criticism of an earlier version of Chapter Five; Robin Mansell for inspiring the engagement with economics, and particularly the work of Amartya Sen, that led eventually to Chapter Two; and Sarah Banet-Weiser for the inspiration (even after my manuscript was submitted) of a talk on her latest work on ‘self-branding’. Stephen Coleman, James Curran, Melissa Gregg, Kate Nash, Angela McRobbie and Bruce Williams all generously gave their time to comment on chapter drafts. Thanks to audiences at ANZCA 2009 (held at QUT, Brisbane, Australia), McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada, and Nottingham University, UK, for their responses to earlier versions of my argument. Thanks to colleagues in Australia (Bob Lingard, Jo Tacchi, Tanja Dreher) for alerting me to important references that I might have missed. The responsibility for any remaining errors and confusions is mine alone.

    Chapter Four reproduces material originally published as part of ‘Reality TV, or the Secret Theatre of Neoliberalism’ in The Review of Education, Pedogogy and Cultural Studies (2008) 30(1): 1–13; thanks to Taylor & Francis for permitting this republication. Thanks also to Duke University Press, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., Hart Publishing, Verso, and Faber and Faber for permission to quote copyright material in the book's and its chapters’ epigraphs.

    My deepest thanks as ever to my wife Louise Edwards for her love and support, without which this book could never have been written.

    This is a book not only about voice, but also about what happens when voice is missing or obstructed: the hope of voice can never be separated from the threat of silence. I dedicate this book to the dear memory of my mother, Lilian Couldry who, through her deafness later in life, endured much silence.


    1 Beckett (1975: 8).

    2 Unger (1998: 28).

    3 Friedman (1982: ix).

    4 See note 3. Naomi Klein (2007: 6) uses this quote too.

    5 Qiu (2009).

    6 Unger (1998).

    7 Mbembe (2001: 73–77).

  • Background Note

    Chapter endnotes give bibliographical references only. A few longer background comments are collected here.

    In introducing ‘voice’ in this chapter, I defer until Chapter 5 to the philosophical debates that the term automatically raises from post-structuralist perspectives, including my defence of using the term notwithstanding Derrida's (1976) association of it with a discredited ‘metaphysics of self-presence’. Thanks to my colleague Les Back for alerting me to the wider relevance of Jonathan Lear's work. Charles Taylor's review (2007: 8) of Lear also takes up the invitation of considering applications of Lear's argument beyond the exceptional circumstances of Native Americans.

    This book's argument to some extent runs in parallel with work on voice around development and poverty (Deane 2004; Lister 2004; Appadurai 2004), from which some interesting connections have been made to voice in politics in ‘developed’ countries by Cornwall (2008).

    With regard to the issue of the underlying complex variations of the policy frameworks that, for strategic purposes, I am simply calling ‘neoliberal’, see generally Harvey (2005: chapter 3) and specifically Stephen Ball's study of the transition from Thatcherite ‘neoliberal’ to Blairite ‘post-neoliberal’ or ‘Third Way’ policy in the UK education sector (Ball 2007: especially chapter 9). It is the degree of continuity implied by Ball's term ‘post-neoliberal’ that is my focus in this book. My own use of that term in Chapter 7 will be different.

    For literature debating explanations of the current financial crisis, see Blackburn (2008), Wade (2008), Madrick (2009), Panitch and Konings (2009). A rare insight into arguments behind the scenes on issues of global banking regulation came when The Guardian on 17 January 2009 reported on its front page that in response to Presidents Merkel and Sarkozy, the UK Chancellor Alistair Darling had written to G20 finance ministers saying ‘any clampdown had to start from the belief that markets were a force for good’. The UK government's subsequent weakness in dealing with the issue of banking regulation has confirmed the tight grip that neoliberal thinking has on it.

    Note that, while I find Thomas Frank's account of US market populism and its surprising links to UK New Labour illuminating, I would distance myself from other aspects of his account (for example, his discussion of the supposed politics of ‘cultural studies’).

    The terms ‘ideology’ and ‘hegemony’ require much longer discussion than I can give here. Boltanski and Chiapello retain the term ‘ideology’ but in a sense far from Marx's original sense and closer to the term hegemony (see also Chapter One above). My suggestion – that neoliberalism is both broad hegemonic discourse yet generates offshoots that work more straightforwardly as ideology for specific ends – is, I believe, compatible with their account.

    Behind this chapter's discussion of work lies a major debate on shifts towards ‘immaterial’ and ‘affective’ labour, influenced particularly by Italian theory. While aspects of such debates (the argument that all wage labour is now ‘flexible’ (Virno 2004: 101) and increasingly ‘precarious’) capture an important dimension of neoliberal work cultures, other aspects (the emphasis on ‘affective’, even ‘immaterial’ labour) seem to ignore crucial distinctions between different types of work and work-based power/status (see Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2008), Ross (2008) for critical discussion). Still wider debates about the revolutionary potential of ‘precarity’ as a general identity-category, or of refusing work entirely, lie outside the scope of my argument here; while I accept the importance of the task of finding new ways of producing ‘the common’ (Hardt and Negri 2006: xv; Neilson and Rossiter 2008), I am not convinced that recent accounts of the changing conditions of contemporary labour yet offer a convincing route towards cross-class, cross-continental social organization (see Gill and Pratt 2008: 9–13, 15–17 for useful discussion).

    A recent OFCOM survey of civic-related Internet use (OFCOM 2009) provides a more upbeat assessment of the state of UK democracy than I do, but in my view exaggerates the degree of citizen action online in the UK through its broad definitions and insufficient attention to questions of frequency. The decline of trust in UK politics is, however, part of a long historical trend in Western democracies (Pharr, Putnam and Dalton 2000).

    The chapter's argument about the ‘cultural’ implementation of neoliberal discourse and policy priorities on the ground takes account of important debates in economic sociology on what are the processes that enable the boundaries of ‘the economy’ and practical economic reasoning to be constructed, normalized and occasionally shifted (Barry and Slater 2002).

    In relation to the socioeconomic statistics quoted in the chapter, for the rise in income inequality in the UK, see http://www.statistics.gov.uk, search under ‘income inequality’ (last accessed 29 April 2008); on the geographical distribution of suicide rates, see http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/Product.asp?vlnk=13618, and go to link on Corrected Geographical suicide rates (last accessed 22 January 2009). For international comparative purposes, a useful collation of statistics can be found on the excellent Worldmapper site run by University of Sheffield: http://www.sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/149worldmapper/data_data.xls

    The UK government has attempted to appear more responsive by allowing e-petitions to the website of the Prime Minister (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk). At the beginning of September 2009, that site listed 32,000 rejected petitions, 24,000 completed petitions (each with a response) and 4,500 current petitions. The impact of such petitions on UK politics would appear so far to have been negligible.

    The account of recognition offered in this chapter follows Axel Honneth's (2007) account, rather than Charles Taylor's (1989) account, partly in light of Lois McNay's (2008) recent critique of the latter

    Changing Rooms is no longer on air after a long run; Trinny and Susanna after five BBC seasons was followed in October 2006 by the ITV series Trinny and Susanna Undress. I discuss reality TV in more detail in Couldry (2003, 2004, 2006).

    Another link to neoliberalism from reality television not considered in the chapter is the production cultures that underlie such programmes and their harsh labour regimes (see Grindstaff 2002; Hesmondhalgh and Baker 2008). For a brilliant account of the more extreme atrophy of public culture in neoliberal USA, see Giroux (2008).

    While this chapter considers various philosophical approaches to voice, it makes no claim to be comprehensive, focusing on those which fit best into the broadly political focus of this book. I do not discuss, for example, a recent Lacanian treatment of ‘voice’ which defines it as ‘the material element recalcitrant to meaning’ (Dolar 2006: 15).

    My discussion of the ‘subject in this chapter draws on and develops an earlier treatment which also reviews a range of cultural studies’ writing about the self: see Couldry (2000: chapters 3 and 6). My approach here does not represent the mainstream of cultural studies but has parallels in some other writers, for example Probyn (1993: 17–22); Pickering (1997: 43–45). In a helpful recent essay, Gregory Seigworth (2008) makes interesting links between the recent fashion for Deleuze and Raymond Williams’ discussion of experience, also quoted here.

    In drawing both on Charles Taylor and Pierre Ricoeur on narrative, there is no space here to discuss the difference of emphasis between their two lines of argument. But contrast Taylor (‘because we have to determine our place in relation to the good, therefore we cannot be without an orientation to it, and hence must see our life in story’: 1989: 52) with Ricoeur (‘time becomes human time to the extent that it is organized after the manner of a narrative’: 1984a: 3, emphasis added).

    On Sen, we can apply his theory of capabilities to the distribution of media resources: for pioneering accounts see Garnham (1999), Mansell (2002).

    In emphasizing the human universality of certain forms of life, I am broaching language that post-structuralism, particularly in its anti- or post-humanist strands, has avoided. But once we make this point explicit, there may be other gains, for example the recognition of certain ‘non-relative’ ends of humanity with wider relevance for ethics (Nussbaum 1993), leading us back to Sen's account of capabilities (1999: 24).

    My use of Wittgenstein in the last section of this chapter could no doubt be developed further, and Norval's work here is particularly helpful. Whether, however, we can talk of the historically specific institution of democracy as a ‘form of life’ (Norval 2007: 185), I am not sure, but my argument does not depend on this. I freely acknowledge the broader difficulty of staying with Wittgenstein's minimal vision of what philosophy knows, on which see McDowell (1998: 60–61), discussing Cavell (1976: 52). That difficulty is the point of the vigilance towards our language and rhetoric on which Derrida's version of post-structuralism rightly insists. But Wittgenstein in important ways enables us to go beyond some of the formulations of post-structuralism.

    For an earlier discussion of some of the approaches to voice discussed in this chapter, see Couldry (2000: chapter 3).

    This chapter reaches rather different conclusions from Henry Jenkins’ suggestive account of the political potential of ‘convergence culture’, an account whose broader sociological relevance is limited in my view by its being based largely (as Jenkins, to his credit, admits) on evidence from what small groups of white, middle-class, young, time-rich fans of particular sorts of popular entertainment do (Jenkins 2006: 23).

    My use of the word ‘articulated’ in this chapter is intended to refer to how practices are combined into larger habits and patterns (cf. Couldry, Livingstone and Markham 2007: chapter 4).

    The chapter's discussion of ‘new acts’ for the building of ‘post-neoliberal politics’ is meant only to be suggestive, but it is inspired in part by the more concrete attempt recently of Peter Dahlgren to develop a new, more dynamic model of the elements of ‘civic culture’ (Dahlgren 2003, 2009).

    The chapter's concluding call for ‘another story’ of what democracy is about takes some inspiration from Jacques Derrida's invocation of a ‘democracy to come’ (1997: 306): see Norval (2007: 145–148) for discussion. A difference, however, is that the horizon of action discussed here takes its shape not from the openness inherent to all language (that rhetoric always works to close down), but from the specific organizational failures of our neoliberal past and the specific challenges of a possible post-neoliberal future.


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