A guided tour through our series on 'liberalism in neoliberal times'

We started the series with the proposition that liberalism is far too important to be left to the ‘liberals'. 38 articles later, what did we find?

Des Freedman Gholam Khiabany Julian Petley Kate Nash
13 July 2015

Almost a year ago, and in collaboration with openDemocracy, we embarked on a project to examine, evaluate and critique liberalism in neoliberal times. As we suggested in our introduction to the series, our aim was ‘to provoke critical engagement with the theories, histories, practices and contradictions of liberalism today, in particular by taking specific contemporary topics as a way of assessing the transformations in, as well as the transformative aspects of, liberalism.’ We are grateful to our contributors and to openDemocracy for their time, intellectual generosity and for lively, engaging and timely interventions that pursued specific contemporary debates to examine liberalism as a combination of liberating and limiting ideas.

One strand of the series focused on human rights. Putting ‘liberalism’ and ‘human rights’ together tends to prompt critique from political theorists.  Liberalism is invoked to justify injustices that are simultaneously made invisible: the oppression of women, colonial adventures, socio-economic inequalities, disciplining disruptive subjectivities.  If human rights are too closely tied to liberalism, justice becomes impossible.  As Ratna Kapur, quoting Gayatri Spivak puts it, while human rights are ‘something we cannot not want’, their progressive potential is limited through too close an association with liberalism.  The critical articles in this series are excellent, and make a brilliant case for why we should remain suspicious. On the other hand, both Basak Cali, writing on the European Court of Human Rights, and Roberto Gargarella, writing on the Argentinian constitution, make a case for the continuing value of political liberalism in relation to human rights. And Monika Krause refuses the link between liberalism and human rights altogether: in a pragmatic sense, perhaps what guides thought and practice on human rights is more concrete examples than ideology?

The second strand took the idea of the  ‘liberal university’ as its main subject of study. Universities, as Joan Pedro pointed out in his wonderful conclusion to our ‘liberalism and education’ strand, were key Enlightenment institutions – predicated on a belief that the pursuit of knowledge might be an end in itself with tremendous benefits to humanity, creativity and economy. Enlightened passions, however, appear to have been drowned out in recent years by the icy calculation of a bottom line that has little time for immeasurable principles like tolerance, equality and universalism. According to John Holmwood, ‘universities no longer function to ameliorate social status and inequality, but are part of the new status order of a renewed patrimonial capitalism.’ Liberal values have been repackaged so that universities tend to function, both in their administration and their output, as service providers to the highest bidders and most lucrative customers.

Articles in the strand have highlighted the failure of liberalism to resist this trend and have pointed to the implantation of a neoliberal logic in the restructuring of higher education across the world. Contributors to the strand have addressed the compliance of academics in their own downfall, the commercialisation of social science research, the virtual disappearance of the liberal arts in a marketised education system, the twisting of liberal principles of free speech to undermine minority voices, the incorporation of universities into a security state as well as the inability of traditions of academic freedom to protect radical voices, like that of Steven Salaita, from persecution by university leaders. The university, it appears, has lost its way and needs extensive re-imagining and rebuilding if it is ever to rediscover a role of critical enquiry and truly original thinking.

The particularism of ‘universal’ claims of liberalism is most visible in relation to two other ‘isms’: sexism and racism. Here, the major ‘exclusion clauses’ that are at the heart of this system of knowledge have been shaped and defined by the very paradox of its own universality. As Arun Kundnani points out in his contribution to the race and gender strand of the series: ‘In the abstract, there’s no reason why liberal principles of individual freedom cannot be applied consistently. And principled liberals have been essential to many struggles against racism and imperialism. But, liberalism is not just a body of ideas; it is also a social force. And, as such, there are structural reasons why liberalism keeps undermining its own ideals.’ While this is a theme that runs through the entire series, it is especially highlighted in this strand.

Annabelle Sreberny, for example, argues that the two key terms of liberal tradition (the people and the public) have come under renewed attack in neoliberal times. However, in her discussion of cultural and political rights and identities, she also states that the gap between the idea and the reality of  ‘we’ is getting ever larger. Milly Williamson reminds us that ‘liberal thought was not aligned with female emancipation or gender equality’ and yet, in recent times, womens' emancipation has been used as a justification for illegal wars. This issue is further explored in Deepa Kumar’s assessment of colonial feminism, which she asserts ‘is based on the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire and has been widely utilised in justifying aggression in the Middle East.’ Kumar’s article generated a response from Meredith Tax which we included in the strand. Tax’s dismissal of historically grounded arguments by Kumar generated two further responses – by Kumar herself and Saadia Toor. Other contributions in this strand tackled the polarising topics of anti-Muslim racism and Zionism. Kundnani, in a widely circulated contribution, refutes the binary division of liberalism versus Islam and suggests that it is not the integration of some people in the system but the system itself that is the problem. Haim Bresheeth then traces the history of Zionism as a liberal ideology and its replacement with a militaristic and racist state.

Finally, the strand dealing with ‘liberalism and the media’ ranged far and wide. Alejandro Abraham-Hamanoeil explained how media monopolies confine freedom of expression in South America. Colin Leys discussed the failure of the British media, and particularly the BBC, to explain the implications of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Des Freedman critiqued ‘muscular’ liberal reactions to the Charlie Hebdo killings while John Steel stressed the importance of moving beyond traditional liberal conceptions of the role of the media in society, which, he argues, are lacking in critical vigour and are too firmly embedded in outmoded conceptions of democracy. Jonathan Hardy, taking the example of Channel 5, demonstrated that neoliberalism infuses modern communications companies not simply in the manner in which they are owned and structured but also in the kind of content which they habitually produce – a situation which will not be changed simply by swapping corporate owners from time to time. Finally Robert McChesney invoked Alexander Meiklejohn and his 1948 work Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government to argue that the actually existing capitalist model for the media has been an abject failure in democratic terms, that a commitment to liberal values also requires a commitment to the establishment of an independent, largely non-commercial media sector, and that any measures to protect freedom of expression, such as the First Amendment in the US, need to be conceived primarily as policy prescriptions for a self-governing society and not as protective legislation for investors in the communication industries.

Contributors to the series may have varied in their assessment of just how useful are  ‘classic’ social-liberal values to the analysis and critique of the media in a neo-liberal age, but they are clearly united in their belief in the need for such analysis and critique, and in their dismissal of the notion that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ can flourish only if the media are left to regulate themselves. Nor are they persuaded that ‘old’ problems will be remedied by the new media: networked communications may have transformed the capacity for messages to be created and exchanged, yet problems of access and control remain as pertinent as ever. Meanwhile issues such as privacy take on ever greater salience, as both state and corporate interests increasingly monitor people’s online lives, demonstrating the way in which the state – for all its protestations about the importance of ‘deregulation’ – and the market can become fatefully intertwined, to the detriment of the citizen.   

The starting assumption of this series was that liberalism is far too important to be left to the ‘liberals’.  After 38 articles and more than 150,000 readers, we certainly hope that we have confirmed the value of this perspective.


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