Liberalism and the media

I have looked at the glass of liberalism and seen it as half-full. If we are ever going to change our societies for the better, it will be as advocates of the best of the liberal tradition.

Robert W. McChesney
12 August 2014

I am in agreement with so much of the opening statements by Gholam Khiabany and Julian Petley’s response that I considered not making a contribution for fear of being repetitive. The historical contextualization is spot on as far as I can see. So I will make a few observations, to some extent anecdotal, about liberalism and politics, especially media politics, today.

Many people on the left of my generation—I came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s—had a complex relationship with liberalism. Liberals were the targets of Phil Och’s ‘Love Me, I’m a Liberal’ song:  cowards who talk a good game but never back it up when it conflicts with power, especially capital. Liberals were ‘limousine liberals’, upper-middle class people unwilling to risk anything substantial for their values. They were dilettantes.

This was an incomplete representation and rather misleading. Many of the great champions of labour, civil rights and peace were all die-hard liberals, in the New Dealer/social democratic sense of the term. The line between them and radicals was often very fuzzy. And among the champions of labour, civil rights and peace there were no self-described conservatives to be found. The conservative tradition was and is entirely unsympathetic to the plight of the dispossessed—except as a rhetorical necessity determined by the audience and the times, or as rank opportunism, as in the case of privatizing schools. So whatever liberalism’s flaws, it was a damned sight better than the mainstream alternative.

I never had any particular animus toward liberals. My attitude toward liberalism was strongly influenced by the work of C.B. Macpherson who was centrally concerned with the relationship of capitalism to democracy, or inegalitarian economics to egalitarian politics. He termed this the problem of liberal democracy. He was also concerned with what he regarded as the deterioration of the best of the liberal tradition under capitalist auspices. Perhaps most important, Macpherson’s work paved the way for understanding why contemporary U.S.-style democracy is necessarily weak, and depoliticization is necessarily rampant. He argued that a corporate capitalist democracy can be stable only if decisions are made by the few with only superficial mass participation, and if liberal values wilt on the vine. In this sense, depoliticization, demoralization and cynicism are rational responses by the bulk of the citizenry to their actual amount of power.

Macpherson pointed out the paternalism and elitism in elements of liberalism, the notion that enlightened intellectuals are the proper rulers of the world. No one has done a better job of showing the strain of contempt for genuine democracy that exists within aspects of liberalism, and how such liberals truly fear popular rule. But what Macpherson also highlighted was the progressive and humanistic impulse of liberalism. I found this notion of liberalism extremely attractive and worth fighting for. He argued that modern capitalism was forcing liberalism to a moment of truth, where it had to decide which of its values it wished to preserve and promote, those of a flawed corporate system or those promoting its democratic ideals. I could not agree more.

Macpherson wrote his main contributions several decades ago, but the argument is far more true today than it was then. The best liberal values—namely individual freedoms, the rule of law—are under sharp attack and appear increasingly incapable of surviving the marriage to capitalism.

This tension arguably is more true with regard to media than anywhere else. My own work has been all about driving a truck through the crack in the wall Macpherson opened. The best of liberal theory is all about having an independent press system that monitors those in power and provides the necessary information to those without property so that they can effectively engage in the exercise of self-government. All the cherished individual freedoms grow out of the strength of democratic rule, and hence the press system. Here, to condense a career’s work or research for myself and many others, the actually existing capitalist model for the media has been an abject failure. Here a commitment to liberal values requires a commitment to the establishment of an independent largely non-commercial media sector.

The great liberal who inspired me from my days in graduate school was Alexander Meiklejohn. In the 1980s, in the United States, it was commonly presented that the First Amendment was an ahistorical commandment that commercial media firms were protected from any government regulation, except in broadcasting, regardless of the content that they produced. But in his book Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government (1948) Meiklejohn had long ago challenged that perspective and skewered it:

First, let it be noted that, by those words [the text of the First Amendment], Congress is not debarred from all action upon freedom of speech. Legislation which abridges that freedom is forbidden, but not legislation to enlarge and enrich it. The freedom of mind which befits members of a self-governing society is not a given and fixed part of human nature. It can be increased and established by learning, by teaching, by the unhindered flow of accurate information, by giving men health and vigor and security, by bringing them together in activities of communication and mutual understanding. And the federal legislature is not forbidden to engage in that positive enterprise of cultivating the general intelligence upon which the success of self-government so obviously depends. On the contrary, in that positive field the Congress of the United States has a heavy and basic responsibility to promote the freedom of speech.

Meiklejohn opened up a new, progressive way to envision the First Amendment as a policy prescription for a self-governing society, not as protective legislation for investors in communication industries. The First Amendment is not meant to sanctify the ‘marketplace of ideas’, it is meant to ensure to every citizen ‘the fullest possible participation’ in the working through of social problems. As he wrote:

When a free man is voting, it is not enough that the truth is known by someone else, by some scholar or administrator or legislator. The voters must have it, all of them. The primary purpose of the First Amendment is, then, that all the citizens shall, so far as possible, understand the issues which bear upon our common life. That is why no idea, no opinion, no doubt, no belief, no counterbelief, no relevant information, may be kept from them.

Meiklejohn was highly sceptical toward the commercialization of the press, and was opposed to commercial broadcasting in the 1930s. He highlighted the tension between the need for a press system to draw citizens into public life as informed participants and a press system set up simply to maximize profit for investors. His thinking pointed toward radical solutions and, in some ways, became impractical in a world where nearly all media operations were conducted for profit. But it inspired me, and others, to think big, and to fight for an understanding of the First Amendment and freedom of the press that served self-government first and foremost.   

The line from Meiklejohn, the classical liberal, to the socialist/Marxist Raymond Williams was short and direct. When one reads Williams’ classic works from the 1960s on how media industries should be structured in democratic and socialist societies, it is all but interchangeable with Meiklejohn, even if they come at it from different directions.

For that reason, I have looked at the glass of liberalism and seen it as half-full. If we are ever going to change our societies for the better, it will be as advocates of the best of the liberal tradition.


This article is part of the Liberalism and the Media strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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