The Missing Value in British Politics

In this taster of his forthcoming book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, Nick Couldry argues for the importance of voice in challenging the dominance market values hold over political and social life.
Nick Couldry
11 January 2010

In this taster of his forthcoming book, Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics After Neoliberalism, Nick Couldry argues for the importance of voice in challenging the dominance market values hold over political and social life. 

With an approaching general election, we will get used to dissecting the rival claims of political parties. But what if the real lack in British politics is not being addressed at all? I mean the failure of major political actors to develop values that challenge the dominance of market discourse which has gripped politics since the late 1970s.

'Neoliberalism', as such discourse is usually known, is much more than the championing of market forces. Foucault’s late lectures trace how, from late 18th century until today, US and Austro-German economic theory made a claim to be political theory. It entailed a profound reshaping of the purpose of government. One that no longer asks “the state what freedom it will leave to the economy, but asks the economy how its freedom can have a state-creating function” (Foucault 2008: 94-95). This shift gave complete supremacy to economic reason, or what  Wendy Brown (2003: 39-40, 59) calls neoliberal rationality: “not only or even primarily focused on the economy . . . it involves extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action”.

This transformation is now so embedded in how we think that it needs a “counter-rationality” to challenge it. Counter-rationalities do not emerge easily; they emerge through force of necessity during periods of crisis.

Today many countries, and perhaps particularly Britain, face just such a crisis. I would argue that we need to see this as a crisis of voice. We are continually offered 'voice', as people are told that they have every opportunity to have their views taken into account. But in fact this continuous offer is over time retracted or undermined, across multiple domains (economic, political, cultural).

In the economic domain, neoliberalism treats markets not just as sites of exchange, but as creating competitive principles that governments must enact and extend. Foucault quotes Wilhelm Röpke as warning that “Morally and sociologically, competition is a principle that dissolves more than it unifies”. But this caution was lost on von Hayek and Friedman. Their brand of neoliberalism offers an account of the social stripped of most recognisable features of social life. Today's 'new spirit of capitalism’ has only intensified the paradox: contemporary labour conditions demand of workers an intense personal commitment – to work, to connect - yet offer in return minimal security and support to sustain their basic human and social capacities to work.

Politically, the UK shows what happens when neoliberal doctrine becomes embedded within established democratic systems. The surface symptoms (falling voter turnout; rising mistrust in politicians) are well known: 74% think ‘government does not spend enough time listening to the views of individual members of the public’, only 7% disagree (Hansard Society 2008: 33-34). Far from being accidental, this crisis of political voice represents an inherent feature of “market-driven politics' (Leys 2001).

Market-driven politics has been intensified by the huge increase in the British economy's' reliance on foreign direct investment under New Labour. (According to UNCTAD between 1997 and 2007 foreign direct investment's share of UK's gross capital stock had tripled from 15% to 45%, far beyond levels in other major OECD countries).

Everyone acknowledges there is widespread unease with UK democracy. But the roots of the problem are generally ignored. So when participatory budgets (Porto Alegre style) were proposed in a 2008 White Paper ‘Communities in Control’, no proposals followed for local people to influence how national government controls local authority finances. Attempts at 'democratizing' public services are targeted at 'users', not the citizens who might question the policy priorities that determine resource allocation.

These are exactly the tensions that Philip Bobbitt sees as inherent to ‘market-states’. When national governments shift from maximising citizen welfare to maximising participation in global markets, the offer of participation in government does not disappear, but becomes contradictory: “there will be more public participation in government but it will count for less”. The market “is not well adapted to creating or maintaining” the values on which the market-state's legitimacy depends, namely “loyalty, civility, trust in authority” (Bobbitt 2003: 234 , 814). Bobbitt lets in through the back door the whole social domain that orthodox neoliberalism  had expelled through the front door, exposing the way that ‘neoliberal democracy' is a contradiction in terms. New Labour's legacy illustrates this well.

Perhaps media cultures offer an alternative voice to neoliberalism? Not if we look at how reality TV's original democratic impetus morphed into an unaccountable form of social management, or at how government's increasing symbiosis with 24-7 news production has converted policy-making into something eerily similar to the de-layered, charisma-driven authority structures that characterise today's corporate environment (as Alistair's Campbell's diaries unwittingly expose). 

Meanwhile the 2008 global financial crisis has only increased market pressures on governments with weakened finances. So where can we look for resources for developing a counter-rationality to neoliberalism?

One source is neoliberalism's master discipline, economics.  The development economist Amartya Sen provides some of the sharpest tools, insisting that mainstream economics floundered since it separated from ethics in the early 19th century. Ethics, Sen argues, “cannot stop  . . . evaluation short at some arbitrary point like satisfying 'efficiency'. The assessment has to take a broader view of the good” (Sen 1987: 4). For Sen, the freedom of market fundamentalists is merely formalistic, ignoring freedom's core: 'the actual ability of [a] person to achieve those things that she has reason to value' (2002: 10). One thing we value is the possibility of exercising our capacity to contribute to decisions about the world, our capacity for voice.

Or we can turn to social theory, particularly Axel Honneth’s work which frames democracy within the broader good of recognition. Linking Honneth and Sen, I would suggest that fully recognizing each other includes recognizing each other’s capacities for voice. Strikingly the Stiglitz Commission on Economic Measurement to which Sen contributed and which reported to President Sarkozy in September 2009, recommended political voice as one element in the broader well-being that economic measurement should take into account.

We cannot challenge neoliberalism if we see democracy merely as a decision-making machine that has broken down. (Indeed, neoliberals have always been democracy's harshest critics.) But if we follow Honneth – or John Dewey, whose view of freedom as essentially linked to power von Hayek rejected in the 1930s – we can see democracy as an essential means for realising the good of social cooperation. This is not just a 'benefit' or an additional value. It is a core human good - which neoliberalism's economic reduction of politics blocks from view.

In this sense voice is much more than the individual's desire for self-expression (even Sarah Palin believes in that!). It is the value that discriminates between ways of organising the world: a value that treat humans' capacity to give an account of themselves as something that matters.  Affirming the value of voice is, I suggest, one starting-point for interrupting neoliberal rationality. A 'democracy' without this, like the UK's which only generates choice  between different disguises of 'market necessity', deserves another name.

Such a democratisation requires an expansion of political imagination. A first step in that direction is to reject, as explicitly as we can, the neoliberal insistence that market functioning overrides all other values. If that means rejecting what British political parties currently have on offer, why pretend otherwise?

Nick Couldry is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. His forthcoming book is Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics AfterNeoliberalism (Sage June 2010).


Bobbitt, P. (2003)  The Shield of Achilles. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Brown, W. (2005) Edgework . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Foucault, M. (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Hansard Society, The (2008) An Audit of Political Engagement 5. London

Leys, C. (2001) Market-driven Politics. London: Verso.

Sen, A. (1987) On Ethics and Economics. Blackwell: Oxford.

Sen, A. (2002) Rationality and Freedom. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.



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