Review of ‘Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism’ by Nick Couldry

In an era in which the neoliberal tenets and conditionalities, after threatening to become the ‘lore’ of the so-called good governance, are also seeking to pervade popular imagination, voice as an articulation of critical insight has become all the more important for our survival. In the preceding era, from Hirschman to Habermas, and from Bakhtin to Foucault, voice has been problematised, though not exactly in the same epistemo-methodological way, in social theory. But somehow the theme needed a cutting-edge analysis in the aftermath of the steep ascendance of neoliberalism in the contemporary era. Indeed the volume under review serves that purpose well.

Judging from his experience of the UK and USA the author’s point of departure is the built-in mechanism of neoliberalism, which makes the offers of voice, as he points out, ‘unsustainable’ by either denying it or making it illusory. To add from the reviewer’s experience in India and in some other developing countries, perhaps the scenario is a  bit more complicated and the mechanism a slightly more subtle— revealing a mixed dose of denial and construction of illusion, which in turn makes voice ‘unnecessary’ and ‘redundant’. Thus, in India the government adopting the neoliberal market reforms in 1991, notwithstanding its minority status in the then parliament, had proclaimed (in the strange logic of the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao) that any parliamentary debate on the issue would be ‘inimical’ to India’s positive image abroad. Such is the power of neoliberalism in silencing voice in the world’s largest democracy! No doubt, the author hits the proverbial bull’s eye when he associates neoliberalism with ‘self-harm’(p.135).

Voice, in the author’s scheme of things, is a connecting term that on the one hand, challenges neoliberalism’s unilateral claim of market triumphalism, and on the other, generates alternative view of politics based on people’s capacities for social cooperation. In this scheme there are two prime analytical categories: voice as a value and voice as a process.  To cut a long narrative short, the first category refers to ‘the act of valuing, and choosing to value, those frameworks for organizing human life and resources that themselves value voice (as a process)’. Voice as a process involves giving an account of one’s life and its conditions. In a supposedly integrative framework the author explains that valuing voice involves close attention to the conditions under which voice as a process is effective, and how broader forms of organization may subtly undermine or devalue voice as a process.  The successive chapters in the book— dealing respectively with the crisis of neoliberal economics, the predicament of neoliberal democracy, role of the media, philosophies and sociologies of voice, and the last one based on the visualization of post-neoliberal politics— are developed meticulously on the basis of these categories.

There is little doubt that neoliberalism sustains and expands itself on the basis of market fundamentalism— the market being the be-all and end-all of not only economy but also of the social and political organization. But at the same time, to make a provocative remark, not all the critiques of neoliberalism of the contemporary times have been able to derive solid counter-points which can serve as a foundation to the visualization of alternative(s) to it. The socialist alternative has proved to be too inflexible and reductionist to negotiate with the nuances and complexities of the neoliberal times. The various radical alternatives have been tempting but they remain too local in conceptual framework and spatially scattered to effect the kind of synergy that is needed to at least put up a reasonable degree of resistance to the adversary which succeeds in weaving the local and the global in its own interest. “Down with neoliberalism!” is an attractive slogan, perhaps full of good intentions, but the battle of the wits is much more complicated.

In epistemological terms, the common methodological deficiency of the critiques has been the failure to weave the theory with practice in accordance with the emergent order. In the face of such deficiency the neoliberal school, in what can be described as a concessionary gesture, continues to produce some ‘internal critiques’ which, for obvious reasons, remain confined within a fixed cognitive and conceptual orbit. No wonder then that the shrill cry of the ‘end of history’ would, notwithstanding its astonishingly weak logic, continue to subsume the voice in the way we mean here. The author himself admits this in the following words: ‘Neoliberalism’s discounting of voice is so deeply embedded that alternative discourses that value voice will not simply emerge as if from a vacuum.’(p.17).

The author displays remarkable ability to intellectually navigate through various streams of neoliberalism by exposing, with simultaneous invocation of less radical critique of Richard Layard and (arguably) more radical critique of Amartya Sen. The critical pitch is heightened by his explanation, in political terms, of why neoliberal democracy is an oxymoron. While there is a general tendency among the scholars in both media studies and in studies on neoliberalism respectively to exercise ‘mutual indifference’, at least beyond a kind of superficial linkage, the chapter which analyses the role of the media in amplifying the neoliberal values— especially the focus on the reality show— has a number of clues for further consideration, especially in the context of the author’s contention, that too in the so-called Media Era, that in imagining social organization beyond the purview of neoliberalism one has to look beyond the media.

The chapters on the philosophy and sociologies of voice also make interesting reading but it seems that Foucault could have gained a little more attention from the author. In this context it is not just the more coherently formed and more frequently discussed concept of governmentality, but especially the half-formed and somewhat more fluid notion of biopolitics, call for greater and more intense focus than is accorded in the book. There is yet another point to be noted. While the author succeeds quite well in providing us with an in-depth analysis of the impact of the organizational-constitutive logic of neoliberalism on voice the fact remains that in the contemporary era there are a number of instances of the people ‘willing’ to give up some of their freedoms to get greater security in return. This has been particularly evident in the post- 9/11 world in which the neoliberal regimes did not lose much time to enact some potentially repressive acts. To what extent this phenomenon is related to the well-designed trade-off between considerations of welfare and those of security and to what degree it strategises terror to suppress voice are complex but fascinating areas that need to be probed deeply. Then again, this strategy perhaps has lot to do with the notion and practice of biopolitics.

The most distinctive feature of the book is that in exposing the modus operandi of neoliberalism in the ideational and practical terms it resorts to a kind of back-and-forth movement of the methods and practice of the same. This is important in addressing a force which is exceedingly complex. While it would be premature to imagine an impending end of the neoliberal wave that now rules the world, real-time, intense academic endeavours, such as the one found in the slim but idea-packed volume, would go a long way to highlight the importance of critical articulation against what at the end of the day surfaces as the attempted cultivation of the monoculture of the mind.


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