Paul Ryan’s Neoliberal Fantasy and Keith Olbermann’s Demise

Foucault asks “Can the market really have the power of formalization for both the state and society?” (Foucault 2008: 117, originally 1978-79). House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan is convinced it can. He outlines it happening in the 2012 and 2013 fiscal year budgets. The impact of this neoliberal fantasy on democracy is stated by Couldry: “‘Democracy’ operated on neoliberal principles is not democracy. For it has abandoned, as unnecessary, a vision of democracy as a form of social organization in which government’s legitimacy is measured by the degree to which it takes account of its citizens’ voices” (Couldry 2010: 64). What is the impact of the dearth of diverse progressive voices on public and private media within the hegemonic public sphere?

The Nation states that the GOP’s 2013 budget or the “Ryan Plan” helps the very wealthy, corporations, Pentagon, and health insurance companies while forcing the poor, elderly, disabled, and middle class to sacrifice (Zornick 2012). President Obama called the budget “social Darwinism.” A great term, curiously investigated by the Washington Post. Back in February, 2011, during the last federal budget battle, the New York Times claimed that the GOP targeted to slash funding for job training, environmental protection, disease control, crime protection, science, technology, education, and public media (Editorial 2011). It is a theory of classical liberalism that as these issues of national importance are proposed and debated it is fundamental to the workings of democracy that citizens have diverse information options. This is the job of journalists, newspapers, television news — “the media” — whose investigate capacities have been gutted by parent companies’ market fundamentalism and whose federal funding, when it barely existed, is under attack. Six bills were proposed in 2011 to eliminate federally funding PBS (Tomasic 2011). In this neoliberal media logic, if it fails the single criteria of increasing capital, it misses the cut.

The same week the draconian 2013 Ryan Plan was revealed saw the elimination of two paternalistic guardians of the “American public sphere” –the Media Access Project (MAP), a public interest law firm and 40-year veteran resisting the deregulation and privatization of public media resources. And, most dramatically, Keith Olbermann was fired from Current, a cable television news network. Like him or hate him, he is one of the few television newscasters willing to bluntly critique such instances of neoliberal governmentality on that most hegemonic if media systems: television. As both private public interest and not-for-profit public interest media institutions falter, and federally funded public media systems are assaulted, how will diversity in the American public sphere survive?

I need to briefly address the following normative notions: neoliberal governmentality and the hegemonic or American public sphere.

MAP and Olbermann focused on diversifying the programming within the hegemonic public sphere. They see themselves, their work, and their information as central to dominant national issues within a single American public sphere. They are not interested in producing the conditions for a subaltern counterpublic as Nancy Fraser (1992) describes. Their interest is in competing on a national-level with the likes of Fox News, MSNBC, and other media giants. MAP and Olbermann sought to contribute diverse voices into a single, national, or American public sphere. Does it exist? No. Fraser is right. There are overlapping fields of public spheres. But the hegemonic public sphere is a type of emic model or frame, non-existent on the level of day-to-day discourse, that these media reform broadcasters draw from. More abstract and less polemical, yet comparable with the concept of the “mainstream media,” the hegemonic public sphere is a goal or target for the progressive cultural interventions of these media reform broadcasters.

Foucault provides a cogent definition of neoliberal governmentality in his exquisitely readable lectures at the College de France in 1978-1979. “What is at issue” said Foucault, “is whether a market economy can in fact serve as the principle, form, and model for a state” (Foucault 2008: 117). The result is market statism, or corporatism, which, in an extreme version, is fascism. This is diametrically opposed to the social liberalism advocated by Olbermann and MAP in which the state is focused on non-market social projects. It isn’t corporate liberalism either where the government in public discourse supports social liberalism but that practice is performed by subsidized corporations (Streeter 1996). An example of corporate liberalism comes from the presumed GOP candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Governor Mitt Romney addressed a crowd at a primary campaign stop in Iowa in November. At this event Romney says he won’t gut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but he will require it to “have advertisments.” Romney doesn’t want to “Kill Big Bird” he just wants it to be on life-support from American corporations. Rather, the Ryan Plan is neoliberal governmentality where social liberal projects are negated and replaced by market fundamentalism. It is this reduction of government functions to market logic that Olbermann and MAP once raged against.

So with the departure of Olbermann and MAP the monolithic American public sphere is less diverse and less capable of engineering the conditions for access for diverse voices. Nick Couldry’s Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism (2010) directly addresses how neoliberal governmentality dampens voice through looking at US and UK television. He defines voice as referring to the process of individuals or communities using media to build reflexive and historical stories. Voice, for Couldry, is socially grounded, provides for reflexive agency and is an embodied force. Voice can be injured or denied by rationalities that perceive voice as an externality of market logic. Thus “valuing voice means valuing something that neoliberal rationality fails to count; it can therefore contribute to a counter-rationality against neoliberalism” (Couldry 2010: 12-13). Without Olbermann’s voice and MAP protecting the legal and political conditions for voicing, how will the American public sphere survive this assault by the flexible tactics of neoliberal governmentality?


Now, dear Reader, to reward you making it this far here are some hilarious videos that illustrate my points from the comic geniuses of Mitt Romney, President Obama, Cenk Uygur! Cue the laugh track after each video. 

Yuck it up with Mitt!

Cenk Uygur, a host of the show the Young Turks on Current, a for-profit television network with the mandate to diversify the hegemonic public sphere with progressive voice, responds by describing the fraction of the federal budget spent on NPR, PBS, and the CPB.

President Obama bring the crowd to its knees by calling the 2013 Ryan Plan “social Darwinism:”


Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

3 thoughts on “Paul Ryan’s Neoliberal Fantasy and Keith Olbermann’s Demise

  1. I’m mainly impressed by the fact that Foucault was writing 24 years after he died.

  2. I get the feeling that you need to think harder about precisely what ‘neoliberalism’ (as well as several other -isms describing forms of polity) means and meant. It feels more like a word to spit with than an analytical term, the way you’ve used it.

    What’s clear is that Ryan wants to cut very many things from the federal budget. Let’s leave aside the question of whether you can read off a mode of governing from a budget proposal. What’s not clear is whether Ryan’s budget is neoliberalism, whether Ryan’s budget is post-War German Ordoliberalism (as Foucalt is describing in all the passages you cited), and what ‘social liberalism’, ‘market statism’, or ‘corporatism’ are taken to mean.

    Also, what is the link supposed to be between Ryan’s ‘neoliberal’ budget and the breakdown of the American public sphere (which you admit is merely an ’emic frame’ anyway)? That he wants to kill federal funding for PBS? That without Keith Olbermann we have less hope of defending ourselves from Ryan’s budget? Forgive me if this all sounds a little implausible…

  3. I too would like to talk more about neoliberalism which I do not believe is a frequent topic of conversation here at Savage Minds. While we don’t have to turn this comment thread into a list of books and recommended reading (that would be a good post in its own right), let’s talk some about what anthropology can contribute to this subject.

    My impressions from David Harvey and Neil Smith is that neoliberalism is something of a historical moment going back to repercussions from the Great Depression. It describes the contemporary state of historical capitalism, but it has cultural roots in the market liberalism of the Constitutional Convention and, even earlier, what Weber identifies as the Protestant ethic.

    What’s interesting to anthropologists is that it has this profound cultural component to it (or ideological, if you want to go that route: why people don’t talk about ideology anymore is another topic worth pursuing) and it is completely hegemonic, which does make it a little terrifying that its outside most people’s ordinary state of awareness. In particular it has this weird way of influencing individual and group identity so that collective political action has to conform to dominant structures if they are to be successful. This is part of why the Anonymous and Occupy protests were so thrilling but perhaps also doomed, they included this countercultural aspect that was an affront to neoliberal hegemony.

    Usually the critiques of neoliberalism amount to (1) it doesn’t resolve the inherent contradiction of capitalism so a new crisis is just around the corner, or (2) there are dire and new consequences for the global poor because of neoliberal policies.

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