Diana McCarty on Sun, 6 Oct 96 15:33 MET

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nettime:Hi-tech Neo-Liberals:barbrook



Despite their utopian conclusions, the prophecies of the futurologists were
used by conservative parties to argue for the adoption of neo-liberal
economic policies by the major industrialised countries. In the early-1980s,
led by Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in Great Britain, governments across
the world privatised and deregulated their financial and industrial sectors.
By abandoning interventionist policies and cutting welfare spending,
politicians hoped to revitalise their economies through the rapid
integration of their financial institutions and manufacturing corporations
within the global marketplace. Crucially, these conservative governments
believed that increased market competition would encourage the adoption of
the new information technologies. Inspired by the futurologists, they
thought that the crisis of Fordism would finally overcome through the
emergence of the post-industrial society. Although the futurologists had
predicted the imminent advent of direct democracy, neo-liberal governments
used their prophecies to defend the creation of greater market competition.
Because they limited profits and prevented the entry of new competitors,
state regulations were condemned for discouraging companies from taking the
risk of introducing new information technologies within their industries.
Thus, by accepting the inevitability of the transition to a post-industrial
society, conservative governments were able to justify the removal of all
regulatory controls over private corporations. Ironically, both Reagan and
Thatcher believed that the success of their neo-liberal economic policies
was proved by the overexpansion of the service sector and the decline of
manufacturing industries in their countries.

In order to win electoral support for the adoption of neo- liberal economic
policies, conservative parties appealed to the individual self-interest of
the better paid workers. With the advent of the consumer society, the living
standards of most people had risen considerably. According to the
neo-liberals, workers now had to be encouraged to become individual property
owners. By extending the ownership of shares, small businesses and houses,
conservative politicians hoped that most workers would no longer support
collective solutions to their problems, such as state intervention or
democracy in the workplace. Instead, these property-owning wage-earners
would be more interested in expressing their individual autonomy, especially
within their private lives. Reviving the principles of the bourgeois
revolutions, neo-liberals urged that individual citizens should be given
legal guarantees of their independence from state controls. While Socialists
championed the public service state as the representative of the entire
Nation-People, conservatives advocated individual rights for the protection
of each citizen against the abuses of political power. Crucially, these
rights weren't only being claimed by individual citizens. With the
globalisation of production, corporations also needed guarantees against the
arbitrary actions of national governments. As legal persons, joint-stock
companies wanted the same juridical rights as individual citizens. Under the
slogan of freedom, neo- liberals advocated the protection of the particular
interests of private capital in the name of the universal rights of all

As a central part of their campaign for more market competition, the
neo-liberals created a new definition of media freedom. Echoing the
prophecies of the futurologists, they claimed that the application of their
deregulation and privatisation policies within the electronic media would
encourage the rapid construction of an interactive cable network. Once this
grid was built, individuals would no longer be passive consumers, who simply
watched programmes provided by public or private corporations. Instead, they
would become active communicators, who expressed their own opinions over the
network. Thus, individual citizens would use cameras, computers and other
equipment to engage in two-way communications by producing their own
electronic media. Reviving the traditions of the journalist- printers, the
neo-liberals claimed that the political right of media freedom could once
again be realised through the private ownership of the means of production.
Crucially, in contrast with the New Left and the futurologists, these
conservatives didn't believe that the creation of two-way communications
over the cable network would lead to the formation of the electronic agora.
Instead, they believed that the new information technologies should be used
for the construction of an electronic marketplace. In their view, the most
important technical advance on the cable network was encryption, which
allowed the imposition of a direct price for the consumption of the
electronic media for the first time. With the formation of prices, market
competition between different electronic media producers could be created
within the cable network. Instead of advertising or licence fees, access to
the cable network could now be solely decided by market competition.
Following the introduction of this technical solution to the social problem
of price formation, neo-liberals claimed that state intervention within the
electronic media had become obsolete.

By advocating the creation of an electronic marketplace, conservative
governments were able to win the support of both individuals and commercial
companies who wanted open access to the media. Back in 1927, the
introduction of regulation for radio broadcasting in the USA had been
originally justified by the shortage of frequencies on the airwaves. Using
their influence over the federal government, the NBC and CBS corporations
soon monopolised the airwaves. Although another network emerged, television
broadcasting was also dominated by corporate interests. In response, the
regulation of the airwaves was gradually tightened to enforce limited
pluralism in political reporting, the scheduling of children's programmes
and a few other public service commitments. By the early-1980s, state
regulation of the American electronic media was being attacked by both
radical groups in favour of more community broadcasting and commercial
entrepreneurs calling for the end of expensive public service obligations.
Seizing this opportunity, the Reagan government rapidly removed most of the
controls over terrestrial and cable television broadcasting. According to
the administration, the abolition of regulation would soon lead to the
creation of the electronic marketplace, where everyone could take part in
two-way communications over the interactive cable network. However, in the
short-term, the principle beneficiaries of the deregulation and
privatisation of the electronic media were the large media companies.
Despite the promises of a post- industrial society, economies of scale still
favoured the industrialised media controlled by the Fordist corporations.

Although the new information technologies allowed new services to enter the
market, easier access didn't abolish the influence of first copy costs
within media production. Because the tastes of audiences weren't limited to
a specific local community, the same media products were often popular among
people from different cultures. For decades, the Hollywood cinema industry
had successfully sold its films across the globe and American music
companies had marketed their records in many different countries. With the
opening up of previously monopolised electronic media to competition, it was
now possible to market television broadcasting on an international scale for
the first time. For example, wherever they lived, large numbers of teenagers
would tune into MTV's top 40 hit format and many adults would watch CNN's 24
hour news service. Although language barriers prevented the emergence of a
completely global television system, dubbed American series and telefilms
still dominated the newly deregulated channels in many countries. By
covering its costs across a worldwide audience, a multinational television
producer could provide expensively-made programmes at a cheaper price than
any local competitor.

By the early-1990s, deregulation and privatisation had led to the dominance
of the global media markets by a handful of American, European and Japanese
corporations. These organisations didn't just extend their control over
different types of media, from newspapers through films to television
production. At the same time, they also combined with the owners of
distribution systems, such as cable television operators or telephone
companies. Although these fusions fulfilled the predictions of convergence
between different information technologies, the media multinationals weren't
creating enough jobs to replace those lost in the traditional Fordist
industries, which had been devastated by the adoption of neo-liberal
economic policies. Because of the cheap costs of reproduction, there was an
extraordinary disproportion between the small number of workers employed in
the media and the large audiences for their output. Despite the promises of
the neo-liberals, the overwhelming majority of individuals were still
passive consumers, who could only choose between the radio and television
channels of the media corporations. Crucially, the rhetoric of two-way
communications had been turned into the reality of a greater choice of
one-way flows of communications.

Although market competition had failed to provide much individual access to
the electronic media, neo-liberals still believed that deregulation and
privatisation would create freedom of communications within radio and
television broadcasting. Criticising the public service model, they pointed
out that individual citizens could only indirectly express their views over
the airwaves by voting for representatives of political parties. In
contrast, the neo-liberals claimed that market competition between
commercial media corporations directly reflected the wishes of their
audiences. Because they wanted to maximise their audiences, competing radio
and television stations had to provide the types of programmes desired by
listeners and viewers. Therefore, by selecting channels on their radio or
television sets, individual citizens determined the content of the
programmes within the electronic media. For example, more entertainment
programmes were provided for viewers in commercial systems than under a
public service monopoly. Crucially, the neo- liberals also claimed that the
intense competition for audiences between channels created a diversity of
political opinions over the airwaves. Thus, although they couldn't be active
communicators, these conservative gurus believed that individuals had been
empowered as channel zappers. In this version of the neo-liberal model, the
individual citizens' political right of freedom of communications was
equated with their economic rights as consumers of the electronic media.

By advocating a free market utopia, the neo-liberals successfully
recuperated many of the demands of the New Left. On the one hand, they
accepted the opposition of these revolutionaries to cultural puritanism and
unaccountable bureaucracies. Thus both sides could oppose the imposition of
moral censorship and the monopolisation of the media by the public service
state. But, on the other hand, the neo-liberals rejected the demands for the
self-management of social and economic institutions, including the
electronic media. According to the New Left, individual freedom was only
possible through the collective ownership of property by co-operatives, as
in the community media. In contrast, for the neo-liberals, individual
freedom was the absence of state regulations within the marketplace, as in
open competition between different cable television stations. Combating the
New Left, the neo-liberals also promised two-way communications and direct
democracy for all individuals. Yet, while the electronic agora was supposed
to end the alienation of political and economic power from popular control,
the electronic marketplace only allowed individuals to realise their needs
for information and entertainment through commodity exchange. Above all
else, the neo-liberals carefully obscured the consequences of media
deregulation and privatisation. Although individuals had the right to
produce their own media, the electronic marketplace was dominated by the
output of the large corporations. For most people, media freedom was
restricted to the right to choose between competing radio and television
stations. Instead of being active communicators, they were only channel

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