Shift to neo-liberal world order

Syed Zafar Mehdi

While neo-liberalism has been lucrative for rich, it has been a simple disaster for world’s poor and working classes

In conventional parlance, the current era in history is characterized by globalization, technological revolution, and democratization. In nearly all these areas, media plays a central and defining role, since economic and cultural globalization is impossible without global commercial media system to promote global markets and encourage consumer values. For capitalism’s cheerleaders like Thomas L Friedman of New York Times, these developments suggest that human race is making foray into a new global age. Socialists, on the hand view it with utmost cynicism, as something ideologically loaded and misleading. Superior term would be “neo-liberalism”, a set of national and international policies calling for business domination of all social affairs with least countervailing effect. The centerpiece of neo-liberal policies calls for deregulation of commercial media and communication markets.

Previously, media systems were primarily “national”, but over the years, global media market has emerged. This global oligopoly means that dominant firms are moving at break-neck speed, that convergence and consolidation have become order of day and are here to stay. Media industries are becoming increasingly concentrated, each dominant player being the subsidiary of huge global media conglomerates.

In short order, global media market is dominated by some half-a-dozen multi-national corporations (MNC’s), most notably: Disney, AOL Time Warner, Sony, News Corp, Viacom, Vivandi, Bertelsmann, et al. None of these companies existed in their present form as media companies some 15-20 years back, but today they rank among the largest non-financial firms in globe.  Between them, they own the major film studios, companies controlling nearly 75% of global music market, preponderance of satellite broadcasting worldwide, significant proportion of book publishing and commercial magazine publishing business, besides most of cable TV channels globally.

It begs a pertinent question: How did it come to pass? The plain answer is “technology”. The sweeping improvements in communication technology have made global media companies feasible and lucrative in a manner unimaginable in past. This is though only the partial explanation, at best. The real motor force has been incessant pursuit for profit that marks capitalism, which has put intense pressure for a shift to neo-liberal de-regulation.

Perhaps the best way to understand how closely the global media system is linked to neo-liberal global capitalist economy is to consider the pivotal role of “advertising”. Advertising here implies the business expense incurred by the largest firms in economy, and commercial media system is the transmission belt for them to market their wares across globe. Indeed, globalization, as we understand it today, could have been a mere pipe dream without it. It is startling to note that the whopping 3-quarter of global spending on advertisements ends up in pockets of just 20 media companies, who call the shots in industry today.

The global media system though is only partially competitive in true economic sense of word. Most of largest firms have roughly same major shareholders, own pieces of one another and have inter-locking board of directors. This conscious coordination makes media giants’ particularly effective political lobbyists at national, regional, and global levels.

The emerging global media system has significant cultural and political implications, specifically with regard to political democracy, imperialism and nature of socialistic resistance. In area of democracy, emergence of highly concentrated media systems in hands of huge private concerns rubbishes the notion of “free press” in real democratic theory. The scathing attack on professional autonomy of journalists that has occurred is just the broader part of the neo-liberal transformation of media.

Neo-liberalism, more than an economic theory, is a political theory. It posits that business domination of society proceeds more effectively when there is representative democracy. And it’s weak and ineffective polity typified by high degrees of de-politicization. It’s here that we realize the importance of existing commercial media systems to neo-liberal project, for its singularly brilliant at generating the precise sort of bogus political culture that permits business domination to proceed without using police, state or facing popular resistance.

Global media’s relationship with imperialism has been bit complex. In 70’s, much of Third world mobilized through UNESCO to battle cultural imperialism of west. They developed plans for New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) to address their concerns. Similar fears about US media were echoed in Europe. Both of these movements were impaled on sword of neo-liberalism wielded by US and Britain.
Global journalism is dominated by western news agencies, which regard existing capitalism, US and its hard-nosed allies in most generous and charitable manner imaginable. As for culture, the “Hollywood juggernaut” and the specter of US cultural domination remains a central concern in most countries, for obvious reasons. But, with changing global political economy, there are certain problems in leaving the discussion at this point. Essentially, global media giants are quintessential multi-national firms, with shareholders, headquarters, and operations scattered all across globe.

Global media system is better understood as one that advances commercial and corporate interests and denigrates that which doesn’t fall in that line. There is hardly any difference in the firm’s content, whether owned by shareholders in Japan or France, or having corporate offices in New York, Frankfurt, or Sydney. The basic split is not between nation-states, but between rich and poor, across national borders, but it doesn’t make nation-state boundaries and geo-political empires irrelevant. Simply put, entire global regime is the result of neo-liberal political policies, urged on by the US govt. More importantly, not far below the surface is the role of US military as global “enforcer” of capitalism, with major US based corporations and investors in the driver’s seat. To cut the long story short, we need to develop an understanding of neo-liberal globalization that is joined at the hip to US imperialism – and all the dreadful implications that come with it.

The future prospects don’t look too great. It’s all too easy, given above conditions, to succumb to despair. It looks depressing from democratic standpoint, and it may be tough to see much hope for change. As lucrative a neo-liberalism has been for rich, it has been a simple disaster for world’s poor and working classes. While dominance of commercial media makes resistance more difficult, widespread opposition to these trends is gaining ground. It remains to be seem what future unfolds, but we should not expect anything great as long “Uncle Sam” calls shots in media world.