Contemporary politics as conflicts of voice

Politics today in Britain is marked by conflicts between claims to extend or defend voice, some of them deeply misleading.

UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said in the House of Commons on 26 April 2011 that his controversial legislation ‘substantially improves public and patient voice in the National Health Service’. His claim is based on the power over health service commissioning to be given to local doctors (GPs), yet many fear this will replace publicly accountable health provision with market mechanisms that shift real power to large private health providers and the profitable insurers that feed off them. There is a prospect of a US-style health market that converts the public voice in health provision, so distinctive of post-war UK, into a distant memory.

The 2010 university reforms offer an even clearer contradiction. The Browne  report announced a fundamental restructuring of university finances that would move power to student ‘consumers’, free to choose on market information the degree best able to equip them for a job long-term, a classic model of the ’free market’ providing consumer voice and through that mechanism better overall outcomes for the society and economy. Yet the removal of public subsidy for most university  teaching will guarantee, many think,  that the choice-horizon of the university ‘consumer’ (the student) will be massively reduced over the longer-term, with economic factors (will this degree be the most likely to secure me a job?) overriding broader educational ambition. School students expressed this vividly in last autumn’s demonstrations, arguing it was their ‘future’ that was being taken away, their future voice.

In these two sectors, health and education, neoliberal market reforms are being taken to an advanced stage, with market competition offered as the most efficient and empowering way of organising resource. But markets only provide ‘voice’ in one, strictly limited version: the voice of the consumer who chooses this or that product, the producer who competes to sell or buys-in services at the best price. In markets everyone has a ‘voice’, yet few know the value of voice in a richer and more lasting sense. Consumer voice that changes the nature of market provision is rare, and in any case must work through system effects. Markets are not meant to provide voice in the sense of mechanisms for taking full account of the voice (the particular narrative of the world) that each individual has.

This contradiction is not accidental, but a central dynamic of what I call ‘neoliberal cultures’ whose institutions are impelled at every stage to offer voice, but over the long-term must retract that offer, and replace it with something very different: blind trust that the market will provide. The contradiction runs through debates about the 2008 financial crisis and the long-term destructive effects of what French sociologists Boltanski and Chiapello call ‘the new spirit of capitalism’ on life-conditions today.

Grasping this contradiction means distinguishing between a mere multiplication of voices (who does not claim to want that?) and the organization of resources as if voice really mattered, as if it was important to take account of people’s ability, as human beings, to give an account of themselves.

Nick Couldry is lecturer in Media at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of ‘Why Voice Matters’.

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