evolving ecological media culture(s)



The following is a glossary of terms used in Gilbert’s Anticapitalism and Culture. In the comments, we will add other terms and key words as these arise throughout the course.

Cultural Studies – See here.

One thing I didn’t emphasize there is the centrality of subjectivity in most cultural studies research and writing. This means an emphasis on how people make sense and create meanings out of things, and how that shapes their identities — including their racial, gender, class, national, political, and other identities — and thereby motivates their behavior.

It’s worth noting that Gilbert’s version of cultural studies may seem more “political” than Jim McNamara’s, whose summary of cultural studies we read in our first set of readings. This is because Gilbert’s is more historically informed and emphasizes the British variant of cultural studies (which has always been explicitly political) as opposed to American cultural studies, which has sometimes been more apolitical. The latter is especially true for the kinds of cultural studies that get labeled “cultural populism” — studies that seem to simply celebrate what people do, whether these have any “progressive” political ramifications or not.

New Left – Gilbert defines it on pages 15, 18, and 24. It’s best for us to think of it as an updating of traditional Left wing thinking — which favored equality and the democratic/public provision of basic needs — with the social and cultural concerns of the 1960s and 1970s (such as civil rights, women’s rights, ecology, gay rights, and broad-based participatory democracy).

Here it’s worth pausing for a quick review of party politics in the U.K. and the U.S.

Just as the American political system has been dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties, one considered more “left” and the other more “right,” the British political system has been historically dominated by the Labour Party (on the left) and the Conservative Party (on the right). Labour has traditionally been closely aligned with labor unions, but under the “New Labour” administration of Tony Blair (1997-2007), this relationship frayed. The same occurred under the Democratic administration of President Clinton (1993-2001) and under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal Party government in Canada (1993-2003).

More recently, in Britain, the Liberal Democratic Party (more socially liberal and economically liberal/neoliberal, but less tied to labour unions; sometimes they are called “radical centrist”) has emerged as an important third player; it is currently in coalition with the Conservative government of David Cameron. Other parties, such as the Greens and the British National Party, flank these three major parties (roughly) to the (green) left and (nationalist) right.

Unlike all of these parties, the “New Left” emerged out of the social movements of the 1960s quite apart from traditional party politics. As Gilbert makes clear, some of its concerns — particularly the social ones — have become incorporated into the agendas of mainstream parties (especially the Democrats in the U.S. and the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats in the U.K.). Others — such as concerns for peace and global justice (or “anti-imperialism”), participatory democracy, and anti-capitalism (see below) — have been much less successful.

The “alter-globalization” movement (see “Anticapitalism” below) is considered by some to be a new variation of, or a descendant to, New Left politics, albeit one that pays even greater attention to issues of global justice. It also makes much greater use of digital media.

New Social Movements – A term generally used to describe the social movements that emerged especially in the late 1960s and 1970s: namely, feminism, environmentalism, gay rights, indigenous rights, multiculturalism, and so on. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s many of these became identified as forms of identity politics, and some on the Left as well as the Right began to criticise them as too focused on their own goals and not on the overall needs of society, the working class (for the Left), or traditional values and institutions (for the Right).

Anticapitalism – Gilbert doesn’t really start defining this until Chapter 3, and he tends to use it more or less interchangeably with terms like the “anti-globalization movement,” “alter-mondialisme” (French for “alter-globalism”), the “global justice movement” and the “pro-democracy movement.” Needless to say, all of these terms emphasize different dimensions of what may or may not be the same, or overlapping, movements.

“Anti-capitalism” has the virtue of telling us what it’s against — except that even that isn’t very clear. By and large, people who use the term are defining capitalism not in the minimal sense of a market economy — a society in which economic relations are predominantly conducted through the free exchange of goods and services mediated by money — but in a more maximal sense, as follows.

Capitalism in this larger sense is a system of political-economic relations in which the accumulation of capital and the possibility for such accumulation (i.e. for gaining wealth) is the guiding political and economic imperative. The private ownership of the means of production (production of food, goods, services, wealth, etc.) is central here, and the relationship between economic wealth creation and political power is a key feature. This relationship is systemic — thus  capitalism is a “system” — and follows an inherent tendency to grow, spread, and conquer alternative ways of organizing society. The end result is that market and exchange relations come to define everything — that everything gets gradually commodified — and that production and consumption overcomes and outstrips the social and natural needs and capacities of human and nonhuman life.

According to this critique of capitalism, the relationship between capitalism and democracy is taken as entirely contingent: one can find extremely authoritarian forms of capitalism (as in Chile under the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet, where many “neo-liberal” ideas were first tried out), but also forms of capitalist economies that are managed and meliorated (“softened”) by democratically elected governments toward more egalitarian forms of public welfare and well-being.

The Wikipedia page on capitalism is a good starting place for understanding the history of capitalist formations.

What “anticapitalists” stand for is a matter of debate. Some would say “socialism” — in the sense of public ownership of at least the most crucial forms of production for human survival and flourishing. This could take the form of representative institutions (such as the welfare-state democracies developed in western Europe in the mid-late 20th century) or more direct and participatory forms of democratic decision-making via councils, cooperatives, and the like (perhaps under conditions where the scale of decision-making is smaller than it is in many countries today).

Others would prefer replacing capitalism with some form of anarchistic or libertarian-communalist form of society, in which authority would be spread across a range of institutions, all of which featured radically democratic forms of collective decision-making.

On this point of what “anticapitalists” are for, we can see a divergence between those who use the term and those who prefer other terms like “radical democracy” or “the social justice movement.” For the latter, capitalism is not necessary the enemy nor need it be replaced; it only needs to be managed in ways that allow for the flourishing of democratic institutions, human (individual and collective) rights, and respect for ecological conditions and constraints. The problem, from this perspective, is not capitalism itself, but a particular version of it, such as “neoliberal capitalism” (see below).

Neoliberalism – See Gilbert pp. 32 (starting half-way down) and 33. This definition is worth quoting in full. (I’ll split it up to make it more readable here.)

“On the one hand, the decades since 1970 have witnessed the apparently inexorable rise of neoliberalism, a set of political ideas and practices which revives the core assumptions of nineteenth-century liberalism: that the individual in competition with other individuals for resources is the irreducible unit of human experience; that the first purpose of politics is to protect the autonomy of the private individual; that the right to accumulate, possess and dispose of property at will is the most fundamental right of such individuals; that the role of the state is therefore to ensure that nothing interferes with the capacity of private individuals to accumulate and enjoy property (Harvey 2005).

“The political implications of this philosophy are far-reaching and include, for example: the assumption that governments should work to lower taxes wherever possible, even if that means cutting forms of welfare provision that promote social cohesion; the idea that high levels of public spending are justified on institutions like the police and the military which may be required to protect the capacity of individuals to enjoy their property unmolested; the idea that corporations (which should be recognised either as individuals or as temporary contractual collaborations between individuals) should be largely free to behave as they like; the assumption that trade unions should be severely restricted in the types of activity in which they are permitted to engage, none of which should infringe the aforementioned rights of property owners or corporations.

“At the international level, the implications of a highly developed neoliberal agenda have come to include the assumption that international law should prevent national governments from interfering with the rights of corporations to pursue profit within their own borders by such unfair means as maintaining a state monopoly over the provision of essential services like education.” (Gilbert, pp. 32-33)

Many have argued that neoliberalism is the defining political-economic “configuration” of the last 40 years, though there are debates about how and why it became that way. Again, Wikipedia is actually a good place to exploring the many shades of and debates over neoliberalism.

Fordism and Post-Fordism – “Fordism” refers to the system of standardized mass production and mass consumption that emerged and spread in the early-middle decades of the 20th century. It is named after Henry Ford, who is often credited with the idea that his own factory workers ought to be paid enough to buy the goods (cars) that they produce.

The “Fordist compromise” — thought to have characterized many developed nations in the 1940s-1960s, including the U.S. with its post-war economic boom — is considered to have been a grand “settlement” or agreement between the state (government), industry (business), and labor (unionized workers) that facilitated great industrial productivity and the largest growth of the middle class in history.

If one of the dominant images of Fordism is the company town, “post-Fordism” refers to the decline of the Fordist industrial model and its replacement by a more flexible, deregulated, and global model of production and consumption. Post-Fordism refers to the wholesale shifts that have characterized the last four decades or so, since the economic crises (including the OPEC oil crisis) of the early 1970s.

Economically, these shifts have been characterized by a move from national regulation and economies of scale (bigness) to deregulation, globalization, and economies of scope (which spread into and/or create new labor and consumer markets). Capital, in a post-Fordist world, is free to move wherever it likes (e.g., to countries with more “friendly” tax laws and with lower-wage workers).

Post-Fordism is accompanied by the deregulation of financial markets, computerization in all spheres of industry and everyday life, the niche marketing of products aimed at and promoting cultural and “lifestyle” differences, and so on. It can, in this sense, be seen as a response of the capitalist economy to some of the “desires” unleashed during the social movements of the 1960s — an incorporation or “co-optation” of them into an order where the structure of power remains otherwise unchanged.


More to come.

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