A brief explanation of what neoliberalism is, how it developed, and its influence on television horror in the 1980s and 90s.

Neoliberalism: A Bleak New World

Quick disclaimer: I’m not a historian, economist, or political science scholar. What I am is a media scholar.  My understanding of what neoliberalism is, how it came about, and its impact on the world is, in some ways, discipline-specific. The following is a brief gloss on what neoliberalism is and how it’s situated in the world based on how it was first explained to me (by Dr. Andrea Smith in a seminar on Stuart Hall) and how my understanding has evolved and developed in the last few years.

The first thing to understand about neoliberalism, as Hall articulates it, is that it is inextricably tied to capitalism, and moreover, to globalized capitalism. This is significant when you consider that neoliberalism, as a term, is a way to describe political states, institutions, and their incumbent cultural hierarchies. Hall situates the rise of neoliberalism historically, explaining the contexts that lead to it dating back to the 18th century. He marks the major turning points, however, the points from which we could not turn back, as Margaret Thatcher’s appointment as British Prime Minister in 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s election to the US presidency in 1981. Significantly, Hall characterizes Thatcher’s formation of neoliberalism as “authoritarian populism” that mobilized the (new) power of free-market capitalism and the (old) power of nationalist fervor.[1] According to Hall, “‘The market’ was a modern, rational, efficient, practically-oriented discourse, inscribed in the everyday. Nationalist discourse, with its undertow […] was haunted by the fantasy of a late return to the flag, family values, national character, imperial glory and the spirit of Palmerstonian[2] gunboat diplomacy.”[3] Neoliberalism, then, is the blending of profit-driven capitalist consumption/growth and infrastructural, ideological nationalism. This nationalism is key because it establishes a hierarchical system of identity groups[4] in order to better determine who is exploited and who’s doing the exploiting.

Another main point that Hall makes has to do with the fact that neoliberalism didn’t spring spontaneously into being in 1979, nor did a mysterious voice tell Thatcher how to develop and implement this politico-economic system. The simplest explanation of how neoliberalism came about, and how it was able to become so pervasive, is this: as the world moved toward industrialism (and especially after the Industrial Revolution) mercantilism transformed into capitalism, which is an exploitative system (because profit > quality of life). People don’t like being exploited, the social welfare state places itself between corporations and people, attempting to fill in the gaps where peoples’ quality of life has been sacrificed in order for corporations to increase profits. This system is expensive and ultimately unsustainable. It begins to collapse, but now people are attached to the idea that they should be able to have basic human necessities under capitalism; they blame the government, not the corporations, because the state has let them down most recently. This brings us to neoliberalism under Thatcher. In order to reconcile the crisis at hand, Thatcher/Reagan/Tony Blair began moving (Western) ideologies towards a system in which the people who are most victimized by the capitalist apparatus are responsible for their own exploitation. If they only worked harder, if they were only more educated, or followed the rules, then they would be able to work their way up. In this view, people are only poor, homeless, stuck in untenable situations because they’re not trying hard enough to change their circumstances. And thus, the state no longer has to expend nearly as many resources fixing the mess corporations make, and those corporations are able to continue as usual, happily increasing profits and accumulating wealth. Everybody wins. Except for the working class, homeless, and generally most vulnerable segments of the population, of course.

Tales from the Darkside (1983-88)

Considering Tales from the Darkside through the lens of Hall’s critique, the show illuminates how the dichotomies of neoliberalism began to surface in popular media in the 1980s. The show’s pilot, “Trick or Treat” is about a greedy old man (Gideon Hackles, played by Barnard Hughes) who supplies a small farming community with tools and other miscellaneous goods. The town’s harvests are universally poor, and have been for a while. The entire community is indebted to Gideon. Every year on Halloween, Gideon gives the townspeople the opportunity to erase their debt; each family must send a child to his home, which he transforms into a haunted house. The children just need to find their family’s stack of IOUs hidden somewhere in the house, and the debt will be forgiven. But none of the children overcome their fear and find their family’s papers. That is, until one year, when a mysterious witch arrives at Gideon’s door. She enters the house, enchanting his previously fake ghouls and ghosts, and sends all of the IOUs (and all of Gideon’s money) floating away on the wind. Gideon staggers his way into a room resembling the gateway to hell, complete with its own devil and demons, and presumably dies there. The town’s debt is forgiven, and their oppressor is defeated.

“Trick or Treat” is representative of early neoliberalism taking hold. There is some acknowledgment that the accumulation of wealth at the expense of a community is bad, that exploiting people is wrong. But the townspeople still willingly send their children in to try to win their financial freedom back, rather than collectivizing and overturning the entire system as a community. These people, as far as the narrative (and presumably the audience) is concerned, have gotten themselves into this mess, and their children (representative of their future) are responsible for getting them out of it. Further, the show makes it clear that Gideon, an individual, is taking advantage of these people, not any larger capitalist system. It’s unthinkable that he is just part of a larger ideological economic apparatus. There is no clear statement that the idea of prioritizing profits over people is a national, or even global, problem. There is no critique of normalizing wealth-accumulation as a criterion for a person’s value. In this way, Tales from the Darkside represents, rather than challenges, dominant ideologies of capitalist wealth accumulation on a large scale, while condemning them on a case-by-case basis.

Twin Peaks (1990-91)

Where Tales from the Darkside can be seen as TV horror’s first tentative steps into neoliberal ideology, Twin Peaks came about once neoliberalism was in full swing. It aired during the middle of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, right around the end of the Cold War and the start of the Gulf War. This period was also notable for inroads made by indigenous rights activists, especially in terms of education reform in Native American communities (which, in all likelihood, contributed to Twin Peaks’ problematic and prevalent themes revolving around Native Americans, reservations, and casinos). Twin Peaks, in many ways, jumps into the hierarchical politics of marginalization and privilege with both feet, dressing identity rankings up with art house narrative structures and surrealist noir aesthetics.

The main thrust of Twin Peaks’ ideology has to do with how it centers white, suburban, middle-class America as being under siege by both the Native American community (read: not white/aspiring to whiteness, therefore not “proper” Americans) and by the town’s wealthy elite. The show’s first season and part of the second are preoccupied with the mystery surrounding Laura Palmer’s murder. Laura (Sheryl Lee), like so many other pretty, gregarious, outgoing white young women in TV and film, represents the ideal, normative American daughter from the ideal, normative American family. On the surface, she fits perfectly into her gender role, upholding the interconnected fragility of white femininity and privilege of the white middle-class. Laura Palmer is dead at the beginning of the series, essentially marking the symbolic death of safe, suburban, middle-class life. By the middle of the second season it is discovered that her own father (not her drug dealer, as previously suspected) killed her. Her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) was possessed by a demon at the time, though, a demon that molested him as a child and later, while possessing Leland, also molested Laura. The context of sexual violence here is significant from a psychoanalytic perspective because it implies that a major cause for Leland’s later violence has to do both with his own emasculation and with his daughter’s defilement (she is, after all, his property, so her being molested by a demon, even in Leland’s body, is a violation of his property). Furthermore, while the ultimate threat to the town Twin Peaks is its wealthiest patriarchs, Leland is only threatening when he’s possessed by an external, interfering force. This could be read a number of ways, of course, but one analysis holds that if Leland represents capitalist corporations then the demon represents government regulation and intervention in the free market. Danger, then, comes from state interference, not from capitalism on its own.

The X-Files (1993-2002)

The X-Files takes distrust of the government and elected officials to a new, conspiracy-driven place. The show’s 9-year run overshot Bill Clinton’s presidency by only one year, which makes the connection between the show’s dismissal of bureaucracy and government agencies and national politics pretty indisputable. President Clinton’s politics mark a shift in neoliberal ideologies—more specifically, his politics make it very clear that neoliberalism is not a partisan politico-economic system. Neoliberalism may look different in the hands of republicans and democrats, but both parties have put it to effective use since the 1980s. Clinton’s particular brand of neoliberalism relied on stressing the importance of meritocracy in oppositional identity politics. While he did help bolster the social safety net, access to resources was perhaps more dependent on respectability politics, so that it was possible to be “properly” marginalized (this is where the humanist rhetoric of “we’re just like normal white, middle-class, straight, etc. families” comes from). This development worked to grant more rights and resources to some members of marginalized communities while simultaneously fracturing those same communities. The result of this is that organizing, even within communities that share in specific kinds of marginalization, is that much more difficult and prone to burnout for organizers and activists.

The way that all of this presents itself in The X-Files is, most obviously, in the fact that the government does not believe in the otherworldly discoveries that FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) make, but those discoveries are completely real regardless. Special Agent Scully’s placement in the show, her character development over the course of the series, can be read as contradicting the show’s seemingly straightforward anti-government ideology in favor of a feminist rhetoric. This reading considers that the show’s focus has less to do with the conspiracy theory angle and more to do with the very real glass ceiling for women, especially intelligent, resourceful women in male-dominated industries. The way that Scully is characterized, it’s clear that she could, and probably should have been, well on her way running the Bureau. Instead, however, she’s shut up in a dead-end department that garners no respect whatsoever in the Bureau, under the auspices of surveilling Mulder. Read this way, the show is still problematic, though, because our sympathy for Scully is still tied up in her whiteness, her education, her intelligence, her able-bodiedness, and her general normativity. We care that her career is consistently undermined because her privilege has given her the opportunities (education, safety, security, mobility) that should entitle her to a better professional position.

[1] Hall, Stuart. “The Neoliberal Revolution: Thatcher, Blair, Cameron – The Long March of Neoliberalism Continues.” Soundings 48.1 (2011): 9-28.18
[2] For more information, look into the Don Pacifico Incident in 1850 and Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston’s (Lord Palmerston) involvement in the First Opium War.
[3] ibid
[4] In this way, as Hall makes clear, neoliberalism owes a huge debt to colonialism and the way that it constructed race, gender, ethnicity, etc.

Author: Geneveive Newman

Image Credit: 20th Television © 1996