23. Consent

Ch 23

Propaganda and bribery – the problem of consent

In chapter 15, I described some of the underlying beliefs of the conservative movement in the United States, focussing in particular on “wealth is virtue”.  This chapter takes that discussion a step further, by looking at HOW the conservatives and their accomplices in the political and corporate world have entrenched their positions.

They have done it first by the narrative they sell which becomes dominant, and secondly by the use of distraction (whether this is consciously or unconsciously done).  The first is propaganda (a word many recoil at, but an accurate one), the second is bribery.

The final section of the chapter looks at how we, as citizens, have become complicit in this, by consenting to their words and actions.

Propaganda – the manufacture of a dominant narrative

Karl Marx concluded that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction because of its pursuit of profit.  That may be true, but it hasn’t happened yet.  Capitalism has shown a reasonable amount of resilience so far.  And, at the moment, the signs are that, if capitalism goes down, it’ll take most of us down with it.

Antonio Gramsci explored how capitalism has gained its resilience in his “Prison Notebooks” (which I have only read summaries and extracts from, by the way).  The core idea was that this is achieved by a mixture of “coercion and consent”.

“Coercion”, the use of hard power, is done by the visible apparatus of the state – the legal and justice systems, the military and police, the revenue and industry departments and so on.  Their core purpose, according to Gramsci, is to enforce compliance on those who don’t consent[i].

I’m not going to focus on the “coercive” aspect of government behaviour, because the machinery of government is by and large visible to us all.

But the manufacture of “consent” is much less visible, and in the market society it is done not just by governments but by corporations and lobbyists as well.

Gramsci’s thesis is that consent is manufactured by those in power through their domination of the language and institutions of society.  They create a single narrative which becomes received truth, and marginalises other viable ways of seeing the world.

At one level, this is fairly obvious – the most powerful among us also have the loudest voices, and the most visibility.  So their view of the world gets more airtime.  Heaven help us, we even have to listen to Donald Trump now and then.

George Orwell’s “1984” is a brilliant description of the use of language and narrative to define and control events.  And there are two aspects to it – first, control over what is said in mainstream media, enabling your story to be the one which gets maximum visibility.  And second, when it suits, the use of “doublespeak” – of barefaced lies, denials, and mislabelling – to undermine opposition either by raising doubts about it (for example, climate change scepticism), or by stealing its language to disguise the real intent of your own activities (for examples, programmes such as “No Child Left Behind”).

The story is developed through simplification of the issues, reducing them where possible to slogans and catchcrys, and through ignoring issues which might disturb or raise doubts about the mainline of the story.  A slightly pathetic example of this last is the words which our own previous Prime Minister, John Key, does NOT use.  In his first eight “state of the nation” speeches as Prime Minister, he never used the words “poverty” or “climate change”, and only once mentioned the word “inequality”[ii].

The single narrative that has been created is one I have already described.  American conservatism gives its moral base (the “strict father model”), neoclassical economics gives its socio-economic platform, and they form an unholy combination:

  • Wealth is virtue (and poverty is vice).
  • Wealth is gained (who cares who creates it?) by competitive individualism (not by luck or by combined effort).
  • The invisible hand of the market will provide (and so government, and regulation of corporate behaviour, are mostly unnecessary).

This is the creed of social Darwinism.

The narrative has been sold and reinforced consistently and insistently over decades, at first from within conservative ranks and then more generally by the political classes, as they bought into the narrative and its underlying messages of “you’re in power because you deserve to be” and “other people should look after themselves”.

The previous government of New Zealand, and the current governments of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom (English-speaking Commonwealth cousins) are all climate change sceptics.  In New Zealand, the previous government proposed to meet its looming targets by increasing emissions and buying carbon credits (that is, using our wealth to avoid doing anything real about climate change).  In Australia, the government of Tony Abbott waged a war on investment in renewable energy, and his successor Malcolm Turnbull has reversed his previous stance, to support “clean coal” and “carbon capture” as viable solutions[iii].  In the UK mention of the environment and climate change is frowned upon (what’s climate change?).  And Canada is simply the “worst of the wealthy countries” in this regard[iv], although the recent election of Justin Trudeau may signal a change there.

The political elites in these countries have bought wholeheartedly into the propaganda of social Darwinism.  It is being institutionalised in policy development and education by the endowment of think tanks and universities, and it is the main narrative in mainstream media.

And the existence of a well-funded media giant at the far-end of the conservative loony-tunes spectrum (Fox News) only serves to make the mainstream narrative more respectable.  Fox News is to mainstream media what Donald Trump is to the other Republican presidential candidates – the fruitcake who makes the others seem respectable.  And when we learn that Fox News owner and climate-change denier Rupert Murdoch has bought 73% of “National Geographic”, we should be very, very frightened[v].

Mainstream media also form a bridge between propaganda and bribery – the two instruments which manufacture consent in our capitalist societies.  And no one describes that bridge better than Frank Zappa.

Bribery – the manufacture of a “comfort trap”

I love Frank Zappa’s music.  Judith’s and my wedding song was “Montana”, a ballad celebrating the delights of dental floss production, pygmy ponies, tweezers, and riding in the moonlight.

But it’s another one of his songs, “I’m the Slime”, which provides the perfect introduction to this section[vi]:

“I am gross and perverted, I’m obsessed ‘n deranged
“I have existed for years, but very little has changed
“I’m the tool of the Government and industry too
“For I am destined to rule and regulate you.
“I may be vile and pernicious, but you can’t look away
“I make you think I’m delicious with the stuff that I say
“I’m the best you can get, have you guessed me yet?
“I’m the slime oozin’ out from your TV set.”

There is much concern in progressive circles about the “poverty trap”.  This is the situation where the poor and unwaged are unable to get out of poverty because they either lack a base of wealth on which to consolidate any gains in income, or are penalised so much by increased taxes or reduced benefits if their income does increase that there is little financial gain from seeking waged employment (which is often poorly paid and unpleasant anyway).  The poverty trap is real in current affluent economies, and it is leading to increasing numbers in the “underclasses” – the marginalised and welfare-dependent people in society, often over more than one generation.

According to the current narrative, of course, these people are to blame for their own situation – by definition, if they don’t get some wealth, they lack virtue.  Their situation, apparently, has nothing to do with an economic system which institutionalises unemployment as necessary to reducing the bargaining power of labour, and hence lower wages in the waged economy.  And which creates and destroys jobs purely in pursuit of short-term profit.

But my concern is not the poverty trap itself.  It is with another, more insidious trap, which captures not only some of those in relative poverty, but also many of those in relative comfort.

I call it the “comfort trap”.

One of the complaints many of my friends make when we talk about issues such as environmental degradation and climate change is that they have too little time to really explore the issues.  Three points come out of this for me.

First, the climate sceptics are being effective – they’ve raised enough doubts that people aren’t acting when they clearly should.

Second, the neoclassical economic model of the world really has taken over – my friends are being turned into wage slaves, working longer and longer hours in pursuit of …what, exactly?

The “what” is my third point, and the most important for the purposes of this section.  My friends and I are caught in a comfort trap.  We have expectations of material well-being which we are motivated to maintain.  And we are prepared to put time into maintaining it at the expense of thinking harder about our real place and role in the world.

When we are tired, we turn on the TV.  Which gives us the propaganda I’ve described above, and continuous encouragement to purchase and consume.  It also gives us a whole pile of overhyped and morally bankrupt time-wasters such as “reality shows”, “talent contests”, and “crime investigations”.  Television, like the movies, has reached “economic maturity” – it is a commodity factory turning out whatever will service the lowest common denominator in its listeners.  It is oozing slime.

That’s a sweeping generalisation, I hear you say.  There’s lots of “quality TV”!

Is there?  I myself see little original on TV, just many variations on a limited number of themes and lots of repetitive advertisements.  Even if good and novel ideas are presented, they quickly degenerate into sequels and repetition.  But I guess I’m a TV snob.

And, what’s wrong with watching silly things like talent and reality shows, anyway?  Some in them are talented, and some of it is real.  And it passes the time when we’re too tired to think.

Exactly.  Most “entertainment” TV is junk-food for the mind, a distraction from engagement with more important things.  And it is so shrill and overhyped that it leaves little space for thought or contemplation.  It shouts at us continuously, whether in the advertising breaks or in most of the shows.  And most print media are going down the same path.

Cruellest of all for me, sports TV has gone the same way.  American sports have long been infected with hype and razzle-dazzle, but it has caught up with us here in New Zealand too.  My childhood heroes were modest, taciturn giants who let their actions do the talking – people like Colin Meads on the rugby field and Peter Snell in athletics.  Now our sports heroes model underwear, and are introduced by Wagnerian music and apocalyptic imagery.  Even golf, that politest of sports, is now hyped up as a gladiatorial conquest.

In the waged and unwaged classes, we are back in the Roman Empire.  We are being fed bread and entertained by circuses, all to dissuade us from looking more carefully at our situations.  Perhaps, as suggested in one episode of “Max Headroom”, the next step will be to make it illegal for us to own, let alone use, “Off” switches for our networked televisions and computers[vii].

The new social media available on our computers and smartphones are accentuating these problems.  They do offer an apparent sense of individual control over what we observe and consume, and some pretty immediate availability of information and action.  But that “immediacy” is just like the television – an encouragement to pay attention to the immediate and the trivial, not the long term and the important, things in our life.

If we are too tired from earning enough to live on, and/or too distracted by what is around us, to engage in truly active home-life and leisure, or to put effort into acting as responsible citizens, then the economic sphere is out of balance with the personal and governance spheres.

I’ve focussed on TV and entertainment till now – mental junk food.  I should also say something about sofas, dust-busters, and cars as well – material junk food.

Capitalism has shown a genius for inventing things which, whatever their real costs, can be cheaply sold.  Or not so cheaply, depending on your income.

And some of them aren’t just time- and space-wasting.  For example, the Internet and the cell-phone have put us into better connection with information, each other, and the world, and leapfrogged high cost land-lines in the poor world.

But from the weird and wonderful stuff that infests a $2 shop to leather La-Z-Boys, to the latest apps with which you can measure your eye-blink rate, we are surrounded by opportunities to consume.  And encouraged to consume.  And offered credit cards to help us consume.  And need to work harder to pay off the debt incurred by our consumption.  Leaving us too tired and stressed to think rationally about the extraordinary waste in what we are consuming.

I’ve talked about mental and material “junk-food” as part of the comfort trap.  Finally, a word about junk-food itself.  There are varieties of food literally called “comfort foods”, and they are usually the sweet stuff, mildly if not completely addictive, and definitely unhealthy.  The fast food companies such as McDonalds are expert at creating products which meet our cravings in unhealthy ways.  Soft drink and sweet companies vie to sell products that hit our “bliss point” – that (very high) level of sugar which maximises feelings of enjoyment[viii].  And if that’s not enough, the alcohol companies try to addict the young by selling them “alcopops”, which combine the sugar rush with the enjoyable but also depressive and damaging effects of alcohol.

The comfort trap also goes by the name of the “consumer society”.  And the material comforts of the cheap goods and addictive foods it offers vie for our attention with the immaterial comforts of junk-food TV.

If we are not seduced by it all, we are shouted down by it.  We are left with little space to think and contemplate.

If we are too busy consuming to engage in truly active home-life and leisure, or to put effort into acting as responsible citizens, then (again) the economic sphere is out of balance with the personal and governance spheres.

Consent – the abdication of responsibility

Neil Potter quoted to me that we, as individuals, have “abdicated, not delegated, our responsibilities”.  We’ve been ably assisted by the propaganda and bribery that our capitalist system uses to manufacture consent.  But there is also an important truth in the idea that we have abdicated our responsibilities.

This is beautifully illustrated in Kari Marie Norgaard’s book, “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life”.  Norgaard observed the behaviour of inhabitants of a small Norwegian town during and after the very mild winter of 2000-01, which had a severe impact on the town’s activities and well-being.

She found that climate change was a topic that people were aware of, but did not associate with their current state, or consider as something they should be active about.  She explored the personal and social barriers that were put up, and the mechanisms the community used, to avoid the issue.  She described the “dead zone” which conversations entered when the subject of climate change was brought up.

She found a pattern of “socially organised denial” operating at all levels from the personal to the community.  The townsfolk conspired to avoid the deeper issues, out of mixed feelings of helplessness, guilt, and “being a bad person”.  It wasn’t that they didn’t actually believe in or care about climate change, it was just that they wanted to avoid it – it was too big and too scary, and they didn’t want to admit they were probably part of the problem.

Personal psychology, social norms, and political propaganda, all played a part in this, and the fact that Norway was a previously environmentally conscious country which had recently become rich on the proceeds of North Sea oil was also very important.

But there was no doubt that the citizens were actively engaged in the process of denial.

I am sure the general pattern of Norgaard’s findings would be repeated throughout the affluent world.  In other words, we are complicit in the manufacture of our consent to our current situation.  We are, in some sense at least, abdicating our responsibility as citizens.  (Again, this is “most of us” I am talking about – there are also many progressives who are actively engaged in NOT consenting.)

The two substantive challenges we face in taking those responsibilities back up again are huge: to find or create alternative voices to the mainstream propaganda, and to abandon the model of individual consumption in which we are trapped.  And the prior challenge we face may be even larger: to find the courage to start doing these things – to begin withdrawing our consent.  Chapter 40 suggests six steps which might be taken to begin doing this.

As far as propaganda is concerned, we at least have easy access to alternative voices, thanks to the Internet and other new media channels.  Unfortunately, while we have access to far more information than we have ever had before, the validity and trustworthiness of that information is almost always uncertain. Wikipedia and other sources do their best to indicate trustworthiness, but the problem remains.

And it is not enough to just listen to the alternative voices.  If this is all we do, we are in danger of joining Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads”, becoming unthinking followers who might be led anywhere[ix].  We need to engage, to challenge, and to bring issues into the public arena.

As far as bribery and material comfort are concerned, we need to find ways to do this together.  My own approach is currently as described in chapter 40, beginning to reduce my own consumption while trying to find or if necessary build a community which is willing to share both the commitment, and also the goods and services (because sharing must replace ownership).

Of course, if we as citizens have abdicated our governance responsibilities up till now, that has left a lot of space for the wealthy and powerful to expand into.

But wealth and power do not necessarily bring wisdom, indeed there is probably an inverse correlation between them.  Wealth and power tend to breed arrogance – the self-importance that assumes you are always right – rather than wisdom – the tendency to actually be right.  The next chapter looks in more detail at this problem.

Read on, about “The problem of misguided ingenuity…”>>
Back to the Manifesto>>

[i] From http://www.warofposition.com/?page_id=94

[ii] See “The words Key never says”, Wellington Dominion Post, page A2, 28 Jan 2016

[iii] See http://www.theguardian.com/environment/planet-oz/2015/sep/18/is-new-australian-prime-minister-malcolm-turnbull-already-a-climate-change-turncoat

[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/12/05/canada-worst-climate-policy_n_2246238.html

[v] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Geographic_(magazine)

[vi] From the album “Over-Nite Sensation”, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

[vii] “Max Headroom”, television series 1987-88, Series 1, Episode 6

[viii] See for example “That Sugar Film”

[ix] See for example http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/11/28/1241236/-Rush-Limbaugh-Reveals-How-He-Sucks-People-In-Video