Tag: Subverted democracy

Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism

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One particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. The Conservative election campaign was a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo.

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Tories have not only framed all of the issues to be given public priority – they set and stage-manage the media agenda – they have also dominated the narrative; they constructed and manage the political lexicon and now treat words associated with the Left, such as welfare, like semantic landmines, generating explosions of right-wing scorn, derision and ridicule. Words like cooperation, inclusion, mutual aid, reciprocity, equality, nationalisation, redistribution – collective values – are simply dismissed as mere anachronisms that need to be stricken from public conversation and exiled from our collective consciousness, whilst all the time enforcing their own bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa. The political manufacturing of a culture of anti-intellectualism extends this aim, too.

Words like competition, market place, small state, efficiency, responsibility and so on, now crowd out any opportunity of even a fleeting glance of another way of socio-economic organisation.

Anything presented that contradicts the consensus – a convincing, coherent, viable alternative perspective – is treated to a heavily staged editing via meta-coverage by the media. Anyone would think that the media regards the UK as a one-party state.

And here, people tend to take the Daily Mail with totalitarianism and tea …

“There’s something happening here
  But what it is ain’t exactly clear …”

Such tactics deployed in manufacturing consensus are widely used, and combined, they serve to reduce public expectation of opposition and in doing so establish diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

Adam Curtis explores themes of “power and how it works in society” in depth, and his works draw on areas of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.

Curtis points out, in his Oh-Dearism documentary, that there is an emerging “strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” 

Adam Curtis’s Oh-Dearism on Charlie Brooker’s 2014 ScreenWipe show.

I have been reading about totalitarianism recently. You know when you have an itching recognition of something and need clarification of what it is precisely? I’ve felt for a long time that our own Tory government has totalitarian tendencies.

Totalitarianism is the name given to a political system that aims to mobilise entire populations in support of an official state ideology, and to exercise a repressive, absolute control over society, seeking to micro-manage all aspects of public and private life.

However, Sheldon Wolin has outlined an alternative form – inverted totalitarianism  – as not only signaling the political demobilization of the citizenry, but goes on to say that because it isn’t clearly evident in neoliberal ideology or policy, and it isn’t named, this makes recognition, reflection and challenging it very difficult. It is inverted because it does not require the use of overt coercion, police power and a messianic ideology as in the classical Nazi, Fascist and Stalinist versions of totalitarianism.

It’s true that dominant ideologies tend to become naturalised epistemology – acquiring an illusory consensus – and so become embedded and disguised as “common sense.” This makes it very difficult to identify and articulate the doxa, and even more difficult to present coherent challenges to it. See: Manufacturing consensus: the end of history and the partisan man.

Wolin writes:

“Our thesis is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism, different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively “strong democracy” instead of a “failed” one.

Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. It depends on the existence of a demos – a politically engaged and empowered citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of public office.”

Wolin proposes that the United States on occasion came close to genuine democracy, but it was because citizens struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written into the Constitution.

He sees the New Deal as perhaps the only period of American history in which rule by a true demos prevailed. That is comparable with the rise of welfare states elsewhere in European democracies. Here in the UK, the welfare state arose in part because of the enfranchisement of the working class. The welfare state may be considered a fundamental part of the foundations for democracy. 

Other features of inverted totalitarianism are the same as the ones that formal definitions of classical totalitarianism identify: the mass media is the first mechanism of control that tyrants generally seek, which is used to erect fact-proof screens from reality. 

The regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life, psychology, morals and the perceptions of citizens. And decision-making. 

I had already linked the government Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) with behaviourism and totalitarian thinking last year

To influence the decision-making of the public without their knowledge and consent, using techniques of persuasion – usually associated with advertising – is profoundly anti-democratic. As is the underpinning assumption that the public are generally irrational and fallible, but the government are somehow infallible, formulating a theory of human nature as if from some impossible, mind-independent, species-independent, “objective,” external vantage point. 

It’s like saying: “That’s your human nature, but not ours. We are somehow miraculously exempted from it.” 

This is a government that is encroaching at an existential level and surreptitiously imposing instructions about how we must be. And how we must be is ultimately confined to accommodating neoliberalism.

Edward Bernays, amongst others, has contributed significantly to the rise and perpetuation of inverted totalitarianism through the imported methods and practice of techniques of persuasion drawn from knowledge of social psychology and sociology, from advertising, and the rule of “market forces” to many other contexts than markets, including politics and the media. The ultimate purpose for the use of such techniques is to subvert and obscure the truth. 

Of course history showed that Bernays’ identification of the “manipulation of the masses” as a “natural and necessary feature of a democratic society” was a flawed theory when the rise to power of the totalitarian Nazis demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy and generate social conflicts. In his autobiography – Biography of an Idea – Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where: 

“Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.” 

In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. Inverted totalitarianism is a system where every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government.

Although this is a critique aimed at the US, we have the same social conservatism and neoliberal ideology here in the UK, and to me, it’s as plain as day. One of the main objectives of managed democracy is to increase the profits of large corporations and dismantle the institutions of social democracy – our social security, trade unions, public health services, social housing, access to legal aid, human rights and so forth, and roll back the social and political ideals of the post-war settlement here in the UK, and the New deal in the US. The primary tool is privatisation. 

Managed democracy aims at the abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of most citizens, under the cover of improving “efficiency,” reducing small state “intrusion” and cost-cutting. Over recent years, austerity has been used as a front to accelerate this process, increasing economic inequality, redistributing public funds to increasingly wealthy individual’s private bank accounts. 

Another feature of managed democracy is the need to keep citizens preoccupied with the peripheral and the private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of public trust. The political function of this is to divide the public whilst obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns (and interests) of the general population.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism. 

The Nazis openly mocked democracy, the UK and United States maintain the conceit that they serve as the model of democracy for the whole world. Instead, we have become a showcase for how to reduce democracy to just a brand, displaying how it can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. Democracy has been reduced to a flimsy façade, obscuring its antithesis. 

Totalitarianism isn’t simply a feature of a dystopian novel by George Orwell: it’s become entrenched and naturalised. Alternatives to social conservatism and neoliberalism are either edited out in advance of reaching public attention, or meta-edited, distorted and presented as “all the same” or straw man fallacies to buttress the status quo. 

I’ve been saying since 2012 that democracy is being subverted. The welfare “reforms” were hammered through parliament despite widespread and strong opposition, when Cameron used “financial privilege” as a justification to sidestep democratic process. Then came the widely opposed Health and Social Care Bill, and the Conservative’s refusal to release the details of the risk register to the public. It has remained unreleased.

But mostly, the recognition starts as an uneasy feeling, an indefinable something being not quite right, like a fleeting glimpse from the corner of your eye that triggers an adrenaline trickle of unease. Then comes the discovery that laws are being edited quietly, protective policies are eroded and some have been secretly repealed. Our human rights are being disregarded, and there’s a clearly expressed intention to heavily edit the existing legislation. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, and observation of them separates democrats from despots. 

It’s so essential that we don’t disengage from politics, but rather, we need to organise, we need to construct a cogent narrative of resistance and transformation, formulating an alternative vocabulary that helps to raise awareness; to motivate; to inspire; to change public perceptions and directly challenge the tyrants. We need to fight to reclaim our democracy; to collectively insist on the re-population of increasingly dehumanising public and economic policies; to re-assert human needs and rights over and above the absurd, anti-humanist and socially fatal demands of desolating, pathological and ever-escalating neoliberalism.

 


 

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