The Limits of Engineering Consent

27 May 2014


European People's Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker.

European People’s Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker.

A great deal of contemporary political stability — much more than we usually like to think — is predicated upon the careful management of public opinion and the engineering of consent. The masses that constitute mass society in an age of mass man have the vote, and as voters they play a role in the liberal democracies that populate Fukuyama’s end of history, but we must observe that the role the voters play in democracy is carefully circumscribed. (A perfect example of this is the lack of transparency built into the US electoral college, adding layers of procedural rationality between the voters and the outcome of the process.) There is always a tension in liberal democracies predicated upon the management of public opinion of how far and how hard the masses can be pushed. If they are pushed too hard, they riot, or they fail to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. If they are not pushed hard enough, or if they are not sufficiently fearful of authority, again, they might riot, or they might not work hard enough to keep the wheels of industry turning.

So political elites don’t push, they nudge. The nauseating paternalism of the “nudge” mentality among contemporary politicians (which, instead of being called “engineering consent,” which is a term that carries unfortunate connotations, is now called, “active engineering of choice architecture”) derived the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, seeks to apply the findings of behavioral economics to public policy decisions — with the proviso, of course, that it is the people in charge, the people who make public policy, who know best, and if we want a better world we need to give them a free hand to shape our choices. Unfortunately, the working class masses are not in a position to actively engineer the choice architecture of political leaders, although it is at least arguable that the political elite need an engineered choice architecture far more than the masses.

The European Union has been testing the boundaries of how far the European masses can be pushed (or nudged) to cooperate in bringing about the vision of a unified Europe, and with the Euroskeptics winning in many different regions of Europe, it appears that the European masses are pushing back by failing to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. The political class of the European Union has just been handed a sharp rebuke that is a reminder of the limits of engineering consent, and they have been remarkably open and honest about it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on the BBC on the need for economic development, “This is the best answer to the disappointed people who voted in a way we didn’t wish for.”

This European openness about the failure of Europe’s political class to effectively engineer the consent of the governed for the political and economic programs planned by the political elite is an important corrective to the American tendency to see conspiracies and secret cabals behind every unexpected turn of events. In Europe, the politicians have been honest that they wanted one result, and the people gave a different result. French President François Hollande was quoted as saying he would, “reaffirm that the priority is growth, jobs and investment.” Why are Merkel and Hollande united in seeing the need for jobs and economic development? Because they know that workers making good wages and who see a future for themselves and their families will mostly let the politicians have their way. It is when times are not good that voters push back against the grandiose dreams of politicians that seem to have little or no practical benefit. Europe’s political class is well aware that if the European masses have growth, jobs, and investment that they will be far more compliant at election time.

However, Hollande also said of the Eurozone financial crisis (now apparently safely in the past) that Europe had survived, “but at what price? An austerity that has ended up disheartening the people.” This latter statement demonstrates the degree to which Hollande fails to understand What is going on even as the ground shifts beneath his feet. One must understand that when European politicians talk about “austerity” what they really mean is resisting unchecked deficit spending, which would then be justified on Keynesian grounds. (I earlier called this the Europeanese of the financial crisis.) It isn’t “austerity” that has disheartened the people; it is Europe that has disheartened the people, the Europe of the European Union, but this realization is almost impossible for true believers in the European idea.

The tension between the masses in representative democracies and their putative political representatives has become obvious and explicit with this EU election in which “Euroskeptics” have been the most successful candidates. This tension can also be understood by way a very simple thought experiment: If you really had a free choice to elect whomever you liked as your political leader(s), are the political representatives you have now the ones you would choose? I think that any honest answer to this question must be, “No.” And this leaves us with the further question as to how these “leaders” came into power if they are not the choice of the people. The answer is relatively simple: these where the leaders that the political system produced for the consumption of the public. The public isn’t happy with its leaders, and the leaders aren’t happy with the public, but they are stuck with each other.

There is a limit to the extent to which the disconnect between rulers and ruled can grow before a social system becomes unworkable. Early in this blog in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that two paradigms for the social organization of industrial society had been tried and found wanting, and that we are today searching for a further paradigm of social consensus to supersede those that have failed us. The mutual alienation between political elites and working masses in the liberal democracies of today is a symptom of the lack of social consensus, but in so far as these classes of society feel stuck with each other we have not yet reached the limits of the disconnect.

However, this mutual alienation tells us something else that is interesting, and this is the continued role of mythological political visions in an age of apparent pragmatism. The alienation that lies at the root of what Eric Voegelin called “gnosticism” in politics is here revealed as the alienation of the leadership of a democratic society from the people they presumptively represent (Hollande said of the EU that it had become, “remote and incomprehensible”) and of the people from its “leadership.”

Gnosticism is a worldview in which secret knowledge is reserved for initiates into the higher mysteries. Here is one of Voegelin’s definitions of gnosis:

“…a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special quality of a spiritual and cognitive elite.”

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Collected Works Vol. 34, Columbia University, 2006, Glossary of Terms, p. 160

How does the claim to gnosis reveal itself in our pragmatic, bureaucratic age? Gnosis is necessarily distinct for each of the political classes, each of which has created its own political mythology in which it is an unique and indispensable historical actor on an eschatological stage. For mass man, gnosis takes the form of “consciousness raising,” whether being made aware, for the first time, of his status as a worker (proletarian), his race, his ethnicity, or any other property that can be employed to distinguish the elect. Access to official secrets is the special privilege and the secret knowledge of the elite political classes — the elect of the nation-state — so that to compromise these secrets and the privilege of access to them is to call into question the political mythology of the elites.

The creation of universal surveillance states is part of the this development, since the efficient management of mass man is predicated upon knowing the masses better than the mass knows itself — knowing what the mass wants, what will placate its tantrums, how hard it can be pushed, and, then the masses push back, how they can be most effectively distracted, mollified, and redirected. The extreme reaction to the revelation of official secrets as we have seen in the hysterical responses on the part of the elite political classes to Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks are the result of challenging the political mythos of the ruling elite.

In Europe, residual nationalism, ethnocentrism, and communism still resonate with some sectors of the electorate, and all of these can be be the focus of a purported gnosis; it is precisely the fragmented and divided nature of these loyalties that has kept Europe a patchwork of warring nation-states, and which threatens to torpedo the idea of a unified Europe. In the US, the intellectual lives of the workers have evolved in a different direction, which has resulted in an entirely new political mythology born out of a syncretism of conspiracy theories. (Political conspiracy theories also play a significant role in Africa, Arabia, and parts of Asia; perhaps they will yet come to the European masses.) The elite political classes are contemptuous of the conspiracy theories that excite the masses, even when these conspiracy theories verge uncomfortably close to the truth, but they are jealous in the extreme of their own “secret” knowledge obtained through surveillance. Thus we experience what Ed Snowden has called the Merkel Effect, wherein a member of the elite political class is subject to the very surveillance to which they have subjected others, and it is regarded as a scandal. The masses, on the other hand, are often defiant when their conspiracy theories are subject to rational examination, calling into question their own “secret” knowledge of how the world functions.

It is important to note that both the rise of conspiracy theories on the part of the masses and the rise of surveillance on the part of elite classes are parallel developments. Both classes of society are seeking forms of secret knowledge — that is say, this is the perfect illustration of Voegelin’s thesis on the role of gnosticism in contemporary political societies.

. . . . .

Some past posts in which I have considered Europe, the European Union, and the Eurozone…

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

The Economic Future of Europe

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

The Evolution of Europe

The Idea and Destiny of Europe

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .


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