Just Nod, Please

A bit of history…

Democracy stands and falls with the freedom of public opinion. In part, this freedom is defined in relation to established powers, especially political authority. Public opinion has to be independent. This is how it was understood at the time of its inception around the middle of the eighteenth century: it was to be a ‘tribunal’ that was ‘independent of all powers and respected by all powers.’ (Malesherbes) Around one century earlier, public opinion had the sense of a cluster of beliefs and attitudes that determine behavior and was taken as both the basis and material of political authority. In his ‘scientific’ construction of state power (which he calls the Leviathan, the Biblical sea monster) Hobbes had reasoned that political authority is logically grounded in the consent of the subject, of the ruled. In his other work Behemoth, one of the early modern works of political sociology, he observes that ‘the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people.’ This is not an abstract deduction like the doctrine of social contract of the Leviathan but a generalized observation of how things are, of the real conditions of political rule. The opinion and belief of the people are the real condition of power and the state is well advised to reckon with them. So, the self-understanding of public opinion as an independent and authoritative tribunal was preceded by its being understood, from the perspective of state power, as the basis of its authority and hence something that has to be politically secured. In the early modern political theory the idea of the subject as a potential threat to the sovereign power is a pivotal theme. How to deal with this threat is thus a constant preoccupation of the sixteenth century legists such as Jean Bodin. From this perspective he argued that restriction of state jurisdiction not only ensures the stability of the sovereign power but actually enhances its authority and thus increases its power to pursue its concrete aims. In effect, it politically defuses society. ‘The less the power of the sovereign is,’ writes Bodin provocatively in his Republique, ‘the more it is assured.’ Stability of rule and effective government are related by Bodin to toleration. Repression is to be avoided as much as possible; the state is better served by leaving society to itself unless immediate needs of the sovereign demand otherwise. Finally, the Federalist, the founding document of American democracy, argues that the acquisitive drive has to be encouraged in the people for it keeps their attention and effort engaged away from politics. Distraction is the supreme instrument of securing compliance, since it induces a kind of generalized conformity by default.

Let us now look at the other aspect of the freedom of public opinion. Here we are faced with a strange phenomenon: public opinion has nothing to do with ‘public opinion’ if this term is straightforwardly taken to mean the opinion of the people at large. In fact this latter had a specific name in the ‘philosophical’ mind of the eighteenth century: prejudice. Public opinion, on the other hand, was the organ that asserted the interests of civil society (as these were understood by its ‘enlightened’ leaders) against the absolutist state. It was formed in the enlightened circles such as literary clubs and journals in the course of open discussion and rational debate. There was to be no limits on either topics or who could participate. Of course, the type of interaction placed certain constraints on contribution. Informed judgment, moral responsibility and intellectual autonomy were the guiding principles in this regard. People at large, far from being the measure of public opinion, are in the first place to be educated as to their true interests and enlightened values, instructed by the philosophes. Nonetheless the goal of this education is intellectual emancipation. This cannot be overemphasized. Kant defined the aim of the Enlightenment as daring to think for oneself or using one’s own understanding. This meant that there was, after all, another dimension to the criterion of openness of discussion, namely, its ‘publicity’ or transparency. All discussions and decisions bearing on public matters have to be conducted in public. Thus publicity was set against the secrecy of the (absolutist) state as a morally superior source of power. In his essay Perpetual Peace Kant writes: ‘All actions relating to the rights of other men are wrong, if the maxims from which they follow are inconsistent with publicity.’ If a conduct affecting others cannot be publicly admitted, it is wrong. Public opinion was not just an instrument in the hands of the rising bourgeoisie in its bid for political power. It also frames the manner it exercises authority once it holds the rein. The exercise of power has to be consistent with publicity; authority has to be legitimized by the public opinion. Ever since, the bourgeois state has had to cope with this vulnerability, which only became more acute as it increasingly differentiated itself from other societal sectors, such as the economy, legal system, institutions of knowledge, etc. Before long it would find a way of neutralizing the public opinion, as we will see. One may call it the authorization of opinion.

Democracy has never operated in accordance with its authorized image. In classical liberal political thought democracy is defined as the government of the people by the people and for the people. Society chooses its government through its elected representatives, who are accountable not to their direct electors but to the nation as a whole (the famous ban on binding mandate is supposed to implement this idea of general accountability). The operations of the government are controlled by the parliament and the whole state is supervised by the public opinion whose task it is to articulate the needs and concerns of the citizens. Citizens are relatively well informed and able to form rational judgment about the issues that affect them and thus presumed to have personal autonomy, i.e., each is the best judge of their own interests. In this image democracy is not just about constitutional statutes and procedures but, on top of these, about ‘democratic citizens’ for whose sake the former exist. The idea of representative government as such is based on the intellectual maturity of the citizens without which it loses its principle of legitimacy.

It turns out, however, that citizens are not really predisposed to intellectual autonomy, moral responsibility or rationality. In fact, citizens are not even ‘citizens’ – except perhaps during electoral campaigns ? but the ‘masses’, who are irrational, dumb, fickle, and generally not interested in wasting their time and energy in getting themselves involved in matters that don’t immediately touch their lives. This is the discovery that took place in the course of the nineteenth century and culminated after World War I in the behaviorist social psychology in the United States. In the first half of the nineteenth century, ‘the average man’ became the object of a new ‘science’. ‘Man’s free will is effaced and remains without perceptible effect when observations are extended to a large number of individuals.’ (Quetelet) In studying the average man, Quetelet hoped to be able to produce a science of the variables and parameters that influence human behavior and thus help devise implements capable of regulating the ‘disruptive forces’ of man that imperil the stability of society. The ‘psychology of the crowd’ became in the middle of the nineteenth century a favorite topic of not only literary production but also ‘scientific research’ sponsored by various state institutions throughout Europe and North America. As I just mentioned this development came to a head in the 1930s with the rise in the US of firms specializing in opinions and attitudes. This was partly in response to the needs of the US corporations that introduced the revolutionary idea of a business that organized not just production but the whole process from procurement of raw material to distribution to sale and even marketing. Systematic investigation and classification of consumer behavior, along with perfecting techniques of commercial advertising, assumed strategic importance. The pioneers of opinion polls, trained in the behavioral sciences, were mobilized by the advertisers to develop methods for studying the ‘impact’ of advertising on consumers. Along side pollsters, the ‘public relations’ industry attended to the task of manufacturing consumer motivations and desire. Thus a whole constellation of businesses grew around the goal of organizing economic functions on both ends of supply and demand. In the 1930s polling techniques for measuring and analyzing behavior and marketing techniques for implanting desire were soon brought to bear on electoral processes. Consumer culture oriented by the logic of the market need not be limited to the economic sphere. It also embraces the ‘political market’. Here, various political entrepreneurs, with the help of pollsters, publicity consultants, marketing experts, etc., ‘offer’ their wares to the citizen-consumers. Opinion research thus brought together in a unique context academia, business, political parties and government agencies, and public relations firms. In 1937 in the US a new journal was launched: Public Opinion Quarterly.

These developments were not lost on democratic theory and gave rise to the idea of ‘pluralist democracy.’ The new theory substantially decreased the burden of legitimacy citizens had to bear and, hence, lowered the expectations they had to face as regards their knowledge and competence in public affairs. Freedom of public opinion is insured by the pluralism (dualism?!) of aspirants to leadership (‘political entrepreneurs’) and free access to the means of mass communication. Citizens as consumers have free access to various political programmes offered by political producers and can freely express their preferences at elections. Of course, this does not mean that those preferences were formed freely. According to Plamenatz, for example, the only competence required of citizens is that they be able to evaluate the relative merits of the candidates as ‘legitimate aspirants’ to leadership. The citizens’ incompetence and ignorance can be easily accommodated by the system itself. In this way democratic citizenship is in reality reduced to a consumer choice between authorized products, but is kept as a totemic mask for purposes of democratic legitimacy. Democracy itself is recast as a kind of procedural byproduct of a well functioning market in which certain freedoms (such as legal protection of personal security and private property, freedom of choice, even freedom from penury, etc.) are respected as the conditions of market stability and profitability. The barely noticed suspicion that the range and kind of preferences are determined in advance (the so-called ‘agenda-setting effect’) and that the election is really no more than a ritualistic acclamation ? this suspicion, too, is put to rest by adducing contrary evidence that proves how clever citizen-consumer’s voting behavior is, which is accredited, for example, with such devilish feats as ‘putting’ a Republican in the White House while ‘delivering’ the Congress to the Democrats, or vice versa, or giving the House of Representatives to this one and the Senate to the other. Apparently this way of presenting election outcomes has had a considerable success, judging by its having become a commonplace of mass-media commentary as a point of departure for prying into the voter’s political psychology, notwithstanding its utter absurdity. All for the greater glory of democracy!

A bit of anti-history

‘Sense is always the nonsense that one lets go,’ said Marquard, a German philosopher. About a decade ago, a political theorist observed that ‘one of the odd phenomena we have found to exist in complex societies is that individuals show an increasing tendency to obey commands from political authority “for no particular reason”.’ Perhaps the vocabulary of ‘obey’, ‘command’ and ‘political authority’ is not the one best suited for understanding the conditions that prevail in our society. Aristotle knew that the most banal is the hardest to explain. The normal is self-explanatory. How to explain the banal fact that just as with any other consumer item opinion is produced and distributed for consumption by authorized sources? What are the effects of mass communication on political behavior? But this question that inquires about the specifically political effects of mass-media communication can be placed in proper perspective only if one first asks the more general question: how do the techniques, media and agents of mass communication affect and shape the emotive and cognitive dispositions and capacities of the public at large? In 1988 Guy Debord published a little book called Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, a sequel to his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle. Anyone interested in having a look behind the scene of our ‘spectacularized’ society must read these books. Let me just cite the following thesis from the Comments that succinctly describes the current state of publicity: ‘Formerly one only conspired against an established order. Today, conspiring in its favor is a new and flourishing profession.’ Debord means this statement to be taken in a sociological sense ? with a critical intent, of course. In other words, it signals a new form of social order (the ‘integrated spectacle’) in which the principles and techniques of both intelligence and entertainment industries are generalized – thanks in large part to so-called ‘information revolution.’ The central feature of this situation is the division between on the one hand the spectators and on the other back-stage direction, an asymmetric relation that cannot help effecting a passive frame of mind in the receiver. Owing to this very structure, aside from everything else that in part I presently set out, a potentially abusive relation of power is established. Strategic regulation of the flow of information is the essence of ‘control society’. Information has to be extracted, kept, released with delay, distorted, made up as the need arises, leaked, etc., not in order to ideologically indoctrinate ? that would alert and invoke resistance, as shown by the Soviet experience ? but to seduce, move to pity, to sentimental outrage, to feel self-righteous or relieve disappointment. No subjection is as perfect as when the will itself is made captive, Rousseau said. But this is also consummate freedom: one wants only what is possible, i.e., authorized, and feels free and satisfied. ‘The spectacle has brought the secret to victory, and must be more and more controlled by specialists in secrecy.’ The division of stage/back-stage is thus crucial to it. The conspiracy to order, to a specific order, is not a plan of a diabolical mastermind but of a particular division, and the oligarchies that are sheltered by it and benefit from it. If there is any collusion between these oligarchic cliques, whether economic or political, it is the implicit complicity that perforce emerges between agents who have a common interest in a specific system. In other words, their calculations could be as sophisticated as one would like, but the logic is not theirs, and in fact mobilizes them, induces their values and anxieties, makes their riches and brings their ruin. ‘When an instrument has been perfected it must be used, and its use will reinforce the very conditions that favor this use.’ (Debord)

Spectator politics is only one aspect of a logic that rules not just economic calculations but the entirety of social imagination ? in the broadest sense of the term imagination. It is a simple logic but abundantly seminal in its consequences: unlimited expansion of production and consumerism. One would probably have to add to it: ‘at all cost’ (not forgetting how at the first Earth Summit in Rio the then president George Bush Senior declared that the ‘American way of life is non-negotiable’). In the sectors of the market that are driving the growth in advanced capitalist economies (high value-added ‘luxury items’, e.g., high-tech gadgets, and ‘leisure services’) consumer demand cannot be taken for granted, and success is not simply a question of edging over rival producers. Rather, demand itself has to be produced and sustained. With the expansion of production both the absolute and the relative size of these sectors grow. The American historian Ewen has shown in his 1976 book (Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture) on the social genesis of ‘consumer culture’ and advertising how this process has transformed the ‘captains of industry’ into ‘captains of consciousness’ and how as a result ‘the center of gravity of social control’ has been displaced from work to entertainment, from discipline to desire. Products of high technology and entertainment services of all sorts are now socially integrated in everyday life of rich countries and no longer considered ‘luxury’. But these products and services are not in the first place (i.e., when they first appear on the market) utilitarian objects. Rather they are the desire-filled embodiments of dream-images that are conjured up by the promise of a fulfilled and pleasurable life. Automatisation of every single kitchen activity no matter how trivial is a perverse fulfillment of a life freed from hardship and toil. What is delivered, or so purported, is the idea of a life in which the power of technology is fully harnessed to human needs. Thus arises the need to put these dream-images to ‘work’. As we saw, a whole industry, mobilizing science and academia no less than advertising and public relations firms, was created from 1920s onward in the United States to meet this need. The ascendancy of the spectacle industry is nothing less than a specific regime of social integration. In other words, it defines the norms and functions of social cohesion, from norms of self-identification and social behavior to absorption of disappointments and creation of symbolic substitutes for direct experience. In fact the mass media have made the spectacle into the all but unitary context of reference for all personal experience. In this way the extreme plasticity of human desire is turned to account; as if between two facing mirrors, desire is caught in the infinite to and fro of its own reflections.

The techniques and media of mass communication on the one hand and the needs of the spectacle industry on the other have accommodated each other and produced a unique set of protocols that strongly favor a passive mental disposition, obsessed with self-gratification. The message is conveyed by the image, suggestion and repetition: it has to be short and simple. The star is a vicarious self in its glorious uniqueness, an imaginary self through which one is powerful. The more one is crushed under the banality and impotence of everyday life, the more intense becomes the need to find relief in vicarious self-enthronement. The image is magical, in the ethnological sense of conjuring and wielding hidden dimensions and powers. The distraction that it effects is not an empty distraction but one that transports into an inverted world in which all that is forbidden and unattainable in this one is permitted. A righteous hero that kills but is never killed in a world clearly divided between good and evil, a master of sex and technology

Television favors the image, as opposed to argument. Television-based communication of information is regimented by the general interests of oligarchic circles to which the mass-media corporations obviously belong. What percentage of American citizens knew what President Clinton apologized for during his trip to Guatemala? The exercise of power as has been observed involves preventing items from getting to the public agenda to a much higher degree than winning the ‘debate’ regarding those which find their way there. Problems that ‘endanger the stability of political system are tacitly removed from the channels of political decision.’ (Zolo) The gentle, persuasive power of designation and vocabulary, for example, is incessantly brought to bear on ‘controversial’ issues, which are thus pretty much decided before they are put up for reflection or discussion, if in fact this phase is ever reached. Occupied Territories become ‘so-called Occupied Territories’ before slipping into ‘disputed territories’. Designating a made-up enemy as evil and stirring up irrational fear are simple and effective tools of a politics that has become accustomed to operating in a public narcotized by television. But what finds its way to the television screen is further sifted according to the criteria of ‘newsworthiness’. Spectacular and irruptive events with high visual and emotional impact are favored, and presented as self-contained ‘little narratives’ without any attempt at making them intelligible or amenable to rational and critical assessment by putting them in their historical and social contexts. These image-like stories are specifically packaged for consumption, but the unwitting effect on the consumer of this bombardment of symbolized information is a mad, chaotic world in which things just happen with no intelligible patterns and reasons, a world of mad peoples ruled by incomprehensible passions and marred with catastrophes. The ‘likely effect will be psychological and cognitive overload rendering the spectator immune to every stirring of conscience. He feels incompetent and powerless; he curls up into a ball and switches off.’ (Enzensberger)

The abundance of information and freedom of communication have not helped create a more rational, critical and interested public opinion; to the contrary, they have managed to turn their consumers into sentimental and docile subjects. A prominent political theorist and defender of ‘pluralist democracy’ (i.e., American democracy) has noted the ‘paradox of American public opinion’ whereby the United States is ‘the country that bows most to public opinion, and yet the country that has probably less public opinion worthy of the name than any other Western democracy.’ (Sartori) Infantilization of public opinion organized by the spectacle industry is certainly one way of reducing the complexity of environment, which as a general rule is the condition of possibility of decision and action for any political system. But every reduction of complexity necessarily entails an increase in contingency, eliminating a possible source of system-relevant information. Thus care must be taken in this matter, otherwise the system would move in the direction of becoming insensitive to all communication save those that confirm its current state. Environmental blindness has always been the prelude to self-destruction. The redundant defense (a la Krauthammer and Co.) of an existing constellation of power that operates under conditions of closure serves no one, except perhaps the short-term interests of the defenders themselves. The Bush administration illustrates the outcome of ‘teledemocracy’, of a long process of mass-media narcotization of public opinion. It may yet turn out to be nothing less than Dr. Strangelove in power. Zolo has argued that ‘the political effects of mass communication are closely linked with the tendencies towards conformity, apathy and political “silence” which stem not so much from what is said as from what is unsaid the political integration of information-based societies comes about far more through tacit reduction in the complexity of the topics of political communication than through any positive selection or discussion of them’. Open intimidation of all criticism, demagoguery, opportunistic use of the motives of security and protection, manipulation of anxiety and fear, and hence immunization against alternative views, have been the Bush administration’s stock-in-trade tools of ‘rallying public opinion’. In all this the mass media has prepared the ground by making a ‘public opinion’ in its own image, a conformist public that is reduced to silence when it runs out of television-produced, stereotypical interests, explanations and expressions. Dr. Strangelove dreams of the day when the public has no other role than to nod.

‘At a Chinese executioners’ competition, the story goes, the second of two finalists found himself in an uncomfortable predicament. His opponent had just completed an exquisitely precise and unmatchable beheading, which he now had to outdo. The suspense was overwhelming. With his keen-edged sword, the second executioner performed his stroke. However, the head of the victim failed to drop, and the delinquent, to all appearances untouched, gave the executioner a surprised and questioning look. To which the executioner’s response was: “Just nod, please”.’

AMIR BOROOMAND can be reached at: amir_boroomand@msn.com