Pol­i­tics is all about pre­vent­ing the be­wil­dered herd from ac­tu­ally hav­ing a say

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - ED­I­TOR'S NOTES

GET­TING OUT TO VOTE to­day? Can’t be both­ered? I can sym­pa­thize with the lat­ter, but the pre­tence of democ­racy we live be­comes even more re­moved from re­al­ity if we don’t cast a bal­lot.

Of course, go­ing out to vote doesn’t mean one’s given a whole lot of thought to the op­tions. Some of us are “(insert name of party here)” sup­port­ers, come what may. Others vote the bums out. Others are vic­tims of slo­ga­neer­ing and pro­pa­ganda. Check that, even the most in­formed of us are still sub­jected to pro­pa­ganda. The word is syn­ony­mous with pol­i­tics.

As with all elec­tions of late – for decades, in fact – there was lit­tle of sub­stance dis­cussed in the cam­paign. This one was noted, how­ever, for its added mud­sling­ing, as the Lib­er­als, PCs and NDP all at­tempted to con­vince us they were the least worst of the main­stream par­ties.

I ar­gued here that none of the above was a bet­ter op­tion than those three par­ties, each of which is rife with de­fi­cien­cies. None is fit to gov­ern, but the next govern­ment will come from their ranks. The con­se­quences will fall to us, and we’ll be to blame, largely due to decades of be­ing will­ing par­tic­i­pants in an ef­fort to treat us as dumb cat­tle called upon ev­ery four years to pro­vide a ve­neer of democ­racy to our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

To be sure, the com­bi­na­tion of cor­rup­tion, money, cor­po­ratism and out­right stu­pid­ity is noth­ing like what’s on dis­play in the U.S., but we’re still very much part of the pro­pa­ganda model in which “the be­wil­dered herd” – i.e. most of the cit­i­zenry – must be care­fully con­trolled by the spe­cial­ized, de­serv­ing elites who run things, in the words of jour­nal­ist and mass cul­ture com­men­ta­tor Walter Lipp­mann.

In his 1922 trea­tise Pub­lic Opin­ion, he praised the pro­pa­ganda model that had grown out of the out­right lies and de­cep­tion of the First World War – specif­i­cally the moves un­der­taken by the U.S. govern­ment to sway the pub­lic’s anti-war stance to get the U.S. in­volved – as the right thing to do in order to pre­vent the herd/pub­lic from ac­tu­ally in­flu­enc­ing pol­icy.

In point­ing out long­stand­ing ef­forts to man­u­fac­ture con­sent, Noam Chom­sky, per­haps the great­est liv­ing in­tel­lec­tual and ac­tivist, has many times cited Lipp­mann’s work and how it was adopted by cor­po­rate in­ter­ests and their po­lit­i­cal man­darins. In his book Me­dia Con­trol, for in­stance, he ad­dresses di­rectly the treat­ment of cit­i­zens in a pur­ported democ­racy.

“Now there are two ‘func­tions’ in a democ­racy: The spe­cial­ized class, the re­spon­si­ble men, carry out the ex­ec­u­tive func­tion, which means they do the think­ing and plan­ning and un­der­stand the com­mon in­ter­ests. Then, there is the be­wil­dered herd, and they have a func­tion in democ­racy too. Their func­tion in a democ­racy, [Lipp­mann] said, is to be ‘spec­ta­tors,’ not par­tic­i­pants in ac­tion. But they have more of a func­tion than that, be­cause it’s a democ­racy. Oc­ca­sion­ally they are al­lowed to lend their weight to one or an­other mem­ber of the spe­cial­ized class. In other words, they’re al­lowed to say, ‘We want you to be our leader’ or ‘We want you to be our leader.’ That’s be­cause it’s a democ­racy and not a to­tal­i­tar­ian state. That’s called an elec­tion. But once they’ve lent their weight to one or an­other mem­ber of the spe­cial­ized class they’re sup­posed to sink back and be­come spec­ta­tors of ac­tion, but not par­tic­i­pants. That’s in a prop­erly func­tion­ing democ­racy.”

In per­pet­u­at­ing that line of think­ing, the me­dia, an off­shoot of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try these days, is part of the in­doc­tri­na­tion process. They help fos­ter the agenda and keep peo­ple on an ac­cept­able path.

“The be­wil­dered herd is a prob­lem. We’ve got to pre­vent their roar and tram­pling. We’ve got to dis­tract them. They should be watch­ing the Su­per­bowl or sit­coms or vi­o­lent movies. Ev­ery once in a while you call on them to chant mean­ing­less slo­gans like “Sup­port our troops.” You’ve got to keep them pretty scared, be­cause un­less they’re prop­erly scared and fright­ened of all kinds of devils that are go­ing to de­stroy them from out­side or in­side or some­where, they may start to think, which is very dan­ger­ous, be­cause they’re not com­pe­tent to think. There­fore it’s im­por­tant to dis­tract them and marginal­ize them.”

The U.S. sys­tem is much more bro­ken that way, but we’re all guilty of us­ing stereo­types and eco­nomic as­sump­tions that have largely come from decade upon decade of cor­po­rate pub­lic re­la­tions ef­forts and hi­jack­ing of govern­ment.

In the ab­sence of an overly-hyped bo­gey­man – com­mu­nism, the Sovi­ets, the war on ter­ror and sim­i­lar overblown threats – Cana­di­ans have typ­i­cally been of­fered up a steady diet of plat­i­tudes and at­tempts to buy our votes with our own money.

Here, the be­wil­dered herd is asked to think only of per­sonal gain. That was clearly on dis­play in the On­tario elec­tion that wraps up to­day. The ap­peals to vot­ers largely cen­tered on short-term is­sues, most of them the pri­or­i­ties of bu­reau­crats and pub­lic sec­tor unions look­ing to line their pock­ets at the pub­lic’s ex­pense. As a rule, peo­ple don’t vote in so­ci­ety’s best in­ter­est, or even in their own long-term in­ter­ests.

Adopt­ing the busi­ness model that’s taken hold in the last three decades – to­day’s stock price, share­holder value and this quar­ter’s prof­its above all else – our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem has been shaped by con­stant lob­by­ing from those who see so­ci­ety through only the lens of fi­nances. It’s what’s made cit­i­zens no more than con­sumers.

Politi­cians, of course, have a built-in ca­pac­ity for short-term think­ing: the elec­tion cy­cle. They make promises and float poli­cies de­signed for im­me­di­ate im­pact – spend for votes to­day. That’s prob­lem­atic in and of it­self, as it gives lit­tle re­gard to the idea that ac­tions taken now will have im­pacts years, some­times decades down the road.

Mak­ing mat­ters much worse, how­ever, is the

equally trou­bling is­sue of tax­a­tion. The promises they make come with a price, but 30 years of neo­con­ser­va­tive lob­by­ing and in­flu­ence have made taxes a four-let­ter word, mean­ing many politi­cians will try to win votes by promis­ing to spend to­day while si­mul­ta­ne­ously pledg­ing to cut taxes. That of­ten means deficits, a sit­u­a­tion that’s ideal for politi­cians in­tent only on re-elec­tion: the bill won’t come due un­til later, when they’re off liv­ing com­fort­ably on gold-plated govern­ment pen­sions.

That kind of think­ing is what got us into to­day’s mess. In the course of a cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions, we’ve un­done cen­turies of ef­forts to cre­ate a so­ci­ety based on the com­mon good. Much of the we’re­all-in-this-to­gether ideals that came out of the Great De­pres­sion and the Sec­ond World War, for in­stance, has been re­placed by re­lent­less in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

Long-term think­ing is not just for is­sues such as cli­mate change, though we’re not pre­pared to tackle even that chal­lenge, de­spite the con­se­quences. No, it’s all about liv­ing for to­day. But long-term plan­ning is cru­cial for a host of is­sues that clearly part of to­day’s po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity, en­com­pass­ing all lev­els: long-term re­source con­sump­tion, hu­man mi­gra­tion, trans­porta­tion de­mands, re­tire­ment and pen­sions and the like. Our fail­ure to do so has led to ram­pant con­sumerism, en­vi­ron­men­tal crises, unchecked im­mi­gra­tion, ur­ban sprawl, fi­nan­cial spec­u­la­tion and a host of other ills that plague our eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial sys­tems.

None of those is­sues has been ad­dressed in the cam­paign that ends with to­day’s vote, pro­pa­ganda not­with­stand­ing.

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