On the origins of political apathy and powerlessness

(This is an early draft of material that may end up in a chapter of my thesis).

The ordinary layperson in the consumer-capitalist democracies of the Global North is politically apathetic and has a strong sense that they are powerless against a backdrop of an unmoving universal set of rules that dictates what is possible and what practically happens in their world. Alternative ways of organising society (politically, economically, socially or otherwise) seem like naïve or indeed alien concepts that could only be derived from a mind that simply hadn’t yet grasped the boundaries of the possible within the system. An allegory might be made to the medieval belief that the Earth was flat rather than round. This narrow image of the social world has been carefully cultivated by the ruling elite and the public relations industry in particular over a period of decades in order to create a politically passive and acquiescent populace whose sole means of expression is to be filtered through acts of consumption which keep the sacred cow of the economy growing. This project traces its way back to Edward Bernays’ founding of the public relations industry in the days of WWI when he was contracted by the US government to help sell the positive message of American intervention to a land of isolationists. It was such a success that when the war ended, he decided to turn his efforts to what he called “regimenting the public mind” (just as the bodies of the military must be regimented) during times of peace, initially for big tobacco, then other commercial campaigns. The history of ideologically destroying alternatives to the Neoliberal Corporate Model of Globalization (NCMG) in the public mind accelerated in the 1970s with the Chicago School’s economists being sent to Chile after the overthrow of a democratically elected Socialist government and the military coup led by General Pinochet, with US support. There they implemented the world’s first major program aimed at tearing down the Keynesian Welfare State and replacing it with a Friedman-Rand “free market” ideology. This was most famously implemented by Reagan in America and Thatcher in Britain. Contrary to Friedman’s self-serving narrative that the people of the world peacefully demanded free market reforms country after country, Klein (2007) describes the Shock Doctrine process which allowed elites to exploit crises (such as the OPEC oil crisis and Hurricane Katrina) by rushing through “free market” political changes that were deemed to unpopular to expose to public opinion in times of stability, with poison pill clauses to enforce their permanency. Then after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and American triumph over its last opposing superpower in the Cold War, the “Realist” school of international relations and the Neoliberal school of economics, quickly exploited the opportunity by proclaiming that this victory gave them license to impose the arbitrary will of American leadership over all the world’s people and resources. Francis Fukuyama, advisor to President Bush I, declared that with this perfect model of how to run a society, we had reached the “end of history”. In the twenty-five years or so since then we have been missing that great anchoring ideological counter (even if the Red Scare was overblown) to provide us with the impression that another world is at least conceptually possible. The mass media, with its increasingly consolidated corporate ownership and tendency toward homogenizing opinion by employing fewer and fewer journalists, functions as the public relations division of this enterprise, carefully filtering all dissenting voices out and repeating the same consistent message to viewers. The world is a sensationally dangerous place filled with things that should make you feel small and powerless; violent crime, terrorism, viral epidemics and youth gangs (Herman and Chomsky 1994). When politics is covered in the mass media, it is through an incredibly narrow frame which again filters out all dissenting opinion and offers seldom any structural criticism of urgent global problems (poverty, starvation, inequality, climate change and environmental pollution for example). Instead the ‘political world’ which is fed to our ordinary layperson every day through this filtered mass media is normally of two or three political parties which form the limits to the Left and Right of debate, beyond which are exclusively irrelevant radicals. Their representatives are usually middle aged men in suits, who perhaps wear slightly different coloured ties, who shout irrational accusations at each other in Question Time about nothing much beyond trivia and the latest forgettable scandal, which rarely have any practical impact on the lives of those unfortunate enough to be watching. At a further level, Nelson (2013) explains how the state and its increasingly blurred military-police-intelligence-counterintelligence apparatus is constantly working to politically pacify the population by subverting, infiltrating and sabotaging popular social movements, discussing no less than thirteen such strategies in his paper. Naturally, the ordinary layperson feels powerless in relation to the threats described and totally apathetic towards what the mass media defines as “politics”, which practically serves to disengage them and discourage them from participating in their democratic society.

When you talk to this person about politics, as I have, their default position is hostility or indifference. They really feel that this system is all there ever was or could be. My thesis is that people like this can have a political impact on society, were they to organise and become part of a populist movement, and that the resolution of some of the serious global issues alluded to above may very well depend on their participation and civil disobedience. But they don’t know it yet.


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