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01 June 2011

Consumer Politics is Not Democracy

I’ve been watching some of the mesmerizing documentaries of Adam Curtis, who made The Century of The Self, The Power of Nightmares, and most recently All Watched Over by Machines of Love and Grace, which is running now on the BBC, available on iPlayer here (for those in the UK). I’ll be publishing a post on that one soon, but first, something caught my ear today while I was watching The Century of The Self. In the fourth film of the series, Dick Morris, Strategy Advisor to President Clinton from 1994 to 1996, talks about how he convinced Clinton to change his approach.

I said that I felt the most important thing for him to do was to bring to the political system the same consumer rules philosophy that the business community has. Because I think politics needs to be as responsive to the whims and desires of the marketplace as business is. And it needs to be sensitive to the bottom line – profits or votes – as a business is. I think all of this involves a changed view of the voters so that instead of treating them as targets you treat them as owners. Instead of treating them as something that you can manipulate you treat them as something you need to learn from. And instead of feeling that you can stay in one place and you can manipulate the voters you need to learn what they want and move yourself to accommodate them.

Morris believed this and probably still does. Mandelson, Blair, Brown, Cameron and practically all politicians now believe it too, ever since it became the recipe for political success from New Labour’s 1997 victory onwards. But what it really means is this:

I said that I felt the most important thing for him to do was to bring to the political system the same consumer rules philosophy that the business community has. Because I think politics needs to be as responsive to the whims and desires of the marketplace as business is. And it needs to be sensitive to the bottom line – profits or votes – as a business is. I think all of this involves a changed view of the voters so that instead of treating them as rational citizens you treat them as consumers with selfish, sometimes irrational desires. Instead of treating them as people you can appeal to with ideas, with the aim of persuading them, you treat them as a static given, as something you need to change your policies to satisfy. And instead of feeling that you can stick to your principles and lead people to a future on the basis of a vision, you need to learn their short-term wants and move yourself to accommodate them.

I think this is the essence of how politics has changed since the nineties. Notice that both this newer attitude and my own more old-fashioned position, which should be clear from my paraphrasing of Morris’s comment, can be characterized as elitist. Morris and those he influenced can claim to be carrying out the will of the people, which is the essence of democracy. But what this hides is that such populism is more characteristic of tyrrany than democracy, of cynical manipulation devoid of respect for the ability of people to make decisions on the basis of principles. A good example of this kind of populism is the anti-elitism of Rupert Murdoch, with which he responded to criticism back in the eighties and nineties. There is nothing democratic about it. It is condescending, but without even the old-fashioned patrician belief that the masses can be elevated by education and high culture. It accelerates the removal of politics from the realm of ordinary people and thus creates a void which is filled by a new kind of political elite, all the more powerful for its populist contempt for parliamentary politics. This is the legacy we are still living with, and there is no immediate prospect of change. Its latest incarnation in this part of the world was the success in the Scottish election of Alex Salmond, a quintessential presidential populist.

The following quote hits the nail on the head and also points out that it’s no way to run a country, and quickly shows itself to be inadequate. It’s from Focus Group Politics and the Death of the Citizen on the Citizen Renaissance web site.

This new model of focus groups as the heart of policy rejects a key aspect of democratic leadership politics – that there are collective long-term interests that only elected leaders have the ability to deliver on. Focus groups will tell you that people want lower tax and more public services – that’s human nature. So, for instance, New Labour listened to focus groups that told them they did not want money wasted on investment in railways. Then, years later, when the chaos on public transport came home to roost New Labour got the flack for the mess. Of course they did. They were supposed to lead, plan ahead, think long term and think of the greater good, something focus groups will never do.

Thus New Labour was characterized by a mess of contradictory short-term policies whose only concern was immediate popularity, leading them into blunders that their lack of vision left them unable to predict or prevent. Yet this disastrous model for democracy remains at the heart of politics.

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