Manufacturing consent

Justin Marinelli, Senior Writer

In my last piece, I pointed out that in our country, the bureaucracy wields more day-to-day authority than it is given credit for. This week, I will not only point out a similar odd truth, but also slaughter a sacred cow.

You see, in a democracy, the real locus of power is not the people, but those who are telling the people what to think.

This is hardly an original thought. Edward Bernays, for example, pointed out in his book “Propaganda” that one of the biggest features of democratic systems was the manipulation of the public mind through advertising and mass media, and the very phrase “Manufacturing Consent” comes from the title of a work in the late ’80s by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman which had itself been inspired by a phrase used by Walter Lippmann in the book “Public Opinion.”

It is claimed that in a democracy, it is the will of the people that is sovereign, but if a small group with the power to control the societal narrative is molding the will of the people, then though power may reside with the people, it is not “the people” who are controlling their own power.

This, of course, poses quite a problem if the opinion-makers are mistaken, misguided, or malicious in some way. In other words, this system can potentially be directed towards troublesome ends if the people facilitating it act in accordance with human nature.

It would be quite a feat to examine exactly who in this country is setting the bounds of which opinions are acceptable to have, but such an analysis would take at least an entire book to do it properly. What I will do instead is point out that it is not just in the realm of politics that the idea of manufacturing consent poses interesting problems. Any system of relations dependent on voluntary interaction can thus be gamed with sufficient powers of persuasion (for example, a system of sexual ethics based solely on the idea of consent can be easily hijacked if consent can so easily be manufactured).

Humans are not rational creatures dealing with each other on an equal playing field. They are a diverse species with vast disparities in intelligence, social savvy, and Machiavellian cunning. Those who are possessed of such Mephistophelean gifts can and do run circles around those who lack them. Everything you believe is there because someone far smarter than you and far more cunning than you wants you to think it. You lost a game that you didn’t even know was being played.

It is hard not to gaze into the abyss and wrestle with the nagging thought that the vast majority of humanity is kept around as chattel by those who know how to wield them. It is not a pretty conclusion. It is not a happy conclusion. It is a very ugly conclusion. Yet, it is a conclusion that at times seems inescapable.

Ready for the next presidential election?

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