log in

  • Published in Opinion

The machine that mass-manufactures ‘consensus’ in support of the neoliberal agenda is investigated by Marienna Pope-Weidemann.

Banksy ChristThere seems to be a lot of consensus flying about in certain circles in this country. There’s consensus on the cuts, made clear by Ed Balls’ unconscionable submission to austerity. There’s consensus on Iran, namely that heads in the sand and hands on the transatlantic line to Washington is the best course of action. There’s the consensus that the Greeks are lazy and that it’s acceptable to extradite British citizens to the US for infringing corporate copyright, but we can do without Shaker Aamer. And there is the Washington Consensus which has somehow come to inform international economic theory. We need to ask a fundamental question: How is it exactly that these policies become consensual?

Answer: the neoliberals have stomped all over their own ideological history. It was decided some time ago that J.S. Mill’s old ‘marketplace of ideas’ was one of the cornerstones of Liberalism they couldn’t risk preserving. So they stomped all over it, narrowing the public discussion and establishing their word as gospel. Owen Jones recently described David Cameron as 'the master of cynical propaganda’, so this may be a pertinent time to reflect on the machine that mass-manufactures ‘consensus’.

Engineering Opinion

Framing debate and what is more politely called ‘agenda-setting’ are the two great cog-turners of propaganda today. A frame determines how information is organised and expressed in political debate, the media or public relations, and has proved a very effective way of organising certain issues out of politics. Agenda-setting, on the other hand, organises other, usually more pliable issues into politics and the public domain. Both take on special significance in a parliamentary democracy, where the centrality of press freedom and the systematic relay of important information to the public are too-often taken for granted. The idea that anyone could be missing anything when every second person has an iPhone seems unthinkable to some, but such techniques are systematically employed as a means of social control. While framing restricts information and ideology, agenda-setting ensures that the conservative ideas are diffused online, in print, on screen and by as many think tanks as possible.

It was Bernerd Cohen who said it best when, in 1963, he informed the American public: “The media doesn’t tell us what to think; it tells us what to think about.” Naturally, frames are set by monopolists of political and financial power, so they can always be expected to reflect and reinforce dominant class structures. If anything can be banked on at times like this, it’s that.

The given justifications for such cynical manipulation of public opinion express the dichotomy which has characterised democratic theory since Plato chose ‘philosopher kings’ over free education with philosophy on the syllabus. The tensions between participatory and representative democracy have long been problematic, and the realisation of the former is forever frustrated by the compulsion of governments, economists and Rupert Murdoch’s news outlets to incite prejudice or deaden our empathic responses to the sufferings of anyone they have reason to demonise. This compulsion shows itself now more than ever, revealing the idea of representative government to be a myth. What we see instead is a ‘spectator democracy’ in which an oligarchy directs the ‘bewildered herd’, a term favoured by the diabolical architects of public relations and eerily reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s old adage that the French revolutionaries were no more than ‘mad cows’ who, left to their own devices, would destroy their farm and starve for lack of a master.

The Century Of The Self, Adam Curtis’ 2002 documentary series.


The marriage of politics and economics – which Alexis de Tocqueville recognised as an essential element of controlling workers in formally democratic society – has become a crusade of neoliberal ideology. Once more, it’s been unveiled to the public, buttressed as it is these days with a consumerist culture and supportive legal and regulatory frameworks. No apologies are made; instead, the ability of monopolists to buy ‘chunks’ of agenda space in the media has been normalised, even as it works to shape public consciousness for private ends. Its success isn’t inexplicable: corporate media is a more effective censor than direct state control because the dominance of elitist interests are less apparent. Never mind the fact that the state is, to some degree, expected to make a show of considering the public interest. In the free-market, the only incentives are geared towards the financially efficient pursuit of self-interest and profit. It’s just as well that Parliament enjoys such a comfortable consensus with the City on just about everything (apart from the very occasional squabble about bankers’ bonuses). After all, it has become political suicide to pursue any other agenda, as Greece discovered when their representative government was co-opted by the neoliberal technocrat, Lucas Papademos.

The framing of public debate according to vested financial interests is an inevitable by-product of privatisation. It also relies on the atomisation of individuals that characterises developed capitalist societies and is achieved through trade union repression and intensifying demands on labour, reducing the opportunity for association and grassroots organisation. In such an environment, propagandists are much more able to convert the public from a default-position of pacifism to jingoistic hysteria. Until the rise of public relations in the US, this was its primary purpose. The origins of framing are thoroughly explored in Adam Curtis’ documentary series Century of the Self (2002), which charts the career of the aspiring oligarch and Satan-in-a-suit Edward Bernays who pioneered the use of psychoanalysis to ‘engineer opinion’ during peacetime, for profit.

Philip Morris advert 1951Since its inception, anti-socialist and interventionist propaganda (along with hyper-consumerism) have been primary drives in public relations. After first being implemented in 1954 in the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala (as much for United Fruit as the US government) the trio of anti-communist defence, responsibility to protect and the corporate crusade for market liberalisation – with the debate framed to assure you ‘there is no alternative’ – was deployed to undermine a host of states the world over. Domestically too, the technique represented a real evolution in social control: neoliberals, the supposed guardians of our personal spheres from the evils of ‘big government’, had destroyed the personal sphere. Riding on the wave of the information revolution, televisions entered the living room and propaganda – political and corporate – followed. Advertising, geared towards the working classes, no longer sold utility and durability as before. Products were sensationalised, automobiles sexualised and cigarettes psychologically associated with women’s’ liberation, all to ensure that market demand would never be saturated and that regardless of soaring household debt, the GDP would continue to rise.

Herbert Marcuse sought to explain how right-wing frames on political debate endured in a liberal society. He asserted that this consumer culture, manufactured by advertisers and diffused even in peoples’ homes, had serious psycho-social effects: a dramatic rise in schizophrenic, destructive and aggressive tendencies. It is ironic then, that the same field which built the ‘buy-or-die’ mentality into Western culture and social status (psychoanalysis) still allocates these tendencies to the realm of mental illness. This emphasis on normalisation versus ‘maladjustment’ was important because it internalised and individualised the causes of depressive and criminal tendencies. Suffering and aggression were no longer informants on the nature of our lives, our wants or the society around us. It was a private sickness, isolated from society, and it had to be medicated. Thus the religion of consumerism, which requires blind faith and a refusal to acknowledge all the harm done to society and the environment, acts as an opiate of the people in the same way Marx feared institutional religion did when it placed suffering and laborious servitude as the path to heaven. In 1963, the same year Cohen’s work surfaced, Martin Luther King addressed this exact issue. Discussing the centrality of this concept of ‘maladjustment’ in modern psychology, he said:

“There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good society is realised. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

This was a revolutionary statement given that ‘economic growth’ had, till then, been predicated on the unending consumption of non-necessities and a systemic denial of inequality.

By the 1990s, the tactics Bernays used to revolutionise the power of advertising to manipulate human behaviour was being applied to politics. Strange, now, to consider a time before politicians were so trivially and cynically marketed like products. It has furthered the integration of political and financial power. ‘Democracy in America’ is now a competition between two factions of one corporate party; the same can be said of Britain, especially now Eds Miliband and Balls have publicly accepted an agenda of cuts and austerity.

The Brave New News

Herbert MarcuseFor Marcuse, tolerance was only an end in itself when ‘it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as the ruled.’ In the light of violent repression by the state, (legally, through the armed forces and police and judicially, whenever dangers to ‘national security’ were invoked) Marcuse observed two forms of ‘tolerance’ in contemporary capitalist societies. The first, which he called abstract tolerance, ‘refrains from taking sides – but in so doing... protects the already established machinery of destruction.’ Abstract tolerance plays its hand in academia as well as the media. For example, the Coalition’s withdrawal of all higher education teaching funding from arts, humanities and social sciences subjects, while business degrees are protected (despite the higher availability of sponsorship), will inevitably slant university education towards a neoliberal world view. In such a context, ‘propaganda’ becomes somewhat superfluous: the agenda of the university syllabus will be set and critical approaches and concepts will be organised out of the classroom.

‘Passive tolerance’, on the other hand, actively takes a side in defending socially and environmentally damaging ideologies. When passive tolerance is not at work in the mainstream media, abstract tolerance can usually be found. There is a reason for this. It has long been debated whether mass media acts as a mirror to ‘reflect’ society, or a two-way mirror which also shapes society. When news media is privatised and the pursuit of profit becomes its primary objective, news itself is commodified and its producers develop a vested interest in shaping society. The consequence is continued atomisation, marginalisation of dissent and what Marcuse articulately dubbed ‘the mature delinquency of a whole civilisation’.

This trend in news media was exemplified by the slow commercialisation of the Mirror, which pioneered something analogous to socialised ownership and once featured editorials which rallied against economic slavery and spoke of the ‘shining victories to be won in the cause of peace and social justice...Forward with the people.’ The personalisation of current events, now associated with sensationalism, was then employed to give voice to the one among many and typify the deprivation and disempowerment of thousands of workers in Thatcher’s Britain. Refusing to bow to the set agenda, the Mirror did quite the opposite, reflecting a wider, divergent agenda. T.S. Eliot articulated it well: ‘Those who aim to give the public what the public wants begin by under-estimating the public taste [and] end by debauching it.’ Eventually, the Mirror’s debates were framed and its agendas set by a long, brutal contest with the Sun to determine which tabloid could destroy British political culture faster. In 1996 it was received a leak of the budget papers, which the then editor Piers Morgan returned to the government unpublished. The absence of any civil enquiry into conflicting interests at that point demonstrates the normalisation of a news media system that is supportive of the establishment. So there’s another consensus: media doesn’t scrutinise government anymore. That’s just not part of the Big Society.

The BBC evening news recently devoted a full half of its twenty-minute broadcast to the capsize of the Costa Concordi. This is at a time when America is sending 15,000 troops to Kuwait, economists are still sweating over the Eurocrisis and the Labour Party have seriously undermined the delusion that we’re living in a multi-party system.

The persecution of whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and the arrest of independent journalists reporting on Occupy Wall Street captures the ‘liberal ideals’ of the establishment. Usually, though, such means aren’t necessary. Media blackouts systematically de-emphasise many of the most salient and central socio-political issues from in the public eye. What is reported is slanted – a brief history of the media coverage of the ‘war on terror’ provides ample examples of the full range of agenda-setting techniques.

The practice of framing and agenda-setting is endemic in the age of ‘spin’. Journalism, once considered a public service exemplified by investigative journalists like John Pilger and Paul Foot, has become, with rare exceptions, a private enterprise, manufacturing consensus and manipulating opinion. Considerable attempts have been made to normalise this: the outlets are ‘producers’ now, and the audience ‘consumers’. But the application of terminology like this to the media is dangerously misleading and masks the profiteering and deeply anti-democratic agendas at work. We are not ‘passive consumers’ of the news. We vote on what we know and we are perpetually encouraged to think of ourselves as informed. But there is a correlation between democratisation and the volume and quantity of information both accessed and produced by the general public. And, because of the high degree of mutuality between corporate and political interests, socialised ownership of the media is the only way to ensure it creates a marketplace of free ideas, reflecting the full spectrum of our society, and amplifying the voice of dissent as well as the ‘consensus’ that echoes in Washington and Whitehall. It is when they fail to speak for us that we must find our own voice.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now