Herrschaftswissen: Free or not, but “Engineered”

Wikileaks may have been useful in making some of the (Western or Arab) governments’ inside workings a bit more transparent – but it seems to me that what has been published by them doesn’t outweigh what is published by government themselves, or by their advisers, or by the mainstream press. We could have every government archive at our disposal, and would still face the problem of finding out what matters, and the problems of interpretation.

The Genius leads the spectators: engineering of consent in its early stages.

The Genius leads the spectators: engineering of consent in its early stages.

In this post, I will try to describe two examples of Herrschaftswissen, and one (rather old) example of methodology. A talk (not an article) on Wikipedia about enlightenment in Western secular tradition translates Herrschaftswissen as knowledge restricted to the rulers. I’m not sure if this should count as an exact translation, or just as a rough one.

Example 1: David Cameron’s “Muscular Liberalism”

In February 2011, British prime minister David Cameron addressed the Munich Security Conference, an annual conference on international security policy held in Bavaria’s capital. It is an example of how politics and mainstream media work hand in hand – it was founded by a publisher in 1962, and that publisher was succeeded by a former high-ranking government bureaucrat in 1998.

In his speech, Cameron focused on radicalization among Muslims in many European countries. There isn’t much in the speech itself that I would object to, but what I view critically is the context of the speech.

While Cameron was focused on radical Islamists in Europe, the “Arab Spring” was in full swing. Cameron gave his talk on the eve of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war – a war described by the BBC‘s Jim Muir as a proxy struggle between the US-led western world and al-Qaeda international.

The West’s undertaking could also be described as a struggle to discern moderate and radically Islamist forces among the opposition fordes in Syria – a struggle European governments are facing at home, too. But that’s a problem the West could have spared itself. If Western governments (and their Arab and Turkish allies) succeeded in toppling Syria’s Baath regime and install a “moderate” new regime, chances are that the new regimes human rights record would be no better than that of the Baath party. Governments who encourage and support radicalism in mainly Muslim countries are hardly qualified to encourage moderation among Muslims in their own countries.

A few days ago, the European Union’s Counter-terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove told told the BBC that among the estimated 500 European citizens who were currently fighting in Syria, but most likely many of them will be radicalised there, will be trained.

When you want to undermine Islamist radicalization at home, the West’s strategy on Syria doesn’t look too reasonable. Those who Cameron purportedly wants to win over know very well how ambivalent muscular liberalism is about terrorism, when it is about practise, rather than about talk.

Example 2. Trust in the CCP’s Central Committee

“Unity” is one of the supreme banners of the Chinese Communist Party. The downfall of Chongqing’s party chief Bo Xilai, only eight months ahead of the 18th National Congress of the CCP, came at a sensitive time. But if the power struggle about Bo Xilai was unpleasant or embarrassing already, the “visit” (or rather the tempoary getaway) of Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau head to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu in February 2012 should count as a PR disaster for the CCP.

The Chinese press had to pick up the pieces in the guidance of public opinion. Huanqiu Shibao, a CCP-owned but rather popularar Chinese paper, applied a mix of natural science (China’s rapid development is like a living body’s development, and there may always be some particulars we haven’t been familiar with) and orthodoxy (In China’s society of numerous and complicated voices, trust in the party’s central committee has become reason for society in its entirety). There was, Huanqiu elaborated, no contradiction between emancipation of mind and trust in the party’s central committee:

It is exactly for the diversity, for having several options, that we truly discover that trusting the party’s central committee, implementing the party’s road map, is more reliable than any other method other people may teach us, and more able to create the conditions that make the country and the individual develop.

This sounds like muscular socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Both Cameron and Chinese propaganda emphasize unity when it comes to fundamentals. The fundamentals are very different from each other, but the tools they are using to justify and legitimize their dominance are quite similar. However, Camaron’s game is easier to play than the CCP’s. When Chinese media openly bash dissidents, they risk getting unusually unharmonious responses from their recipients. When Cameron addresses radical Islamism, he will get his share of criticism, too, but that is nothing uncharacteristic in the British media.

And despite some inevitable criticism, when a European leader singles out radicalization among Muslims, chances are that the mainstream will respond rather favorably.

The problem for European politicians is that the political class is lacking the high degree of legitimacy – in view of the public – that it (reportedly) used to have. Or, as the Economist‘s Bagehot observed, the pomp of Margaret Thatcher‘s funeral met with shallow public interest. Even Mrs Thatcher’s enemies trusted that her motives were sincere, argues the Economist, but now all politicians are distrusted.

Not just among radical or not so radical Muslims. But if you pick a frequently disliked minority as Cameron does, you may still strike a chord with an increasingly resentful majority.

3. Engineering of Consent

In 1955, an American public-relations counsel, Edward L. Bernays, wrote an article, summarizing what he referred to as the engineering of consent. Bernays didn’t necessarily invent it, but at the time when he wrote about it, he had probably been among the most successful thinkers about and propagandists and practitioners of the concept for decades. The engineering of consent should under no circumstances […] supersede or displace the functions of the educational system, either formal or informal, Bernays wrote, in bringing about understanding by the people as a basis for their action. Rather, engineering of consent supplemented the educational process.

But in the previous paragraphs, Bernays had also written that

[..] it is sometimes impossible to reach joint decisions based on an understanding of facts by all the people. The average American adult has only six years of schooling behind him. With pressing crises and decisions to be faced, a leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at an even general understanding. In certain cases, democratic leaders must play their part in leading the public through the engineering of consent to socially constructive goals and values. This role imposes upon them the obligation to use the educational processes, as well as other available techniques, to bring about as complete an understanding as possible.

Bernay’s essay leaves it essentially to the adopters how to make use of the toolkit he provided. Given that the tools are highly effective, it is obvious that they aren’t only used when the gap between public understanding and necessity (problem-solving) can’t be bridged in time, but whenever opportunists finds the engineering useful. Or, to put it more catchy: the dumber a policy, the dumber the public needs to be, and all the more, engineering of consent needs to supersede education.

Both democratically-elected and totalitarian politicians appear to be keen adopters, and it would be for the public itself to become more informed, to judge if the actons of politicians are in the public interest, or if they are not.

But the opposite is the case. While many European middlebrows regard the political class and their techniques as ethically rotten or even detest them for the manipulation, they are themselves adopters of spin-doctoring, too. Many blogs,  comments and other expressions of (political) opinion seem to apply the means and methods used by the political class to make their case. There seems to be an ambivalence among the ruled about the desire to belong to the political class, and to refute it.

Not to mention Wikileaks. Wikileaks doesn’t “educate”, either.

In that regard, the average Chinese netizen appears to be more aware of the manipulation he or she is subjected too, than the Western subject to the same PR technology – Chinese awareness states itself in terms like “we’ve been harmonized” [by Chinese authorities or media]. Or, when Huanqiu Shibao wrote in 2012 that opinion poll results published by American Gallup  showed that during the preceding three years, among the five BRIC states’ population, the Brazilians and Chinese had been most satisfied with their living standards, and only the Chinese felt during three successive years that the living standard had continuously improved, a commenter laconically replied that he had been satisfied (in a passive-voice sense) by the Americans. In certain ways, the experience of living under a totalitarian government seems to stimulate clear-sightedness.

Bernays reportedly liked to close his speeches and talks with an invariable summary: And everybody is happy.

There may not be a great future for public happiness. But quite probably, there is one for the engineering of consent.

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Related

» Battle of Opinion, Feb 13, 2013

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