Opinion Social Affairs

Neoliberalism, PR and spinning inverted totalitarianism

Paul Nuttall
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One particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas which are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. The new right neoliberal campaign has been a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control. Neoliberalism is an ongoing, totalising ideological and political-economic project of a resurgent political right that gained ascendancy in the US under Ronald Reagan and in the UK under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Some people say neoliberalism is simply a continuation of capitalism. However, it’s a little different in character from the industrial capitalism of the last couple of centuries: as a form of financial capitalism, neoliberalism is the subordination of the processes of production to the accumulation of money profits in a financial system. It also encompasses the significant influence of those holding wealth and power on the political process and the aims (and outcomes) of economic policy.

Democracy has been subverted; this authoritarian turn arose because neoliberalism does not reflect the needs and interests of the majority of the population. If citizens widely understood that, they would not tolerate neoliberal policies. People’s perceptions and beliefs are being managed, however, by the all-pervasive use of techniques of persuasion, embedded in distinctive right wing political discourse, a dominant right wing mainstream media narrative and increasingly, in the rhetoric of policy-making, where public interests and  needs are conflated with neoliberal outcomes, in policies that are becoming increasingly coercive, whilst being advertised, mainstreamed and presented through the media as “common sense.”  There is an illusion of consensus created because those promoting alternative narratives are not permitted to reach an audience with an intact, coherent message. Alternatives to the neoliberal “orthodoxy” are pushed to the fringes of public attention and the periphery of their contemplation.

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are competitive, individualistic, adversarial and hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. It is the antithesis of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian state that values privatisation, production, competition, profit and economic enclosure above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, wellbeing and social conditions. If it had a motto, the spirit of neoliberalism would certainly be captured by “profit over human need.”

Geographer David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets.

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. Given that neoliberalism doesn’t benefit the majority of the population, this requires a highly invasive power and effective mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in the authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.  The media provides a key mechanism for these processes. As do public policies.

Corporations are writing public policies

 

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Who could forget the Beecroft Report, written by a British “venture” vulture capitalist that had donated more than £500,000 to the Conservative Party. The overdogs write policies to make sure that we remain the underdogs.

Beecroft is Chairman of Dawn Capital. The release in May 2012, of the long awaited Beecroft Report in the UK caused considerable controversy because it recommended that the government should “cut red tape” in order to make the hiring and firing of employees easier.

The report claimed this would help to boost the economy although no evidence for this was provided.  It helps boost profits for venture capitalists, and the government-commissioned report strips workers of their rights.

Beecroft’s ideas have taken the UK back towards Victorian era working conditions and standards. And the Poor Law. Conservatives don’t like social spending on social security – our safety net. That’s because when you’re unemployed and desperate, working conditions are less likely to be challenged, and companies can pay you whatever they feel – which is inevitably next to nothing because of their driving profit incentive. Increasing poverty, history informs us, drives down wages and lowers the standards of working conditions. The 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility worked in the same way that the Conservatives’ dismantling of social security has to “make work pay,” by ensuring that those requiring support are kept much more deprived and miserable that the lowest paid worker. That working families are now also queuing at food banks should be sounding an alarm at the trite authoritarian soundbite. “Making work pay” for whom, precisely? No-one in a wealthy, first world, so-called liberal democracy should be living in absolute poverty, struggling to meet basic survival needs, such as the fundamental human need for food, fuel and shelter.

Then there is the toxic influence of rogue multinational insurance giant Unum on disability policies in the UK. Unum have been hired by successive governments to reduce the numbers of disabled people eligible for social security support, with an ultimate greedy aim of reducing social security and healthcare provision to private insurance schemes. Unum had a hand in the recent government green paper and consultation on work, health and disability.

In a recent press release, the delighted vulture capitalists at Unum say that they welcome the government’s recent Green Paper’s focus on Group Income Protection. The press release also says:

“Unum has welcomed the government’s recognition in a new Green Paper that “Group Income Protection policies have a much greater role to play in supporting employers” help people with health problems to stay in or return to work.

The proposals were set out in Improving Lives: the Work, Health and Disability Green Paper, launched by the Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health, yesterday, 31 October 2016. As part of its efforts to enable “more people with long term conditions to reap the benefits of work and improve their health”, the Paper includes a number of proposals to prevent people falling out of work for health reasons and to make employers feel more confident about supporting disabled employees. In particular, it includes a number of specific policy ideas to increase the number of British workers with Group Income Protection (GIP).

Through GIP, Unum has enabled thousands of people to return to work after long term sickness absences caused by mental health and musculoskeletal problems and other serious health conditions, including cancer and multiple sclerosis. Unum also provides training, support and advice to employers and line managers on how to look after employees with health problems and help them stay in or return to work.

To increase the number of workers who benefit from GIP coverage, Unum is calling on the government to consider a temporary tax break for employers that buy GIP for their staff. This would reduce the number of people who fall out of work for health reasons, protect the finances of those who are unable to work and boost the productivity of UK businesses.”

You can see how the revolving door of government and corporate favour works. It just keeps spinning.

Corporate lobbyists are primarily interested in a tactical investment. Whether facing down a threat to profits from a corporate tax raise, or pushing for market opportunities – such as government privatisations – lobbying has become simply another way of making a lot of money for a few people. Lobbyist messages are very carefully crafted and spun, especially in the media. The ultimate corporate goal is sheer self-interested profit-making, but this will always be dressed up to appear synonymous with the wider, national interest. At the moment, that means a collective chanting of the “economic growth”, supply side “productivity”, implied trickle down, “jobs” and “personal responsibility” neoliberal mantra.

Corporations buy their credibility and utilise seemingly independent people such as academics with a mutual interest to carry their message for them. Some think tanks – especially free-market advocates like Reform or leading neoliberal think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs – will also provide companies with a lobbying package: a media-friendly report, a Westminster event, meetings with politicians. The extensive Public Relations (PR) industry are paid to brand, market, engineer a following, build trust and credibility and generally sell the practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organisation (such as a business, government agency, the media) and the public.

PR is concerned with selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens’ campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

Edelman Intelligence and Westbourne, for example, are engaged in rebuttal campaigns, strategic attacks on activists and multimedia astroturfing projects to protect corporate interests:

“Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. “The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one, you’ve got to find the influential one,” he says.

Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.” From The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government

Edelman Intelligence is the world’s largest PR company and have been quietly visiting my own humble WordPress site over this last year, the link shows they were referred to my site from their own social media monitoring command centre. I’ve contacted the company to ask why, but have yet to receive a response. I’m not a paying client so it’s highly unlikely that the visits are in connection with promoting my best interests. Paying clients include the likes of Rupert Murdoch. Curiously, I have had a number of successive bans from sharing critical articles this past 12 months, with no reason provided, and with appeals being ignored completely. I believe Facebook, like Google and Microsoft, are a client of Edelman’s too. 

The media are the message

 

Edward Bernays famously wrote the book on propaganda, public relations, and manipulating public opinion.

Bernays’s mastery of propaganda and the general art of public influence, as illustrated in his works, laid the foundation for much of the marketing of the 20th century, and his theories are still employed in marketing, politics and general public relations today.

Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, later dubbed propaganda “public relations” somewhat ironically, playing public relations on behalf of the term propaganda which he himself popularised.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo.

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Tories have not only framed all of the issues to be given public priority – they set and stage-manage the media agenda – they have also dominated the narrative; they constructed and manage the political lexicon and now treat words associated with the left, such as welfare, like semantic landmines, generating explosions of right-wing scorn, derision and ridicule. Words like cooperation, inclusion, mutual aid, reciprocity, equality, nationalisation, redistribution – collective values – are simply dismissed as mere anachronisms that need to be stricken from public conversation and exiled from our collective consciousness, whilst all the time enforcing their own bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa. The political manufacturing of a culture of anti-intellectualism extends this aim, too.

Words like competition, market place, small state, efficiency, responsibility and so on, now crowd out any opportunity of even a fleeting glance of another way of socioeconomic organisation.

Anything presented that contradicts the consensus – a convincing, coherent, viable alternative perspective – is treated to a heavily staged editing via meta-coverage by the media. Anyone would think that the media regards the UK as a one-party state.

And here, people tend to take the Daily Mail with totalitarianism and tea …

“There’s something happening here
  But what it is ain’t exactly clear …”

Such tactics deployed in manufacturing consensus are widely used, and combined, they serve to reduce public expectation of opposition and in doing so establish diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

Adam Curtis explores themes of “power and how it works in society” in depth, and his works draw on areas of sociology, psychology, philosophy and political history.

Curtis points out, in his Oh-Dearism documentary, that there is an emerging “strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shapeshifting that is unstoppable because it’s indefinable.” 

                                

             Adam Curtis’s Oh-Dearism on Charlie Brooker’s 2014 ScreenWipe show.

I have been reading about totalitarianism recently. You know when you have an itching recognition of something and need clarification of what it is precisely? I’ve felt for a long time that our own government has totalitarian tendencies. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism lie along the same political axis.

Totalitarianism is the name given to a political system that aims to mobilise entire populations in support of an official state ideology, and to exercise a repressive, absolute control over society, seeking to micro-manage all aspects of public and private life.

However, Sheldon Wolin has outlined an alternative form – inverted totalitarianism  – as not only signaling the political demobilization of the citizenry, but goes on to say that because it isn’t clearly evident in neoliberal ideology or policy, and it isn’t named, this makes recognition, reflection and challenging it very difficult. It is inverted because it does not require the use of overt coercion, police power and a messianic ideology as in the classical Nazi, Fascist and Stalinist versions of totalitarianism. It is difficult to recognise because it is more subtle.

It’s true that dominant ideologies tend to become naturalised epistemology – acquiring an illusory consensus – and so become embedded and disguised as “common sense.” This makes it very difficult to identify and articulate the doxa, and even more difficult to present coherent challenges to it. See: Manufacturing consensus: the end of history and the partisan man.

Wolin writes:

“Our thesis is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism, different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively “strong democracy” instead of a “failed” one.  Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. It depends on the existence of a demos – a politically engaged and empowered citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of public office.”

Wolin proposes that the United States on occasion came close to genuine democracy, but it was because citizens struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written into the Constitution.

He sees the New Deal as perhaps the only period of American history in which rule by a true demos prevailed. That is comparable with the rise of welfare states elsewhere in European democracies. Here in the UK, the welfare state arose in part because of the enfranchisement of the working class. The welfare state and the other social gains of our post-war settlement may be considered a fundamental part of the foundations for democracy.

Other features of inverted totalitarianism are the same as the ones that formal definitions of classical totalitarianism identify: the mass media is the first mechanism of control that tyrants generally seek, which is used to erect fact-proof screens from reality.

The regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life, psychology, morals and the perceptions of citizens. And decision-making.

I had already linked the government Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) with behaviourism and totalitarian thinking last year.

To influence the decision-making of the public without their knowledge and consent, using techniques of persuasion – usually associated with the lower end of the advertising industry – is profoundly anti-democratic. As is the underpinning assumption that the public are generally irrational and fallible, but the government are somehow infallible, formulating a theory of human nature as if from some impossible, mind-independent, species-independent, “objective,” external vantage point.

It’s like saying: “That’s your human nature, but not ours. We are somehow miraculously exempted from it.” 

This is a government that is encroaching at an existential level and surreptitiously imposing instructions about how we must be. And how we must be is ultimately confined to accommodating neoliberalism.

Edward Bernays, the founding PR, has contributed significantly to the rise and perpetuation of inverted totalitarianism through the imported methods and practice of techniques of persuasion drawn from knowledge of social psychology and sociology, from advertising, and the rule of “market forces” to many other contexts than markets, including politics and the media. The ultimate purpose for the use of such techniques is to subvert and obscure the truth.

Of course history showed that Bernays’ identification of the “manipulation of the masses” as a “natural and necessary feature of a democratic society” was a flawed theory when the rise to power of the totalitarian Nazis demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy and generate social conflicts. In his autobiography –Biography of an Idea – Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where:

“Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.”

In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. Inverted totalitarianism is a system where every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government.

Although this is a critique aimed at the US, we have the same social conservatism and neoliberal ideology. One of the main objectives of managed democracy is to increase the profits of large corporations and dismantle the institutions of social democracy – our social security, trade unions, public health services, social housing, access to legal aid, human rights and so forth, and roll back the social and political ideals of the post-war settlement here in the UK, and the New deal in the US. The primary tool is privatisation, which funnels public wealth to the private ownership of the wealthiest – the equivalent of an economic enclosure act.

Managed democracy aims at the abdication of governmental responsibility for the wellbeing of most citizens, under the cover of improving “efficiency,” reducing small state “intrusion” and cost-cutting. Over recent years, austerity has been used as a front to accelerate this process, increasing economic inequality, redistributing public funds to increasingly wealthy individual’s private bank accounts.

Another feature of managed democracy is the need to keep citizens preoccupied with the peripheral and the private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of public trust. The political function of this is to divide the public whilst obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns (and interests) of the general population.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism.

The Nazis openly mocked democracy, the UK and United States maintain the conceit that they serve as the model of democracy for the whole world. Instead, we have become a showcase for how to reduce democracy to just a brand, displaying how it can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. Democracy has been reduced to a flimsy façade, obscuring its antithesis. 

Totalitarianism isn’t simply a feature of a dystopian novel by George Orwell: it’s become entrenched and naturalised. Alternatives to social conservatism and neoliberalism are either edited out in advance of reaching public attention, or meta-edited, distorted and presented as “all the same” or straw man fallacies to buttress the status quo.

I’ve been saying since 2012 that democracy is being subverted, as have many others. The welfare “reforms” were hammered through parliament despite widespread and strong opposition, when Cameron used “financial privilege” as a justification to sidestep democratic process. Then came the widely opposed Health and Social Care Bill, and the Conservative’s refusal to release the details of the risk register to the public. It has remained unreleased to this day.

But mostly, the recognition starts as an uneasy feeling, an indefinable something being not quite right, like a fleeting glimpse from the corner of your eye that triggers an adrenaline trickle of unease. Then comes the discovery that laws are being edited quietly, protective policies are eroded and some have been secretly repealed. Our human rights are being disregarded, and there’s a clearly expressed intention to heavily edit the existing legislation. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, and observation of them separates democrats from despots.

It’s so essential that we don’t disengage from politics, but rather, we need to organise, we need to construct a cogent narrative of resistance and transformation, formulating an alternative vocabulary that helps to raise awareness; to motivate; to inspire; to change public perceptions and directly challenge the tyrants. We need to fight to reclaim our democracy; to collectively insist on the re-population of increasingly dehumanising public and economic policies; to re-assert human needs and rights over and above the absurd, anti-humanist and socially fatal demands of desolating, pathological and ever-escalating neoliberalism.

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About

Social affairs editor for Scisco Media. Sue is an independent researcher and public interest writer with a particular focus on social affairs; policy, democracy, ideology, techniques of persuasion/propaganda, the political misuse of psychology, human rights and welfare. She also contributes regularly to Welfare Weekly, and other publications as a freelance writer. Her main home is the Politics and Insights blog site. She started writing four years ago because she felt that the mainstream media has become increasingly unreliable over the past five years, reflecting a triumph for the glittering generalities and dogma of a neoliberal elite. We need to challenge this and re-frame the presented mainstream debates, too. The media tend to set the agenda and establish "priorities", which often divert the public from much more pressing and real sociopolitical issues. Independent writers have a role as witnesses; recording events and experiences, gathering evidence, analysis, insights and truths that are accessible to as many people and organisations as possible. We have an undemocratic, neoliberal government that reflect the interests of a minority - the wealthy and powerful 1% - by systematically dispossessing the majority. We must constantly expose and challenge that and actively participate in democracy, presenting clear, wholly inclusive alternative narratives.