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Manufacturing consent

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Patricia Hill Collins is a professor of Sociology who many argue has published some of the most powerful work in the field of Western sociology over the past 25 years. If you don’t know her or much about contemporary social theory in the social sciences, Collins’ work and ideas are well worth the effort of getting to know.

In a 2004 book Collins wrote, “Contemporary forms of oppression do not routinely force people to submit. Instead, they manufacture consent for domination so that we lose our ability to question and thus collude in our own subordination.”

This quote is reminiscent of the long dead Italian leftist Antonio Gramsci and his ideas about how each of us consent every day, mostly unwittingly, to being dominated by top-down power. We might not think this applies to us, but it applies to all of us in different ways.

Previous columns have called out Oprah Winfrey, positive psychology, and the happiness industry more generally as examples of what Prof Collins is describing. Each asks people to fix the world by first fixing their personal mental attitude and, by design or not, this has a depoliticising effect.

This depoliticisation conceals that fundamental fixes to the world’s social problems will involve structural change through collective action. By focusing our gazes inward, however, the deception restricts the potential of gazing outwards and working with others for real change.

Another place to see Prof Collins notion at play is in another masque this column recently criticised—that is the Caribbean Future Forum put on by the local Government, UWI, and neoliberal global institutions like the UN.

Here top-down power told stories based on a limited technocratic understanding of context or human beings. In these stories there was no acknowledgment or reflexivity of how the Caribbean Future Forum agenda is the same agenda as that of the privileged and the representatives of endless economic growth.

For the masses, competition and profits may have once lifted many out of poverty but today, they do not innovate better conditions for all. Instead, they punish those with less.

Why do we submit to these well-presented stories sold to us from places like the Hyatt conference centre and Oprah? Why do we consent, in contrast, to the evidence before our own eyes, that class-based societies on the path to further inequality, with poor working classes, and destitute underclasses will make the world and its economies function better? This dishonesty and self-deception is at the heart of what Collins wants thinkers to recognise.

Another encounter with collusion comes from anthropological fieldwork with residents of Laventille about everyday life. Now clearly, the many opinions of residents about extra police patrols, including those with the army, and how it makes their local community safer make perfect sense.

Such policing of crime areas appeals to widely held fears and ideas about how top-down force, ie state violence, is the best way to deal with people and areas that are lawless. Academics call this process “securitisation,” but it's really militarisation by other means. It just doesn’t sell so well with the latter label. Securitisation is how governments identify a problem and thereby teach us what to fear and consider as a threat. They then call out its emergency solution (state violence), and attack the “problem”(usually human lives) with militarised armed force.

Yet, in this weaponised solution there is no consideration of the context of the problem, the background to the problem, or the historical evolution of the issues. Historical racism, structural poverty, and cumulative local disadvantages are all ignored. Nor are there any thoughts about the consequences of militarised force or questions about if it actually improves everyday life or makes things worse in unexpected ways. Instead lawbreakers simply become “bad people” that society needs to be protected from.

The phrase is amorphous yet such simplifications and misrepresentations are swallowed effortlessly every day and become common sense. This is the collusion of our critical faculties Collins warns that contribute to our own subordination.

In the context of state violence the biography and history of people’s lives and actions, of social problems and the issues people live are removed and replaced by a simplistic world, void of context. It then becomes simple to suggest, and no longer question, that solutions to social problems are violence, punishment or death by police.

Consent and collusion we might suggest operate in a similar way to how religions manage to gain believers and support for their cultural stories based on little hard evidence other than the testimony of friends, experts and lots of traditions.

This seems to be the ethos of the times. Institutions from governments to the self-help industry to academic disciplines like positive psychology and neoclassical economics, to Oprah and even our own selves–all have a similar modus operandi. They are systems of ideas and language, or what academics call “discourses” we live in, through and built worlds with. And like in any dominant religion, we come to lose our abilities to question their representations of reality.

Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine.

n Douglas Mendes will return next week


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