Swans Commentary » swans.com July 15, 2013  



Finding True North In The Crosswinds Of Crisis


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent, Capitalism, Democracy and the Organization of Consent, edited with an introduction by Rebecca Fisher, foreword by Gerald Sussman, Corporate Watch, Freedom Press, London, 2013, ISBN 978-1-907738-09-8, 379 pages.


"Circuses without the bread."
—Tom Anderson


(Swans - July 15, 2013)   This collection of scrupulously researched articles by nineteen authors probes the innumerable matters of consequences implicit in the book's title. Approaches range from weighty generalizing to close up investigation. It's a dissenter's manual for the present world crisis.

Time has taken the sting out of the Great Depression of our fathers. Perusing relevant photos, documentaries, and writing, however, we are struck by the energetic reactions of its victims. The present crisis has lasted longer, produced more suffering, and shows fewer signs of abating. Cuts and austerity are only making matters worse and there's no reason why, after a third downturn we will not be talking about a quadruple-dip recession and so on into mounting figures. Yet, despite minor dustups, the populations affected, far from rebelling, have accepted punishment like so many stoics. Why?

James Petras feels that with a more intransigent capitalism gripping the world, it is because language aids the enemy: "The adoption by leftist writers, journalists and academics of the concepts and language espoused by its capitalist adversaries: language designed to obfuscate the true social relations of brutal exploitation, the central role of the ruling classes in reversing social gains and the profound links between the capitalist class and the state."

Another answer to the same question is offered by William K. Carroll and Matthew Greeno. They show how the dominant setup is able to co-opt those dominated to accept the status quo. "Amid an ongoing global economic and ecological crisis, the question of hegemony looms larger than perhaps at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, yet the challenges of constructing a political alternative to the rule of capital seem more daunting than ever."

How co-opting affected the Occupy Wall Street movement is considered by Edmund Berger: "The system acknowledges its defects, and then harnesses people power and guides it by hand into compromises that leave the primary mechanisms of domination intact. Radical change is exchanged for the more 'mature' approach of working within the system."

Extending his analysis to Egypt, Berger shows how Western economic interests and 'democracy' promoters tried to manipulate the 'Arab Spring'. But he feels that whatever success the State Department-abetted outsiders may have had, the 'Arab Spring' in its beginnings was the work of the developing world alone. "The social unrest is not the creation of the State Department; instead, 'democracy promotion' generally piggy-backs preexisting grassroots movements."

Individuals, social movements, and communities do not always go unco-opted and uncontrolled at home in the UK. Tom Anderson looks into the strategies employed by government: "The systematic undermining of dissent; smear campaigns against activist groups; the use of fear, threats and intimidation; and use of judicial and extra-judicial means of repression against political groups that can even contravene the rule of law." Anderson's interview with Verity Smith reveals that police infiltration into quite legal dissenting groups is commonplace. The object is not only information but the active undermining of the organization.

Authors called The Free Association meditate on the London riots of August 2011. The immediate shock led to many hasty and erroneous explanations. "The rupture offered by events like the August riots can knock us out of habitual patterns and make us question the usually unthought presuppositions of existing society. The problem is not how to avoid shock; it is how social movements can learn to respond to shock by opening up possibilities rather than allowing them to be closed down."

Katie Pollard and Maria Young compare these same August riots to the student protests that preceded them. The students were militating against a government policy to increase university tuition. The protests had remained within the law. The government won and fees were tripled. The August riots would be of another nature. Pollard and Young do not go along with the conclusion of the right that the rioters were savage children who lacked parenting and family values. Nor do they accept the explanation of most of the left that the rioters had no responsibility, since it lay with the rich and powerful. "The riots were not simply the result of the action or inaction of politicians, but were the reasonable actions of people with nothing to lose consciously refusing their situation, taking revenge on that situation. Of course the rioters didn't choose to have nothing to lose, but they did choose to respond in the way they did."

Reviewing the police violence met with by the Occupy movement at the University of California, Charles Thorpe points to a contradiction. "The [university] administration must navigate the deep divide between their neoliberal agenda and surviving (albeit weakened) notions of education as a public good and of the university as a public sphere that has a key democratic function as a site of unfettered rational public discourse." Police brutality appeared to be a tool to enforce tuition increases.

Rebecca Fisher insists that since full democracy would make capitalism unworkable, neo-liberalism has thrown up barriers to popular participation. As capitalism expands it multiplies these obstacles, creating an unstable order in which "'democracy' is both a mask to legitimate capitalist coercion and a direct threat to those coercive forces."

Organizations that promote democracy are one of the more subtle of such obstacles. Fisher scrutinizes the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and underlines its political and far from neutral goals.

For David Whyte, as world poverty grows, ruling elites must find new ways to justify policies that do nothing to relieve it. 'Market patriotism' is one of these ways. It plays down the global side of neo-liberalism and pleads for 'national interest', a cover for the "web of personal connections that interlink senior politicians with monopoly capital."

William I. Robinson assures us that tumultuous times can be expected. The present crisis isn't merely cyclical, but structural or systemic. Rebellion is inevitable because, "The magnitude of the means of violence and social control is unprecedented."

David Cromwell and David Edwards note that private ownership of the mass media means that its aims are also private and personal. Income comes from advertisers, information from government, business, and experts funded by people in power. The respected liberal media play the role of gatekeepers. They delimit "the 'progressive' end of the acceptable spectrum for 'mainstream' news and debate. In effect: this far, and no further."

We learn in Rebecca Fisher's interview with Matthew Alford that the US Defense Department gives on-set production support for many movies: "The CIA and Pentagon have major roles in affecting the politics of scripts (they work on at least a third of modern films depicting US foreign policy)." Hollywood may not always endorse capitalism blatantly. But it does back national security views on foreign policy loud and clear.

In Michael Barker's analysis, celebrity self-promotion in the media doesn't merely further individual careers and provide tabloid fodder. It also can "legitimize and promote 'humanitarian' interventions, giving a human face to the depredations of transnational capital." Dissenters have regularly been co-opted by liberal foundations which subtly reinforce neo-liberalism under a nonprofit and philanthropic flag.

Similarly, capitalists in the guise of democracy promoters will often back phony revolutions that install "low intensity democracy." This provides stable terrain for developing a neoliberal economy.

Sibille Merz went to Palestine to see what effect NGOs and international donor money has had on the Palestine national resistance movement. She found that the self-help or empowerment encouraged "reflects the neoliberal dogma of individualizing risk and responsibility and fosters the privatization of social services and institutions."

In his foreword Gerald Sussman reminded us that after forty years of declining income for most Americans, state power and political legitimacy there can only be maintained "by expert political and commercial surveillance and heightened promotional activity (propaganda)."

In her introduction Rebecca Fisher promised that the collected essays would show how this rhetoric (i.e., once again, propaganda), that has developed along with capitalism, now promotes "a highly limited concept and practice of democracy" able "to manage and contain dissent, shroud and legitimate the oppression that capitalism requires, and heavily confine our political responses to it."

The reader has to agree that her promise has been kept. The astonishing thing is that the authors, though painfully aware of our bleak present circumstances, never retreat into despair. They invariably point to a way out, though never claiming that it will be an easy exit.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 15, 2013