Ideologies of Consent
Albert Camus wrote “Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”
In this rebellion, there is an irony: the nature, scope, function and method of consent has no historical or modern consensus. In the 19th century Abraham Lincoln’s view on consent may, in part explain, the Civil War that followed his election. “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” There could not have been a more clear statement of the flaw of slavery.
Consent is a relatively new concept in balancing power, authority, and the governed. It competes against other values that pre-date the modern meaning of consent. In the ancient world the ideology was based on obedience to the powerful. Herodotus wrote, “To think well and to consent to obey someone giving good advice are the same thing.”
The powerful always believe they are giving good advice and those that think well recognize it as good and it is only their consent that matters. We don’t live, nor have we lived, in a one-word universe of consent. Other words have also shaped our opinions, views, attitudes and behavior. Such words penetrate deeply into the psyche such as honor, duty, security, safety, loyalty don’t exist in a vacuum. They evoke feelings. Rouse our emotions. Define our identity to others with a shared identity and to ourselves.
These emotionally compacted words are tagged to objects in the physical, exterior world, and we reinforce our sense of self through the protection and veneration of a sacred object. Most people can list examples, bible, the Koran, a constitution, a flag, the cross, or in the United States, or a gun are objects fall into the category of the sacred for a large number of people. These objects are visual, tangible altars used by power to justify their commandments. Other sacredness appears to the aural. The feelings evoked by a national anthem or a song attached to the strong emotions of war, oppression, or salvation. Standing as the national anthem is played at a cinema or sports stadium is a communal affirmation of identity. This is not a conservative vs. liberal or right vs. left, or East vs. West split. All sides mentally prostrate before its icons.
When someone challenges gun laws or the confederate flag flying above the state capitol in South Carolina or Alabama, offering up evidence to support their attack, those whose identity is tightly connected with such a symbol reacts as if the challenge is made to them personally.
Those who seek to tighten gun laws or block the teaching of creationism in public schools aren’t in a debate over the merits of wide spread gun ownership and the high rate of deaths arising from handguns or whether creationism is an alternative theory to evolution. The truth of the symbols is absolute for the true believer. Emotions allow no evidence to disturb its settings tuned to the symbols they identify with. Rational, deliberate debate where reason and evidence prevail is a pipe dream from the opium nights of the Enlightenment. No amount of persuasion convinces people to reject, modify or question the validity of a symbol that is a mirror for their identity and values. Break that mirror, and their identity is shattered.
Marx was right about role and function of religion. It was the opium of the people and the drug was not so much imposed by a cynical, manipulative authority than it was demanded from the people. It’s not just religion and the iconic images that form the person’s view of themselves and the world, it is a junk shop stocked with nationalistic, historical, and mythical images to grow fully formed identities pushing ideas of valor, glory, honor, purity or goodness.
Much of the current conflict from Thailand to Turkey displays the tension between traditional symbols of beliefs, loyalty and hierarchy and values for modern secular globalized values of human rights and freedom. What makes this time different from our ancient ancestors is modern people in big cities around the world believe their consent politically, socially and economically matters. This comes from a much older world where certain symbols invested an unquestioned power to rule. Modern people might honor a national symbol but still demand their consent be counted politically. That is a big difference between the not so distant past and the present. Consent can also be a slippery concept. Even the most brutal dictators relied on the loyalty and approval of a small percentage of people who benefited from the brutality. What makes ‘consent’ in modern times is the inclusion of people who are strangers, from different backgrounds, races, class or caste, or religion. The tribal aspect of consent is broken.
As the exclusive, limited range of people whose consent had been sufficient for legitimacy find themselves as a minority voice in a political system serving the interest of the majority, they fear the new allocation of resources and benefits will shift to their detriment. It is this fear that lies at the heart of consent. The change to include all citizens without doubt threatens the stability of the traditional, political system. Whenever and wherever this political transition has been occurred, the privileged minority pushed back against the expansion as they were afraid of being left behind.
Our civilizations have risen on the crest of non-consent. Obedience wasn’t based on choice; it was based on a combination of iconic symbols and threat of force. Both the 18th century American and French Revolutions were waged and justified by its rebels on ideologies of consent. It took violence before consent as an ideology to begin the process of replacing the obedience to authority model. We live in the aftermath of that sea change, working toward a coherent theory of political consent. It is not clear hundreds of years later how successful either revolution has been dislodged the obedience ideology. In many places, the battle continues.
The modern mantra is that the exercise of power without consent is the definition of tyranny. That authority must in order to claim legitimacy to govern must have consent from the governed. Any other foundation is corrupt, oppressive, and self-serving on behalf of a narrow class of elites. Faux polls are often employed by tyrannical regimes as a substitute for consent. Polling numbers inevitably are presented as showing 80% to 90% levels of support for the tyrants or their policies. Their purpose is to offer a substitute for consent in order to establish legitimacy. Such polls are like shallow graves are crude engineering projects and few are fooled that the bodies inside can be identified as truth, fairness, transparency, diversity and co-operation. The tyrants are not that creative in their attempt to manufacture alternatives to consent. That failure contributes to their paranoia, brutality and repression to those waving the consent banner. These modern pro-consent people want a break from the institutions, governing principles, and values of the past where consent did not feature except at the margins.
What is driving the globalization of the consent mantra? There are several factors coming together. First, consent can be shaped, manufactured, engineered to serve the purposes of elites. The weight of money in politics is a measure of respect the elites have in creating the illusion of consent. At the same time, the digital networks have given a space for a new identity of self based on consent to emerge. The new concept is universal and disrupts the ancient ways of viewing self, authority and power. Consent has become a moral value. It is suspicious of the traditional consent engineers who serve authority. The digital world has disrupted the “obey culture” by presenting choice as to whom to obey an alternative based on consent.
Consent has long featured in our criminal laws, from rape, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and assault. We have a long history where consent is an essential element in our personal treatment of others, and how they treat us. It is at the political level that legitimacy based on the ideology of consent is resisted in non-Western cultures. Jonathan Swift, like Lincoln, glimpsed of the true implication of the ideology of consent: “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.”
There’s also consent, in a private, personal sense, which involves our relationship with certain objects or symbols. A person’s sense of self is like an identity-kit assembled from childhood and those things on the shelf that form part of the kit are defended as if the challenge is existential. And that is the difference between a real education, and an education sufficient to transfer skills to fit within the needs of a system. The evidence will support that an overwhelming number of people pass through the second type of school, university system. They accept what they are told by their teachers and professors. They are in the classroom for a reason. To gain skills for a skill-orientated workforce. But the skill to program is, in this world, more important than how the military or security services will deploy such a program. When people from these two very different educational background meet, they have difficulty finding common ground. They might be from alien planets speaking a language the other side processes as proclamations of war or evidence of ignorance if not stupidity. Follow the debate on government surveillance and the concept of consent is at the core of the conflict.
It isn’t just government. Corporations play a large role in stripping us of our consent without us noticing. Every ‘like’, ‘retweet’, credit card usage, telephone call is stored in your digital folder inside the larger surveillance-marketing-system (SMS), and this system is designed to engineer your sense of self and identity. We are being ‘played’ and the players understand how to extract our consent in a way that makes it appear real and voluntary. Like a dictator’s faux poll, the real and the fake become blurred.
If you follow the Alan Watts path, you might discover another school that teaches about the purpose and meaning of life is to discover that self or identity is an illusion and escape from that illusion is the main purpose of life. In this world, the symbols are illusions trapping us like flies in amber. Symbols, in the world of words and objects, anchor us to the past and assume a reality that is constructed. It’s only real because collectively people look at a cross one-way and an image of the Prophet in another. The reactions from anger, hatred and violence, perceived or otherwise, to such symbols suggest the power of an image. The guarding of symbols is guarding the past like a fixed frontier and resisting assaults from the present. The future unwinds slowly as the low-grade warfare between the place and role of symbols don’t retreat quietly or softly. They go with much shouting, threats, violence, and disruption.
We are inside a travel machine, one that travels a bumpy, uncharted road. Our fear is taking this journey without our identity left intact, and we won’t survive. We can’t imagine how anyone without that comfort can survive the journey and find peace of mind, contentment, salvation, redemption, happiness—all of the outcomes that most people agree is worthy in themselves. But getting to that point, the end point, as Alan Watts and others have taught is for us to understand we are always at that point. We are at every point. We are in the NOW and yesterday or tomorrow are only inside our individual and collective minds evoked by words, images, pictures, objects and artifacts of daily life.
How do we deal with this sacred cargo that our ancestors have accumulated and passed down to use? How do we push back against SMS? Our backpacks are filled with such stuff. We keep on walking, carrying the load. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” That’s our limitation, cognitive cutoffs. We can grow (so far) a brain with a different structure, a different pattern recognition and filtering system. But we’re stuck with the wetware we inherited.
If you lived through the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut did as a capture soldier, an external event can change the way you process the world. Much like the impact of torture. Those who have no hands-on experience are the greatest cheerleaders for ‘enhanced interrogation’ (the term they use for torture) than those who have done hundreds of hours of interrogations. Sometimes you must participate, witness, or be caught up in a situation where no symbol will save you. Some of those emerge from such an experience find the symbol/word filters altered, sometimes shut down. They have first-hand experience these illusions were no buffer against reality. They find a new way of assembling identity, one that doesn’t rest on a false premise. One that doesn’t rest on anything at all and then they are free. And they are alone.
But that is only partially true. We are never alone. We are social creature by nature. It seems that nature is changing. We wish to define self, our identity, or other people’s identity. Consent. The ability to give and withhold it is the power to grant or retract legitimacy. Consent is a powerful weapon to build an identity for the new world. SMS chips away slowly at consent, manufacturing a look alike. This process has all sorts of implications for how we consent becomes a pre-condition to obedience. That is a huge step, like the moon landing, into a territory very different from the one in which our ancestors lived, worked and died. Those clinging to a culture of obedience without consent have their work cut out for them.