The citizens are disenfranchised and conditioned to be politically apathetic consumers. In recent decades, democracy has been replaced by the illusion of democracy. New forms of organization of power and psychological methods for manipulation of our consciousness protect the powerful against the risks of democratic empowerment and strengthen their position.
By Rainer Mausfeld
Democracy and freedom. Two words that are charged with unheard-of social promises and that can release tremendous energies of change to achieve them. Today, hardly more than a shadow remains of the hopes originally associated with them. What happened? Never before have two words, to which such passionate hopes were attached, been emptied of their original meaning in such a socially far-reaching way. They have been falsified, abused, and turned against those whose thoughts and actions are inspired by them.
Democracy today really means an elected oligarchy of economic and political elites, in which central areas of society, especially the economy, are fundamentally removed from any democratic control and accountability; at the same time, large parts of the social organization of our own life lie outside the democratic sphere. And freedom today means above all the freedom of the economically powerful.
With this Orwellian reinterpretation, these two words now have a special place in the endless dictionary of falsified words throughout history. With the poisoning of these two words, our hopes for a more humane society and a containment of violent ways of solving things are confused, clouded, broken and almost wiped out from the collective memory. The loss of the civilizing dreams associated with these two concepts makes it hard for us today to politically articulate an attractive, decent alternative to the prevailing power relations, or even worse, think of any at all.
Democracy, which was originally associated with great hopes for political self-determination and a safeguarding of internal and external peace, is left only as a formal shell in the real structure of society. Democracy has been reduced to a staged spectacle of periodical elections, where the population can choose from a given «elite spectrum». Real democracy has been replaced by the illusion of democracy; free public debate has been replaced by opinion- and outrage-management. The guiding principle of the responsible citizen has been replaced by the neoliberal ideal of the politically apathetic consumer.
Of the hopes associated with the concepts of democracy and freedom, only the empty words of a false promise have been retained by the powerful; with these words it is possible to effectively manipulate the consciousness of the subjugated majority.
International law has also today largely developed into an instrument of undisguised power politics. The self-declared ‘Western community of values’ has openly reverted to its almost religious belief in the effectiveness of violence, the wholesomeness of bombs and destruction, drone killings and torture, support for terrorist groups, economic strangulation, and other forms of violence that serve their purposes. This is a political fetishization of violence, whose effects can be seen all over the globe.
Hardly more than a historical memory is left of the great hopes originally associated with democracy and international law, namely, the hopes that civilization could contain power and violence. The populace is all the more being forcefully convinced of the political rhetoric of democracy and international law, with which the economically or militarily strong seek to win the consent or tolerance of the populace for their actual practice of a violent realpolitik. In today’s realpolitik, the right of the strongest has again long been accepted.
Two hundred years after the Enlightenment, which we praise so much our political rhetoric, we live in a time of radical counter-enlightenment. At the same time, when it serves their power interests, the powerful like to refer to the Enlightenment in order to affirm their claimed civilizational superiority over those they consider to be their enemies.
An elitist democracy is a contradiction in terms. While there are formal democratic elements in an elitist democracy, they are structurally kept to a minimum. Despite this minimalistic democracy, from the point of view of the actual economic and political centers of power, democratic elements are not necessarily as risk-free as they would like.
So in order for the present power elite to secure their status, they are dependent on securing themselves against democratic aspirations.
The weak point is now the public debate space, which – especially in the periodic elections – could potentially become a risk against stability. How can this be controlled in an elitist democracy? How can the risk that democracy potentially poses be kept as low as possible? If the remaining democratic residual elements were removed, it would no longer be possible to maintain the democratic rhetoric useful for preventing revolution; for public debate and periodic elections are indispensable even for the mere illusion of democracy. So if the real centers of power want to keep these formalities, they need appropriate ways to build stability that can make democracy risk-free for them.
Over the past few decades, the powerful have made great efforts to develop new ways of securing such stability, in order to protect the democratic residual elements remaining in elitist democracy from the risks posed by democratic empowerment.
These include, in particular, novel structural forms of organizing power, as well as psychological methods for manipulating our consciousness. Of course, the roots of these developments go much further back, but these developments have accelerated rapidly and become institutionally solidified in recent decades. The social transformation process associated with these things is similar to the effects of a «revolution from above», i.e. a revolution that represents a project of the economic elites and serves to expand and consolidate their interests. The transformation process that accompanies this revolution essentially rests on two pillars.
The first pillar of this transformation process is that the organizational forms of power are designed more abstractly and with a purposeful diffusion of social responsibility, so that the unease, indignation or anger of those ruled can find no concrete, i.e. politically effective, targets. Thus a will for change in the population can no longer find expression among the actual decision-makers.
This process of transformation consists of a creeping – and for the populace as invisible as possible – creation of suitable institutional and constitutional structures. With these structures, power relations can be stabilized and the redistribution processes permanently removed from democratic access, and thereby be made largely irreversible. For this, the democratic structures historically won after hard struggles must be eliminated or eroded, so that their effectiveness is neutralized.
In addition, domestic and international law must be ‘developed’ in such a way that the centers of economic and political power can legally enforce their interests authoritatively in the legal framework thus created. In particular, a legal framework must be created to enable the transformation of economic power into political power, and to provide a legal framework for the desired or already established upwards redistributive mechanisms, so that the minimum remaining democratic possibilities cannot undo them.
The organized crime of the propertied class is not only legalized by such lawmaking, but also protected for the future and sealed against possible democratic interventions.
The second pillar is the development of sophisticated and highly effective techniques that can in a targeted way manipulate the consciousness of the ruled. Ideally, those who are ruled should not even know that there are centers of power behind the political surface, presented by the media, of seemingly democratically controlled power. The most important goal is to neutralize any social will to change in the population or divert their attention to politically insignificant goals.
To achieve this in the most robust and consistent way possible, manipulation techniques aim for much more than just political opinions. They aim at a purposeful shaping of all aspects that affect our political, social and cultural life as well as our individual ways of life. They aim, as it were, at the creation of a «new human being» whose social life is absorbed in the role of the politically apathetic consumer.
In this sense, they are totalitarian, so that the great democracy theorist Sheldon Wolin rightly speaks of an «inverted totalitarianism», a new form of totalitarianism, which is not perceived by the population as totalitarianism. The techniques for this have been and are being developed for about a hundred years, at great expense and with substantial involvement from the social sciences, whose importance in society is closely linked to the provision of methods of social control.
A central element of these techniques for manipulating the consciousness of the population is the creation of appropriate ideologies that are largely invisible to the population as ideologies and thus provide a barely questionable framework that gives meaning to all the individual’s social experiences.
The core of these ideologies, culminating in neo-liberal ideology in recent decades, is the ideology of an expertocratic «capitalist elite democracy», in which competent and well-committed elites should direct the fate of society in the most efficient manner possible.
Both developments serve to make power unidentifiable and therefore invisible, in order to undermine our natural mental defense mechanisms against being ruled by others. Both are characteristic of the modern forms of contemporary capitalist elite democracies.
We can only develop promising strategies of resistance to the current order based on power and violence if we sufficiently understand these new organizational forms of power. The same applies to the manipulation techniques, through which specific properties of our mind can be exploited for political purposes.
Rainer Mausfeld, born 1949, is professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Kiel (Germany), and a popular lecturer and author. Translated by Terje Maloy as Creative Commons 4.0. from Rubikon.