21 January 2010

Article: Buying Consensus in "Free" Markets: The End of Democracy?

From the interdisciplinary field of evolution studies and social systems research comes this article: Gianfranco Minati, "Buying Consensus in 'Free' Markets: The End of Democracy?" ("World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution", 60 [1-2], June 2004: 29-37):


Abstract: "Repeatedly, in Western democracies, sophisticated marketing techniques are used to manipulate consensus. In this context, 'free' markets are interesting only because they contain potential buyers and it is possible to buy consensus. In many European countries (e.g., Italy), in Italy, for example [sic], political scientists apply marketing techniques (advertising, psychological effects) to get (i.e., to buy) political consensus. They work on the premise that the decision to buy a product and the decision to vote for a candidate are equivalent. Their interest is not in convincing, but in shaping an expedient cognitive model.

"This may be the end of classic democracy. Real consensus is no longer necessary in this scenario. It reduces freedom to mere selection, where people choose among equivalent choices on a pre-arranged menu. Freedom reduced to selecting is an illusion."

Some excerpts: "In the past, in democratic societies, political competitors tried to convince voters to support them. They used communication techniques, psychology, media, advertising, strategies based on saying only part of the truth, promising, lying, and so on. The financial efforts to support such campaigns were very high, and competitors often found various ways to finance such activities.

"In the new approach, the business seems to be the same, but the game is decided on another level. To participate and to play at this new level is very expensive – very few may play. It seems to me that at this level only the designers of the system may participate. At this level, a new system is established for the purpose of making consensus buyable. Then the goal is to buy consensus for someone in particular. The participants in the game set new rules without declaring them.

"In this new situation, traditional competitors think that they play the usual game although the game is really changed. Competitors who do not know that they are playing the wrong game lose. The new game is to establish new implicit rules: the owner of the game, of the very private, expensive, sophisticated knowledge and technology, is the winner no matter who the competitors are. [...]

"We may metaphorically name this package social software used by default by agents, to process any kind of information and no matter which cognitive model is adopted. How does this process take place? By diffusing standardized situations via different media. Psychological research makes it clear that there is no linear relationship between advertising and the sales of a product. Why do corporations still insist on such a marketing strategy? The possible answer is that they are not linearly interested in advertising a single, specific product, but in supporting standardized life styles, standardized ways of thinking. They are interested in supporting a system of advertising that generates in the audience the illusion of freedom, in which people are reduced to consumers with the possibility to select and to judge only among a closed set of possibilities. [...]

"In the past, democracies fought the problem of ignorance because they understood that an educated public was essential to democratic stability. Accordingly, they strove to educate people to a more sophisticated and appropriate use of language. Now the situation is reversed. The new approach for controlling social systems is based on ignorance, on a simplified, limited usage of natural language. The source of this situation is a distorted usage of mass media, especially television. The mass media purpose is not to educate, but to reach the maximum number of people with advertising messages that standardize social life. Their purpose is not democratic (to reach everybody with impartial information), but business oriented. Their prime targets are potential buyers and the market. That is the result of a market-oriented education. The language of young people is more and more the language of advertisements; that is, language in the broader sense: words, interests, ways of dressing, ways of behaving, and so on. [...]

"With this impoverization of language, interactions among people are reduced to being events driven. Properties discussed in the daily language are related to materialistic factors, to consumerism (like prices, quality, availability, reliability, effectiveness, etc. of goods) making our societies at a mass level unable to discuss ideals and designs, leaving this dimension to perhaps only religion. [...]

"In our days, democracies are managed by leaders elected by decreasing percentages of voting population (the majority of the voters). It would be an interesting project to research the likely connection between the relative futility of the voting process and the lack of citizen participation in elections. In this framework, some people maintain the illusion of freedom because they can select among pre-established possibilities even if they cannot participate in the controlling design."

"World Futures" is the journal of the General Evolution Research Group (GERG). Grounded in the perspective of humanistic systems science, it is devoted to the exploration of all aspects of evolution.

Gianfranco Minati, Founder and President of the Italian Systems Society (AIRS), lectures in the Department of Built Environment Science and Technology at the Polytechnic University of Milan. A mathematician by training, he is the author, co-author, and editor of numerous academic publications, including eighteen books.

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