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
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
My last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation. It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey. It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.
18th Century London
In the 18th century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head, the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities, celebrities, and toy poodles.
How people communicated, the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their 18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole purpose and meaning of elections and voting?
People living in feudal times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have been viewed as treason.
The 18th century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate, his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus different from those in the 18th century.
18th Century technology
The expectations we have about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the governed and the policies of those in power.
Elections have fallen on hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be, directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates, consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and upgrade the weak signal.
Elections are staged events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads, interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.
I suspect no one under forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.
Thailand is an example of the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash payments.
Those who protest against elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a different cultural and political tradition.
Elites suffer from the old devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this 18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated given the current technological and information revolution?
We’ve inherited election from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems everywhere there is an internet connection.
What do people want from their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was slipped on the black box.
Elections voted representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016 presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a consensus.
This raises a number of hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon. The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens. They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test of resolve and commitment.
Governments in their international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and expensive.
We are left with the blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down. No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a political system.
18th Century Voters an exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males
Not only are elections incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry, “Look, there’s a squirrel.”
Elections and voting were created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an 18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo. There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.
18th Century French cannon
In time, the 18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known. Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues, products, events, and personalities every day.
When the military assumes power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making, legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information, and the economy.
In another context, Thomas E. Ricks wrote,
“Your structure is your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals. In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link: https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/2015/06/hierarchy-does-not-work#sthash.LjOWQZqZ.GahTqApd.dpuf
We see some outlines of direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support. John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil forfeiture.
He’s hit a cultural sweet spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change as there will always be a group that will resist change.
In modern, contemporary life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.
We are at a major crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the past.
What will the new digital generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role. What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.
Once consensus is the product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they want.
In this world, voters are a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the government should do with plastic bottles.
In this brave new merged buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the governed.
We aren’t at that point and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies. Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many powerful people around the world.
A new generation is already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions. They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in TheTruman Show, are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die, and a new era will begin.
The one most people know is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.