Deconstructing Democracy, Part 2: Consent
Posted on 15:01, May 29th, 2009 by Pablo
One of the most undervalued concepts in the study of democracy is the notion of consent. Yet it is an absolutely vital aspect of the discourse of civility. “Informed consent” is considered essential for medical treatment; sexual relations should be consensual; parents must sign consent forms releasing schools and sports organisations from liability in the treatment of their children, citizens consent to the decisions of their elected representatives, etc. Even so, in the study of democracy the notion of consent is conspicuous by its absence. I shall attempt to address it here.
There are two types of political rule: hegemony and domination. Domination is rule where the population acquiesces to superior force and the socio-economic dictates of elites. Hegemony is rule by ideological leadership and consent. Consent is the willing acceptance and subjective incorporation by subordinate groups of elite ideology, political control and socio-economic institutions. Under rule by domination people do not necessarily agree with or accept the legitimacy of the political and economic elite–they just bow before their power. Under hegemonic rule people believe in the legitimacy of the elite ideology and its political institutions and socio-economic form, that is, they actively and willingly accept the elite world view. Consider this parallel in family life: children raised in abusive households do not consent to the authority of their parents, they just acquiesce to their superior strength and physical control. That relationship ends as soon as the child is old and large enough to either leave home or physically confront the abusers. In “hegemonic” households, children consent to the authority of their parents because the believe that parents have their best interests always in mind. Of course, all hegemonic regimes have an element of coercion in them, but it is not the majority basis of rule but rather is used as a disciplinary device against ideological transgressors (which is essentially what all criminal penalties are in democracies). Dominating elites rule primarily rule by coercion; hegemonic elites do not. The good news for those interested in authoritarian regime demise is that rule by force cannot last indefinitely: you cannot coerce or repress the majority in the same measure over extended periods of time without ideological support or increased resistance from the population. Thus it is hegemonic rule that is the most durable.
Although all episodes of domination are dictatorships, properly conceived, and all democracies are ostensibly hegemonic, hegemony can be achieved by authoritarians in specific instances. The key is to substitute rule by force with ideological leadership designed to secure consent over time. Thus, the Cuban regime in the 1960s and 1970 could be considered hegemonic; so can the country in which I now live. People believe in, support and approve of the authoritarian leadership’s way of doing things and in the majority prefer not to have things change. Conversely, democracies can lose ideological support and the consent of the majority if they fail to deliver on popular expectations or if the leadership begins to rule in its own self-interest–at that point hegemony is lost and domination begins. This was seen in several Latin American countries in the 1990s (think of Peru under Fujimori as the salient case). The key to securing and maintaining mass consent is to meet popular expectations on the political, social and economic levels. That is, consent needs to be simultaneously reproduced on all three dimensions for hegemony to obtain. Although popular support may ebb and wane on any one dimension at a given moment in time, the aggregate must be maintained. Thus, for example, the economic reforms of the 1980s caused severe dislocations in NZ, but it did not fundamentally undermine majority support for democratic institutions or social mores. However, when a crisis on one level deepens and extends into the other two, then the possibility of an “organic crisis of the state” (to use Gramsci’s term) becomes real–that is the revolutionary moment.
The bottom line is this: consent is given willfully, actively and freely. It implies (relative) freedom of choice in doing so on any intersubjective dimension. Acquiescence is unwillingly given, passive and a product of the fear of consequences. It implies limited or no freedom of choice. Majority consent is the basis of long-term rule; majority acquiescence is not. Of course, consent can be manipulated or, as Burowoy argues, manufactured. Parties, unions, firms and other other collective actors frame/channel the hegemonic “debate” in ways that reaffirm rather than challange the status quo. Through such agents elites may construct the terms of the ” debate” in a way that clouds the nature of their relationship with subordinate groups or which diverts attention from the essentials of that relationship and towards incidentals like sports, popular culture, nationalism etc. That is why subordinate groups need to be autonomous and self-aware in the expression of their collective interests.
The most important aspect of consent, however, is its contingency. Consent is not given once, forever. It is, in reality, contingent on popular expectations being met over time. Think of it this way: most adults in their 40s will not consent to be paid the same salary as they were as teenagers in their first job. They expect more because of their experience, knowledge, discipline etc. Likewise, people living under hegemonic rule demand that their expectations be met at the political, social and economic levels. They want the political leadership to be responsive to their concerns; they want the social order to be peaceful; they want their material needs to be met. Moreover, what constituted the minimum “threshold” of consent in one era will not necessarily suffice to maintain it in the next. In most democracies today, people expect more out of life (and from the state) than they did in 1880 or 1980. Should their expectations not be met, then the slide towards organic crisis begins….
In democratic capitalism mass contingent consent is two-sided: capitalists consent to a restrained rate of profit and limits on their exploitation via the regulatory and fiscal intervention of a State ruled by majority-elected and responsive political classes (politicians and state managers); subordinate groups consent to the (structural) rule of capital in exchange for incremental increases in their standards of living and freedom of opportunity within the productive apparatus and social division of labour. Together, this dual consent constitutes the democratic class compromise that is, however implicit rather than formalized, at the heart of all democratic capitalist societies.
Thus the “matrix” of consent requires simultaneous reproduction of dual thresholds of consent on all three dimensions leading to a contingent class compromise over time–no mean feat, yet the basis for hegemonic rule in a democratic capitalist society.
There is more to the picture but for the moment this sketch will have to suffice. If I can collect my thoughts further I shall update the post. One thing to bear in mind is that the pursuit and maintenance of mass contingent consent is actually an argument in favour of parliamentary democracy over its presidential alternative, and in favor of MMP over first-past-the-post, two-party systems. The reason is that parliamentary balances under MMP systems are (theoretically at least) more finely attuned to the fluid dynamics and complexities of reproducing a minimum threshold of mass contingent consent in heterogenous societies in which individual and collective expectations often differ (when not counterpoised).
Note: this post has been updated twice since its original publication.
Next post: uncertainty.