Posts Tagged ‘Consent’

Managing Expectations.

datePosted on 15:08, July 16th, 2013 by Pablo

A while back I wrote a series of posts on deconstructing democracy in which I noted that this form of rule ultimately rests on the consent of the majority, and that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is the contingent outcome of repeated conflict resolution efforts made at the political, social and economic levels. Because they are contingent, the three dimensions of consent are the subject of regular re-negotiation leading to collective compromises, the terms of which serve as the threshold of consent to which the majority must agree if democracy is to be consolidated and maintained over time.

The need for majority contingent consent in order to successfully reproduce democracy as both a political and social construct leads to self-limiting, incremental gains approaches on the part of groups and factions. The strategy is to advance sectoral fortunes via institutional means that ameliorate open conflict and facilitate the type of material and political compromises that reproduce mass contingent consent over time. Self-limiting and incremental gains approaches to realizing collective and individual interests are used in pursuit of mutual second best outcomes whereby all groups accept that attempts to maximize unilateral opportunities leads to collectively sub-optimal outcomes for the society at large.

Ideological and redistributive conflicts are denatured by the pursuit of the mutual second best, which in turn facilitates the achievement of material and political compromises that are reproducible over time. When that occurs, contingent compromises on matters of material and political interest frame public expectations of what are reasonable demands and achievable objectives on and by governments of the day.

That is why democracies are replete with calls for ideological moderation and centrist voting, and why they utilize institutions such as collective bargaining and compulsory arbitration when it comes to sectoral conflict.

In another series of posts I noted the problems inherent in transitional dynamics, which are the processes by which political regime change occurs. I wrote the posts early in the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, and I noted that bottom up transitions are not always revolutionary nor do they lead to democracy, and that top down transitions are more likely to result in negotiated and relatively peaceful devolution of political authority even if these too are not always, or even likely to be democratic. For those who may remember, I repeated the view that the interplay between opposition moderates and militants and regime hardliners and soft liners would most significantly influence the immediate outcome of a given transition, and that there would likely be a purgative phase following the transitional moment in which adherents of the old regime would be ostracized or victimized by supporters of the new one (if not the new regime itself). The latter is particularly true for countries with no historical experience with democratic forms of rule.

Needless to say, the Arab Spring and its sequels have tested these propositions and added a few new chapters to the regime transitions literature. But what continues to get relative short shrift, and which is a topic pertinent to any form of government that relies on majority support for its continuance in power, is the subject of managing expectations.

Achieving and maintaining the threshold of contingent majority consent requires management of public expectations of what is reasonable in terms of demands and what is achievable given the socio-economic and political context of the times. Resource availability, trade dependency, labor force skill base, nature of political representation and a host of other factors influence what are considered to be “reasonable” demands and “achievable” goals at any given point in time.

If individuals and groups concur on what is generally reasonable and achievable, mass contingent consent based upon self-limiting and incremental gains strategies leading to mutual second best outcomes is possible. Sectoral agreement on specific issues does not have to be uniform or absolute, and instead is the subject of institutionalized conflict resolution mechanisms involving debate and negotiation.

In democracies the key element in determining what is reasonable and achievable in a particular historical moment is government framing of the issues that condition individual and group approaches to making demands on political authority. Issue framing not only allows the government of the day to define the terms of debate about the specifics on which reasonable demands and achievable objectives are construed. It also allows the government to manage popular expectations as to what is and is not reasonable or achievable.

I mention this because one major problem for nascent regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere is and has been managing popular expectations of what can be delivered by a sudden move to electoral rule. “Democracy” means a lot of things to a lot of people, from unfettered freedom of expression to free blue jeans and TV sets. Many envision democracy as being a panoply of rights unencumbered by responsibility, to include the need for tolerance of others whose views, persuasion or traits are not congruent with one’s preferred world view.

The rush away from authoritarianism also has a tendency to encourage demagogic promise-making on the part of political contenders that has little relation to (or bearing on) what can be reasonably demanded on or achieved by the new regime. The syndrome is compounded when the incoming elite has little knowledge of, much less training or skills in the complexities of macroeconomic management, social policy, international diplomacy and trade or a myriad of other areas of government responsibility. Sometimes the best opposition leaders are the least qualified to govern.

The combination sets up the scenario of failed expectations: new political regimes based on popular support often fail to adequately manage expectations so as to give themselves time to learn the intricacies of their position and to establish priorities as to what can be reasonably demanded and achieved. Popular demands for short-term remedies and immediate material gains outweigh the regime’s capacity to deliver on what was promised, much less what was implicitly expected at the moment of transition. That produces a withdrawal of mass consent and a reversion to first-best or maximalist group strategies that lead to non-institutionalized mass collective conflict. This has been evident in Egypt and, with some significant differences in terms of the specifics of what is being debated and the intensity with which it is being contested, is also apparent in Turkey.

In established democracies the issue of managing expectations has roots not so much in what is immediately promised but in what has been historically delivered. The longer and more deeply embedded the concepts of reasonable and achievable are in the public consciousness, the more difficult it is to significantly alter downwards the threshold of mass contingent consent. Should democratic governments move to redraw the concepts of reasonable and achievable in order to downgrade or reduce the combined threshold of consent, the more likely it will be the non-institutionalized collective conflict will result. That has been the case in Greece and Spain.

In light of all of this, the National government in New Zealand has a challenge on its hands. Since the late 1990s the move to narrow the definition of citizenship rights and entitlements (the subject of yet another earlier post) has responded to incrementally applied corporate logics on the subject of collective demands in market driven climates of fiscal austerity in which reduction in state-provided public goods is seen as a basic requisite for economic competitiveness. The objective is to diminish public expectations of what is reasonably achievable and what can be reasonably demanded in a small open market economy.

The effort to reforge collective identities, at least with regards to public expectations of what is reasonable and achievable, has been largely successful. That has help lower the threshold of mass contingent consent in contemporary Aotearoa to levels that more closely approximate those of Asia than those of Europe or the Americas, and which are a far cry from those that existed before Rogernomics was imposed.

Even so, there is a limit to the downgrading of the threshold of consent and National appears to be approaching it. Be it the non-response to the Pike River or Rena disasters, the third world response to the Christchurch earthquake, the passing of legislation under urgency, the attempts to intimidate the media on both large and small issues (such as the Tea Cup affair or the personal denigration of Jon Stephenson because of his critical writing about the NZDF in Afghanistan), the focus on maximizing trade opportunities rather than affordable domestic consumption, the penchant for secrecy rather than transparency in policy-making, or even the arrogance and indifference of the PM when it comes to important questions about his leadership (epitomized by his repeated brain fades and his holidaying in the US rather than attending the funeral of NZ war dead), the combined effect may be that there comes a point where he and his government can no longer manage public expectations with a smile and a wave.

I am not sure when it will come or what that tipping point may be precipitated by, but it seems that we are well down the path towards a public withdrawal of consent to this government. It certainly will not look like the events in Athens, Cairo, Istanbul or Madrid, and the opposition may not have the ability to capitalize on the moment of opportunity provided it by public repudiation of the narrow definition of what is reasonable, achievable and expected of government, but it seems to me that the debased threshold of mass contingent consent has reached its limits in New Zealand.

The question is whether, should it eventuate, the withdrawal of consent in New Zealand will be confined to “manageable” institutional channels focused on specific aspects of the three dimensions on which it is given, or whether it will evolve into something more.

 

Needs, Wants and the threshold of consent.

datePosted on 17:26, August 19th, 2011 by Pablo

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. If so, then the genius of capitalism is that it translates wants into needs. Needs determine necessity. The deliberate promotion of wants into needs in pursuit of profit has become the driving force behind technological innovation,the necessity of which is driven as much by consumption as it is productive requirements.

Thirty five years ago few people had remote controlled televisions. Over time the remote became affordable for mass consumption, and by now few televisions come without them.  As a unanticipated externality or derivative, local pathologies have risen as the” need” to consume  taken hold: couples fight over viewing options, leading to personal conflicts or the acquisition of another television and remote for separate viewing and marital harmony (as well as further profit). As the cost of televisions with remote controls drops under the weight of competition, material preferences (and social pathologies) are extended into the mass of society. Thrity years ago no one needed a remote controlled television. Now everyone does, at least in the “developed” world.

Twenty years ago mobile phones were clunky, heavy and expensive. So where computers. Landlines sufficed for most verbal communication, and computers were in a relatively early and restricted stage of mass development. Since mobile phones  and computers were not needed for everyday communication they were a luxury good or professional tool, not a mass consumption item.

Today computers and mobile phones are everywhere, with squadzilliions worth of gigabytes and full spectrum interconnectivity complete with multi-media capability built into the latter and with the former moving into nanotechnologies of unprecedented scale. Everyone must have one or the other (or preferably both) and landlines are being phased out along with desktop computers. The very nature of inter-personal and group interaction has been altered by the advent of portable communication devices and the move into social media. This has had political as well as personal impllications.

The translation of wants into needs is evident in the service sector, which now occupies the majority of GDP is many countries. 15 years ago only the uber rich wanted personal trainers and life coaches. Now there are scads of them (the US has an association of life coaches that numbers 150,000 members), as there are many other types of service that cater to wants translated into needs. Think car and dog groomers, garden landscapers, plastic surgeons that do vanity work–the list of non-productive occupations that service the “wants into needs” trade is immense and only limited by the amount of disposable income available.

Turning wants into needs fuels profit  riding on unsecured advancement.  Making affordable the previously unobtainable, then embedding  the consumption of previously wanted goods to the point that they become needs that influence human behaviour, perpetuates the cycle of profit as well as technological, innovation and service frontiers. But in its success it generates new inefficiencies. Time in and efficiency of production is saved and improved, but time is also wasted in the pursuit of consumption of non-productive consumer commodities or individual interests and pleasure pursuits (all those of you reading this at work will get the drift). Commodity fetichism sets in, and here is where the Achilles Heel of contemporary capitalism ultimately rests.

For any regime to be legitimate in the eyes of its own people, and hence to be stable over time, it must establish and continually uphold the threshold of mass contingent consent upon which its rule is founded. Consent, as readers may remember from a series of posts done on KP a while back (and the literature on which those posts were based), is simultaneously secured and expressed at the economic, social and political levels. Political consent is given through elections and adherence to institutional channels of conflict resolution, redress and voice. Social consent is achieved by mass acceptance of ideological norms guiding individual and group behaviour. Economic consent is given by participation in the system of profit and private property and exchange for incremental gains in mass material standards.

Consent is not given once, forever. It is given contingent on expectations being met at all three levels of operation, the combination of which represents the threshold of mass contingent consent at any given time. Nor are expectations static. Instead, the develop and advance as a result of the translation of wants into needs over time. Mid-career professionals have different material expectations than teenagers on their first job. Adults have different expectations than (and of) their children. They also have different responsibilities, some of which are a product of achieving past expectations. The same holds true for social and political consent. As people become accustomed to one set of expectations they come to want more, and in so doing play into the “wants into needs” logic. In advanced democracies people want more social and political entitlements, if not rights, than did those present at the origins of the democratic state in their respective countries.They also want more things, particularly those that are related to social status and advancement. The threshold of mass contingent consent, in other words, rises over time and in the measure that mass contigent consent is achieved and reproduced.

The emergence of cultures of mass consumption that are disconnected from production have broken the easy translation of wants into needs. Conspicuous consumption is everywhere but the means of achieving it increasingly is not. Uncoupling of production from consumption reverses one traditional logic upon which it was based: that production lead or keep pace with consumption (the supply side argument).  It also undermines demand-side logics because these are based on an assumption that production will be dominated by consumer preferences rather than speculative calculations of gain, and that the production of consumer durable and non-durables would absorb most global capital in advance of consumer demand.

The current phase of globalised capitalism brought with it the uncoupling of production from consumption even as the “wants into needs” syndrome persists. The specific result is that, relatively speaking, global production of goods has declined while the consumption of non-productive commodities has increased. That means that there is an excess of wants with respect to needs. In fact, mass focus on obtaining a proliferation of wants has served to obscure the basics of needs. That makes people feral rather than solidarity-minded, even as the divorce between their material and social priorities and structural reality come into conflict. 

This quickens the process of alienation based on a sense of relative deprivation, which in turn is the source of collective unrest based on the withdrawal of mass contingent consent to the economic project (since it is the feeling of relative as opposed to absolute deprivation that riles people up. If everyone is equally poor and deprived they take comfort in their common condition. When some are much better off than others and the means to achieve conspicuous consumption status are reduced, then collective resentment grows). When material gains are not assured, much less incremental in the passing of one generation to the next, then the structural foundations for a mass withsdrawal of consent are set in place.

Withdrawal of mass contingent consent from the economic project leads to withdrawal of consent at a social level. The turn to collective violence and acts of individual norm violation and misbehaviour are manifestations of a lack of consent to the prevailing social mores, which are seen as instruments of elite control in pursuit of an economic project that no longer allows for the satisfaction of wants turned into needs via material gratification. The withdrawal of mass contingent consent to the ideological project represented by different combinations of social mores and norms is the precipitant for a withdrawl of political consent. The masses turn away from institutional channels of expression, voice and redress. This is a crisis of the political regime.

This seems to be more or less where the UK is at present, although it is just one of many countries in which dominant paradigms are being challenged and in which maintenance of mass contingent consent is under question. That many of the UK looters and rioters had mobile phones, wore designer label clothes and connected via social media does not obviate that fact; it is just another manifestation of the “wants into needs” syndrome turned sour.

The fundamental issue is that the “wants into needs” logic worked well so long as the material production of goods outstripped the wants of the general population. But as production vis a vis consumption decreased and full employment policies gave way to more precarious employment schemes in non-productive work, the gap between needs and wants widened for the majority, forcing concession and backtracking in material lifestyles. That has had social and economic repercussions as the first generations of citizens who will not be as well off as their parents lose faith in the system that their parents consented to.

One might call this situation many things, but the bottom line is that it represents a transitional moment that has no defined outcome but which is certain to include severe dislocations of the economic, social and political sort in the measure that a new threshold of mass contingent consent (however debased, as was the case with the Argentine and Chilean democracies that followed the state terror experiments of the 1970s and 1980s) is not achieved. The outcome is uncertain, and the situation is delicate and dangerous (to again paraphrase the founder of the Italian School of Marxism).

NB: Obviously this post is stems from the previous posts on the UK riots and the fiscal crisis of the Western capitalist State, as well as the comments about them. It also has longer-term roots in a series of lectures that I  used to give in upper division undergraduate courses on worlds systems, modernisation and dependency theory as well as revolutions, insurgencies and counter-hegemonic movements. I will resume writing about other things shortly.

Rational responses to trauma

datePosted on 22:56, May 14th, 2009 by Lew

The Sharks Sex Saga continues. Tania Boyd, the victim’s former workmate says the victim bragged about “bedding” players, and goes on:

It was definitely consensual, absolutely.
She is saying she is still traumatised etcetera, well she wasn’t for five days, or four days at least, after that affair.
I can’t work out what’s happened. Does it take five days for it to sink in?

Tania Boyd, having not been there, can’t know whether consent was given – only if Clare – the victim – implied (to her, after the fact) that consent was given. She can’t know the truth of the situation since the victim may well have implied to her that there was consent when there wasn’t. The question of consent is a complicated one, as well – Clare might well have agreed to some sort of sexual contact, but at each escalation consent needed to be renewed, and according to her it wasn’t. There’s a good discussion of this involving our Anita at The Hand Mirror.

Ms Boyd has begged the question of consent by assuming that a woman having been raped by a lot of powerful, famous men would act in a way which someone who hadn’t had such an experience would consider rational – that is, by immediately calling a halt, or immediately reporting the events, or whatever. But trauma, especially sexual trauma, especially when it involves power imbalance, is a complicated thing, and it does screwy things to one’s sense of reason. Incidents like this can have many responses which might seem rational to the traumatised person at the time but utterly irrational to others. Bragging about the event could be seen as a form of post-purchase rationalisation; that is, Clare may have thought it started off as a good experience and perhaps even initiated it, and tried to mask the fact that it turned nasty (to herself as much as anyone) by bragging about the event. This could also be seen as a call for attention; an invitation to workmates, friends or family to offer support. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing.

As to the second statement, if Clare genuinely is traumatised now, then it follows that she was traumatised in the initial four days, it just wasn’t apparent to Tania Boyd, which isn’t really surprising at all given that her response was not one of support but of disgust. Not that that wasn’t a reasonable response – I have no idea how close these people were or what the nature of the workplace was, and bragging about one’s sexual exploits is pretty polarising.

As to the third statement, the answer to Ms Boyd’s question is – yes, these things do take time to sink in. According to a family member with extensive professional experience in this field, the median period of time between incidence and reporting of rape is eighteen and three-quarter years; viewed in this light four days seems very rapid indeed.

This story is being deployed without qualification in apologia for the men in this incident, whereas articles advocating Clare’s perspective are strongly hedged so as to make clear that the facts of the case haven’t really been established. The headline goes beyond euphemistically describing the events as `group sex’ and calls it a `romp’, for goodness’ sakes.

L