Deconstructing Democracy, Part 2: Consent

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.

8 thoughts on “Deconstructing Democracy, Part 2: Consent

  1. MMP seems to better reflect the wish of the consenting subjects than FPP, but the Party systems seem to work against this, and the Government/Opposition model.

    What about independents and collaboration?

  2. My questions: When do you think consent to the state is ever actually given? Do you think it has to be explicit or can it be tacit? Is it actually possible that it can be given? Are states acutally compatible with the notion of consent? Is your conception of consent rather different than mine?

  3. Consent is not given to the state but instead to the ideological justification for it (phrased differently, the elite world view that justifies its role and functions). The state just delivers on the ideological project. The more elite ideology is accepted as universal, the more implicit consent becomes. Under such conditions people do not even think of alternatives to the system as given, nor do they actively contemplate the granting or withdrawal of consent at any level. That is the true measure of hegemony.

    The state is just an instrument to convey and enforce the dominant ideology as codified in into institutional practice and usage. That requires it to address and satisfactorily manage the interests and demands of all social groups based upon the threshold of expectations in a given society.

    As such the state, in an of itself, is not hegemonic. Instead, hegemony is exercised by those who control the state and the economy, however ‘progressive” and willing to share political power that the “historical bloc” may be. My take is very Gramscian so best to go to the source on that–Prison Notebooks, chapter on the “The State and Civil Society.” A good way of delving into the subject is to look at the index for “egemonia,” “state” and “bloque historico” in Gramsci’s writings (I use the 1971 English language version of the Notebooks edited by Q. Hoare and G.N. Smith). There is also a large secondary literature on the subject.

    I outlined my notion of consent in the post so I am not sure as to your last question.

  4. I’ll look into it, but more questions, bear with me: What counts as refusing consent? If nothing counts as a refusal of consent (i.e., the state doesn’t recognise one’s refusal) then in what way can it be said that consent is ever meaningfully given?

  5. MMP seems to better reflect the wish of the consenting subjects than FPP, but the Party systems seem to work against this, and the Government/Opposition model.

    Not sure that’s true. Scientific enquiry is designed to subject a hypothesis to as stringent a test as possible. Experiments have to be designed so that they can disprove theories aswell as confirming them. Why shouldn’t political decisions be subject to the same sort of investigation? Without a well-resourced opposition consent would cease to exist.

    In any case, we usually only get to see the conflict: you can find plenty of cooperation in select committees.

    Is it possible to give consent consciously? Yes and no. My consent is genuine and freely given, but it’s also a cultural norm, so is the decision really “free”?

  6. QtR: Just as consent must be given willingly, so too consent must be withdrawn willfully. This can happen at any level of social interaction, not just in the political sphere. Microcosmically, individuals may engage in utilizing what James Scott called “weapons of the weak,’ including various forms of passive resistance (tardiness, working to rule, petty acts of vandalism or sabotage, etc.).

    In terms of more macrocosmic forms of collective action, strikes, slowdowns, working to rule, demonstrations, protests, blockages, riots, and of course, voting all are means of signaling a withdrawal of consent (although not all direct action is necessarily a withdrawal of consent). This can be issue-specific (such as strikes in favour of better working conditions or wages in a given industry or firm), or generalised (such as the trucker and EFA protests last year). The point is that the withdrawal has to be actively signaled even if “passively” delivered (passive meaning no direct confrontations with the repressive apparatus). Needless to say, there must be agents to act as catalysts for popular mobilization given the overwhelming weight of status quo machinery designed to discourage, directly or indirectly, counter-hegemonic action and discourse.

    Incidentally, when I refer to consent I am not thinking of things like resource consents and the like. The latter are an improper use of the term given that what it actually means is a permit from the state or local authorities to do something. Asking elite authority for permission is not the same as asking them to consent to something, and in any event it is the mass contingent consent of the (subordinate) majority that matters.

    Matt: The best a social scientist can hope for is quasi-scientific deductions and experimentation, since it is impossible to absolutely replicate the complexities of most human phenomena in a controlled setting (including control variables against which tests subjects are analyzed). Take, for example, the recent North Korea sabre rattling–do you think that it is actually possible to identify one dominant reason that completely explains its behaviour?

    Even if we can establish a chain of causality between independent, intervening and dependent variables in explaining any given social phenomena, it may not be universally applicable to similar phenomena situated in a different context or time. Sure, there are broad human character traits (including typologies of political behaviour), but they are not absolutely, scientifically, reducible to universal laws. For example, there is that old truism that people vote with their wallets. But that only happens in places where people can vote, do vote, and vote exclusively based upon economic considerations. That leaves much to be explained, both in terms of voter motivations as well as in terms of outcomes–to say nothing of the universe to which such a “hypothesis” is applicable.

    I find your claim that consent is a cultural norm to be interesting but do not fully understand what you mean. Do you mean the notion that people should just get along? or is it something else? Care to explain?

  7. I didn’t mean that the government/opposition paradigm could be as rigorous as scientific enquiry. I was using it to illustrate the point that positive results can still ensue from oppositional enquiry/argument, and frequently do.

    I think that consent is self-evidently a cultural norm. It’s no accident that kids get taught Greek and Roman history at school: it helps emphasise the longevity of the democratic tradition, but that very longevity is a consequence of centuries of struggle against bad leaders and other natural catastrophes. Social cooperation seems to be a consequence of being a mammal, or possibly simply being alive, rather than anything that uniquely applies to humans.

    Sometimes we’re so keen to live together in harmony we’ll kill for it.

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