Buying it

Neoliberalism is a giant marketing ploy, and we’ve almost all swallowed it. Robin McAlpine argues that we need to face up to our complicity if we want to change it.

It really is time for us all to stop believing that we know what’s going on. We have convinced ourselves that we’re now all ‘media savvy’, that we know the ways and means of newspaper manipulation and, since we do, we are therefore immune to their effect. We also think that we have the politicians’ number, that we have become so used to their methods and techniques that we can see straight through them. We have all read an article about how supermarkets place products to maximise our purchases and so we think we understand the tricks of the trade to a degree that we aren’t going to fall for them. We think that adverts don’t really work on us. Sure, sometimes we see things in adverts that we really, really want and that’s different, but they’ll never sell us something we don’t want because we’re not that gullible. And, over all, we have a good grip on ‘things’ – perhaps we don’t understand all the details but we have a pretty good idea of what’s really going on in the world. We’re not idiots after all. And from within ‘us’ there is that extra-special gang, the ‘super-informed’. Us. People who read quality newspapers, the occasional political journal and who watch Question Time. We really, really don’t fall for this stuff and to suggest otherwise is patently absurd.

When will we wake up to the fact that this is part of the trap? Making us feel like we know better than to fall for this stuff is one of the important ways to make us fall for it. If you want someone to buy a sophisticated product you have to make them feel sophisticated. And since we’re now dealing with an age in which so much of the media messages are about co-opting us for fairly complex political positions (deference is very much out of fashion) then we need to feel like we’re on the ‘inside’. But we’re not, none of us. The ‘inside’ is very small indeed and if you’re reading this , are not in Government or very rich or (with a small number of exceptions) living in Scotland) then you’re not. The sooner we wake up to this the better the position we will be in.

None of this is new. Marx took a strong interest in it – false consciousness, opium of the people. Gramsci expanded it, explored further it’s underpinning role. Others with less overt political agendas like Foucault and Derrida understood the same process as an analytical tool to help understand texts. And there are entire university courses dedicated to marketing and influencing. The literature is extensive and the subject very well understood. So why is it that we believe ourselves to be immune? Why is it that our default position is that we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it (or what we believe or feel and why we believe or feel it)? We know how easy it is to influence people through means such as subliminal programming and we know it happens all the time. We know that the advertising industry works because it demonstrably does, over and over again. We know that every political or military campaign waged by the power elites is accompanied by a carefully devised propaganda campaign which is put together by people who have dedicated their whole lives to manipulating people and are where they are because they have managed to do it. We know that we are broadly as helpless against the power of planned ideological influence as we are against a well-armed police force. So why don’t we believe it?

There isn’t space here to run over all the material which would reinforce this argument and there are many sources. But let me give you a couple just to help explain why it is that we need to take this issue more seriously, both as a democratic state and as individual radicals inclined to challenge power structures. My personal favourite is the success the Bush administration had in converting a vast majority of people who knew something which was accurate and true into a clear majority of people who ‘knew’ precisely the opposite. Within 18 months, polling showed that from over 80 per cent of Americans knowing there was no Iraqi involved in the September 11 attacks, 60 per cent ended up believing that there were. That is fairly remarkable, but when you realise that in those 18 months no-one from the Bush administration ever said that there actually was Iraqi involvement it becomes even more surprising. In fact, all that they did was to say the word ‘Iraq’ or ‘Sadam’ and ‘terrorism’ in the same sentence as and reference to ‘9/11’. For example ‘we have to invade Iraq because it is a training ground for people who could launch another 9/11’ or ‘’9/11 changed this nation and that is why we cannot sit by and allow Iraq to gain weapons of mass destruction’. This is classic subliminal manipulation, but it did not take place in a closed, dark cinema where people’s attention is focussed on the message (the usual sort of set-up for subliminal manipulation). It was simply repeated over and over until the effect took place.

The risk that we face on the left is the patronising view that this is something to do with American’s being ‘dumb’. It is true that there are a set of incredibly strong ideological and linguistic constructions in the US which tend to make people susceptible to this kind of influence (there is usually a correlation between the number of flags you see in everyday life and the leeway individuals have to think their own thoughts). But it is patronising and bluntly blind to take this as an explanation. If those of us in ‘free thinking’ Europe are so emancipated from the power of influence and indoctrination, why is it that we have an entire continent of governments which have barely a policy difference between them? The default reaction of many in the political-intellectual ‘class’ is to assume that this is a result of ‘others’. But this is where it is time for us to be very much harder on ourselves than we have so far been. I usually use a test to see how independent our thinking really is, and that is to assess the recreational and cultural consumption of an individual (and that usually means me). If I’m so well informed, why does my CD collection look quite as like the next person’s? Why am I annoyed that they have seen all five seasons of the Wire as well? I’m tying this on a MacBook Pro which means I have paid three times as much for additional computing power and I am using a fraction of it. But it looks good. I have (I hope) largely managed to avoid falling into the big public policy narrative traps (or more accurately, I have tried hard to get back out of them) but that does not mean that I am not every bit as embedded in the structure of neoliberal capitalism as anyone else. The way I live, eat, travel consume, spend my recreation, talk, joke – all of these things are things I do from within a deeply-rooted ideology which is the thread from which is woven the fabric of neoliberalism. My choices are not my choices, they are my selections from a series of choices which have been decided for me and I have chosen to accept them.

Let us be clear on the size and nature of the problem. There are a series of interlocking ‘industries’ which create and reinforce the social structures which have resulted in this terrible mess in which we find ourselves. We are entirely surrounded by advertising with virtually no escape. It all – every bit of it – has a political message and that is that it is good to consume. The main message is ‘consume me’, but it all assumes that increasing consumption is the goal. So does the media. In this we need to stop focussing only on the Sun and the Daily Mail. The function of celebrity gossip magazines is the same as Fox News – to normalise a set of assumptions and desires without which neoliberal capitalism is impossible. The education system goes further in that direction every day – this is written in a week when there was very little contrary said to Peter Mandleson’s assertion that businessmen should be writing university coursework because, after all, education is about preparing us for work, right? And do we really know why we are in Afghanistan? Setting aside immediately the suggestion that it is anything to do with Al Qaeda on the streets of London. I’m sure more of us could take a stab at the geopolitical implications of the Caucus region and the commercial imperative of oil and gas trade routes, but could we really sustain the detail of the argument under cross-examination? But are you confident that, in five minutes in the pub you could persuade someone who is open-minded that there is a direct link between the advert for soap powder you just saw and improvised explosive devices in a desert country miles away? It is the blatant conspiracy that no-one will really believe.

And there is no simple escape from all of this, but there are ways out if we work at them and are patient. All ideologies topple over eventually and while capitalism may not really be at risk in the near future, neoliberal capitalism certainly is. If we can be clearer about both the role of the messages around us and our own individual complicity then we may be able to chart a better direction. Why do we need advertising? How about a law ensuring the separation of education and private commercial interest (at least at primary and secondary school)? What is the reason that we accept monopoly ownership of print media – or private ownership at all? And when we accepted a separation between legislators and the judiciary, did we really mean that politicians would never ever be held to account for war crimes or corporate corruptions (such as signing overpriced PFI contracts)? All of these things would start to pull at the threads which hold the whole thing together.

But we need to start closer to home and challenge many of our own assumptions as well. Until we are honest about how we ourselves think, we will not be in a position to change how others think.