Manufacturing Apathy

In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote a sentence that remains a powerful manifesto for all those opposed to what, in this age of internet activism, has become popularly known as ‘the Establishment.’ In their book ‘Manufacturing Consent,’ they wrote that the media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.” While this to an extent is still very much the case, in the same spirit of co-authorship, we (Vint and Bat) have decided to update the sentiment somewhat for what we see as the subtly different problems that face us regarding the media and politicians today. The powerful (in British society at least) have recognized now that consent is far more difficult to engineer than simple apathy – and that they have similar results, as the public just let you do exactly what you want.

What is it that breeds the apathy that is currently draining the life-force of our democracy? Only 30,600,000 people voted in the last election, which is merely 66.1% of those eligible to vote – and even that excludes people who didn’t even sign up to vote. To put that into somewhat shocking perspective, 40,000,000 votes were cast in last year’s X Factor final (this, weirdly enough, is not the last time the X Factor will be mentioned…) This is more of a problem than most politicians will want to admit. The issue is that this apathy, rather illogically, instead of being a disadvantage to those at the top, is almost entirely advantageous to our current rulers at least, the Tories. These people would rather that the public did not see politics as it truly is – a collection of problems facing society and for each problem a set of possible solutions – but rather, as a physical thing, which manifests itself through politicians (mostly white, male politicians) discussing things in dry, impenetrable prose. This is fundamentally uninteresting, and when people are not interested, they are not angry – and when they are not angry, change does not happen.

When people say ‘I’m not interested in politics’, as many do, a fundamental concept that they’ve missed is that politics affects almost everything. Let’s be clear, if you express the sentiment that something could be better you are almost certainly making a political point. For example, have you ever tried to set up an NHS appointment? The sentence: “for fuck’s sake, three months? That’s ridiculous!” is a heavily politicized one. You are saying that the NHS is not working and that on a basic level that it needs more funding. So we can see that everyone does indeed have an interest in politics, however much apathy towards the ‘politics’ of the House of Commons is all-pervasive.

However, this is not to say that politicians aren’t good at stirring up strong feelings in the electorate, it’s that when they do create these feelings they are all too often misdirected or are directed at issues politicians cannot solve, which is useful to them. These problems are often ones that center on basic, easily exploited prejudices, such as hatred of immigrants or ‘benefits scroungers’. Politicians decry these people and the mainstream media dutifully spread this bile. The issues that we should be angry about on the other hand, that can seriously be changed, are those such as tax evasion, the negative effects of austerity and climate change. But remember, these issues are difficult and more abstract. You can see an immigrant in the street, but you can’t physically see the £128 bn that our NHS and our welfare system are robbed of through corporations and wealthy individuals’ greedy tax evasion. Therefore the only areas of politics that Joe Bloggs is interested in are the superficial, plainly visible ones, at the expense of constructive discussion aimed at dealing with the underlying problems of society.

Another reason for significant societal problems being ignored is the distractions offered to us through the media, which suppress political discussion and thought in favour of mindless drivel such as the shocking fact that celebrities, particularly female celebrities, are somehow not immune to aging. Programs such as Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor exist for the single purpose of diverting public attention away from serious issues that affect us all, towards inane, trivial guff. These programs perpetuate the belief that if you are good enough, you’ll succeed, which is a fundamental tenet of capitalist, individualist ideology. And even when the press media in this country are addressing the important problems of the day, they often approached in a strangely trivializing manner. Consider the language used, for example, in Mail-type publications when, as so often tragically happens, disaffected young men and women make the fatal journey into Islamic State. They are seen as ‘evil,’ and ‘wrong’ – focusing on the problem as it affects individuals, and in the process, ignoring the social context. Why does the Mail not ask what it is about society that makes a certain (smaller than is imagined) section of muslims hate it so? Simply put – to do so may encourage the hoi poloi to ask dangerous questions of those in charge – and apathy is much, much safer.

So, as so often on this blog of ours, we have identified and moaned about a problem. To take a slight diversion from our usual spiel, perhaps it would be useful to try and find a solution. One that is often mooted is the idea, to borrow a UKIP phrase, of an “Australian-style” electoral system, where, paradoxically enough, the people are undemocratically forced to participate in the democratic process. This is essentially arrogance on behalf of the political class – the idea is that they must be good enough to deserve people’s votes. Our idea is very simple – politicians and the media have moved from Chomsky’s “manufacturing consent” to manufacturing apathy, and it is high time that they instead focus on creating a platform for interest, and discussion among the public. This, however, must not come from politicians alone – after all they do not always have our best interests at heart. Change comes from the bottom up, and it is up to us, the already-interested, to convince people, whatever their political beliefs may turn out to be, that politics, in its purest and most simple form, can and should be a vehicle for the change they want to see to improve their lives and those of others.

– Vint and Bat


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