Sean Tolland talks about the role of folk devils in modern society.
We live in a highly indoctrinated society, where ruling elites seek to imbue every intellectual, cultural, and ideological space with an ethos of neoliberal ideology. The attendant propaganda apparatus works ceaselessly to champion a series of myths, which promote the view that human welfare can only be maximised through a system of private property, free markets, free trade, entrepreneurial liberties and freedom of the individual. This short article will locate the origins and development of neoliberalism and examine some of the sophisticated and almost impenetrable mechanisms utilised to defend and consolidate existing power structures.
The origins of neo-liberal ideology are found in the formation conference of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947. Prominent economists such as Friedrich Hayek, Frank Knight, Karl Popper and Milton Friedman released a statement at the time declaring that it was ‘difficult to imagine a society in which freedom may be effectively preserved without the diffuse power associated with private property and the competitive market.’
Until the early 1970’s no one really took their ideas seriously because of the success of Keynesian state interventionism. However, the emerging economic crisis of that time shattered the consensus and right wing media outlets gave a platform to the economic creed of neoliberalism. A new war of ideas was launched.
Since then a plethora of what Owen Jones calls ideological outriders, in the form of right wing think tanks, have proliferated. Dedicating themselves to the creation of an ideological movement, whose mission is to spread the mantra that individual liberty and freedom can only be secured by a system of free markets, free trade and a robust adherence to private property rights.
Today the influence of neoliberal propaganda is difficult to exaggerate. It has resulted in a tweedle dum tweedle dee politics across Europe and most of the western world. The ruling elites have sought to rob us of our ability to imagine and articulate a genuine alternative.
At first glance, it appears anomalous to suggest that the people can be robbed of their voice in the age of popular sovereignty. However, modern democracy is not seen by the ruling elites as a means to encourage popular democratic control over decision-making. It is seen as a problem to be managed. Propaganda is to democracy, as violent suppression is to dictatorship. The agenda setting media do not play the role of counterbalancing the power of government and ruling elites. Contrary to popular myth, the role of the agenda setting media is to tell the people what to believe, how to behave and what to buy. As Noam Chomsky would have it, their role is to manufacture the consent of the population, by creating illusions with emotionally potent oversimplifications. The corporate media is a strategic component in the ideological hegemony of the ruling class.
This is not only expressed within academic circles and amongst the chattering classes. If we study popular culture as communicated through the mainstream television channels, what do we see? The aspirant, ambitious property owning, competitive individual who strives towards his station in life within the parameters of a meritocracy. Prime time television is saturated with programmes about property development and the buying and selling houses. They feature swashbuckling individuals who are out to play the housing market. They feature the socially mobile. Television has created a new form of cultural hero for the middle-aged, middle classes. A ready-made set of role models who seek their fortunes in the cut and thrust of the free market. New cultural icons who embody the very spirit of neoliberal individualism. We are all capitalists now.
For those of us a wee bit disillusioned with rampant entrepreneurial capitalism, who dream of escaping the rat race, we have programmes about setting up anew in some far distant paradise. One man and his family can rebuild a life not driven by commerce, free from the reality of modern world. Again all cast within the context of, ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families.’
For the younger generation we have a whole host of shows, where the youth can display their talent and be rewarded accordingly with fame and fortune. The underlying cultural signal being, if you have it, you can make it. Just try hard enough and ‘really, really want it’ and someone out there will uncover your inner pop star. We do after all live in a meritocracy. If you do not have the talent, it is your own fault, do not blame the system. You may be a failure, but hey ho, at least the rules were fair.
The dumbing down of popular culture is of course a symptom of seeking to manage people’s aspirations with emotionally potent oversimplifications.
For those of us with a more serious disposition, popular television offers us ‘fact’ based programmes in the shape of ‘reality’ television. Certain channels seem to specialise in what the late Stan Cohen would call, the creation of folk devils. The cultural form of these abysmal creations is to whip up indignation and moral panic about a particular group of ‘undesirables’. The unemployed, the obese, those dependent on benefits, travelling people or and so on. The popular ‘migrant panic’ in light of the current refugee crisis is a good current example. The Popular culture of the mainstream media is now a kind of pincer movement. On the one hand, we are given role models to which we should aspire to become and on the other, folk devils, which we should condemn and abhor.
I was fleetingly given cause for optimism the other evening, when I heard an advertising slogan on a well-known worldwide television platform, encouraging us to ‘Believe in Better.’ ‘That’s more like it,’ I thought. ‘At last, somebody on the tele encouraging us to create a new hegemonic project.’ But alas I was disappointed to learn that my dreams of living in a better world, were to be limited to easier and more convenient access to Catch Up TV. Here was me thinking I was being encouraged to address the seven foundational contradictions at the heart of capitalism as outlined by David Harvey, the Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Centre of the City of New York University. But no. I was merely being encouraged to watch more television.
I will decline that offer. Instead, I will look to articulate an alternative vision of culture and politics. One which seeks the creation of use values for the meeting of human needs, rather than the production of exchange values merely for private profit and personal gain.
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