25 January 2017

A political rant...

I find the liberal enlightenment project very attractive. It has given us the concept of universal rights and helped to break down divisions based on superficial differences. On the other hand I was a teen in the 1980s and witnessed first hand the rise of what we now call Neoliberalism and the betrayal of liberal enlightenment in favour of profit.

But there is one thing about the present that continually galls me. Yesterday I noted how scientists fail to get their message across because the one problem they seem determined not to apply science to is getting their message across! But it goes further than that. 

In 1971 Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In this memo he suggested that conservative businessmen take over media and universities and convert them into conduits for the message of conservative businessmen. Conservative businessmen did just that, and what I would now call Neoliberalism was born. Though in fact Neoliberalism is profoundly anti-liberal. Powell also suggested that they form organisations to employ graduates of these programs to keep the momentum going. So think tanks began to form, which employed Neoliberal intellectuals to lobby politicians and churn out Neoliberal analysis to the media (which, being owned by Neoliberals tended to simply repeat it). 

And thus conservative business people began to take over the world. The end of the era of empires saw the political equilibrium shift to nation states; from racism to nationalism; from aristocracy to bourgeoisie. The present day harks back to those days when the wealth of businessmen gave them the power to eclipse and sideline the aristocracy in the UK. Of course USA never had an aristocracy...

But the nation state, with all its rules and regulations, is a barrier to profit making, so the larger businesses went multinational and began to play state off against state - offering jobs to the state that would require the least taxes for example. And they created tax havens to hide their money and prevent nations from taxing it. They resigned from society as we understand it and formed a new strata of humanity, insulated by vast wealth from the lives of those they exploited. This is far more exclusive and stable that the relationship between master and slave: we are the slaves that want to be enslaved; the cow that wants to be eaten. 

The point I'm getting to is that Neoliberals accomplished this revolution by understanding how people make decisions and exploiting it. The most obvious level of this is advertising. Joe Bloggs who wants to sell you widgets will tell you how good they are and leave it up to you. The multinational employs an army of psychologists who design ads to exploit vulnerabilities in how our minds work to make us buy shit we don't need. Exploitation of workers has gone meta and we didn't even notice. 

By contrast liberals still have their heads in the clouds. The idealism of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights is awesome. The reality a bit less awesome, since millions of people are still routinely denied those rights. But still, the liberal project is admirable and inspires most of the people I know. 

But that idealism is also our flaw. Part of that idealism is the assumption that people are rational. Liberals believe that if you just present people with the facts they'll make a rational decision. But this is simply wrong, as the political events of 2016 proved beyond doubt. That is *not* how people make decisions; it is not how *we* make decisions! We know this from extensive studies of decision making. But scientists and all kinds of rights campaigners seem to refuse to acknowledge the reality. They certainly refuse to make use of the science science of decision making and persuasion. 

Part of the reason is that liberals are fundamentally against exploiting people. The very fact that one can employ psychological techniques to manipulate the masses is unpalatable or even disgusting to liberals. Marx lurks in the background telling us that we ought not to exploit workers. Neoliberals have no such compunction. Power is its own reward. Look at how busy the new President is this week. There is a man who understands power, who sought power, and who damn well plans to use it now he has it. Unlike Obama, Trump is likely to make good on his campaign pledges. 

But for all the demagoguery of Trump, liberals thought, and apparently still think, that if they just expose him as a liar and a crook he'll be defeated. But it won't work. The facts are important to me. I may even be persuaded by facts. I often fact check claims (and so much of what passes for "fact" is false!). But most people are not persuaded by facts. Nor do they make rational decisions. We're just not geared for it.  Any introduction to clear thinking or cognitive bias makes this clear. We are far more affected by, for example, what people around us think, than we are by facts. 

When it comes to decision making we all decide by introspecting our emotions and choosing what feels right. Then we look for reasons to back up our decision, and we stop looking when we find the first plausible reason. You're thinking, "I don't do this!" But you do, I do, we all do. Our weakness, our vulnerability is not that we are irrational, but that Neoliberals know that we are, while we refuse to admit it. 

What we don't realise is that the war for our attention, the war to make us choose Neoliberalism, the war to make us into poorly paid mindless consumers, all started around 1971 (I was 5, now I'm 50). Lewis Powell was more prophet than leader. His Memo sums up the zeitgeist rather than being a true manifesto. It's just that in retrospect we can see that conservative business people did exactly what he recommended and in doing so they took over the world.  

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