The Ugly Truth About Government

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Mencius Moldbug explains the ugly truth about government, starting with a quote from Machiavelli:

He who desires or attempts to reform the government of a state, and wishes to have it accepted and capable of maintaining itself to the satisfaction of everybody, must at least retain the semblance of the old forms; so that it may seem to the people that there has been no change in the institutions, even though in fact they are entirely different from the old ones. For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.

Mencius continues in his own words:

So, for example, the Roman Principate, and even to some extent the Dominate, preserved the forms of the old Republic. If Rome under Augustus had had a New York Times, it would have been full of the doings of the Senate and the consuls. The Senators said this. The consuls did that. When in reality, everything that mattered went through Augustus. If the entire Senate had fallen through a manhole in the Forum, nothing would have changed — except, of course, that the illusion of the Republic could no longer be maintained.

(The Romans even had a word for a monarch — the good old Latin Rex. No Roman emperor, however dissolute, autocratic or hubristic, ever adopted the title of king. “Emperor” is simply an anglicization of Imperator, meaning “Commander” — ie, a general.)

Often when the illusion ceases to delude anyone, it persists as a linguistic convention — especially on the tongues of officials. So in British official language one still may speak as if the Queen were the absolute personal ruler of the UK, when in fact she has no power at all. No one is confused by this. It is just a quaint turn of speech. Still, it has its effect.

Power is a shy beast. She flees the sound of her name. When we ask who rules the UK, we are not looking for the answer, “the Queen.” The Queen may rock, but everyone knows she doesn’t rule. Parting this thin outer peel, we come on the word “Parliament,” with which most of us are satisfied. This is your official answer. The Queen holds nominal power. Parliament holds formal power. But does this tell us where the actual power is? Why should we expect it to? Since when has it ever?

Power has all the usual reasons to hide. Power is delicious, and everyone wants it. To bite into its crisp, sweet flesh, to lick its juices off your lips — this is more than pleasure. It is satisfaction. It is fulfillment. It is meaning. The love of a bird for a caterpillar is a tenuous and passing attachment next to the bond between man and power. Of course power, like the caterpillar, may have other defenses — poison-filled spines, and the like — but why not start with camouflage? Why look like anything more than a stick or a leaf?

Of course, as a progressive, you have all sorts of ideas about where power is hiding. It is in the hands of the corporations, the crooked politicians, the bankers, the military, the television preachers, and so on. It would be unfair to denigrate all of these perspectives as “conspiracy theories,” and it is also unfair to denigrate all conspiracy theories as false. Lenin, for instance, was a conspirator. So were Alger Hiss, Benedict Arnold, even Machiavelli himself.

Nonetheless, the best place to hide is usually in plain sight. For example, Noam Chomsky once wrote a book called Manufacturing Consent, which argues that corporations exercise power by controlling the mass media. The phrase is borrowed from Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion — a book which every progressive will do well to read. La Wik has a fine summary:

When properly utilized, the manufacture of consent, Lippmann argues, is useful and necessary for modern society because “the common interests” — the general concerns of all people — are not obvious in many cases and only become clear upon careful data collection and analysis, which most of the people are either uninterested in or incapable of doing. Most people, therefore, must have the world summarized for them by those who are well-informed.

Since Lippmann includes much of the political elite within the set of those incapable of properly understanding by themselves the complex “unseen environment” in which the affairs of the modern state take place, he proposes having professionals (a “specialized class”) collect and analyze data and present the conclusions to the decision makers. The decision makers then take decisions and use the “art of persuasion” to inform the public about the decisions and the circumstances surrounding them.

Who is Lippmann’s “specialized class?” Is it Chomsky’s corporate CEOs? Rupert Murdoch, perhaps? Au contraire. It is folks like Lippmann himself — journalists. (Lippmann described his analysis and persuasion agency, somewhat infelicitously, as an “Intelligence Bureau.”)

Thus we have two candidates for who is “manufacturing consent.” It could be the corporate executives to whom the journalists report. Or it could be the journalists themselves, in plain sight. Or, of course, both — in the true Agatha Christie style. As political detectives, we may ask: which of these parties has the means, motive, and opportunity?

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