Swans Commentary » swans.com July 27, 2009  



Subverting Civil Society 101: Managing The Masses


by Michael Barker





Author's note: Inspired by Susan George's excellent book The Lugano Report: On Preserving Capitalism in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2003), and adopting the satirical style of activists like The Yes Men, the following essay presents a fictitious management lecture intended for all budding members of the ruling class.


(Swans - July 27, 2009)   The ideal political climate is one in which the public are engaged in democracy to the barest possible extent; that is, they should only periodically turn out to vote. With the tick of a box, citizens will be able to feel part of the political system, while right-thinking policymakers can be left in peace: in this way, the policymaking process runs smoothly, and can react efficiently to contain the public. Having too many people engaged in democracy would encourage unnecessary bureaucracy and overload the political system.

Usually when left to control their own destinies people demonstrate a strong preference for organizing collectively to promote their own interests. This is a problem; such unsupervised aggregations of citizens can prove disruptive, especially when dissident organizers encourage the correct belief among the populous that the public can exert a powerful influence on democratic processes. This belief needs to be countered, as policies that benefit the masses tend to be antithetical to those that are in the best interests of capital. Given that such troublesome feelings of cooperation are impossible to prevent (under democratic arrangements anyway) it is critical that we act to control any coordinated mass participation in democracy to the largest possible extent.


Step One: Every effort should be taken to discourage people from believing that they stand to benefit from working cooperatively with their fellow citizens.

Here our educational and mass media systems serve a vital function. Although such educational activities generally prove to be effective in limiting the organizational capacity of the majority of people, there remain a small percentage of persistent organizers who strive to disrupt the democratic norms of the day. Our goal must be to delimit the egalitarian tendencies and influence of this minority.


Step Two: To ensure that there is an enabling climate for our management priorities, it is important that we maintain fervent popular support for harsh law and order policies.

Under certain circumstances it will be necessary to physically remove recalcitrant democratic offenders from the polity. In this way, we will be able to silence such individuals when the need arises. For obvious reasons, implementing such measures should be considered only as a policy of last resort, this is because it is well recognized that the carrot is far more effective than the stick. In the rare instances that the stick must be wielded to enable effective democratic management, we can be sure that by setting such violent precedence's, most future organizers (aware of the risks they face) will delimit the scope of their activities accordingly.


Step Three: Offer financial incentives to temper the ambitions of popular organizers.

Here it is critical to emphasize that organized groups that are based in and funded by the communities they work within pose a real and present threat to democratic processes. Weaning organizers away from such empowering models of action should be considered an utmost priority. Indeed, maintaining some, even limited, involvement in the work of public organizers is vital as unmediated coalitions of people are far more unpredictable, and hence dangerous to present democratic arrangements.

Owing to the high level of corporate/capitalist distrust that is held by the minority of individuals who persist in attempting to organize the masses, monetary lures are best transmitted indirectly, e.g., via benign-sounding intermediary groups. Although funding transferred via religious or government agencies is important, the creation of non-profit corporations (also known as philanthropic foundations) has proved a valuable means of channelling money from for-profit corporations to those intent on challenging the legitimacy of the corporate business community.


Step Four: Dissipate public interest in challenging the inegalitarian policies that are promoted via the processes of globalization.

The charitable practices undertaken by non-profit corporations serve a powerful propaganda service by reducing public desire to seriously counter the naturally inegalitarian policies associated with our globalizing world. This propaganda is effective because it relies upon the genuine cooperative tendencies of the public -- which as noted earlier needs to be actively undermined -- as they yearn to believe that their society's present power-brokers are made of the same moral fibre as themselves. Clearly this cannot be the case, but it is convenient that the masses -- who are often so deprived of such cooperative experiences (owing to the ongoing atomization of society) -- are naive enough to transfer these dreams onto their natural rulers.

The legitimacy of non-profit corporations is rarely challenged in the mass media, but when it is, the decontextualized manner in which such reporting occurs prevents undue resistance to their self-serving philanthropic activities. While this style of disjointed commentary can be guaranteed within the mainstream media, this may not necessarily be the case in the alternative media. So by ensuring that most alternative media outlets are benefactors of non-profit corporate funds, we can rest assured that they will rarely bite the hand that feeds them. Moreover, the intermittent (although regular) release of managed criticism of non-profit corporations (be they media reports or official government enquiries) actually serves as an effective outlet valve to ward off potentially disruptive dissent, while also minimizing the novelty and power of unmanaged critiques.


Step Five: The political and economic realm must be shaped by the current democratic power-holders, not the aspiring public.

It is vital to mould a civil society sector that serves our own interests, that is, to legitimize inequality while promoting a limited degree of social justice. As the minds of most members of the public are thoroughly confused (by their media and education systems) as to which tactics that might support to promote equality, it is a safe bet that the masses will fund and support the civil society sector that we have created in the false belief that it presents a viable threat to the status quo: even revolutionary activists may be co-opted to lend their support to counter-revolutionary groups. That said, a fine line exists between public support for the groups that presently dominate civil society and more radical groups, thus we must continually strive to co-opt dissent into channels that bolster our power. There can be no room for complacency. Democracy is something that needs to be fought for continuously if it is to be kept out of the grasping hands of the masses.


Step Six: Strive to make bold connections to all would-be radicals, most especially anarchists.

Although counterintuitive, the most important groups for us to work with are the radical organizations. Of course, the degree of direct influence that our money exerts over radical activists is less than with more moderate individuals and groups, but this influence is critical none the less. Moreover, radical activists often work with so few resources that our distribution of even a small amount of money to them can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of their work.

Although the percentage of funding that is channelled to radical activists is infinitesimal relative to other agents of civil society, such links provide an invaluable service to bolstering our power. What moderate group is going to refuse our funding if they can see that we have worked with some of the most radical activists and scholars in the world (to counter imperialism no less)? In addition, supporting the work of radical anti-imperialists is an imperative if we are to stay abreast of the latest developments in critical theory. After all, it is such critical theory that helps delineate the boundaries of civil society. Maintaining a nuanced understanding of their research enables us to work most effectively to pre-empt and co-opt mass public expressions of their discontent.


Step Seven: Ensure that like-minded activists compete with one another over limited resources.

The bulk of our resources must be concentrated on creating and supporting moderate civil society groups. The active encouragement of "identity politics" and "new social movements" (not oppositional political parties) helps ensure fragmentation between otherwise similarly minded organizations. Particularly in times of social unrest, increased aid for moderate groups will help to deprive more radical groups of public support.

Having established intimate funding relationships with civil society groups, money/political support can be supplied or withheld to promote or undermine any one group's ongoing activities. Strategic withdrawal of support provides us with a veto on potentially radicalizing developments. This veto does not need to be used regularly, because like media censorship, it is more effective when used sparingly; activists simply learn to operate in ways that minimize the likelihood of incurring a veto. While in most cases any given group will not be fully dependent on any one single source of funding, the withdrawal of funding at strategic moments can help exaggerate latent tensions and contribute towards effective destabilization.

Media and education systems can amplify the deradicalizing effects of strategic funding. Correct thinking groups that present no serious threat to the status quo can be presented as successful pragmatists, while the public will learn that more radical groups strive for unrealistic goals that ultimately work to undermine the positive work being undertaken by other more moderate organizations.


Step Eight: Special efforts should be made to ensure that influential leaders/organizers of social change groups appreciate the necessity for pragmatic compromises over and above revolutionary changes.

The dispossessed must be brought into the capitalist system. As a corollary of this tactic, it is vital that responsible men (and women) act to nurture future leaders within civil society: efforts should be made to identify charismatic social reformers at an early age. Again it will not be possible to reach all future leaders in this manner; however, this is not a problem as long as they remain in the minority.

Money cannot determine what people think, but it certainly can help determine which issues they think about: this is a key principle that undergirds all successful social engineering. Although useful in certain circumstances, funders should refrain from overt manipulation: indeed, it is more desirable that monies are distributed with few strings attached (this is especially the case with the smaller grants awarded to more radical activists). We cannot be seen to be openly manipulating civil society as consensual relationships are far more effective than coercive ones. By minimizing direct manipulation of social change agents we provide our grantees with a simple means of justifying their ongoing funding relations with us in the face of an often (justifiably) sceptical public.


Step Nine: A tight rein should be held over non-profit organizations by ensuring that they remain underfunded and overworked.

Institutionalization of the non-profit sector has advanced in earnest in recent decades, and has seen the replacement of social services that were formerly provided by regulated government agencies to those provided by unregulated non-governmental organizations (which are still often funded by the government). An additional bonus resulting from the provision of such stressful operating conditions in the non-profit sector is that their employees have little opportunity to build popular support for their work, and suffer high rates of burnout -- which is especially advantageous as it helps deter future activists from joining their cause, and increases general feelings of powerlessness within the public.

It is critical to promote the independence of activists from their unpaid grassroots constituents -- thereby facilitating movement institutionalisation. By training and supporting an elite professional cadre of social change activists we are able to ensure that the public falsely equates these activists, not themselves, with power and the means towards enacting beneficial social change. Such tactics serve to direct dissent into legitimate organizational channels -- limiting goals to amelioration rather than radical change. This serves to disempower the masses, so that they now limit their democratic involvement to strictly financial contributions and periodic voting. While this situation is useful at maintaining mass quiescence to oppression, it is critical that public support (however limited) is funnelled to responsible organizations. Here the mass media plays a critical role in mediating the public's knowledge of effective social change groups, facilitating the transfer of their funds to moderate causes. Most citizens remain completely unaware of local groups that could potentially present a threat to existing power structures, and even when they are aware of such groups they are misled into believing that they can get more "bang for buck" by supporting larger professional groups.


Step Ten: Adopt strategies to slow down (cool off) the processes of social change.

Concede to some social demands. In some instances, where popular support for radical causes may rapidly escalate without warning, shutting this support down might involve giving (or at the very least promising) limited concessions to public demands, and/or the incorporation of activist leaders into government agencies. Other critical tools that can be used to dissipate demands for radical social change include the use of official independent commissions.

Use corporate money to fund strategic civil society institutions. Owing much to the successes evident in the sustained encroachment of non-profit corporations into all aspects of human life, citizens are more likely than ever to accept direct support from for-profit corporations. The magnitude of philanthropic colonization of the public sphere has paved the way for the corporate colonization of that same sphere. Large amounts of money can be distributed to civil society organizations via corporate philanthropy from for-profit corporations -- otherwise referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility. Such funding should be distributed in a strategic manner at all times.

Isolate individuals who might raise awareness of the elite takeover of civil society from their audience. Given that most of the tactics to manipulate society are fairly commonsensical, it should not be surprising that independent citizens -- that is, independent of for-profit and non-profit corporate support -- should occasionally feel a desire to raise awareness of such issues. Moreover, with the advent of the Internet, the potential ability of these people to communicate their views effectively has increased substantially.

The critical point here is to isolate such individuals from a potentially receptive audience. Primarily this can be achieved in two ways, 1) by encouraging the assumption of a "crisis culture" within civil society groups -- this ensures that peer pressure is exerted on such individuals, so as not to undermine the vitally important good work that is being undertaken, and 2) by ensuring that the media outlets (or gate keepers) that the public use to determine the validity of critical commentary work to disparage or negate the (valid) criticisms -- for instance, it is easy to portray such critical outliers as conspiracy theorists. Most writers (particular academics) will naturally shy away from any research that could result in them being labelled conspiracy theorists.

Without validation in the mainstream media, and particularly in the alternative media, isolated critical theorists are unlikely to exert a significant influence on the processes of social change. This is especially true because most of the public will be unaware of the activities of the groups that we use to subvert civil society, so will tend to find the (often compelling) arguments that are presented by critical outliers difficult to incorporate into their existing world views. Through such natural processes vigorous independent critics of the status quo will find themselves marginalized within their natural peer groups, and are likely to suffer from feelings of isolation, which no doubt will help encourage them to temper their analyses.


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Published July 27, 2009