The true story of future mistakes

The truth of a mistaken system is error. To be politically effective, this mistake must repeat itself continuously, widely disseminate, and be accepted by population as the only possible or believable truth. It is not about any repetition. It is necessary that each time the error takes place it is done as an inaugural act—the finally found truth to solve society’s problems. It is not about any dissemination. It is necessary that what is disseminated be perceived as what we naturally have to agree upon. Finally, it is not about any acceptance. It is necessary that what is accepted be accepted for the general good and that, if it implies any sacrifice, it will be the price to pay for a larger good in the future.

The advancement of right and extreme right political forces around the world is based on these assumptions. It is difficult to imagine the survival of democracy in a society where these assumptions are fully materialized, but there are many signs showing that such materialization can be closer than we think and deserve a reflection before it is too late. I will address the following signals: the reiteration of the error and the permanent crisis; the orgy of opinion and the massive fabrication of ignorance; and the passage from internet society to metric society.

The reiteration of error is obvious today. For decades, most developed, central capitalist countries have assumed the obligation to dedicate part of their budgets to “help development.” As its name suggests, the objective is to help underdeveloped countries from the periphery to follow the trail of the most developed ones and, ideally, to converge with them in welfare levels in a more or less near future. It is evident that the gap that separates central countries from those of the periphery is getting larger. The so-called “refugee crisis” and the alarming increase in movement of undesirable migrant populations are the most evident signs that the living conditions in countries of the periphery are ever more unbearable. The same can be said regarding policies for reducing poverty carried out by the World Bank for decades. The balance is negative if for reduction of poverty we understand the reduction of the gap between the rich and the poor within each country and among countries. The gap has not ceased to increase. Likewise, austerity or structural adjustment policies have been imposed on countries with financial difficulties, of which Portugal and Greece are close examples, that have not achieved their objectives and the own IMF has admitted this in a more or less veiled form (“excess of austerity,” “deficient calibration,” and so forth). Despite that, the same policies are imposed over and over again as if at that time it were the best or even the only solution. The same can be said about the privatization of social security and, thus, of the public pension system. The most recent objective is social security in Brazil. According to available studies, nearly 70% of the cases in which privatization was done, the system failed and the State had to rescue the system to avoid a deep social crisis. Nevertheless, the recipe is still being imposed and sold as the country’s salvation.

Why do they insist on the error of imposing measures whose failure is recognized beforehand? There are many reasons, but all converge into the one I consider the most important: the objective is to create a situation of permanent crisis that would force political decisions to concentrate on emergency and short-term measures. These measures, despite always implying the transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest and imposing sacrifices onto those who can least support them, are accepted as necessary and make any discussion regarding the future and short and medium-term alternatives unviable.

The orgy of opinion: The reiterated error and its wide acceptance would not be possible without a tectonic change in public opinion. The last hundred years were the century of the expansion of the right of having an opinion. What was before a privilege of the bourgeoisie classes, was transformed into a right that was effectively exercised by wide segments of the population, particularly in less developed countries. This expansion was highly unequal, but it enriched the democratic debate with the discussion about significantly divergent alternative policies. The concept of communicative reason, proposed by Jürgen Habermas, is based on the idea that the free formulation and discussion of arguments in favor and against any area of political deliberation, would transform democracy in the most legitimate political regime because it guaranteed everybody’s effective participation.

It happens that in the last thirty years, the media society, first, and the internet society, then, produced an insidious cleavage between having an opinion and being the owner of the opinion one has. We have been expropriated of the property of our opinion and we became its lessee or tenants. As we did not realize such transformation, we could continue to believe that we had opinion and imagine that it was ours. All kinds of opinion entrepreneurs came into play for simultaneously reducing the array of possible opinions and intensify the dissemination of the promoted opinions. Main agents of such transformation were incumbent political parties, oligopolistic communication media, and publicity systems, initially targeted to massive consumption of merchandizes, which were gradually directed towards masses consumption of the political-ideas market. This is how the media society and politics as spectacle, where substantive differences among divergent positions are minimal but are presented as if they were maximal, appeared. That was the first step.

The second step was produced when we went from a media society to an internet society. In this passage, the right of having an opinion expanded unprecedentedly and the expropriation of the opinion, of which we are users (more than authors), reached new levels. Entrepreneurs appeared, either legal or illegal, manipulators of public opinion, whose paradigmatic examples are the social media, Facebook, and WhatsApp that produce “disinformation tactics” particularly active in electoral periods, as it happened recently in the elections for the European Parliament. The known organization Avaaz identified 500 suspicious pages, followed by 32 million people that generated 67 million interactions (comments, likes, shares). Facebook closed 77 of those pages that were responsible for 20% of the flow of information in the identified social media.

This extraordinary manipulation of opinion had three consequences that, although they went unnoticed, constituted a change in paradigm for social communication. The first one was that these police surveillance of social media got legitimized despite having controlled only the tip of the iceberg. The increasingly more intense recourse to the big data and the algorithms to reach each individual in their tastes and preferences, and doing simultaneously for millions of people, made it possible to show that the true owners of our opinion are Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. As everything is done so that we do not realize it, we consider ourselves the gracious debtors of El Dorado of information that they provide us and not as creditors of a democratic disaster of unforeseen consequences for which they should be held personally accountable.

The second consequence is that the information we are starting to use, despite being so superficial, cannot be contrasted with arguments. It is either accepted or rejected, and the criteria for deciding are criteria of authority not of truth. If its works for the interests of the incumbent political leader, the people is exalted as if having their own opinion, capable of contradicting that of the traditional elites. If it does not serve, then the people is easily considered as “ignorant and incapable of being democratically governed.” Inasmuch as the people follow the leader’s opinion, it is the leader who follows the people’s opinion. Inasmuch as the people diverges from the leader’s opinion, as ignorant people, it must trust the leader’s opinion. As it serves him, the populist leader can appear either as follower of the people or as its tutor. Here resides the ultimate reason for the reemergence of populism. This trust capital is easily created inasmuch as everything happens in the intimacy of the individual and his family. As the media society transformed politics into a spectacle, internet society converts it in an intimate show, an authentic peep-show where all the affective interaction occurs between the leader and the citizen, without intermediations and arguments.

The third consequence of internet society is that social media create two or more flows of unanimous opinions that run parallel and, thus, never meet. That is, in no case can they be contradicted or object of a counterargument in a democratic debate. Hence, failed politics can be widely accepted if they ride over one of the flows of unanimity. This is the communicational stew of the political radicalization, the ideal environment for the climate of polarization, hate, and demonization of the political enemy, without it being necessary to use disputable arguments and only recurring to apocalyptic phrases.

From the internet society to the metric society: We live in another orgy, the orgy of quantification of individual and collective life. Never before our collective lives were so dependent upon the number of Facebook followers, likes in social media interactions, scores at contests, rankings at universities, the quantification of scientific production. We know that the quantification logic is extremely selective and very biased by the criteria it uses and the fields it chooses to quantify. It leaves out all that is more essential for individual and collective existence. It leaves out social sectors that, for their social insertion, cannot be adequately counted. Homeless people are counted for being without home, and not for what they do during daylight; familiar agriculture, informal despite that in the majority of the countries it continues to feed a large proportion of its population, as well as nonpaid work of the house-care economy, do not count for the GDP. What is predominantly in charge of women does not enter into labor statistics, despite being crucial for reproducing the labor force. If it were not backed up quantitatively, the quality of scientific production would not count for researchers’ careers. And the great problem of our time is that what is not counted does not count.

These are some of the subterranean dynamics that are mining democracy and creating a public and private culture, defenseless before the mistakes from which those from the right and the extreme right continue to feed.

Article published at Other News

If you like this text, by filling out the form that appears in this page you can subscribe to receive once a month a brief summary of Opinion Sur English edition.

Leave a comment