Free Speech

Orchestrating Compliance, Nudge by Nudge

One version of the classic definition of representative democracy reads:

Consent of the governed refers to the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is justified and lawful only when consented, or agreed to, by the people over which that political power is exercised.

You want to boss us around, well, we have to agree to it first, as Plato, Hobbes and Locke would have put it had they been instructing high school students, the intended audience for the quote above.

How well are we doing in Australia?  As it turns out, not very well. In case you haven’t noticed, current governments have been messing with that foundational principle of democracy, big time.

The Australian has reported extensively, most recently in mid-December, on the “nudge program” of Victoria’s recently departed premier Daniel Andrews’ and the role of polling/public relations outfit QDOS, whose focus groups and research categorised the citizenry according to “five levels of compliance”. The first, those who strongly supported and followed restrictions; the second, those who supported and tried to follow restrictions; the third, those who felt restrictions were no longer needed but continued to comply.

The fourth and fifth groups were, from Andrews’ perspective, the problems: those who trusted their judgement over that of the government, and the people who saw the 262 days of lockdown with its curfew, border closures, vaccination mandates and 5km travel restrictions as unwarranted, illegitimate, even tyrannical. As reported:

Bureaucrats in Victoria used these categories the determine which group needed persuading on the importance of lockdowns, the FOI reported.

… the third group was “probably” the main group to persuade, as they would be the most “reasonable” and only needed to “hear a good case” for lockdowns.

The fifth group was discounted as “not open to any form of sense or reason.”

Meanwhile, the first and second groups, who made up “the bulk of people,” were described as “pretty compliant.”

It is alarming that Andrews’ docile bureaucrats thought persuading the sceptical to surrender their rights and freedoms to a dictator was no more than a simple matter of sense and reason!

As put by Liberal Democrat David Limbrick, who represented a one-man opposition in the absence of any and all worthwhile resistance from Victoria’s limp Liberals: ‘I’m worried that they’ll do it for other things too.”

Of course they will, and they do.

The use of behavioural insights by “the authorities” isn’t confined to Criminal Minds and similar TV shows. Their use is a key part of the current, holistic approach to achieving political control and ideological goals.  Other parts of the emergent totalitarian ecosystem include digital IDs, supra-national control of health policy, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) and effective State control of social media through mis- and dis-information legislation of the kind being rolled out as we speak, not only in Australia but across the entire Anglosphere, from Ireland to Canada and the US.

The strategy is a dual one.  First, build a series of fences around individuals, and second, make them supine and submissive. That is what QDOS was doing in finding out just how far the State could go without pushback.  And when there was pushback, as history records and protesters’ bruises attest, then came the rubber bullets.

Limbrick possibly had a mob called Insights Victoria in mind.

It has been revealed Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has a data agency to monitor Victorians’ everyday activities, including social media sentiment and credit card transactions.

The Sunday Herald Sun has obtained documents about the agency, called Insights Victoria, under freedom of information laws.

The publication found the dashboard, which is updated daily, uses publicly available data, but also “commercial in-confidence” and “sensitive” data not permitted for third party or public release.

It was set up as part of the government’s Covid response in August 2020, but a September 2020 briefing note said the system would evolve and inform decision-making beyond Covid, Herald Sun reported.

“Insights Victoria can reduce the time and effort required to quickly understand the ‘state of the state’ across all portfolios,” the document read.

A guide said the document was “designed to be the single truth source” for government.

The documents show access to all data was granted to Victoria Police chief commissioner Shane Patton, chief health officer Brett Sutton, emergency management commissioner Andrew Crisp and Mr Andrews’s private political staff.

Ministerial private offices and senior public servants had some access to the system on a need-to-know basis.

It is the infrastructure of control pure and simple.

Neither the theory nor practice of “nudge” is new.  Just because and Thaler and Sunstein only wrote their book (Nudge) in the 2000s doesn’t mean the dark arts of soft totalitarianism are a recent phenomenon. As Joseph Goebbels said, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government canplay.”

The media was the platform.  And the methods of manipulating the platform were many and varied.  Coercion often wasn’t (and isn’t) needed.  Having working journalists (or academics, or bureaucrats) too frightened to do their jobs  is as easy as threatening unemployment, denying promotions, creating narratives to which people feel the need to conform (as most people do).

Nearly 40 years ago, Noam Chomsky and co-author Edward Herman wrote the modern bible on manufacturing consent (Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media), but the notion of manufacturing consent has a longer history. In his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann introduced the phrase.  And he was writing in the context of democratic theory and its basis in the consent of the governed, a state of play that absolutely no one would recognise in today’ system. (Lippmann’s book can be downloaded free of charge from Project Gutenberg via this link)

The basic problem of democracy, Lippmann wrote, was the accuracy of news and protection of sources. He argued that distorted information was inherent in the human mind. People make up their minds before they define the facts, while the ideal would be to gather and analyze the facts before reaching conclusions.

Ironically, using Wikipedia (as many do) as a source of reliable information itself doesn’t come close to guaranteeing an informed electorate in a democracy. Indeed, as Quadrant Online has reported, what Wikipedia publishes is all too often filtered, cut or deep-sixed by its volunteer editors and moderators, all seemingly of the hard left.

THE core assumption of manufactured consent is that you-the-government are setting about doing things to which we-the-people have not consented, and perhaps never would. Here again, listen to Walter Lippman:, who argues that, when properly deployed in the public interest, the manufacture of consent is useful and necessary for a democratic society, because, in many cases, “the common interests” of the public are not obvious except upon careful analysis of the collected data — a critical intellectual exercise in which most people are uninterested or are incapable of doing.

Fair enough, you might think.  It is just that there is persuasion and persuasion.  Encouraging consent is not the same as manufacturing it.  And Lippmann’s apparent preference for technocracy is precisely what is seen when persuasion goes too far. Right there is where we have landed, and it isn’t pretty.  We even have leaders —  okay, it was Jacinda Ardern – of Western democracies publicly and proudly proclaiming, “We will continue to be your single source of truth,” and “Unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth.” Here again is Lippman:

It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

Er, no it hasn’t been demonstrated, not at all. The implications of this conclusion are, frankly, frightening.  It is noteworthy that the early advocates of technocracy were out and about at the time Lippmann was writing.  Certainly in the 1930s, which was the very time that fascism emerged as a political force and an acceptable form of governance, and that was no accident

The technocratic movement has its origins with the progressive engineers of the early twentieth century and the writings of Edward BellamyWilliam H. Smyth, a California engineer, invented the word technocracy in 1919 to describe “the rule of the people made effective through the agency of their servants, the scientists and engineers”, and in the 1920s it was used to describe the works of Thorstein Veblen.

The connections with socialism and central planning are clearly there as well.  This is the idea that the State knows best, the people are clueless and problems can be solved by a centralised power. Friedrich Hayek provided the definitive rebuttal of this nonsense (in works such as The Road to Serfdom, Individualism and Economic Order, The Use of Knowledge in Society and The Fatal Conceit).  That central, collectivist agencies cannot know and attend to the preferences of individuals is a compelling argument for limited government. Very limited government, as governments that do little require very little manufacturing of consent.  Very little need for nudge units. No need for tricking people into believing and doing things not in their interests but in the interests of their rulers.  In just about every case you can think of, the core concerns of ordinary people are a pretty damned low priority of the governing class.  If on the radar at all. Hayek’s scepticism about the claims for technocracy – not a term Hayek used much – is similar to that of William F. Buckley, who memorably stated that he “would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.

And before Buckley there was Adam Smith:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

A succinct, on-point rejection of technocracy and overly ambitious and overweening government and the temptations towards manufacturing consent to which they inevitably give rise.

FAST forward to the 1980s.  Chomsky and Herman focused on the mass media as the modern consent-shaper. 

They were right to do so.  The use of the term “modern” is deliberate.  Now, we face a post-modern informational world, with myriad, technology-driven sources of data-corruption.  Much of it is deliberate, and organised. The Penguin blurb for the book reads:

Contrary to the usual image of the press as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in its search for truth, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky depict how an underlying elite consensus largely structures all facets of the news. They skilfully dissect the way in which the marketplace and the economics of publishing significantly shape the news. They reveal how issues are framed and topics chosen, and contrast the double standards underlying accounts of free elections, a free press, and governmental repression between Nicaragua and El Salvador; between the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the American invasion of Vietnam; between the genocide in Cambodia under a pro-American government and genocide under Pol Pot. What emerges from this groundbreaking work is an account of just how propagandistic our mass media are, and how we can learn to read them and see their function in a radically new way.

As would be expected for a leftist, the book exhibited a focus on the “political economy” of the media and chose as its targets the horrible deeds of enemies of the old left.  Ironically, much of their analysis mirrors the insights of public choice theorists like James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, who explicated and explained the private interests of public sector players. An updated version of the manufacturing consent thesis might emphasise:

♦ The acceptance by the twenty-first century Left of, indeed high levels of support for, mass media narratives;

♦ The merging of late capitalism with post 1970s radical social revolution;

♦ The new alignment of corporate and State interests in a totally new and unexpected hybrid system of governance;

♦ The emergence of new media and social media as a driver of narratives and a manufacturer of consent;

♦ A turbo-charged desire by the modern citizenry to conform;

♦ A politicised bureaucracy with a totally progressive mindset and agenda;

♦ A politicised academy, on the take from government and corporates;

♦ An education system that trains minds to conform to one view of the world and de-trains minds away from critical thinking;

♦ Globalism as a driving ideological force and the new and totally intrusive role of global institutions and NGOs in setting policy;

♦ New tools for those who wish to shape opinion, like “fact checking”, to name just one.

Of course, the old economic drivers are still present for the legacy media. Look at the 75 per cent of media advertising revenue from Big Pharma noted by the late Roger Ailes, which informed much of the impoverished, mainstream reportage of the pandemic. Look also at the capacity of global “philanthropists” to buy off huge chunks of the media in order to embed a preferred narrative on a range of topics, such as the need for depopulation, mass immigration, multiculturalism, climate catastrophes, net zero, victim identity and hyperactive responses to viruses. 

The stakes are now so much higher, both for governments, activists and corporates with such far-reaching agendas, on the one hand, and for freedom-seeking citizens, on the other.  If governments only did a few things, manufacturing consent wouldn’t be such a big deal.  These days, the State needs our consent, or a facsimile of it, for running most of our lives.  And for handing over power to multinational bodies and to corporates, via outsourcing. 

When I say “needs our consent”, I should modify this to add, “when it cannot get away with doing things behind our backs”. As doing things on the sly – see under immigration policy – has become far more common in these days when elections no longer deliver mandates or even raise important issues, the old theory might have to be tweaked, and tweaked a lot. There is, seemingly, a whole new area of State activity which doesn’t actually require any consent, real or manufactured.  There is no pretence at consultation or debate. Here consider the recent Voice referendum, which was presented to the public without a constitutional convention, no public funding for the No case and the support of Australia’s business titans, eager as always to get into bed with a government that might return the favour by, say, declining to grant landing rights to a supportive airline’s competitor.

Covid policy took the cake for the total absence of consent, or the felt need for it by the State.  More generally, one sure fire way of doing a consent “work around” is for the State simply to lie about its actions or intentions, to say you are doing “X” when actually doing “Y”.  Insist you are “providing online safety for children” when what you are really doing is curtailing free speech and shutting down dissent, as Quadrant Online noted here.

There is another update required for the theory, at least in its Chomsky iteration.

Most people now do not get their “news” from the mass media.  For those in and around corporatist government who seek to control minds and influence behaviour, in other words, to manufacture consent, this doesn’t much matter.  The above dot point list suggests that the State has many, many bases covered, tricks up its sleeve and brand new toys with which to play.  And with the potential offered by the internet for creating a far more diverse media and the capacity for independent journalists to thrive beyond the reach of craven editors and bought-up proprietors with agendas, the stakes for the State’s maintenance of control have risen exponentially.  Hence the many, carefully thought-through new and massive efforts to control the alt-media beast.

At the end of the day, democratic theory requires a substantial update, at the very least, if not radical surgery.

14 thoughts on “Orchestrating Compliance, Nudge by Nudge

  • Ceres says:

    Daniel Andrews made no pretence at hiding his brutal dictatorial decrees. He wore his nasty personna like a badge of honour and was re-elected. Victorians didn’t need persuading, they were in the main, only too happy with his tyranny. Other power hungry politicians smile a lot and spew forth meaningless platitudes (Jacinta Ardern) but the result is the same. Takes a long long time for voters to wake up or personally experience the dishonesty and the consequences. Happily the Voice and NZ election gives some hope.

  • gabriel.moens says:

    A brilliant paper. Congratulations

  • norsaint says:

    Collits is one of the few Oz academics worth paying any attention to.
    He’s on a par with the US’s Stephen Baskerville.

  • pgang says:

    Within our secular mindset we tend to think of democracy as an end unto itself, but it isn’t. Putting aside ancient Greek so-called democracy, which was just one method of expressing a totalitarian city-state, the underlying philosophy of modern democratic government no longer exists within modern secular democracies.
    Democracy isn’t just a political mechanism, which is what most people seem to argue about today (parties, corruption, voting systems, etc.). Modern democracy has its cornerstone in trinitarianism, in that individuals and organised groups are recognised as coexistent and sharing an equal part in the ultimacy of what makes a society. Democracy, and the splitting of powers, was recognised as the most practical solution to fulfilling this image of God within our political landscape. Each depended on the other – the people on the government, and the government on the people.
    So it is any surprise that in a post Christian society, which is floundering for a philosophical perspective based on a failed rationalism, that Democracy has become an irresolvable tension between the governed and the governed?

  • DougD says:

    Has anyone else noticed how The Australian is crab walking to the left? Yesterday’s Australian published pieces on Aboriginal issues by staff writers, Paige Taylor and Helen Trinca, that could have been written by Marcia Langton and Linda Burney’s publicist in the lead up to the referendum. I’ve long thought that Murdoch is less interested in controlling elections than in money.

    • lbloveday says:

      I put that down to the increased influence of Sarah Murdoch.

      • ianl says:

        And Lachlan …
        The crabwalk to the left in the Oz has been underway for quite some years now. It first became transparent enough in editorials denouncing coal-fired generators as the spear throwers for climatic apocalypse.
        Ceres notes in a comment above that hope may be found in the result of the Voice referendum. The problem there is that the bulk of the population become exhausted with constantly trying to sort the chaff of propaganda from the wheat of reality. The YES campaign for the Voice just went on, and on, and on, and … What finally brought it undone was the negative of Langton, Davis, Mayo, Elbow et al constantly contradicting themselves (and each other) and the positive of Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine pointing out that the real issues facing remote indigenous communities were never addressed. Price put up a starting point here and the Greens smashed it down. That length of exhaustion applied to all the totalitarian issues we face will cause the mass of the population to cave just so they can get on with an ever-more impoverished life.

    • Alistair says:

      DougD …
      ” As Joseph Goebbels said, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.” ”
      The “press” is not directly in the control of the government and so governments “playing” is not ultimately significant. The “press” IS directly controlled by a few billionaire oligarchs who CAN directly “play” with the daily narratives, and, unlike 1939 Germany, they are ultimately the ones who influence governments.
      Tony Abbott’s essay from the current magazine says …
      “Rather than being a sinister global string-puller, Schwab is an especially well-connected exemplar of the expert class to which elected politicians are increasingly expected to defer. And the problem is less the prevalence of Davos Man than the diffidence of elected leaders in the face of such pseudo-intellectual pretension.”
      I think the evidence is that Schwab is a front for the billionaires who in turn have their own well-defined agenda. Schwab, through the media, signals that agenda to the ” the elected leaders” who then implement it in their respective jurisdictions. (Lockdown was never Dan Andrew’s idea, was it?)

    • Ceres says:

      Yes. Apart from some columnists such as Janet Albrechtsen, not worth reading.

    • pgang says:

      About five or ten years ago. It’s actually been improving of late.

  • David Isaac says:

    ‘ The new alignment of corporate and State interests in a totally new and unexpected hybrid system of governance’

    Both the corporations and the states, via media control, donations and sinecures, are controlled by an unfettered global plutocracy which really slipped its leash in the 1980s. It aims to creatie a miscegenated, deracinated and compliant populace just smart enough to keep the system running and prepared to believe whatever it’s told, a herd which can be culled as required and will not get in the way of the over-class’s enjoyment of the bounty of the planet.

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