- Disaffected consent:that post-democratic feeling
Can we turn dissatisfaction into resistance?
This essay constitutes an attempt to develop the concept of ‘disaffected consent’ that I first formulated in reflecting on the complex attitude to neoliberal hegemony which seemed to have typified Western European publics both before and after the 2008 financial crisis (and which I first proposed at a conference in 2009). Broadly speaking, this attitude could be characterised as follows: on the one hand, it involves a profound dissatisfaction with both the consequences and the ideological premises of the neoliberal project; on the other hand, it involves a general acquiescence with that project, a degree of deference to its relative legitimacy in the absence of any convincing alternative, and a belief that it cannot be effectively challenged. The wider context for this Western European phenomenon is a situation in which national electorates have on no occasion offered a convincing mandate to the neoliberal programme.
Most of the governments that have implemented such a programme have been elected on the basis of some kind of vague promise either to implement a populist conservatism from the right or to revive social democracy from the left. Even in the UK, home of Thatcherism and cradle of the liberal tradition, surveys of social attitudes routinely reveal a general scepticism towards the basic ideological claims of neoliberalism (for example, the claim that rewards for hard work are justly distributed in the liberal market society); and generalised anxiety about the social [End Page 29] implications of inequality and rampant individualism pervades the culture at every level.1 Thatcher herself, it is now often forgotten, was not elected because she promised to privatise public services (she made no such commitment in her first manifesto), but because of her promise to restore social order through immigration controls as well as curbs on union power. The vast majority of voters who supported Tony Blair in 1997 did so in the vain hope of reversing the trend to towards intensified social inequality. We could tell very similar tales about Mitterrand, Jospin and Sarkozy in France; further afield, similar stories have repeated themselves countless times since the 1970s. The point here, quite simply, is that nobody actually voted for neoliberalism. Lacking real democratic legitimacy, neoliberalism is implemented under conditions of ‘post-democracy’ - whereby, at least for key social constituencies, the democratic rights won over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are effectively traded off against a massive expansion of private consumption.2
As my terminology suggests, this is a particularly interesting problem from the perspective of the Gramscian tradition of political analysis. Gramsci famously proposes that in modern industrial societies - with relatively developed civil societies, democratic institutions and independent media - it is not generally possible for ruling elites to govern merely through brute force; and the success of hegemonic class projects therefore tends to depend upon securing the consent of subaltern groups. This is a proposition which is often misunderstood, particularly by critics of Gramsci and his followers. Gramsci’s claim is not that the hegemony of particular social groups necessarily depends upon the enthusiastic and explicit support of all others, but rather that, for their projects to be viable, some form of response other than direct opposition must be elicited from a sufficiently broad section of society. Most of the cases studied by Gramsci and his subsequent followers have involved ‘active’ consent - the more or less conscious acquiescence of subaltern groups - either because of their identification with a political ideology or narrative, or by virtue of real material concessions made by the ruling elite, or both. An example of a political ideology that has attracted identification and thus consent is the synthesis of nationalism, anti-state libertarianism and evangelical Christianity that has characterised the far right of American politics since the 1960s; while winning consent through material concessions - in this case the extension of welfare and the social wage - was a key feature of post-war social-democratic expansion. [End Page 30]
However, Gramsci also notes in passing, tantalisingly, that consent may be ‘passive’;3 and subsequent developments in Gramscian and neo-Gramscian theory have tended towards the observation that it...