Classical Liberal political theory based on the philosophy of John Locke maintains that individual citizen consent ought to determine politics and policies. “Wherever, therefore, any number of men so unite into one society as to quit every one his executive power of the law of Nature, and to resign it to the public, there and there only is a political or civil society.” (John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government.)
Given this reality, policy-formation is the presumed domain of competing interest groups whether politically organized like the Liberal Whig faction in Locke’s time, or the modern-day corporate lobbies that support both conservative and liberal political parties. Therefore, consent-theory is more easily justified and implemented during times of national emergencies or crises than during “normal times.”
But the manner by which consent is forged during contracting economic cycles such as the one of 2008-2011 is significant because the media, political, business and social elites have the challenge to mold public opinion that the status quo merits support despite systemic institutional weaknesses. If the media and the elites fail to convince public opinion that the regime and societal institutions are worthy of public support, then confidence wanes and conditions develop for mass public protests and/or revolt as was the case in the Middle East-North Africa. One of the reasons that the US has been able to avoid mass protests and revolts is precisely because of the master use of forging consent as a means to engendering popular conformity.
Having built a domestic national consensus during the Great Depression by adopting New Deal reform policies, the US continued to expand its domestic consensus to include the entire Western Hemisphere under bilateral and multilateral agreements. These culminated in redefining the Pan-American system during the war, and then globalized during the Cold War when besides NATO, Organization of American States and South East Asian Treaty Organization,. International Financial Institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank and IMF were also established to complete the triumph of Pax Americana.
The dynamics of the Cold War necessarily resulted in domestic national consensus rooted in permanent national security not only in pluralistic societies like the US at the helm of the world-capitalist system, but also in Communist nations and in the non-aligned bloc. Therefore, the Cold War as the point of origin for policy-formation and consent-theory entailed that the state forged consensus among competing interest groups under a neo-corporatist model that would presumably serve not only the political and financial elites, but the military establishment, intelligentsia, farmers, and labor unions whose cooperation was crucial for policy-formation against the “common external enemy.”
This should not be confused with the military-industrial complex that was only one byproduct of conformist policy-formation. Using the Cold War as a means to retain political consensus domestically and internationally, the US and its junior partners were better able to disseminate the principles of the market economy that kept the existing social order and political status quo in place without threat of revolution from within. The only threat from revolution emanated from Third World nations that enjoyed the support either of the USSR, China or the non-aligned bloc.
After the Communist bloc collapsed and China became thoroughly integrated into the world capitalist system, the institutionalized co-optation of the disparate interest groups needed to remain intact. This is not because there was a “common external enemy”–of course one had to be created as catalyst to interest-group co-optation–but because consent-theory assumptions were obviated by the changing structure of the political economies around the world and the neo-liberal globalization trend. Globalization that promised greater prosperity for the entire world and all social classes failed in its promise, leaving only the financial and political elites much wealthier, especially the political elites of authoritarian nations as is the case across the Middle East and North Africa.
The interdependent world economic structure as the basis of consent-theory and as a reality cannot change systemically as Russia, China, Brazil, India, and even some EU leaders wish. On the contrary, national capitalism weakens, especially for economies dependent primarily on energy exports as those of the Middle East-North Africa, while the majority of the population remains a non-participant in consent of the political regime that determines social and economic policies.
Economic nationalism from the political left to the ideological right and varieties of Socialism have challenged only in rhetoric the American-centered world system as the foundation on which the world's political economy and international security rest. This means new international division of labor, redefinition of the terms of trade and investment that do not disadvantage the Third World and new “North-South” hemisphere relationship that allows for a more equitable redistribution of wealth–all of it used as leverage by those wishing to further dilute Pax Americana.
Depending on its severity, the current global economic dislocation combined with revolts in the Middle East and North Africa may force political and financial elites along with the intelligentsia to re-examine the “consent-theory” paradigm with the US as the leader. They must seek alternatives that would ensure policy-formation does not drift toward the lower classes or to the Third World whose conformity and co-optation must be guaranteed to prevent any change either in the social order or the international order.
The unfolding Arab revolts and labor and middle class protests throughout the world will continue to challenge consent-theory that the political and financial elites are interested in preserving. The middle class and workers will lag far behind in the recovery process for the rest of the decade, while the Third World will suffer even more socioeconomic polarization and poverty as commodity prices will rise. The challenge for the governments of all countries today, especially those of the G-20 is how to forge consent that would ensure the support of the middle class and workers, how to manipulate public opinion to back societal institutions that the political and financial elites control.
The global economic crisis of 2008-2011 will continue to exacerbate societal polarization that manifests itself in increased social protests, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, racism, chauvinism, etc., and in some countries in revolts against their governments. Whether it is to the extreme right or left, or seeking democratic solutions, going to the roots of government that includes popular consent will be a normal response on the part of the masses, whether that is in the Middle East/North Africa or in the West that has yet to be challenged by open popular revolt because a sufficiently large enough segment of the population feels a sense of belonging and safety in institutions that increasingly have failed society.
The current global economic crisis combined with revolts in the Middle East/North Africa will intensify the “revolutionary” impulse to alter the social and political structure as well as a minority counter-revolutionary impulse to retain the social structure by an authoritarian movement, regime, or authoritarian policies adopted by otherwise liberal-bourgeois regimes. The dialectic between the two impulses will entail the biggest challenge to the political elites in pluralistic societies since the Great Depression. If as Jean-Jacques Rousseau has argued the repressive conditions imposed by a minority over the majority necessitate force morally and socially justified, then we can expect in the upcoming months and years more voices of leftist dissent and reactionary outcries to maintain the status quo by force.
The current economic and political crisis has diluted if not obviated policy-formation and consent-theory, as we knew it under Pax Americana throughout the Cold War and in the post-Cold era of the global anti-terrorism campaign on which foreign policy of many states are based; with all its intended and incidental domestic policy-formation consequences. To counter the inevitable challenge that authoritarian and pluralistic societies will be facing in this decade , the political and financial elites will have to deliver on the promise that after the crisis there will continue to be “ever-rising living standards” under more democratic condition and greater social justice within the existing stratified social and international order.
Rooted in arrogance of financial power buttressed and protected by the political elites, are the existing institutions sufficiently sound to convince people who lost confidence in the system along with their homes and businesses, jobs and careers, savings and retirement nest eggs, and their lifestyle turned upside down? Given that the political and financial elites have always manufactured consent as a means of preserving the status quo, consent-theory is their domain to define and implement to preserve and advance their privileged position.
Crises, however, as unpredictable as what has been taking place in Arab nations in January and February 2011 bring out in otherwise docile-conformist citizens revolutionary tendencies. Among the people of western nations the global crisis has brought to the surface everything from cynicism to “apocalyptic nihilism”. Besides resorting to more austere laws to “contain” dissidence as it arises with greater socioeconomic problems, the state along with the media, think tanks, and anyone with access and influence to public opinion will have to argue that any alternative to systemic transformation of the social and political order nationally and internationally will entail the demise of civilization as we know it.