Classical Liberal (Lockean) political theory maintains that individual 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. However, the reality is that T. Hobbes’ Leviathan that Locke rejected lives inside competing interest groups among the elites (including the 17th century when Locke represented mercantile interests) that have played a catalytic role in shaping policy in modern pluralistic societies governed by varieties of Liberal-type constitutions.
Although policy-formation is the presumed domain of competing interest groups whether politically organized like the Whig faction in Locke’s time, or modern-day corporate lobbies, consent-theory is more easily justified and implemented during times of national emergencies or crises than during ‘normal times’. Having built a national consensus during the Great Depression for economic reasons, the US continued to expand the 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, OAS and SEATO, IFIs were also established to complete the triumph of Pax Americana.
The dynamics of the Cold War necessarily resulted in domestic national consensus 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 ‘common external enemy’. Nor is this to be confused with the military-industrial complex that was only one byproduct of conformist policy-formation. 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.
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. However, economic nationalism – from the political left and to the ideological right – and varieties of Socialism will challenge and try to replace classical Liberalism and the American-centered world system as the ideological foundation on which 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 economic dislocation will 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 civil disobedience combined with labor and middle class protests throughout the world will continue to challenge consent-theory that the political and financial elites are interested in preserving. Assuming that the forthcoming G-20 meeting (April 2009) will result in consensus and assuming the Chinese prediction about national recovery by June 2009 is correct, it may be possible that by early-to-mid-2010 the US will be coming out of recession as the FED is now predicting. The EU will realize real growth much later than previously expected (the latest IMF report is very pessimistic about Europe) and gradually Japan and the rest of the world will follow the EU. Such scenario depends largely on what policies the G-20 will adopt to better-regulate the crippled economy for the duration.
The middle class and workers will lag far behind in the recovery process as will the Third World – regrettably, there are no AIG-type bonuses for the middle class and workers whose consent must be manipulated back toward support of the elites. In short, the lower the social strata the slower the recovery; similarly the less the country is developed the slower and more painfully it will emerge from this crisis. The crisis will exacerbate societal polarization that manifests itself in increased social protests, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, racism, chauvinism, etc. Whether it is to the extreme right or left, going to the roots of society in times of crisis will be a normal response on the part of the masses; that is where a large segment of the population feels a sense of belonging and safety, not in institutions that failed them. The current crisis 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 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 pluralistic societies will be facing, 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’ within the existing stratified social and international order.
Such promises of what Kenneth Boulding, Beyond Economics (1968) called ‘cowboy economics’ rooted in arrogance of financial power buttressed and protected by the political elites will not be sufficient to convince people who lost 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, consent-theory is their domain to define and implement to preserve and advance their privileged position. Crises, however, bring out in otherwise docile-conformist citizens tendencies that range from reactionary to revolutionary, from cynicism to ‘apocalyptic nihilism’, which is what most people act on and understand by the term (as opposed to anarchist or existential). 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.