Book review: Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent edited by Rebecca Fisher


“This collection is centred on the fundamental problem of creating legitimacy for capitalism”, explains Corporate Watch staffer Rebecca Fisher in the introduction. “How can an inherently and profoundly anti-democratic system contain and limit dissent and at the same time present itself as ostensibly ‘democratic’?”

With contributions from activists and academics from the UK and North America, the book’s 20 chapters engage with the question that has so interested leftist thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Miliband and Alex Carey – the manufacture of consent in liberal democracies.

“The point is that we need to distinguish between what liberal democracy does and what it says it does”, writes David Whyte from the University of Liverpool. An obvious point one might think, although completely lost on all the mainstream journalists who continuously tell us the US and UK invaded Iraq to promote democracy.

The quality and content varies considerably across the collection. Media Lens contributes a characteristically clear and sharp analysis of the complicity of the liberal media in the UK’s aggressive foreign policy, while Matthew Alford’s application of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model to Hollywood cinema is fascinating. Fisher’s own contributions are detailed and persuasive, especially her wide-ranging introduction and her critique of the little known Westminster Foundation for Democracy and its ‘democracy promotion’ overseas.

Elsewhere, some chapters are overly academic, full of dry, jargon-heavy prose. I also found several authors complete dismissal of the process of co-option and accommodation under hegemony a little frustrating. The elite may well maintain their position by making small concessions to popular pressure but those concessions are small, very real examples of progressive change, surely?  One such contributor is American activist Edmund Berger, who ends up criticising proponents of nonviolent change such as Stephen Zunes and Gene Sharp. Berger’s chapter on the 2011 Egyptian uprising argues the US Government, through working at the level of civil society, was heavily involved in the overthrow of Mubarak. This thesis sits uneasily with the fact the US Government was a key support of Mubarak for decades – a paradox the author does not engage with or explain.

This is a big, very dense book – one to dip in and out of rather than read from beginning to end. Compiled by radical activists from Corporate Watch, many of the chapters will be difficult for the general reader due to their academic style. This contradiction between wanting to educate and inspire the general public to action and including inaccessible academic essays is never fully resolved. However, this is an important topic that everyone interested in progressive change needs to grapple with and Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent is an important addition to the debate.

Managing Democracy, Managing Consent is published by Corporate Watch, priced £8.

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He can be contacted at [email protected] and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair.

 

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