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Managing democracy, managing dissent

Mike Schwarz discusses Corporate Watch's new book, Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent – Capitalism, Democracy and the Organisation of Consent, edited by Rebecca Fisher.

What’s the point of reading this book? This is what I asked myself as I read it. My question had nothing to do with the quality of this collection of essays (excellent, without exception) or expertise of the contributors (diverse, each with their own voice). As a busy practitioner, pragmatist, philistine and political novice it was a reflection on me. By the end of an unexpectedly swift and stimulating read, I had the answer. Next time I attend the G8 or Guardian editorial meeting, Bullingdon club or Bilderberg conference, company AGM or cabinet meeting, I’ll have this in my back pocket. Or, better still, I’ll beat other participants around the head (figuratively, of course) with its know-how.

And what is its know-how? It’s a tool kit for anyone who wants to understand and deconstruct capitalism and ‘democracy’ (the liberal brand – the pervasive, consumer-capitalist variant of democracy in which many in the world subsist). More precisely, it lays bare how much capitalism and liberal democracy have in common, and indeed, rely on each other. Both give the appearance of being plural, when in fact they are monopolistic and run by elite. And what’s more, they are separated by the slimmest of cigarette papers. Correction: they are bound together by that Rizla.  Neoliberalism is the toxic tobacco within. The fingers of anyone who so much as touches it are stained nicotine yellow. Anyone – the public, consumers, voters – who inhales risks at best a rasping cough and prematurely aged skin and at worst, terminal cancer. And, to finish the metaphor, we all know where the profits from this toxic trade end up.

So what’s in the tool kit? Like all good tool kits, it starts with a handy instructions manual. Its introduction sets out the book’s stall unequivocally: ‘This volume thus aims to expose some of the overt and covert ways in which democracy is managed to protect unequal power structures of capitalism from the potential force of participatory democracy’. And like all good tool kits it has neat fold out compartments. Five in fact. 

The first compartment, part one, raises perhaps the biggest question of all. Why, in a so-called democracy, can it be illegitimate to do almost anything other than vote at elections, and apart from this meagre political act to unquestionably accept their government's rule? The chapters update the answer often attributed to the former US president Thomas Jefferson: "democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%". It fast forwards to Wall Street, 2011, the Occupy movement and its rallying cry that it is in fact the 1% who control both the wealth and the political power in a capitalist democracy. And, on the way, we are taken (chapter one) on a romp though the history and modification of democracy - beginning in feudal times, through emerging capitalism and industrialisation, sweeping past universal suffrage, with a nod to the views of Ralph Miliband’s radicalism (anathema to his sons David and Ed), to the liberal, imperialist and militaristic version, pervasive and invasive today. 

Like all good reads the book keeps the reader’s attention by prompting questions followed swiftly by answers. Thus, part two exposes how the electorate is controlled not by the froth of bread and circuses or the bribery of rotten boroughs, but by neoliberalism’s ‘little helpers’ - the corporate media. This is a more thoughtful, better researched analysis than the simplistic citing of the triumvirate of Murdoch (the ultimate international media mogul), Cameron (advertiser-turned-politician) and the Leveson enquiry (which some might characterise as a screen version of Hello!). And if that doesn’t work, part three explains how malleable dissent is co-opted and part four how recalcitrant dissent is repressed. 

Along the way, the authors identify few friends. The enemy are known: (mainly Western) governments, the corporations, the military and their agents, anonymous acronyms like NED (the National Endowment for Democracy) and the plethora of security service units. So, too, are the bogeymen, close to if not part of the establishment - Bono and Geldof, the BBC and Guardian. Others are cited to illustrate the edge of the system, tolerated to give the appearance of plurality, but not truly radical – Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, Jon Snow. The Occupy movement just about avoids direct criticism – typified by the beginning of this phrase ‘[t]hough it may certainly seem like it, this essay was not written to belittle the [Occupy Wall Street] movement…’. Chomsky comes out relatively unscathed. 

Though it coins or co-opts some catchy phrases (‘low-intensity democracy’, the ‘astroturfing of grassroots movements’) this is neither tabloid nor adolescent fulmination. It eschews the grand conspiracy theory – the word ‘Bilderberg’ does not even appear in its index. The system, and the book’s analysis of the system, is much more sophisticated than that. ‘Let’s be clear: the system is not one giant conspiracy… [I]magine making a shallow square wooden frame and a pouring bucket-load of marbles over it. You’d find the marbles arrange themselves into a regular pyramid structure. The marbles aren’t conspiring: they’re responding to framing conditions’. It’s an ‘assemblage’ which, according to the final compartment of the tool kit, part five, is globalising faster and more powerfully than the counter-movements.    

All good reviews require criticism so let me wheel out one. I’d have liked to have heard more on the authors’ views about our psychology (or needs) which allow so many of us to be hoodwinked by the system. And more on solutions. But, then again, maybe the essayists answer this by explaining what may bring the system to the brink and beyond. There may be at least three triggers. First, environmental catastrophe - ‘the inherently biocidal logic of corporate capitalism’. Second, political upheaval brought on by the insight and desperation sparked by austerity – the Arab Spring, but on a global scale. Or, third, for us all to arm ourselves with some knowledge of political science, starting with this book.


Managing Democracy, Managing Dissent is edited by Rebecca Fisher and published by Corporate Watch. It is available to buy for £8.00 at

About the author

Mike Schwarz is a defence lawyer and partner at Bindmans, dealing with clients facing the most serious charges. He also acts for political activists and campaigners on issues such as the environment, animal rights, peace/disarmament, race and social justice. He is joint author of 'The Law of Public Order and Protest' (Oxford University Press, March 2010) and regularly appears in the specialist and mainstream broadcast media.


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