Friday, November 23, 2007

Is consumer capitalism inherently totalitarian?

Here's Gracchi on the question 'is the left totalitarian?':
"The issue therefore is whether economic aid transferred by collective consent from the top of the socio-economic pyramid to the bottom is totalitarian.

Various respectable bloggers on the right would definitely argue that case, but I think they are wrong. If you accept the definition of liberty that it is the absence of coercion, you then face a problem which libertarians are rather too keen to forget about, which is the definition of coercion and who can coerce. For the straightforward libertarian answer is that only the state can coerce, but that is obviously nonsense."
Elsewhere in Gracchi's piece, the balance of his argument is understandably aimed squarely at the open goal that right-wing libertarians offer: the dubious liberty of the beggar to eat caviar.

But I think that the word coercion provides a suitable jumping-off point. Douglas Rushkoff's notion of coercion, for instance, casts a useful light on another common theme of right-libertarians: A dislike for the concept of public service broadcasting.

The BBC is - I think for almost every English-speaking resident of these isles - fantastic value for money. For 37p a day, the radio alone is worth it. Chuck in the TV channels, the archives, the website, and the fact that Auntie provides a larger subsidy to the performing arts than the every other investor in the EU combined,* and the argument becomes almost unanswerable.

The vast majority of us have no complaint about the coercion of paying a licence fee, because it can allow us to continue enjoying this fantastic value at the expense of the minority who do.

Long may it continue. Because the alternative would be to expose my kids (and myself) to a constant stream of coercive advertising on TV. That would be coercion squared. On the one hand, continuously feeling incomplete without whatever tat that they are determined to flog me. And on the other, stuck in an expensive war of attrition that every parent has to fight when their children are exposed to advertisers.

It would cost us all a good deal more than 37p a day if some people had their way - and the level of investment in original content would fall through the floor at the same time.

There is something slightly bizarre in arguing with people who spend so much time painting liberal democracy as inherently totalitarian, while at the same time remaining silent about the powers of a profession that uses coercive subliminal techniques every day.



*OK. I can't source this figure any more - I could in the late 1990s, and I don't think it's changed, but I stand to be corrected.

16 comments:

Wolfie said...

I read this twice but still couldn't find a conclusive argument.

Most libertarian conservatives can see the value of a state broadcaster, there's not much to argue about. It gives the company freedom from commercial constraints. It does have to be monitored for neutrality, something which they have been weak on lately, but there you go. Not exactly totalitarian though is it?

Will said...

"libertarian conservatives"

Oxymoron alert.

PooterGeek said...

They're from the same stock, Will. The ones who call themselves "libertarians" do so because "conservatives" is the old, uncool word for people who want the state to restrict itself to preventing their birth advantages from being shared by others with more drive and talent.

Will said...

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=lwNQf08Kxsw

fake consultant said...

in fairness, there are excellent "commercial free" options from the commercial sector.

just one example: direct tv in the us offers "developmental programs for baby" as a daily commercial free channel, paid for by a fee for that channnel.

even when commercials are present, it can be worth the time to watch-discovery channel, science channel, animal planet, a&e, history channel, noggin, nickelodeon (lots of ads there, however, and perhaps the most aggressive in selling to kids...).

and if you want ad-free content, buy the dvds: planet earth is just one example, and there are lots more...

none of this is meant to demean the value of the beeb-simply to suggest that commercial networks also offer programming that's compelling and of fine quality...despite (or maybe because of) the ads.

Tim Almond said...

The problem with that argument is that many people get "coerced" both ways.

They spend £100+ on a TV license that pays for the BBC despite then watching lots of ITV.

What's wrong with a subscription model? If you want the BBC, pay your £120 a year.

Lord James-River said...

The vast majority of us have no complaint about the coercion of paying a licence fee.

Must be a different "vast majority" to the ones who were polled.

Ian said...
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Ian said...

"The vast majority of us have no complaint about the coercion of paying a licence fee, because it can allow us to continue enjoying this fantastic value at the expense of the minority who do.

Long may it continue. Because the alternative would be to expose my kids (and myself) to a constant stream of coercive advertising on TV."

False dichotomy. You have to pay the license fee by law (this is true coercion) even if you only have a TV to watch DVDs on. You don't have to watch commercial TV (therefore this is not coercion).

Paulie said...

Wolfie,

I don't agree with you that most 'libertarian conservatives' (subsequent commenters have discussed that one) DO value a state broadcaster (the BBC is not a state broadcaster, btw). Indeed this comment thread has found a few.

Lord JR: What poll is that then?

Ian, in these arguments, I'm always baffled at how my opponents have such an expansive notion of coercion when it suits them, and choose to act as though it doesn't exist when it doesn't.

If you have children, and a television, and the TV has commercial channels, then you have no choice in the matter unless you lock the remote in the coalhouse.

I'm not even going to go into the wider question of how much 'choice' can be coercive here. Life is too short.

Fake consultant / Tim, I think there is a longer post to write on how we create options for ourselves to enjoy huge benefits if we can coerce everyone into making minor sacrifices. In the BBC's case, I think that the argument is just overwhelming. And the idea that we can have paid-for non-ad TV of anything like the quality and diversity that we have now - it's just fanciful.

How many businesses have gone to the wall in the last decade on the forlorn hope that people will pay for content?

Ian said...

"I'm not even going to go into the wider question of how much 'choice' can be coercive here. Life is too short."

I am not a 'fundamentalist libertarian', but as a guiding principle I believe that overall coercion is to be avoided, that if individuals have choice then it is not coercion (e.g. watching advertising or not), and the logical corollary of that.

Advertising itself is not coercion under any sensible definition, but that's a whole 'nother debate.

I believe that situations where individuals are coerced into making sacrifices for a supposed greater good are sometimes acceptable, but only where a) the greater good is highly significant and demonstrably so; b) where the sacrifices are not unacceptably great; and c) there is no appropriate non-coercive alternative.

In my opinion it is debatable that the BBC passes test a), and even more debatable that it passes test c). Also where argument b) is concerned although I do not think the license fee is excessive per se, it is a regressive 'tax'.

Paulie said...

"Advertising itself is not coercion under any sensible definition, but that's a whole 'nother debate."

No it isn't. It's the main point of this post.

Ian said...
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Ian said...

OK, I deleted the above post because looking back at your original post it didn't make sense for me to ask what I asked.

I think this is really coming down to a matter of opinion. You believe that advertising is "coercive". I am of the opinion that it is not.

Maybe it depends how you define coercion, I think it would have to be a very loose definition to include advertising (the word you are really looking for is "influence", IMO).

You have linked to a book by someone who clearly has strong opinions on the subject of advertising and is entitled 'Coercion'. I do not think this is a reasonable definition of the word. I haven't read the book (hadn't heard of it until today) but by the blurb it looks like an anti-marketing polemic.

Ian said...

I admit now that, yes, now I've reread it I can see that your main point was about definitions of coercion, and the pro-BBC argument was secondary.

I wrote my reply as though it was the other way round, mainly because the licence fee is a subject I have a strong negative opinion about.

Andrew Russell said...

As I understand it, coercion includes "fraud" as well as "force". (I take this from a hilarious DK post on the "philosophy of liberty").

It doesn't seem too hard to believe that advertising may sometimes create an impression of the product on offer that isn't entirely congruent with reality. Think of the glowing, juicy burgers that tower over Mickey D ads; ever bought one that looked that good?

Sure, advertisers can't tell outright lies, but they don't have to: this is the industry that sells sugar-laden cereal bars as "fat-free" and leaves it to you to assume that means it's healthy.