The Consensus Creators

In a world in which the reverent worship of liberal capitalism by those in power is becoming almost deafening, meaningful social change is becoming harder and harder. The battle still rages between those who believe that the markets will bring humanity's salvation, and those who seek a more co-operative solution, in which the environment and human health, dignity and community are valued as equal to or above the need for profit. In the 'Western' world, at least, it can feel at times like the winner has already been decided. From Margaret Thatcher's “TINA” to Peter Mandelson's “We're all Thatcherites now”, political choice in Britain, at least, seems restricted to the Scottish one or the one with the bike (and the Lexus), and it is a situation encountered all over the Western world. Political apathy sits like a fog over 'democratic', 'developed' countries.

In the 'developing' world, however, there is still room for change. Political institutions have weaker foundations, are more malleable, and integration into globalisation is still reversible, or not yet complete. It is in these countries that we find the people for whom the injustice of the globalized world is a daily reality, and often the voices questioning it still inhabit the mainstream. Fearful of alternatives which empower the very people who are being isolated in the current system, capitalist elites around the world, including those in developing countries, continue to strive to ensure that the system from which they reap so many benefits remains the status quo, and the need to defend it is taking on increasingly imaginative directions.

For a long while 'development' has been equated with neoliberalism. The imposition of freemarket reforms through various means, including the use of loans, 'aid' and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (and their predecessors, Structural Adjustment Programs) is nothing new. What seems to have been generally overlooked, however, is that alongside these measures something far more subtle, and far more sinister is at work: the creation of consensus. Billions of dollars are being spent worldwide, in the name of 'development', to ensure that as many people as possible have internalized the mantra that what's good for business is good for society, while at the same dissenting voices are being actively isolated. The gains to globalized capitalism are immense; the loss for genuine movements for social change even greater.


In the 1920s and 30s, Antonio Gramsci, a Leninist Italian philosopher, developed an influential theory which suggested that the capitalist state maintained control not just through violence and political and economic coercion, but also ideologically, through a ruling (hegemonic) culture in which the values of the elite became the ‘common sense’ values of all. This was achieved through ideological apparatuses, such as education and the media, but also through civil society – he argued that elites could allow certain demands made by civil society to be met, which did not directly challenge their economic control, thus preventing civil society from revolting.

In the West, coercion as a means of social control has become unfashionable, and increasingly Gramsci’s ‘consensual’ mechanisms have come to dominate. PR, advertising and the corporate media have all been instrumental in helping us to associate social values with corporate values, and the establishment of ‘philanthropic’ foundations has ensured that those mischievous rebels amongst us are safely channelled into issues which pose no threat to the system itself.

These developments have not gone unnoticed by those defending international capital abroad. Not content with enforcing economic ‘adjustment’ programmes on defenceless countries, and undoubtedly becoming wary of the growing presence of China as a competitor for international markets (a country which does not, for example, mandate policy changes in return for investment), the world of ‘international development’ has in the past twenty years or so has seen a mushrooming of organisations dedicated to manufacturing consent for corporate capitalism abroad. Some of these groups are working through ‘traditional’ mechanisms, such as the media (see below), but recently a new breed of consensus creators have emerged: the Democracy Promoters.


'Democracy promotion’ draws its inspiration from Gramsci’s understanding of strategic elite management of civil society. Predictably, the ‘democracy’ they are ‘promoting’ has very little to do with ‘traditional’ understandings of democracy – it is a strand of democracy compatible with corporate capitalism, with most of the genuinely participatory aspects diluted or taken out altogether.

The aim of democracy promotion is to ensure that the loudest and most influential voices within civil society are those whose interests are aligned with, or do not directly challenge corporate capitalism. The premise is very simple – identify suitable groups and individuals in the target country and channel money to them; the wider variety of groups the better. Some groups are targeted for ‘moderation,’ in which progressive tendencies are diluted or co-opted when allied with, or become financially dependent on, Western backing. The result is that any groups which dissent from the corporatist view of the world become isolated, financially and physically (in terms of resources), while those groups useful to the sponsor’s project develop a loud and powerful voice. This particularly sneaky tactic – when used in conjunction with diplomatic, economic and, if necessary military power - has been proven to be very effective. It was involved in the overthrow of Allende in Chile, of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, of Aristide in Haiti and the brief deposition of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and is being used as an integral part of ‘development’ in states all around the world.

Democracy promoters come in all shapes and guises. The godfather of democracy promotion is the National Endowment of Democracy (NED), an arm of the US State Department set up in 1985 to do openly what the C.I.A. had been doing covertly in the 60s and 70s, that is, to ensure that the ‘right’ people are in power and the ‘right’ policies are in place in strategic states. The past decade or so has seen a mushrooming of NED-inspired organisations in government foreign offices in the industrialised world, including the FCO’s own Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Their birthplaces remain significant: these are not agencies for ‘development’ – they are part of a political foreign policy initiative.

A huge network of ‘democracy’ promotion ‘NGOs’ have sprung up as well, although the term ‘NGO’ is deliberately misleading, and allows them an aura of impartiality which is not justified. They are funded by governments, ‘philanthropic’ foundations and corporations, and work through the rubric of media, human rights, development, youth movements, women’s movements and countless others. Institutions such as the Soros Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the International Foundation of Election Systems, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Ford Foundation, Transparency International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Labour Organisation, Reporters Without Borders and countless others, many of which would be familiar names to you. Their directors all sit on each other’s boards and committees, they all have strong links, financial and personal, to powerful political and business elites, and they all have interests in maintaining corporate capitalism. Much of the work they do is valuable, but almost all of it actively – if sometimes unconsciously - helps to sustain the free market status quo.

These groups comprise an international network, which is linked through its sources of funding. Eventually filtering down to small local initiatives, much of it is initially sourced from government departments, corporations and the large foundations, such as the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, who undoubtedly see it as a long-term investment in capitalism. Needless to say, if an organisation is receiving funding which can be traced back to this network, it can safely be assumed that their activities suit the long-term needs of those seeking to preserve corporate capitalism.

For the most part this trend has gone unchallenged because of the language it uses – who is going to stand up against democracy and freedom? - and because of the fact that it supports a plethora of worthwhile causes. Yet the support of any of these groups, if engineered in the ‘right’ way, does not challenge the neo-liberal agenda. Indeed, many of them support it – the power and rights of the individual forms the basis of capitalism. And to a certain extent challenges can be accommodated and internalised: protests against corporate behaviour do not challenge the right of the corporation to exist; if anything they legitimise it.


Working alongside democracy promotion is ‘media assistance,’ or ‘development communications.’ According to a recent USAID policy document - just about the most explicit material you’re going to get on the subject - ‘A global analysis of USAID media programmes indicates that independent media assistance has contributed to the achievement of many foreign policy goals. It often, though not always, produced the same results that public diplomacy sought to achieve. In many countries, support to independent media created political space that enabled the United States to pursue specific foreign policy goals, such as holding of elections... Media assistance contributed to the US foreign policy goal of promoting economic development and democracy abroad.’(1)

As in industrialised countries, the media is being used in the developing world to promote consumer values, and, as over here, a small group of elites are controlling the process – in this case, development agencies. Their task is to forcibly create a ‘commercially viable’, profit-based local media, which has internalised the logic of the market and is dependent on advertising and submissive to corporate and donor demands.

The activities involved in media assistance are varied, and include writing and producing ‘news’ or broadcast shows, re-writing and creating media legislation, introducing fees for setting up media outlets, creating and controlling official media regulatory bodies, running competitions in partnership with multinational corporations, and writing and providing training courses, including university degrees. Journalists are also encouraged to uncritically regurgitate press statements from official agencies, including election officials. There is usually also a strong push to depoliticise the media, a big part of which is training for journalists in ‘election coverage’ - journalists are encouraged to adopt a tone of disinterested objectivity when reporting elections, a strategy to weaken the chances of genuine political debate.

As many existing media outlets as possible in the target country are ‘supported’ by donors, through finances or equipment, which serves two main purposes. Firstly, donors have ultimate control over content, as they may withdraw their support at any time. Secondly, it ensures that success is associated with expensive equipment – by increasing the amount of investment it takes to compete with other media, you make running a media outlet big business, and you ensure that only a small wealthy minority can afford to enter the game, alienating the poor and their politics. This in turn creates dependency on advertising, more often than not in developing countries dominated by the development agencies themselves, as well as foreign corporations, thus permanently leaving these two groups in charge of dictating the boundaries of discourse.
References 1. USAID's Media Assistance : Policy and Programmatic Lessons, available on the USAID website at: