Today’s mail delivered a handsome booklet with ‘A Message from the Prime Minister’:
“There is nothing more important than ensuring our children are safe. That’s why the Australian Government has created the $189-million NetAlert – Protecting Australian Families Online program. The program combines education, parental support and the offer of free internet content filters – all effective tools to help protect children from illegal and offensive material online.”
We get accompanying photos of vulnerable, (mostly) Anglo adult and child actors tapping at keyboards.
Ah, the election is certainly looming even if Howard is refusing to name the date. Of course it’s common sense to want to protect kids from net predators. But putting aside the dubious effectiveness of the government’s proposed internet filtering software, which may simply create a false sense of security, as well as the possible freedom of speech issues that may arise from aggressive implementation of such software, this pre-election initiative is interesting in light of a documentary series I watched this week, Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self (2002).
Here is the BBC’s synopsis of the series:
“The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.”
Bernays’s ideas were a kind of guide for the corporate and political rulers of mass consumer society in the post-war era. Unconscious instincts (mainly sexual) were repressed except when they could be exploited to encourage the acquisition of consumer products.
Left-leaning baby boomers rebelled against such social straight-jacketing in the late sixties – they grew their hair, staged Woodstock, planned hippie utopias – but, apart from some lasting changes to sexual mores, the young left’s political impact was limited. This political futility sent them scrambling into Reichian self-absorption (EST, group therapy, etc). With the individual self now seen as more important than society, corporations were quick to create and market products designed to flatter and facilitate a sense of individuality. Focus group research began to recategorise the population into different psychological groups (‘lifestyles’) that cut across traditional class lines. The ‘self-actualisers’ or ‘aspirationals’ emerged as a political key. The right wing, marketing hardline free market economics as “taking the government off your backs,” was able to convince that part of the electorate to abandon their class loyalties and intelligence by voting Reagan and Thatcher.
This was the beginning of the end of even vaguely socialist-orientated political institutions in the US and UK. The 1992 UK election showed the Labour Party could not win on the platform of their traditional welfare state policies, even if the polls predicted otherwise (Curtis attributes this discrepancy to voter shame – telling the pollsters one thing and doing another).
The “left” (Curtis’s silly definition for Clinton and Blair) could only regain power by “mould[ing] their policies to people’s inner desires and feelings, just as capitalism had learnt to do with products.” Focus group research enabled politicians to shuffle swing voters into particular psychological types (“pools & patios”, “caps & gowns”). They could then tailor mundane micro-policies to reinforce the sense of security those individuals felt in their lifestyles.
For the 1996 election Clinton (advised by political strategist Dick Morris) won the swinger voters in the suburbs by forgetting “all ideology and instead turn[ing] politics into a form of consumer business.” He had himself filmed on a Gortex-clad hunting holiday to “reflect swing voters’ lifestyles back to them.” He campaigned on mundane issues like mobile phones for security on school buses and, particularly relevant to today’s discussion, the installation of “V-chips” in televisions to prevent children’s access to pornography. Honey for the bears.
In Australia we’ve seen over a decade of this kind of effective campaigning by John Howard: feeding interest–rate–rise paranoia to economically illiterate mortgagees, tickling the Hansonite racist nerve (Tampa, Children Overboard, Indian doctor=terrorist, etc.). Howard’s new paternalistic policy on internet pornography will regain him some of the wandering votes. Expect to hear more mundane but loudly-trumpeted policies in the coming weeks. This will be, if nothing else, an interesting insight into what that segment of the population actually care about. I’m not sure yet what to make of Howard’s latest proposed referendum:
Just what are the focus groups telling him?
Poll showings aside, I’m not sure Rudd is going to win. How can he beat Howard on this level of campaigning? Can he out-Howard Howard? Traditional progressive Labor policies (improving health care, education, etc) won’t appeal to the swinging segment of the electorate who see themselves, poor or rich, as self-actualising individuals without a shred of social responsibility. Harden the fuck up and get to work!
Postscript (18/10/07): The World Socialist Website has a suitably outraged if inevitably class-focused article on Howard’s opportunism:
Howard’s Aboriginal “reconciliation” pledge a cynical fraud by Patrick O’Connor, Socialist Equality Party candidate for Grayndler.
Postscript (17/3/08): No surprises that the new Rudd government declares
Web porn software filter a dud, hardly surprising when a sixteen-year-old schoolboy cracked AU$84 million porn filter in 30 minutes.