The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social Consent

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“[Hogan’s] goal is not merely to explain but to provide tools of understanding that will be of practical value to those who struggle for justice and freedom. Drawing from an impressive array of sources, his valuable study advances both ends considerably, no mean accomplishment.”—Noam Chomsky

In this wide-ranging and informative work, Patrick Colm Hogan draws on cognitive science, psychoanalysis, and social psychology to explore the cultural and psychological components of social consent. Focusing in particular on Americans’ acquiescence to a system that underpays and underrepresents the vast majority of the population, Hogan moves beyond typical studies of this phenomenon by stressing more than its political and economic dimensions.
With new insights into particularly insideous forms of consent such as those manifest in racism, sexism, and homophobia, The Culture of Conformism considers the role of emotion as it works in conjunction with belief and with the formation of group identity. Arguing that coercion is far more pervasive in democratic societies than is commonly recognized, Hogan discusses the subtle ways in which economic and social pressures operate to complement the more obviously violent forces of the police and military. Addressing issues of narcissism, self-esteem, and empathy, he also explains the concept of “rational” conformity—that is, the degree to which our social consent is based on self-interest—and explores the cognitive factors that produce and sustain social ideology.
Social activists, economic theorists, social psychologists, and political scientists will be intrigued and informed by this book.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Given that capitalist society demeans and deprives most of its members, why don’t they revolt? Hogan lays out this problematic with elegant directness and lucidity and provides a complex—yet simply drawn—explanation of consent.”— Richard Ohmann, Wesleyan University

“Reflecting on the principles of government, David Hume was struck by the ‘implicit submission’ of people to the rulers in all societies even though ‘force is always on the side of the governed,’ a surprising outcome that he attributes to control of opinion. Patrick Hogan greatly enriches the Humean concept, unravelling an intricate web of ‘modes of action and thought’ that ensnare the governed in forms of ‘implicit submission,’ contrary to their deeper motives and ideals and long-term interests. His goal is not merely to explain, but to provide tools of understanding that will be of practical value to those who struggle for justice and freedom. Drawing from an impressive array of sources, his valuable study advances both ends considerably, no mean accomplishment.”—Noam Chomsky

Library Journal
This is a sophisticated examination of why people masses of people allow injustice (in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic oppression, among others) to occur. One disturbing fact: in 1999 the combined wealth of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and S. Robson Walton equaled "more than the combined gross national product of the world's 43 least-developed countries, which have 600 million citizens." Hogan (English and comparative literature, Univ. of Connecticut) takes a multilayered approach (political, social, economic, and cognitive) in his thoughtful, well-documented discussions of the wild disparities that exist and will continue to exist if left unchecked among different elements of the world's populations. The prognosis is not entirely bleak, however; Hogan is hopeful that readers will tap into the source list of advocates for change included at the end of this excellent book. Highly recommended. Ellen D. Gilbert, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822327165
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick Colm Hogan is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut. His previous books include On Interpretation: Meaning and Inference in Law, Psychoanalysis, and Literature and Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean.

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Read an Excerpt

The culture of conformism

Understanding social consent
By Patrick Colm Hogan

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2716-3

Chapter One

Rational Acquiescence: The Police and the Marketplace

The most obvious reason not to rebel is the power of the state and ruling classes. The use of coercion and threats of violence is most blatant in totalitarian countries, such as Indonesia or Guatemala over the last few decades. Yet it is centrally important in democratic societies as well. This is the first part of "rational" acquiescence: consent to the status quo based on an understanding of the physical, economic, or emotional harm one might suffer for rebellion. On the other hand, not all self-interests relevant to consent are coercive. Many concern positive goals, such as acquisition or advantage. This is the second component of rational acquiescence or, equivalently, "calculated consent": consent as a sort of structuring of human impulse, its limitation to certain objects and outlets.


Any legal system-with its police enforcement as well as penal codes and practices-functions in large part to preserve the social relations that define the society in which they operate. This preservative function includes the economy. The legal system places a huge repressive apparatus at the service of that structure. Douglas Hay (1995) presents some striking illustrations of this from the early nineteenth century. For example,"judges in all the common law countries" in this period insisted that "the injured worker should be almost always barred ... from suing the employer, and that the family of the dead worker should be similarly barred from legal recompense" (144). The point is generalizable. All legal systems serve to sustain relations of ownership.

This may seem innocuous. After all, who wants their home burglarized? Who does not want protection against mugging? The specific way in which the legal system defines, say, theft, the way it categorizes and punishes crimes of property, is not a simple matter of evenhanded justice, however. It is a matter of preserving inequality. Consider the legal system in the United States (which does not differ significantly from other legal systems in this respect). First of all, it does not define ownership in terms of the production of wealth. Whether or not one accepts Marx's theory of value (I myself do not), it is clear that social wealth is created by the coordinated activities of all working members of society. One could imagine a definition of ownership according to which all individuals own that portion of social wealth that they have produced. Correlatively, one can envision a definition of theft according to which any appropriation of more wealth than one has produced is theft. As such, if the CEO of a factory takes 420 times the salary of a line worker (see "Everyone's Rich" 1999, 4), he or she is guilty of theft. (It is, of course, difficult to quantify the production of wealth. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine an argument that, in one day, the CEO'S work produces goods and services for society that are equivalent to the goods and services produced by a line worker cumulatively over an entire year and eight months. Indeed, many would contend that the CEO'S contribution to the production of goods and services is far less than that of the worker, since most of the CEO'S efforts are put into increasing profits for management and shareholders-thus in distributing social wealth, rather than creating it.)

But the present system is precisely the opposite of one that defines ownership and theft in terms of the production of wealth. It serves to protect the "right" of the CEO to appropriate and retain hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the line worker every year, to accumulate that wealth, and to increase it through investment. The worker's relation to his or her own production of wealth is not even a concept in the U.S. legal system (or in any other legal system with which I am familiar). In contrast, consider one of these line workers, who is unable to accumulate any wealth and may well lack adequate money to buy necessities for his or her family, or some unemployed person, fired from that factory due to a "downsizing" that increased the already bloated salary of the CEO. If one of these desperate and deprived people were to steal the CEO'S wallet and get away with $100, he or she would be guilty of grand larceny, and if caught and convicted, subjected to imprisonment.

Put differently, definitions of ownership and theft tend to be thought of as straightforward, even natural. But they are not. They are, rather, the product of human decision. That decision operates to give special protection to just those types of ownership (or putative ownership) that are crucial to economic stratification. It excludes from protection-or even from clear conceptualization-those types of ownership that would undermine or at least limit economic stratification. Indeed, this was the more or less explicit intent of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. As Noam Chomsky and others have discussed, James Madison viewed the property rights of the "opulent minority" as threatened by the masses, and thus as requiring particularly stringent protection. "To ensure that the rights of the opulent minority are privileged, they must hold the reins of government, Madison held. He added that this is only fair, because property 'chiefly bears the burden of government', and 'In a certain sense the Country may be said to belong' " to the propertied elite (Chomsky 1995, 118).

This is not to say that there are no laws restricting the acquisitiveness of, say, the business elite. There are. The legal definition of theft would be incoherent if it did not include various "white-collar" crimes. These are treated lightly, however, relative to their "blue-collar" counterparts-despite the fact that they are far more significant and consequential, even by the limited definition of theft. As Russell Mokhiber (1996) has noted, "Inside-the-Beltway corporate liberals and conservatives alike insist that crime in America is committed primarily by the poor and blacks," even though "corporate crime and violence inflict far more damage on society than all street crime combined" (14). Specifically, according to the FBI, "burglary and robbery combined cost the nation about $4 billion in 1995. In contrast, white-collar fraud, generally committed by ... people of means ... costs an estimated 50 times as much-$200 billion a year" (ibid.). Indeed, the systematic crimes of the elite are not even counted as such; the FBI "Crime in the United States report ... documents ... street crimes," but "ignores corporate and white-collar crimes such as pollution, procurement fraud, financial fraud, public corruption and occupational homicide" (ibid.).

As this last quotation indicates, the operation of law to coerce consent is by no means confined to property law. The most obvious cases are overtly prejudicial laws-laws that restrict voting rights to men, or laws that outlaw certain cultural, religious, or sexual practices. The latter guarantee that members of outlawed groups will be forced to conceal their identities, and thus prevented from engaging in public acts of solidarity and political agitation. Consider, for instance, laws discriminating against gays and lesbians. In the first chapter of Sexual Orientation: A Human Right, Eric Heinze (1995) gives a sampling of such laws from around the world. Iran executes "citizens who engage in private, adult, mutually consensual, homosexual acts," and those convicted of such acts have no right of appeal (3). In countries from Romania and Lithuania to Australia and England, people can be arrested for homosexual practices. Indeed, in the United Kingdom, "men who commit consenting homosexual acts are four times more likely to be convicted than men who commit heterosexual and violent offenses" (Peter Tatchell, quoted in Heinze 1995, 6). Moreover, a British court judged that it was within the law to dismiss a gay man from his job as a "means of assuring that he would not sexually harass customers" (6).

This bias toward preserving stratification spreads throughout the legal system. It is not only the legal definition of theft but those of assault, rape, spousal abuse, fraud, homicide, and other crimes as well that appear natural and neutral, even though they are, in fact, artificial and severely biased. Consider homicide. What could be more "natural" than to outlaw the taking of human life? True. The taking of human life, however, is not outlawed. Rather, what might be called "direct killing" is declared the monopoly of the state, with very limited exceptions. Just as with theft, small-scale street homicide, primarily perpetrated by the miserable and impoverished, is severely prosecuted, while large-scale elite homicide is generally permitted. Mokhiber explains that according to the FBI, the United States has a street homicide rate of "about 24,000 a year." These killings are felonies. First of all, the state can, at least in some cases, kill those judged guilty of these murders. More important, the state can kill many times that number of people-many times that number of civilians-in military conflict. Hence, during the brief period of the Gulf War, the state was able to kill Iraqi civilians at roughly eighteen times this rate, doing in "more than 50,000" (Clark 1992, 130) in only six weeks. (This does not count the hundreds of thousands of indirect deaths caused by the war [see Crossette 1995, A9; and Halliday 1999, 26] or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers killed [Clark 1992, 43].) Clearly, this killing was not outlawed.

Legal definitions, such as that regarding murder, have two sorts of consensual consequences: they allow for a range of repressive actions, the threat of which fosters consent; and they tend to guide an individual's own thought as to what constitutes murder. Thus, most people unreflectively count street crimes, but not state-sponsored bombings, as murders. Indeed, legal definitions come to seem so natural that it is sometimes difficult to see that they are the product of choices, and choices with systematic social results. For example, murder is not consistently defined as the killing of innocent people, for then the massive killing of Iraqi civilians-men, women, and children who had nothing to do with the invasion of Kuwait-would have counted as murder. In a remarkable illustration of the consensual effects produced by such legal definitions, one colleague of mine, on reading the last paragraph, commented that only a "far far far Left ideologue" would class the bombing of Iraq as involving "murder."

This state monopoly on direct killing is not the only aspect of homicide law that is artificial and biased. Consider indirect killing (for instance, the creation of hazardous conditions that result in predictable deaths). Indirect killings in this country far exceed direct ones, and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly corporate. The Labor Department "reports that ... 56,000 Americans"-well over twice the number killed in street homicides-"die every year on the job or from occupational diseases such as black lung, brown lung, asbestos and various occupationally induced cancers" (Mokhiber 1996, 14). Of course, much of this is supposedly covered by criminal law. But these sorts of indirect killings do not have anything like comparable legal status with street homicide. Again, suppose a worker is "let go" by his or her employer due to so-called downsizing, with the CEO increasing an already enormous salary. Suppose that this unemployed worker then goes and shoots this CEO. That is first-degree murder and can be punished by execution. Now imagine another scenario. The CEO is warned that the handling of certain chemicals may be dangerous to workers, but that a safer procedure would eat into the company's profits. The CEO decides to do nothing. There is an accident and four workers die. This is not first-degree murder and could never result in execution. Moreover, it is unlikely that anyone would ever be prosecuted for this crime. "Corporate violence that results in worker deaths rarely provokes criminal prosecutions.... The National Safety Council estimates that since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHACT) in 1970, 250,000 workers have died on the job," but "only four people have done time for OSHACT violations" (Mokhiber 1996, 15).

There are other biases hidden here as well-biases that become obvious after only the briefest reflection. If a street thug pulls out a knife and tells a passerby to hand over five dollars, he or she has committed a serious crime. The mere threat of the knife is prosecutable as assault with a dangerous weapon. Yet, if an employer tells a worker that he or she must handle dangerous radioactive chemicals or lose his or her job, that has no comparable status.

This is only part of the problem with legal definitions of murder. Corporations kill not only workers but consumers-and they often do so with full knowledge. The most obvious case of this is the tobacco industry, which is responsible for perhaps twenty times more deaths every year than street homicide. (Deaths from smoking have been estimated at between 400,000 and 500,000 [see Kluger 1996, 703].) Moreover, it is guilty of a theft of staggering proportions. In order to make profits on the sales of cigarettes, the tobacco industry has created a health crisis that drains perhaps $50-65 billion from national wealth. (On some complications with estimating these costs, see Kluger 1996, 553-54, 735-36.) Recall that burglary and robbery combined cost the nation only about $4 billion per year (Mokhiber 1996, 14). This economic cost is probably the reason that there have been a few successful civil cases against tobacco companies in recent years. These are certainly important, but even if they continue, it is clear that the tobacco industry is vastly underprosecuted and undercriminalized relative to street crime, which again, is far less harmful.

The tobacco industry is not the exception here but the rule. Note, for example, the fact that "for more than 20 years, the auto industry ... defeated efforts to enact a federal law that would require air bags as standard equipment on all U.S. cars" (Mokhiber 1996, 15). The result of this is death: "Auto safety expert Byron Bloch ... estimates that as many as 140,000 Americans ... have died in auto crashes since the early 1970s because the auto companies' legislative privilege effectively thwarted all efforts to develop and legally mandate the device in American cars" (15). Clearly, the automobile industry's opposition to the law was the result of economic interest, which is to say the desire of owners and managers to acquire a higher percentage of the national wealth. Their motivation, in other words, was much the same as that of the street thug who shoots someone to steal his or her money. But there are two differences. No street thugs kill anywhere near the number of people killed by even one major automobile manufacturer. And street thugs typically begin with only a small fraction of their equitable share of social wealth, while CEOS typically begin with many, many times their share. Again, legal definitions of crime operate to perpetuate that inequity, and they lead people to think of that inequity as fair, rather than the result of theft and murder.

Beyond this, a great deal of corporate crime is subjected to civil prosecution only. This gives wealthy individuals and corporations an enormous advantage, for they have the resources to pursue civil actions against others or fight civil actions taken against them. This is untrue of the great majority of the population-those people who receive less than an equitable share of social goods. These individuals are rarely in a position to pursue litigation, no matter what has happened to them. In effect, the possibility of refusing consent through legal action is denied to them. This is still more obviously the case when their opponents are fabulously wealthy.


Excerpted from The culture of conformism by Patrick Colm Hogan Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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