The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social Consent

Patrick Colm Hogan, The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social Consent (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001).

Conformity to the social order has proven perplexing to the most acute commentators on the human condition. Perhaps the greatest essayist of early modern Europe, Montaigne, described the arrival in France of three alleged Brazilian cannibals. In 1562, these “guests” had witnessed a procession in the environs of Rouen featuring the pre-pubescent King Charles IX (1550-1574). When asked for their opinions, the newcomers expressed astonishment that

so many tall men wearing beards, strong, and well armed… should submit to obey a child… Secondly… that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.

Four centuries later, another aristocratic man of letters, Barrington Moore Jr., wrote Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt (1978), which he called “a book about why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies and why at other times they become very angry and try with passion and forcefulness to do something about their situation.”

In the years since Moore wrote, economic injustices and inequalities have grown spectacularly. The median income of the wealthiest 10% of nations has escalated from 77 times the poorest 10% in 1980 to 122 times by 1999. At home, even Business Week (22 April 2002) concedes: “In 1980, CEO compensation was 42 times that of the average worker. In 2000, it was 531 times.” Between 1990 and 2000, a decade said to be of unprecedented prosperity, executive pay catapulted 571%, while the average worker saw a 37% hike essentially wiped out by inflation of 32%. Thus, for those dwelling in the bottom 80% of the economic birdcage, the Clinton-era prosperity delivered precious little.

Appearing ready to take up Barrington Moore’s challenge, Patrick Colm Hogan asks in his introduction “why do people not rebel?” Suddenly, though, he retreats from this question. Calling the current historical conjuncture “a phase of hyperconformism,” he proclaims that his book is emphatically “not a study of why people resist or rebel.” He clarifies:

In short, this is a study of the modes of action and thought that constitute social consent, modes of action and thought that may be particularly pervasive now, but are continuous with what went before; it is not a history of variations in the flourishing and waning of consent.

In other words, he is fascinated by the first half of Moore’s mission (“why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies”); but for the purposes of this intellectual enterprise, he will largely ignore the second half (“why at other times [people] become very angry and try with forcefulness and passion to do something about their situation”).

Gramsci explained that ruling classes rule through the iron fist of coercion and the velvet glove of persuasion. Hogan’s mission is to understand the deeper psychological and cultural fabrics that help pad the velvet glove. While admitting that “threats of violence” are “centrally important in democratic societies,” he adds: “not all self-interests relevant to consent are coercive. Many concern positive goals such as acquisition or advantage.” Hogan is graphically aware of the skull-cracking devastation that can be wrought by the state’s coercive apparatus (he cites an Amnesty International report for New York City indicating over 2,000 charges of police brutality in 1994, as well as a death in police custody almost every other week). But to see coercive force as the glue holding together the social system would for Hogan represent a rather shallow explanation of why so many people eagerly offer their consent. For him, “systems that rely too heavily on coercive force are inefficient. They are wasteful of resources, breed popular discontent, and are frequently unstable for that reason.”

Hogan’s approach has several virtues. He is effective at showing how legal and linguistic constructions help to obscure the social order’s blatant crimes and injustices. Thus, in the first twenty-five years of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, as he reports, approximately 250,000 workers perished on the job, but only four people were imprisoned for OSHA violations. “Homicide” is not a word that comes to mind when a worker is buried alive in a trench as the result of a construction firm’s costcutting. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system and local television news focus heavily on the $4 billion per annum of robberies carried out by poorer malefactors, rather than the estimated $200 billion per annum of larceny perpetrated by white-collar operatives the “crime in the suites” which so often graces the pages of Business Week and the Wall Street Journal.

A second area in which consent seems manufactured: media and political leaders offer a rather constrained and sometimes false range of choices. Thus, George W. Bush tells the world that you are either “with us” or “with the terrorists.” And in February 1991, when the Gallup poll asked Americans, “Do you think U.S. and allied forces should begin a ground attack soon to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait¾or should we hold off for now and continue to rely on air power to do the job?,” the question essentially ruled out any peaceful alternatives, including ceasefire or negotiations.

Finally, Hogan provides a remarkably lucid introduction to many of the social science concepts used to explain submission: micro-hierarchization, cognitive exempla, transference, and lexical structures. While this book could have easily degenerated into a jargon-ridden hash, Hogan is good at providing clear explanations of the various conceptual and psychological mechanisms that secure conformity.

Some of Hogan’s constructs may merit challenge as being perhaps too neat and tidy. For all of the powerful insights he draws from Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (1983), Hogan argues that imperialism regarded “Africans as children” and Asians, particularly Indian society, as elderly, “senile and decrepit.” He probably underestimates how much child metaphors also dominated discourse on Asians. The historian V.G. Kiernan has explored stereotypes of Asian infantility. For instance, J.F. Davis, representing British interests in China, declared in 1840 that “the Chinese have much of that childish character which distinguishes other Asiatics.” The British diplomat Lord Hardinge in Old Diplomacy (1947) observed that the Persians, although gifted, are “just like children.” European visitors to India’s Mogul Empire of the sixteenth century had expressed mirth at the fascination of these Muslim rulers with whistles, mirrors, and various toys.1 In other words, the view of Asians as part of a senescent civilizational nursing home does not always hold up in ruling-class idiom.

I also have some skepticism about Hogan’s claim that right-wing discourse is fixated on animality (i.e., Africans and nineteenth- century Irish are simians, ape-like threats to civilization), while liberalism prefers the domain of maturity (“Adulthood. is the standard by which the others are measured, and it is the model for the dominant group”). Cold war liberalism certainly invoked animal metaphors for condemning the supposedly insatiable appetites of expansionist communism, while many conservatives use the domain of maturity to deny legitimacy to the views of opponents who are judged irresponsibly utopian. The proto-fascist novelist Wyndham Lewis showed that the domain of maturity could be an ideological weapon against mass democracy when in The Art of Being Ruled he could not contain his loathing of the general public: “‘the Infants’ Class always absorbs 80 percent of the personnel. which we call mankind.” Others, like the liberal theologian/ political reactionary William Inge, found animal metaphors more appropriate for the shortcomings of democracy: “The democratic man is a species of ape. The art of success in a democracy is to know how to play upon the ape in humanity” (in Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard, 6 June 1928).2 In short, images of animality and immaturity are not so easily pegged on the political spectrum as Hogan seems to aver.

Many of Hogan’s examples are drawn from academe, where as a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut he has personal experience. Several times he makes vague reference to vile forms of discrimination against women and people of color by the dominant white male professoriate. It would have been useful if he had provided more specific cases and detail. He discusses how “Racism can clearly produce deep traumas, when, for example, white faculty in a university setting continually harass and demean a nonwhite colleague, insulting him or her at every opportunity, derogating his or her work, accusing him or her of criminal behavior without evidence of any kind.” Earlier he speaks of “forms of intimidating harassment”: “This sort of thing is found all the time in the treatment of women and nonwhites in academia, as when nonwhites’ publication records are subjected to a thorough criticism, with every possible flaw investigated, while whites’ publication records are hardly given a second thought.”

Judging by the tenor of Hogan’s remarks, he appears to be in accord with Phyllis Chesler’s remark in Letters to a Young Feminist that “It may be 1998 but, in my mind, we are still living in the 1950s.” Racism and sexism are far from expired in the academy, but Hogan has relatively little to say about an alternative scenario: how the successful incorporation of thousands of tenured women and people of color could be buttressing many university systems against renewed radical upheaval and challenge. There is a rainbow coalition of tenured liberals and putative radicals who contribute to a culture of conformism, which does not depend solely on the usual suspects (white guys in Harris tweed). When economist Ivy E. Broder of American University studied reviews of proposals for prestigious NSF grants, she discovered that “female reviewers rate female-authored papers lower than do their male colleagues.” Shocked by the “significant downward bias. by female reviewers of female proposals,” Broder concludes:

Many institutions, including NSF, have tried to solicit female reviewers for female proposals to avoid potential male bias against women. The evidence presented. suggests that this type of policy might have lowered women’s opportunities rather than raised them and may account for some part of the underrepresentation of women in the senior ranks of the profession.3

In a brief paragraph, Hogan speculates that a woman “traumatized in her own tenure review due to the misogyny of her colleagues. might equally impose the same torture on women considered for tenure after her.” But how pervasive this scenario is in academe is hard to ascertain, and accurate judgment is perhaps not advanced by Hogan’s blanket judgment that “forms of intimidating harassment.” toward nonwhites and women are “found all the time.”

Clearly there are a lot of issues in the under-representation of females and people of color that Hogan ignores because of his preference for highlighting the grossest of double standards and Cro-Magnon varieties of sexism and racism. For instance, despite the claims of commentators such as Richard Blow in the New Republic that people of color are showered with Ph.D. scholarship money, the reality is that “underrepresented minority” Ph.D. candidates in science and engineering carry significantly higher debt loads than whites (NSF Issue Brief, 16 April 1999). Though some universities have granted extra time on the tenure clock, women encounter greater burdens balancing academic work with family life. Among faculty in the sciences, reports CPST [Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology] Comments (April-May 2002), “women with at least one child are 24% less likely to get tenure than men who become fathers.” The average male full professor earns significantly more than female full professors: 12.3% higher in private and 11.5% more in public universities.

Finally, there are places with abysmal records of inclusion: at MIT between 1990 and 1998, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science added 28 males and no women to its faculty. This scenario would confirm Hogan in his view of a misogynistic culture of exclusion; but again these zones of systematic discrimination may require better illumination than Hogan’s fixation on the viler incidents at tenure hearings. In any case, mild efforts at MIT to rectify this situation have suddenly provoked John Leo of U.S. News and World Report (8 April 2002) to claim that the affirmative action police are stalking the campus and making sure that “gender equity has replaced scientific merit.. And all without any real discussion or open debate. Amazing.” In a textbook case of the “culture of conformism,” it hardly bothered Leo and other detractors of reform that until the Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science (1999), “no woman professor had ever been a Department Head, or Center or Lab director in the history of MIT. In fact, there were no women in the administration of either Science or Engineering at the time of the study.”4

Long ago, mainstream European commentators such as Tocqueville and J.S. Mill expressed the fear that conformity is the ascendant tendency among humankind. Hogan has provided a radical and more contemporary dissection of this phenomenon. It is unfortunate that he does not engage the arguments put forward by Barrington Moore, which, along with their radical social critique, convey a profound pessimism about revolutionary routes to alleviating human misery. In an afterword, Hogan mentions all too briefly what is at stake here. He reminds readers of psychological studies showing that the resistance of even a few people can touch off larger-scale rebellion. But the specter of hyperconformism will continue to haunt the twenty-first century. If resistance is to be mobilized, it may be through the work of intellectuals and social activists who can draw lessons from this compact guide to modern conformity and consent.

Reviewed by John Trumpbour
Harvard University Trade Union Program


1. For these examples and quotations, see V.G. Kiernan’s contribution to Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, eds., Revolution in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 121-44.

2. For quotations and brief discussion of Lewis and Inge, see D.L. Le Mahieu, A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communication and the Cultivated Mind in Britain Between the Wars (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 108.

3. Ivy E. Broder, “Review of NSF Economics Proposals: Gender and Institutional Patterns,” American Economic Review, vol. 83, no. 4 (Sept. 1993), 964-70. Phyllis Chesler in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002) calls attention to Broder’s finding that the small number of female positions in the academy may heighten a competitive, as opposed to solidaristic, spirit among women. As women gain a larger share of academic chairs, it may be useful to conduct a follow-up study.

4. This quotation is drawn from Overview: Reports of the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, March 2002), p. 10.

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