Novelist and political commentator Gore Vidal once quipped that, “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought ten times over.” Vidal was certainly correct, and his words are quite prescient today, in a system in which politicians are far more concerned with raising money for their campaign than fighting for the interests of the population.
But Vidal and his contemporaries were not the first to conceive of presidents as mere tools to be marketed and sold like any other product, and to be used by big business to further their interests. He wasn’t the first to mock the tired notion that the United States is a true democracy that gives ultimate credence to the people.
Dire warnings about the influence of corporate power in the political system, among other things, were expressed in the 1950’s by an influential English writer and intellectual, and these warnings become more relevant by the day.
Most known for his startling predictions of how society and the political system will function in the future, articulated in his classic novel Brave New World, needless to say Aldous Huxley was a man troubled by the direction in which the human race was headed.
But while Brave New World was quite ambitious in its vision, Huxley was not simply throwing caution to the wind and giving in to wild speculation; his ideas were well thought-out, and in fact published in a lesser known collection of essays titled Brave New World Revisited.
The essay topics range from over-organization to the art of persuasion, to propaganda in a “democratic” society, and to what he believed were plausible solutions to the problems that the human race would confront in the not too distant future.
Perhaps most stunning to read today are Huxley’s warnings about the concentration of power. In a time when power is in fewer and fewer hands, Huxley’s words of caution could not be more relevant.
We know that it is unsafe to allow power to be concentrated in the hands of a ruling oligarchy; nevertheless power is in fact being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. We know that, for most people, life in a huge modern city is anonymous, atomic, less than fully human; nevertheless the huge cities grow steadily huger and the pattern of urban-industrial living remains unchanged.
We know that, in a very large and complex society, democracy is almost meaningless except in relation to autonomous groups of manageable size; nevertheless more and more of every nation’s affairs are managed by the bureaucrats of Big Government and Big Business.
The concentration of power in such a way, Huxley contended, “makes nonsense of the whole democratic process.”
Having democratic forms is not sufficient. If the people have only nominal influence, while big business pulls the strings, the word ‘democracy’ not only does not apply to the United States, the word becomes devoid of meaning.
And power has succeeded incredibly in this way. Sophisticated propaganda and what Huxley terms “the art of selling” convince people that their purpose in life is to be mindless consumers, that their happiness is dependent not upon the justness of society, but upon material possessions.
‘Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty,’ may give place, under altered circumstances, to the cry of ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’
Big business doesn’t only have a stranglehold on the political process. They also own the media, which is an essential aspect of a democratic society. Without a media willing to challenge authority in any meaningful way, the people are not going to get the information necessary to make decisions.
Much of the population is convinced that the ability to vote is a sign that democracy is still in place, despite of all of the above. This is an illusion, and in Huxley’s eyes, a trap.
In principle, [the right to vote] is a great privilege. In practice, as recent history has repeatedly shown, the right to vote, by itself, is no guarantee of liberty. Therefore, if you wish to avoid dictatorship by referendum, break up modern society’s merely functional collectives into self-governing, voluntarily co-operating groups, capable of functioning outside the bureaucratic systems of Big Business and Big Government.
In the United States, the political system is slowly being reduced to, “Whoever can raise the most money and get the most corporate support wins.”
No longer is it important for the issues to be discussed and debated rationally. Education of the citizenry is increasingly irrelevant, and is in fact a bad thing for business.
Today, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of the democratic process by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.
Huxley goes on to cite an article written in 1956 by the editor of a leading business journal, stating that,
Both parties will merchandize their candidates and issues by the same methods that business has developed to sell goods. These include scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition….Radio spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven power….Candidates need, in addition to rich voices and good diction, to be able to look ‘sincerely’ at the TV camera.
All that is now needed is money and a candidate who can be coached to look ‘sincere.’
Under the new dispensation, political principles and plans for specific action have come to lose most of their importance. The personality of the candidate and they way he is projected by the advertising experts are the things that really matter…
The methods now being used to merchandize the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.
These problems are indeed quite grim, and they will continue to worsen as big corporations widen their sphere of influence, and as the population is further atomized and pushed to the margins.
When he is merely one of millions, the individual elector feels himself to be impotent, a negligible quantity. The candidates he has voted into office are far away, at the top of the pyramid of power. Theoretically they are the servants of the people; but in fact it is the servants who give the orders and the people, far off at the base of the great pyramid, who must obey.
While Huxley was not exactly a cheerful optimist, he did offer potential solutions, one being democratization (of the political process, communities, the workplace, and so on), which would work to eliminate the force of illegitimate corporate tyranny.
Another solution would be to limit the amount of money politicians can spend on their campaigns (along with the amount of money corporations [and what would today be called “Super PACs”] can donate to campaigns, so as to allow a broad range of candidates, rather than several elite businessmen and women grasping for power:
There could and, I think, there should be legislation to prevent political candidates not merely from spending more than a certain amount of money on their election campaigns, but also to prevent them from resorting to the kind of anti-rational propaganda that makes nonsense of the whole democratic process.
These are not easy or pain-free solutions, and they will not come about without serious struggle. But the people must regain control of the political system if we are to stop business from “making nonsense of the democratic process,” and if we are to undo the nonsense that has already been made.
Huxley recognized that people have an idea of what should be done, but that we have not yet been able to “act effectively upon our knowledge.”
In closing, Huxley asks a question that everyone should ponder on a daily basis:
At this point we find ourselves confronted by a very disquieting question: Do we really wish to act upon our knowledge? Does a majority of the population think it worth while to take a good deal of trouble, in order to halt and, if possible, reverse the current drift toward totalitarian control of everything?…
Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.