Everything under control
One of the most sacred beliefs of democracy is that we have the right to make up our own minds. We may discuss the issues with friends over a beer or with the family around the dinner table. But when it comes to deciding how to spend our money, who to vote for or where we stand on issues of the day - it’s up to us. Or is it?
The areas of our lives where we can still make effective decisions are narrowing. The advertising industry aims some 1600 messages a day at us. Millions are spent ‘packaging’ politicians and political messages for our easy consumption. And a battle of words is waged by media experts over how we should feel about everything from the national deficit to crime in the streets.
George Orwell, like many other prophets of totalitarianism, saw the danger in more apocalyptic terms. For him it was seizures of power by small groups with bizarre ideologies which would lead to the forceful regimentation of free citizens. The signs and symbols of control would be everywhere. People would obey because they feared for their lives. Our own managed society is something quite different and a good deal more subtle. Management has become normal. It taps into all of us. We don’t expect anything else. We are told what to do at work, what to buy at home and increasingly how to think. The modern world is too complicated. We can’t imagine any other way for things to be run.
Who then is in control? Who is doing the managing? The managed society of the real 1980s is much more diffuse than in Orwell’s imaginary version. But there is still a relatively small number of people who hold power and the fruits of power. The rest of us go along for the ride, even though nobody seems to know quite where we are all going. This is - at least in part - a testimony to the effectiveness of modern techniques of persuasion.
The sheer volume of messages designed to manage our thinking overpowers us. Ronald Reagan alone spent $158 million in his campaign for the presidency in 1980. When the 1984 totals are in they are likely to run even higher. Nearly all major corporations employ public relations firms to promote carefully crafted images of themselves to the outside world. These ‘PR’ messages are designed not to sell specific products, but to create a climate of respect for business and its achievements. Canada’s biggest utility, Ontario Hydro, has a PR department of over one hundred, mostly to sell its controversial nuclear power program to a skeptical public.
But what’s wrong with all this anyway? Don’t we need lots of information in order to make sensible decisions in our complex society? Part of the problem is that some of the voices trying to influence us are louder - a lot louder - than others. Groups concerned with consumer rights, peace and the environment just don’t have the budgets to battle with the major opinion managers. When Canadian peace groups confront the US multinational Litton Industries, manufacturer of the Cruise missile guidance system, Litton can put its case through ads in the national press - the peace groups cannot. In the United States the tobacco industry spends four dollars a year on every man, woman and child to encourage smoking. Only one quarter of one cent is spent showing the link between tobacco and cancer and heart disease.
Minority political parties. like the Greens or the Libertarians just don’t have the funds to compete with the mainstream parties. Major parties with a generous business constituency have access to the expensive machinery of opinion management. A primetime 30-second political ad, aired ten times, costs $50,000 in a major American city. And it can cost as much as a quarter million dollars to produce. Money talks. People without it just whisper.
We do have a free press which could report impartially on events and give us the information we need. And the media do sometimes uncover abuses of power and report on the situation of the disadvantaged. But they tend only to highlight isolated cases where a basically sound system of management has somehow gone awry. News and public affairs reporting deals with events in isolation. There is little attempt to give the reader/viewer a context so that he or she can identify patterns or understand the social forces behind management decisions.
An individual case of pollution may be exposed. But the reason for the systematic degradation of the environment remains a mystery. The reader/viewer is presented with a kaleidoscope of isolated fragments of news ‘reality’ that dance beyond understanding. Without this understanding there can be little sense of involvement in the news. The public is left bewildered - easy prey for more partisan messages that simplify reality and limit understanding.
This simplification extends to the political process. Our opportunities to examine the world around us steadily reduce as we are invited to identify emotionally with politicians instead of critically judging their performance. Political managers promote the character and intentions of their particular candidate. What they believe or intend becomes less important than if they inspire confidence, look good and speak a language ‘the people’ understand. The handlers of a politician, either in or out of power, stage-manage events and photo opportunities that reveal the character of their client. The media falls in line.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are presented as the strong leaders we all crave Walter Mondale is a loser with no ‘personality’ - brand X. Richard Nixon fell from grace not because he lied about stopping the Vietnam war but because Watergate brought his personal integrity into question. For both the media and the advertising industry it is personality that is interesting and marketable.
Large amounts of money and energy are spent in the managed society to tell us ‘how it is’. But somehow the idea persists that we make up our own minds.
There is some truth in this. When shopping we have a choice of consumer brands and if we have money there are usually no shortages. At work the trades unions may protect us against the worst management abuses and enlightened managers may consult with their workers. And there are opportunities to voice our opinions through hotline radio shows and polling agencies.
But through it all the lines of power between managers and managed remain intact. At work it is the boss who has the ultimate say. Pollsters decide the questions to ask us and difficult callers to hotline shows are screened out.
But has our right to decide been invaded or are we surrendering it? There is a large part in each of us that abdicates the responsibility to understand and to act. The world seems too confusing - better let experts interpret it for us. The give and take of decision making at long meetings is too painful - better let the boss or the city council decide for us. What we want out of life is pretty hard to figure out - better buy the goods that everybody else seems to want. This is part of the logic on which the managed society feeds. Abdication keeps our managers in the saddle.
But we all try to manage others in our own way. While one part of us abdicates power, another part of us seeks it. Men seek power over women. Parents seek power over children. We often seek compensation for our social powerlessness in a series of petty tyrannies, over our workmates, friends or neighbours. This provides a safety valve for the managed society. It also provides a fertile recruiting ground of future managers - those who are really successful at getting others to do their bidding rapidly rise to the top.
Another reason we are willing to accept the encroachment of management into our lives is that we see no alternative. Indeed things seem much worse elsewhere. In the Soviet Union, Chile or South Africa the process of managing society is less subtle. Suggestion and influence are replaced by direct orders from above. Yet the use of force actually weakens such societies. Where obedience is mostly a question of intimidation loyalty to the system is also more brittle. Propaganda tends to be crude and is obviously at odds with reality. People see through it more easily and their fear quickly turns to anger. Whether it’s the factories of Gdansk or the slums of Santiago, the flames of revolt are easily ignited.
In our own societies management from above is more subtle. Challenges are not fought but deflected. Those who demonstrate are told they are lucky. They could not make such noises elsewhere. And they are warned that if they are too persistent they will put in peril those fragile freedoms we have been so generously granted.
It’s a paradox - we are free as long as we obey and don’t criticize too much. After a while we lose the confidence to act for ourselves without the support of experts and authorities. We simply withdraw.
To a certain extent we recognise this withdrawal. The limited nature of our managed democracy is reflected in the attitudes of people. Large numbers of people don’t vote. And we recognise too that our politics fails to address seriously some of the most important political issues - disarmament, pollution, unemployment or the fate of the Third World. Some 68 per cent of Americans feel that those running the government in Washington don’t know what they are doing. In the words of political scientist Alan Wolfe, politicians suppress politics, ‘in favour of rhetorical mumbo-jumbo, demagogic manipulation of symbolic issues, meaningless debate over addressing issues. We grow cynical about democracy and the politicians that are supposed to serve us.
But it would be a mistake to believe that our present democracy is just meaningless showmanship. There is a core to our politics, a sort of agreement or ‘hidden consensus’ to which most politicians adhere. Politicians measure most issues by how they affect economic growth - the main goal of the managed society. The ‘hidden’ nature of the consensus about growth gives our democracy a flexible appearance - politicians appear to address each issue as it comes up, judging each on its merits. But in fact there are certain values - such as social justice and equality - which are set aside as sentimental and unrealistic.
What counts now is the latest growth statistics, what the stock market is doing, whether the pound and dollar are rising or falling and what the first quarter profit statement says. The irony is that this calculus of economic indicators has very little to do with whether or not the majority are benefiting from economic growth.
The logic of the ‘hidden consensus’ about growth is simple enough. The achievement of growth is a matter of the proper use of people and resources. An engineering problem really. Consumer rights groups threaten corporate credibility. The demands of workers undermine business’s confidence to invest in new growth. Both are disruptions of the way things are supposed to be managed.
They cannot be tolerated, at least not for very long.
Such ‘excesses of democracy’ are seen as a grave problem by David Rockefeller’s elite think-tank, the Trilaterial Commission. They contracted a report ominously entitled ‘The Governability of Democracies’. According to one of the report’s authors, Samuel Huntington; ‘There has to be a realistic appreciation that we can’t go back to a simpler world - that we are going to live in a world of big organizations, of specialization and of hierarchy. There has to be an acceptance of the need for authority in various institutions in our society.’
It’s not hard to read between the lines. Those manifestations of the ungovernable - ecology groups, Third World revolt, spiralling health and welfare costs, uppity women and others with too high expectations must be brought under control. The words speak to a modern sense of realism but the logic is ancient. Blame the victims for the failures of the managed society. Denounce the messengers who bring bad tidings. It is simpler to point the finger at the critic, than to listen to the criticism.
The last line of defence in maintaining orderly management from above falls to the army and the police. To ensure this the politicians (acting in our own interests of course) have built up an invisible government of which we have little knowledge, let alone control. This national security state has passed into law as Official Secrets or Public Order Acts. It involves surveillance of citizens on a massive scale - wire taps, mail interceptions and computerized systems of security files. It involves security checks at borders and places of employment. Above all it means secrets. In 1971 the US National Security Agency said it was necessary to destroy six tons of old secret documents every hour - 72,000 tons a day. The sheer volume of what is kept secret is another factor that limits our ability to make up our minds on important issues. In the ever-expanding area of national security we are asked to have faith that those privileged enough to know the secrets will make the right decision.
But the right decisions are not being made. Management from above is failing - even on its own terms. The very goals the managers of society are striving for are being undermined by the way they are going about it. The increasing number of missiles are making us less, not more, secure. An economy that grows by creating unemployment and ignoring the quality of life is a house built on sand. Destroying the environment is destroying the possibility of future growth for the sake of the short term. Protecting liberty by creating a vast national security state - with files on hundreds of thousands of citizens - is an obvious contradiction.
The managed society is losing at its own game. As a popular Canadian folk song puts it: The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.’
This special report appeared in the everything under control - life in a managed society issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.