Chapter VIII

The Masses Go To School and the Polls

During the nineteenth century the cure for nearly every social evil was supposed to be more democracy. Broadly speaking, this meant more votes and more education. Faith in more democracy and more education, with its accompanying trend of an ever growing electorate and an ever improving system of public instruction, helped avert for the time being many of our present difficulties. As long as it was possible to make reforms, such as curbing the absolute powers of the Stuarts, ending taxation without representation in the American colonies, cleaning out the rotten boroughs in England or removing property requirements to vote, and as long as it was possible to show a steadily decreasing percentage of illiterates in the population as a result of a steadily expanding and improving system of public instruction, democracy could point with pride, justify large hopes and dissipate agitation.

Now we have about reached the limit or saturation point in reform, civil liberties, extension of the suffrage and elimination of illiteracy. We, therefore, can no longer say with plausibility that more democracy is the cure for any major social evil. It rather appears that democracy has created more problems than solutions. Specifically, we cannot now offer the jobless the vote, free schooling or new civil liberties in lieu of a job or a dole. They have the vote, free schooling and civil liberties—to starve—and they have not jobs. It is obvious what they need and want. And nothing else can take its place, the place of a job. The vote is now enabling the underprivileged to form minority pressure groups to extract a handout from the government at the expense of other classes. The role of education in our present crisis is to make the masses susceptible as they never were before to propaganda and demagogic manipulation. The greater the number of people who can vote and read, the greater the irrationality, the greater the conflict of minority interests and the greater the anarchy in the political and economic processes under a system of parliamentary democracy. The people can rule with rationality and success only through a single leader, party and governing agency. Public order and welfare require administration not conflict; the imposition and performance of duties, not the playing of a competitive game.

Democracy and education have not brought peace or social justice. On the contrary, they have intensified and implemented class warfare with new techniques. This was to be expected. It is not democracy gone wrong. It is democracy grown old. It is not an imperfect but a mature democracy. The age of reform ended with Lloyd George’s passage of the Parliament Act in 1911, emasculating the House of Lords of its final veto power, with Woodrow Wilson’s new freedom and with Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party in 1913, phenomena of similar futility. The direct election of senators, woman’s suffrage and in some states the referendum and recall came along in this twilight of democracy.

The chief error of democracy or laissez-faire as a social doctrine lay in the assumption that there are certain natural laws under which and not over which the people will compete. The assumption is obviously false both as to history and human psychology. Life is not a game to be played under immutable rules. It is, among other things, a grand free-for-all fight over what the rules shall be. The eighteenth and nineteenth century champions of laissez-faire, democracy and capitalism assumed that the masses would accept the rules, as well as the rule, of money. It is only fair to most of the early exponents of democracy, even in America, to say that never for a moment did they believe in universal suffrage, labor unions or organized political pressure groups except by the well-to-do.

The simplest example of how the democratic game breaks down once everybody starts playing it, may be found in government subsidies. As long as the manufacturers were the chief subsidy receivers, in the form of a highly protective tariff, American democracy could work fairly well. But once every large economic group like the farmers, the unemployed, organized labor and the aged is in a position to enforce a demand for a similar subsidy, the parliamentary or democratic jig is up. Subsidies do not make sense or work when everybody gets one. The essence of successful democracy is subsidies for the few and taxes and votes for all. What had to doom the system was the obvious impossibility of having votes for everybody without attempts to get subsidies for everybody. The fact that the game could be played so long was due simply to the natural lag of the masses in catching on to it. It is, however, too simple a game, that of grab as grab can, for even morons not eventually to catch on to it.

It is amusing to hear present-day exponents of the American Way in the pay of the National Association of Manufacturers, the nation’s most important aggregation of government subsidy seekers and receivers, wax indignant over the selfishness and nerve of the new pressure groups like those of the C. I. O. Ugly charges of class warfare and class legislation are leveled at these newly organized minorities. The making of these charges is obviously a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It is like-wise nonsense for the social scientist or idealist living in the ivory tower of some endowed institution to pontificate about the ways of sound democracy and unctuously call for an end to subsidies, monopolies and pressure groups. Every meal he eats is subsidized and the very institution which shelters him enjoys usually the unjustifiable subsidy of complete tax exemption. It is nonsense for this subsidized pensioner to denounce subsidies for others because there has never been a moment in the history of the British or American democracy and capitalism when special subsidies and monopolies have not been basic to the system.

There never has been and probably never will be a society without subsidies, monopolies and favored classes. The trouble with democracy today is not that it is characterized by these features but that the battle over them results in stagnation and chaos. It is the playing of the game that has to be stopped now and, fundamentally, for no other reason than that too many people have learned to play it and to play it too well.

The rise of capitalism and democracy marked an era in which emphasis was on rights and the assertion of these rights which was the playing of the game. It was assumed that the playing of this game yielded the greatest good to the greatest number. The role of the state was that of umpire or policeman, to protect and enforce the rights of the players. It never seemed to be recognized by the theorists of the game that a necessary feature of any game is the loser. Naturally, those having most rights and getting most state aid were the players owning most property. There was a right against a trespass on one’s property but not against being thrown out of work. There was a right to just compensation for one’s property taken by the state in war but not for one’s life thus taken. One was supposed to deem it an honor to give one’s life to one’s country but to get paid for one’s property given to it. Briefly, there was security for property and, in a limited way, for the person but not for personal employment and personal survival. One of the major concerns of the founding fathers in drawing up a more perfect union was to get the then nearly worthless paper of the revolutionary government (which they had bought up in large amounts for next to nothing) redeemed subsequently in gold. The fact that it was done by 1835 was one of the great triumphs of American democracy. The battle for democratic rights and liberties began against Charles I in the early seventeenth century as the fight of the economically privileged merchants for the safeguarding of their property rights against an old-fashioned monarch who naively and undemocratically thought that private property was no more sacred than human life. The American and French revolutions about settled all arguments everywhere over civil liberties. Subsequent progress has been mainly a matter of extending the application of the principles established in these revolutions. Today no significant number of the underdogs are anywhere interested in their civil liberties. They are interested in jobs, doles for farmers, relief for the unemployed, pensions for the aged—in general, ham and eggs. None of the things they are now interested in is a matter of right under democracy.

Civil liberties are a means, not an end. The English city merchants of the early seventeenth century and the American city merchants of the late eighteenth century wanted certain rights in order to be able to take advantage of certain opportunities. Where there is no opportunity, there is no right. One does not hear these days American farmers clamoring for freedom to do what they please with their land and labor or to enter the free market of capitalism. What they want is subsidies, production curtailment and government interference with the freedom of the market. Why are the farmers not satisfied with their liberties under the bill of rights? The answer is that they cannot eat freedom and they cannot, in many cases, get enough to eat by the exercise of freedom. A freedom to starve is meaningless as freedom.

The cry for civil liberties today is not heard from the under-dogs but from the top dogs. As present trends are moving, the cry of the rich for their constitutional rights and liberties becomes essentially a plea for the capitalists right to hoard, to throttle down industrial production, to peg prices and to make the best of stagnation for the interests of property and management. This is the right of the investor to do as he pleases with his money, the right of the businessman to run his own business and the right not to be put out of business by government competition or government regulation. When capitalists demanded rights to enable them to take advantage of opportunities for expansion they stood on firmer moral, psychological and political ground than when they now demand rights, the exercise of which only enables them to maintain business stagnation.

We are now hearing less about the old and more about the new rights, the new right to a job, the new right to a living from the production of farm products and the new right to old age pensions. The emphasis is also shifting from the winning and assertion of rights to the imposing and fulfillment of duties. These changes have come, not as matters of public taste or opinion but of public need. Democracy in America will finally perish when our government, for the first time, in a war, will have to impose on industry a totalitarian social discipline in the coming war, such as formerly democracy imposed only on its conscript soldiers. When business for the first time has to be regimented the same as the conscript, democracy is over.

Before concluding this chapter on the end of the age of reform, it will not be amiss to include a brief comment on the connection between propaganda and democracy and universal public instruction. No one will deny that political discussion on the level of the Federalist papers could not secure wide publication in our papers or magazines today. The reason is obvious: such discussion would be above the level of the lowest common denominator of readers in practically every publication. It would, therefore, be commercially unprofitable as material for publication. Is the general level of public education, literacy or intelligence lower now than in the days of the American Revolution? No, quite the contrary. The difference is that in those days the elite set the tone of political discussion whereas today the “people” set it, having come into their own in the maturity of democracy.

To say that democracy has now brought it about that political and other questions must be discussed in terms understood by the masses is false, since the principal effort and achievement in most political discussions are to create and exploit misunderstanding for the obtaining of desired practical results. The purpose of political discussion as of good advertising copy is not to stimulate critical thought but to create a desired state of mind or emotions, desired attitudes, habits, choices, decisions and actions. This purpose, of course, is democratic. It evidences respect for the people’s votes or commercial patronage. It is both the triumph and the finish of democracy.

Once good advertising technique becomes good political technique, a country is ready for a Dr. Goebbels. Such efficient means of manipulating the public mind as are in use by our advertising men, publishers and political experts cannot be left indefinitely to the ends of any selfish individual or minority interest. The inevitable anarchy resulting from the unbridled use by private interests of the new techniques of misleading the public and manipulating public opinion makes the monopoly of these techniques by the state as necessary as was in an earlier day the monopolization by the state of armed force within its borders. Propaganda technique and a monopoly of the large newspapers used for private interests are as dangerous as would be today the carrying of firearms by special groups for the furtherance of minority group interests. For a great corporation or a group of rich men to subsidize propaganda for their ends is as much of a social menace as it would be for them to use private armies to intimidate voters at the polls or buyers in the market place.

The Jews in Germany were the victims of too much democracy. Hitler realized at the outset of his war on international capitalism that it would be good political strategy to blame everything on the Jews, since the moronic public mind is not capable of assimilating abstract ideas or developing indignation against a multiplicity and complexity of evils. It is the same political strategy which today makes the good American demagogue blame everything that is wrong with America on Hitler. Although Hitler is a little more remote from America than the German Jews were from Germany, the idea that Hitler is the cause of all the world’s troubles finds easy credence with the American masses. It is no strange thing that the nation which, before the war, was the leader in education, whither our youth going into the teaching profession trekked by the hundreds to get Ph.D.s, should now be the most efficient exponent of the technique of the American advertising men and of Dr. Goebbels, who is the last word in that technique. The fact is that democracy worked only while an aristocracy ruled. The world is getting back to aristocratic rule by new elites because one of the necessary accompaniments of maturity in a democracy is an increasingly unintelligent and incompetent direction of public affairs, as proved by the present state of the world despite the resources and the military and economic supremacy of the democracies since Versailles.