Power, Propaganda, and Purpose in American Democracy
by Andrew Gavin Marshall
One central facet to the development of the modern institutional society under which we live and are dominated today, was the redefining of the concept of “democracy” that took place in the early 20th century. This immensely important discussion took place among the educated, elite intellectual class in the United States at that time, and the consequences of which were profound for the development of not only American society and democracy, but for the globalization that followed after World War II. The central theme that emerged was that in the age of “mass democracy”, where people came to be known as “the public,” the concept of “democracy” was redefined to be a system of government and social organization which was to be managed by an intellectual elite, largely concerned with “the engineering of consent” of the masses in order to allow elite-management of society to continue unhindered.
The socio-economic and political situation of the United States had, throughout the 19th century, rapidly changed. Official slavery was ended after the Civil War and the wage-slave method of labour was introduced on a much wider scale; that is, the approach at which people are no longer property themselves, but rather lend their labour at minimal hourly wages, a difference equated with rental slavery versus owned slavery. While the system of labour had itself changed, the living conditions of the labourers did not improve a great deal. With Industrialization also came increased urbanization, poverty, and thus, social unrest. The 19th Century in the United States was one of near-constant labour unrest, social upheaval and a rapidly growing wealth divide. And it was not simply the lower labouring classes that were experiencing the harsh rigors of a modern industrial life. One social critic of the era, writing in 1873, discussed the situation of the middle class in America:
Very few among them are saving money. Many of them are in debt; and all they can earn for years, is, in many cases, mortgaged to pay such debt… [We see] the unmistakable signs of their incessant anxiety and struggles to get on in life, and to obtain in addition to a mere subsistence, a standing in society… The poverty of the great middle classes consists in the fact that they have only barely enough to cover up their poverty… their poverty is felt, mentally and socially, through their sense of dependence and pride. They must work constantly, and with an angry sense of the limited opportunities for a career at their command.