The $9 Latte’s Threat to Democracy
The dreaded $9 latte caught me out the other day in a café in Austin. I’d offered to get the person I was meeting a coffee. I hadn’t expected to have to hand over a $10 bill to cover it.
Lately there have been too many can-I-really-afford-this moments. And it’s not as if I live the high life as a freelance journalist. Having been locked out of the U.S. due to the pandemic travel ban, the surge in prices gave me a good slap around the face when I returned last October. Of course, it’s only gotten worse.
“Get a proper job and stop whining,” is one response. But rising costs and inflation rates hitting a 31-year high represent a real danger to self-government.
“No people in a precarious economic condition has a fair chance of being able to govern itself democratically,” Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited. Revisited was his 1958 examination of the prophecies made in his 1932 dystopian novel about a scientific dictatorship manipulating a supine population, Brave New World. “Liberalism flourishes in an atmosphere of prosperity and declines as declining prosperity makes it necessary for the government to intervene ever more frequently and drastically in the affairs of its subjects.”
Everyone got a taste of this during Covid-19, when governments rolled out furlough and various financial buttresses for employers and employees. Even before all this, the idea of a universal basic income (UBI) was already gaining traction. It got a huge boost from the pandemic. Many people lapped up being on Covid-19 unemployment benefits—of course they did, given the U.S.’s brutal employment environment.
Pre-pandemic, I’d read about UBI and could see the logic; it seemed an interesting idea at least worth exploring, especially for those in need. Now I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole after seeing how acquiescent swathes of society became when fed a mix of governmental financial support, online grocery deliveries, and a steady soma-esque drip-feed of Netflix and OnlyFans to keep them contentedly distracted while working at home.
Most people are still in denial about how easily we turned our backs on self-government during the pandemic, which has left our democracies far more vulnerable to further pressures, such as inflation. The U.K. has started grappling with that conversation, far better than most countries. If the current warped economic order sustaining the likes of escalating rental and real estate costs and second-hand cars selling as luxury items continues or gets worse, more people are going to be priced out of living an independent (and meaningful) life.
People may have no choice but to become more amenable to the idea of UBI, and who could blame them if they have a family under them. But embrace such governmental handouts and we won’t be living in a democracy anymore: The specter of some sort of social credit system has become far more plausible. And as a recent TAC article about disabled people navigating gainful employment versus being trapped in poverty through benefits put it: “Subsistence Is Not Independence.” Your provider controls you and knows how to push your buttons, as Huxley knew all too well.
As the art and science of manipulation come to be better understood, the dictators of the future will doubtless learn to combine these techniques with the non-stop distractions which, in the West, are now threatening to drown in a sea of irrelevance the rational propaganda essential to the maintenance of individual liberty and the survival of democratic institutions.
Bear in mind Huxley was talking about distractions provided by “newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema.” The tools for information and propaganda dispersion have had more than 60 years of technological development applied to them since then. Today, the levels of reach, sophistication, and addictiveness of social media, internet platforms, and visual media we are immersed in far surpass what Huxley knew. And they are controlled by an exceedingly powerful menagerie of unaccountable billionaires.
It’s not as bad as Brave New World, but the momentum of forces moving in that direction is very real. Given the unique experiment in self-governance that the U.S. has always represented, that it should be leading the charge toward Huxley’s nightmare shows how much has been lost sight of.
“In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite,” Huxley wrote. “Censorship by rising costs and the concentration of communication power in the hands of a few big concerns is less objectionable than State ownership and government propaganda; but certainly it is not something of which a Jeffersonian democrat could possibly approve.”
I saw an example of extreme economic control on a recent visit to Greece, the supposed birthplace of democracy. The Parthenon temple still looks splendid atop the ancient Acropolis citadel dominating the skyline in the city center, but down at street level Athens looks a painful mess. After the 2008 financial crisis, faced with astonishing levels of debt, Greece was bailed out by the European Union and International Monetary Fund dependent on agreeing to strict austerity measures. Some estimate Greece will be paying off its debts past 2060. Alternatively, it may be forced to go cap in hand again to its E.U. overseers. None of this counts as an independent democratic country. Socrates would be weeping. Thomas Jefferson would likely have similar concerns over the U.S.’s own debt crisis.
Now, events in Ukraine have highlighted how we are nowhere near as free of history and its apparently outdated modes, such as clumsy invasion and conventional warfare, as we presumed. Huxley respected what history revealed about human nature that transcended pretensions toward progression. He noted how Hitler leveraged the economic sufferings of Germans, making “his strongest appeal to those members of the lower middle classes who had been ruined by the inflation of 1923, and then ruined all over again by the depression of 1929 and the following years.”
Most Western countries have not known such economic hardships as those endured by Germany in the early 20th century, which created a population of “bewildered, frustrated and chronically anxious millions” whose angst could be manipulated to such deadly ends. But distracted and pampered in our consumerist societies today, we have become complacent about many things—including how we might act in similarly dire economic circumstances. Let us hope we do not have to find out.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the U.K., and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.