Year of Consent, by Kendell Foster Crossen
This is a pulp SF novel from 1954, which has uncomfortable relevance to our present era.
The story is set in the then-future year of 1990. The United States is still nominally a democracy, but the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want. (Prefiguring “nudging”) The social engineers are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’ The political system now in place is called Democratic Rule by Consent. While the US still has a President, he is a figurehead and the administration of the country is actually done by the General Manager of the United States….who himself serves at the pleasure of the social engineers. The social engineers work in a department called ‘Communications’, which most people believe is limited to such benign tasks as keeping the telephones and the television stations in operation. Actually, its main function is the carrying out of influence operations.
One approach involves the publishing of novels which are fictional, but carry implicit social and/or political messages…via, for example, the beliefs and affiliations of the bad guys versus the good guys. Even the structure of novels is managed for messaging reasons: romance-story plots should not be boy gets girl…loses girl…gets girl back, but rather boy gets girl, loses girl, gets different girl who is really right for him.
Some methods are more direct, although their real objectives are not stated. One such objective is population control: If the fertility rate is running a little low, advertising is ramped up for a pill called Glamorenes, which are said to create the “rounded, glamorous figure of a TV star…remember–it’s Glamorenes for glamor.” Actually, the real function of Glamorenes, which is top secret, is to increase a woman’s sex drive and expand the fertility window. On the other hand, if the birth rate is running too high, the ad emphasis switches to Slimettes for women and Vigorone for men, both of which have a contraceptive effect. The book’s protagonist, Gerald Leeds, is one of the few who is in on the secret, and when he hears a Glamorenes ad, he realizes that this is the real reason why his girlfriend, Nancy, has been acting especially affectionate lately.
Few people, even at the highest levels of government, realize just how powerful the Communications Department really is. “Even the biggest wheels only know part of it. They think the Communications Administrative Department exists to help them–and not the other way around.”
The computer known as Sociac (‘Herby’) accumulates vast amounts of data on individuals, including such things as shopping, dining, and vacation preferences. “Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election.” Telephone calls are tapped, but are rarely listened to directly by government agents; rather, they are fed directly to “a calculator” (perhaps a front-end to Herbie) and added to “the huge stock of intimate knowledge about the people.”
Those individuals who resist the conditioning and are found to hold unapproved opinions–or find themselves to hold unapproved opinions–are said to have “communications blocks,” and good citizens will act on their own to request treatment for such blocks. The first level of treatment is the Psychotherapy Calculator, an interactive system which will help the patient change any objectionable opinions and behavior. But in some cases, the PC determines that stronger methods are necessary, and in those cases, the patient is referred for a lobotomy. The escorting of patients for mandatory psychotherapy and lobotomy procedures is done by a white-uniformed police force known as the Clinic Squad.
Citizens are, of course, expected to report any instances of unapproved beliefs or actions. When the protagonist’s girlfriend Nancy overhears one of her colleagues expressing sympathy for a man who is in serious trouble, she reports the girl immediately. (“For the moment I disliked Nancy,” says Gerald. “Then I felt sorry for her.”) Nancy herself is concerned that there may be something wrong with her, and has considered reporting herself for voluntary automated psychotherapy. “If I did have (something wrong with her), I’d want to be purged of it quickly before it could make me do something awful like that poor Mr Shell”…Gerald notes that her hand was shaking as she lifted her glass to finish the drink.
Gerald, the protagonist, works within the Communications Department…unknown to his superiors, he is a member of a resistance organization which aims to overthrow the existing system of government and to restore individual liberty. He must feign agreement when his immediate boss talks about how wonderful the system is and how misguided are those who oppose it:
Never has there been more freedom anywhere than in America today. We’ve done away with police and even prisons. Crime has been almost wiped out since we recognized it as a social disease. We’ve done away with poverty. There are fewer restrictions on people than ever before in the history of mankind. For the first time they’re really free.
Even if it hadn’t been dangerous, I wouldn’t have argued with him. He believed what he was saying. His faith was the faith of a Torquemada backed by science. There was no way to make him see that the social engineers had taken away only one freedom, but that it was the ultimate freedom–the right to choose. Everything…was decided for them and then they were conditioned to want it.
Gerald definitely has to watch his step: in addition to being subject to the special surveillance which is applied to all members of Security and Consent, concerns have been raised about one of his personal characteristics: he has too much of a sense of humor, not viewed as a desirable thing.
There is another dissident group, quite distinct from the organization of which Gerald is a member: that other group is the Communists. They are tolerated by the government, but confined to a reservation in South Dakota. Gerald meets one of these people while on a government mission, and the man is just like you would expect a Communist to be, mentally rigid and talking about how wonderful things must be in Russia, where the Soviet government still holds sway. Gerald tells him that in Russia today there “a few shortages. And there’s not too much individual liberty.”
He looked startled, but his face quickly brightened. “Of course,” he said. “Why even the great Lenin said, “It is true that liberty is precious–so precious that it must be rationed.”
“Yeah,” I said dryly. “Hobbyhorses.”
“Hobbyhorses,” I repeated. “Did you know that it is now almost two generations since hobbyhorses have been sold in toy stores in either Russia or the United States?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said doubtfully.
“I’m not sure why hobbyhorses withered away in the Soviet,” I said, “but the ban was started here by the playschool consultants, who were influenced by the social engineers long before the latter came into power. They put the finger on hobbyhorses on the grounds that they did not develop the group spirit.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Of course. But you realize that it meant different things in the two countries. Here the group spirit was used to build fascism while in Russia and the Soviet Countries it was used to build a people’s world.
The resistance organization of which Gerald is a member follows not Karl Marx but Henry David Thoreau, they seen government as a limited servant of the people rather than a master. They are known as the Uns because of their affinity for the United Nations. (The idea of the UN as a benign organization was more excusable in 1954 than it is at present; even Heinlein portrays the UN positively in some of his future history stories.) And the Uns are viewed as much more of a threat by the government than are the boxed-in Communists. Indeed, one of the major objectives of the Communications Department is to tie the Uns and the Communists together in the public mind, via novels and even popular songs making it appear that the two movements are the same thing.
The task facing the Uns in their attempt to change the order of things is not an easy one:
This is a fight to the finish between mass man and individual man. It was a pretty even match until the advent of controlled mass communications. Then the giant electronic brains completely tipped the scales. ..there is no difference between our social engineers and those in Russia. Both are out to turn the world into one of mass men–everyone conforming in every single way. And they’ve damn near succeeded.
The Uns make a sharp distinction between revolution and rebellion:
Ours was not a revolution but a rebellion. We suffered from too much revolution. The Communists in Russia had won a revolution; the social engineers in America had won a more peaceful but no less effective one. There had never been a revolutionist who did not insist that the individual must be submissive to a central committee–but we believed that central committees must always be submissive to individuals.
There is no limit to what may be done to the individual in the name of the revolution. Rebellion, on the other hand, springs from a recognition that there are limits to what can be done to any individual. Rebellion consists of saying: beyond this point we will not go….Every individual is naturally a rebel; he becomes a revolutionary, or the victim revolutionaries, when he ceases to be an individual.
Year of Consent can’t be called great literature, on a par with 1984 or Brave New World, but it projects a future which is perhaps closer to the immediate threats facing American liberty in 2020 than do either of those two other novels.