Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Captive Public is a breath of fresh cynicism. With insight and illustration, it argues that mass opinion and majority will are not necessarily the nemesis of Big Brother. In modern society, Ginsberg argues, the Orwellian state can adapt and even mold them for its purposes.

Nor is this a new development. Ginsberg maintains that the emergence of public opinion as a political force was not so much a concession from the powers that be as a device to give their ruler greater legitimacy. Before the Industrial Revolution, his argument runs, authorities had little incentive to dwell on popular discontent. Poor communications and isolation tended to keep upheaval from spreading, and feudal economies, filling the royal coffers, continued to function despite localized troubles. But with the machine age, communications, and interdependence, rulers realized that discontent could cost them commerce, taxes, and possibly their lives.

Consequently, they sought to neutralize opposition, while appearing to yield to it, by extending free speech and elections. Ginsberg holds that free speech was not a great danger to the then rising bourgeois classes because they owned printing presses which could dominate discourse. Rather than fearing mass literacy, they promoted it, assuming a larger audience to read their ideas. This strategy of rule has application in our own day, for scarcely does a Communist revolution pass before the new regime boasts of increasing literacy, In the case of elections, the bourgeois strategy was to limit genuine options, while, persuading the populace that ballots were better than bullets.

Nineteenth-century rulers generally sought to divert popular opinion into desired channels. They lacked the techniques and technology to do much more. Twentieth-century governments operate under less constraint. Their aim is to manufacture opinion from the start, then claim obedience to the popular will. Effective tools of the trade are advertising and public relations. Authentic public sentiments certainly persist, but would-be rulers, both liberal and conservative, says Ginsberg, are adept at molding them to fit personal and partisan agendas. “Put not your trust in Princes” should be the watchword of conservatives.

Another tool of control is the public opinion poll. Ginsberg endorses the repeated charge that polling is more a reflection of polling method and questions than genuine popular opinion. Too often, as well, polls can minimize the intensity of minority viewpoints by comparing them with opposing, though highly apathetic, majorities. If King George had had polls, he might have persuaded the American patriots that their cause was doomed for lack of support.

An even more sinister use of polls is that of political intelligence. By gaining adequate knowledge of public attitudes, rulers can take steps to thwart genuinely popular movements. Ginsberg reports that a number of Communist states have used polling for this purpose.

The final tool is refinement of the election to provide the illusion of choice. An example is the one party “election” in the Soviet Union which we Americans properly deride. And yet our own elections frequently offer only slightly different versions of Tweedledees and dums.

Ginsberg concludes by raising, but not answering, the question: Will Big Brother eventually assimilate all opinion? A question the author might have asked, but didn’t: Is democracy itself sacrosanct, or possibly just another tool for rule?

Perhaps Ginsberg couldn’t bring himself to squeeze the trigger on so sacred a cow as this. Few people today can. But it is instructive that the nation’s Founders saw private and public virtue rather than majorities as the bulwark of liberty—a view rooted in classical antiquity and Christian sensibilities. (It was a majority, after all, that voted for the Crucifixion.)


[The Captive Public, by Benjamin Ginsberg (New York: Basic Books) $18.95]