Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Politics

By Douglas Adams


"But the plans were on display..."
"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."
"That's the display department."
"With a flashlight."
"Ah, well the lights had probably gone."
"So had the stairs."
"But look, you found the notice didn't you?"
"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'" (1.33-40)

We used to think that politics at its best was a dialogue where everyone was free to speak, but after reading this back-and-forth between Arthur and Prosser we might want to change our ideas: politics is at its best when people speak (check) and listen to each other (no check). Notice how this dialogue lets us see how Prosser will say anything to make his department look like the reasonable member in this disagreement; he does this by redefining the phrase "on display."

Human beings are great adaptors, and by lunchtime life in the environs of Arthur's house had settled into a steady routine. It was Arthur's accepted role to lie squelching in the mud making occasional demands to see his lawyer, his mother, or a good book; it was Mr. Prosser's accepted role to tackle Arthur with the occasional new ploy such as the For the Public Good talk, the March of Progress talk, the They Knocked My House Down Once You Know, Never Looked Back talk and various other cajoleries and threats; and it was the bulldozer drivers' accepted role to sit around drinking coffee and experimenting with union regulations to see how they could turn the situation to their financial advantage. (1.68)

This situation might still be going on if Earth hadn't been destroyed by the Vogons. While the bulldozer drivers might selfishly be thinking about turning this situation to their benefit, notice how Prosser's arguments are all presented as not self-centered: it's all about how knocking down Arthur's house will be good for everyone. Yet, as we see in other moments, Prosser is mostly worried about his own situation here, and he also has a selfish interest in doing this job. It probably doesn't look good if you fail to knock down a house, right? Arthur isn't even making any arguments: while his lawyer might be helpful, his other requests—"his mother, or a good book"—are clearly just to pass the time.

He was far from certain about this—his mind seemed to be full of noise, horses, smoke, and the stench of blood. This always happened when he felt miserable and put upon, and he had never been able to explain it to himself. In a high dimension of which we know nothing the mighty Khan bellowed with rage, but Mr. Prosser only trembled slightly and whimpered. He began to fell little pricks of water behind the eyelids. Bureaucratic cock-ups, angry men lying in the mud, indecipherable strangers handing out inexplicable humiliations and an unidentified army of horsemen laughing at him in his head—what a day. (1.155)

Here's a nice comparison between two political systems: Prosser is a bureaucratic man who, we might say, lives and dies by the bureaucratic regulation. But his great, great, great, very great ancestor had a totally different political way of dealing with his problems: the great Genghis Khan would burn down and kill anyone in his way. As much as we laugh at Prosser, we might be glad that he's not a Khan.

The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. […] His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. (4.14 footnote)

The president's role here is curious, since his job has little to do with power a lot to do with distracting people from the real sources of power. We're never told who really has the power in this government. Is it the civil service bureaucracy, which is full of Vogons? Is it corporations, like the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation? We don't know. All we do know is that power is something Zaphod doesn't have. After all, this is one of only two footnotes in the entire book.

Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz was not a pleasant sight, even for other Vogons. His highly domed nose rose high above a small piggy forehead. His dark green rubbery skin was thick enough for him to play the game of Vogon Civil Service politics, and play it well, and waterproof enough for him to survive indefinitely at sea depths of up to a thousand feet with no ill effects. (5.1)

What Prosser is to Earth, Jeltz is to the galaxy, which sounds pretty majestic until you realize that he's just a bureaucratic functionary: he's a guy (er, a Vogon) with a job, not some supervillain monster that wants to destroy Earth for some insane but personal reason. It's just a job, but it certainly isn't all that.

"Here is what to do if you want to get a lift from a Vogon: forget it. They are one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy—not actually evil, but bad tempered, bureaucratic, officious and callous. They wouldn't even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat and recycled as firelighters." (5.63)

According to the Guide, the Vogons are terribly bureaucratic and mean. They're not going to break the rules in order to help you. On the other hand, they're not exactly evil—they're not going to break the rules in order to harm you, either. Still, it may be hard to remember that when you're being chased by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal while the Vogons are busy going through the appropriate forms.

But so successful was this venture that Magrathea itself soon became the richest planet of all time and the rest of the Galaxy was reduced to abject poverty. And so the system broke down, the Empire collapsed, and a long sullen silence settled over a billion worlds, disturbed only by the pen scratchings of scholars as they labored into the night over smug little treaties on the value of a planned political economy. (15.6)

"Political economy" is either another way to say "economics" or it's a way to refer to the interaction of the political world and the economic world. It's not like people are voting for what form of economy they want. Politics in Hitchhiker's Guide is all about how people organize themselves and live together, so economy certainly falls under that category. As we see here, there are some easy ways for the system to break down. Just as the political president can run away from his job, so can the economic leader bring the economic system to collapse. But here, Magrathea causes a collapse by being so good at their job. That seems absurd: how can a victory for Magrathea cause a defeat for the rest of the galaxy?

"The computers were index linked to the Galactic stock market prices you see, so that we'd all be revived when everybody else had rebuilt the economy enough to afford our rather expensive services."
Arthur, a regular Guardian reader, was deeply shocked at this.
"That's a pretty unpleasant way to behave isn't it?" (22.35-7)

As we note in the Shout-Outs, the Guardian is a left-leaning paper, so what Arthur means is that it's not cool for the Magratheans to sleep through a recession that they partly caused. Rather than working to fix the recession, the Magratheans are waiting for a time "when everybody else had rebuilt the economy." That is, the Magratheans have removed themselves from the economy and the politics of the galaxy. Not only is this bad for the galaxy, but it doesn't seem to be good for the Magratheans, who have passed into legend. And frankly, people don't usually line up to buy stuff from a company that they don't believe exists anymore.

"Yes," said the old man, pausing to gaze hopelessly round the room. "Ten million years of planning and work gone just like that. Ten million years, Earthman ... can you conceive of that kind of time span? A galactic civilization could grow from a single worm five times over in that time. Gone." He paused. "Well that's bureaucracy for you," he added. (30.3)

Slartibartfast could rant and rave about the huge waste and loss of destroying Earth right before Earth was ready to give an answer. (We should point out, though, that the loss of Earth means that the Magratheans will get more business from the mice. So the destruction of Earth is at least profitable for Magrathea.) Instead, Slarty first emphasizes the loss of "Ten million years of planning and work" and then gives the verbal equivalent of a shrug: "that's bureaucracy for you." That's not a passionate statement—Slarty isn't going to rush out to reform the government after this. Nothing is going to change.

"Since when," continued his murine colleague, "we have had an offer of a quite enormously fat contract to do the 5D chat show and lecture circuit back in our own dimensional neck of the woods, and we're very much inclined to take it." (31.58)

Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse are the mouse equivalents of Enron, preparing to rip off a bunch of people. That is, they have a contract where they'll get lots of money in exchange for explaining the meaning life—but they can't do that since all they have is the answer (42). Here we see a breakdown in the system of living and working together, since these two are about to pull off a massive fraud simply for their own gain.