Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Invisible Government of "Clean" Coal

“Propaganda,” by Edward Bernays, with an introduction by Mark Crispin Miller, 1928/2005

This book, a classic 1928 primer on media manipulation, is one of the origins of Noam Chomsky’s “manufacture of consent.” This phrase was first used by Walter Lippman, who was one of Edward Bernays’ heroes. Bernays is a product of early U.S. 20th century positivism, an atmosphere of ostensible science, uplift, moderation, intelligence and expertise.  In this thin book, Bernays in essence sells the job of the ‘public relations counsel’ to American and even international political campaigns, the government and corporations as something as necessary as corporate legal counsel.   And nowadays, everyone has one - so he won that argument.

The term ‘propaganda’ originated long ago in an office of the Catholic Church, and until World War I, it had a relatively straightforward meaning.  However, after that war, in which deceptive government propaganda was used to entice Americans to support a horrible slaughter, the term fell into disrepute.  Remember ‘the war to end all wars’ and ‘the war for democracy’ and ’Huns’ and ’Prussian barbarism?’  Those were propaganda phrases.  Nowadays, even when using propagandistic methods, no corporation or government ever admits to it.  That was for the “Russians,” you see.  “Americans” never do that.

Mark Miller points out that Bernays own record had its ups and downs.  He finally abandoned work for tobacco companies in the 1970s when the toxic effects of tobacco were finally well known, but he also promoted the 1953 invasion of Guatemala for United Fruit, as well as selling a lot of Lucky Strikes before that. 

In theory, the question is, what predominates – appearance or material fact?  Many leftists believe that the ruling class will always be in power due to their massive propaganda apparatus, which extends through newspapers, TV, radio, magazines and into the internet.  Most Marxists, on the other hand, do not believe that illusions are permanent if material facts continue to contradict them.  Statistics show that decreasing numbers of Americans believe the government, journalists, corporations, political parties, religions or advertising tell the truth anymore.  This slow, quantitative drip can someday turn into something else, if actual, real conditions don’t change.  False consciousness, which the U.S. is swimming in, only works as a temporary palliative.  Of course, how long that period is, is up for argument. 

Bernays actually does call the secret manipulators of public opinion an ‘invisible government.’  His exact quote?  “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.  Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”  While being homey about his examples of successful propaganda campaigns – around the use of velvet in clothing, or dramatic hats for women (he uses a lot of fashion examples), repeated references to cooking classes put forward by baking companies, soap sculpturing, art competitions, physician recommendations, piano spaces or radio programs about cars, the essential ‘plutocratic’ perspective comes through time and time again.  Bernays, again, and I quote:  “Democracy, therefore, requires a supra-governmental body of detached professionals to sift the data, think things through, and keep the national enterprise from blowing up or come crashing to a halt.”  So if you are too busy to pay attention to social reality, and like some ‘expert’ to do your thinking about finance, politics, the environment or what restaurant to eat at tonight, Bernays is your man.  After all, Johnny has a toothache.

Bernays is not a reactionary.  He approves of the strides women had made; and distains the propaganda of the Ku Klux Klan.  But then, “When the example of the leader is not at hand, and the herd has to think for itself, it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images …” “Good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold.”  Or... “Recently, the word ‘Bolshevik’ has performed a similar service for persons who wished to frighten the public away from a line of action.”  Worked for awhile, didn’t it?

Economically, he makes the statement that, “today, supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand.”  They don’t teach that at the University of Chicago.  He turns one of the great clichés of bourgeois economics on its head. 

The key line, I think, is his thought that, “some think ... propaganda will tend to defeat itself as its mechanism becomes obvious to the public.  My opinion is that it will not … unless the propaganda is untrue or unsocial.”  Unfortunately for Bernays, so much propaganda is just that.  The recent flood of negative presidential campaign ads unleashed in U.S. 'swing states' can be counter-productive, as what they tell the viewer is that neither candidate has anything to offer.  At some point, it is very possible that viewers will turn off the ads.

I would argue that the internet and other media are right now breaking down a unified propaganda message by the ruling class.  Opinions not allowed on the network news get a hearing on the internet.  Most people are not watching the U.S. network news anymore, unless they are in their 60s and above - witness the multiple ads for geriatric products on those shows.  The audience for the fake-liberal version of the network news NPR is also aging.  However, that is also why some corporations are attempting to create a ‘two-track’ internet, and governments censor their internet, or use it to further perfect their police state. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
September 20, 2012

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