Occupy Book Club! Book #1: Edward Bernays: Propaganda (1928)

(Have you checked out my book yet? Only $2.99. Check it out here.)

Edward Bernays, a man whose name is coming back to the spotlight recently due to name dropping by various tastemakers in the left. The two people who I’ve seen in person giving talks who brought up 1928’s Propaganda as a seminal text for understanding the current media environment were Chris Hedges and Crispin Glover. I can hardly imagine stranger bedfellows existing anywhere except in theory. Noam Chomsky has been citing the text for a long time in talks, and has it down to boilerplate. The boilerplate, as printed as a preface to the online edition of Propaganda on History is a Weapon goes as follows:

[The] American business community was also very impressed with the propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and so on.
So what do you do? It’s going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefeller’s image look prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry, which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first World War. The leading figures were people in the Creel Commission. In fact, the main one, Edward Bernays, comes right out of the Creel Commission. He has a book that came out right afterwards called Propaganda. The term “propaganda,” incidentally, did not have negative connotations in those days. It was during the second World War that the term became taboo because it was connected with Germany, and all those bad things. But in this period, the term propaganda just meant information or something like that. So he wrote a book called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is possible to “regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies.” These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new techniques.
This is the main manual of the public relations industry. Bernays is kind of the guru. He was an authentic Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal. He also engineered the public relations effort behind the U.S.-backed coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala.
His major coup, the one that really propelled him into fame in the late 1920s, was getting women to smoke. Women didn’t smoke in those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the techniques—models and movie stars with cigarettes coming out of their mouths and that kind of thing. He got enormous praise for that. So he became a leading figure of the industry, and his book was the real manual.

Chomsky is pretty on point as usual here, except for his assertion that “propaganda” didn’t have a negative connotation in 1928. It at least had enough of one where Bernays felt like defending it against it. The Russians had already had their post-Bolshevik flush of posters and propaganda films and Bernays points out that at the very least “Bolshevik” was a loaded and politically pragmatic term to pull out at the time.

Not many years ago, it was only necessary to tag a political candidate with the word interests to stampede millions of people into voting against him, because anything associated with “the interests” seemed necessarily corrupt. Recently the word Bolshevik has performed a similar service for persons who wished to frighten the public away from a line of action.

More directly a little earlier in the book he says:

I am aware that the word “propaganda” carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.

Despite this, in every case this dangerous moral vacuum seems to be the next step in Bernays’s concatenation of thoughts, it’s smoothed over with some assurance of a natural ethical rightness in the selection of the “leaders of thought” who are charged with the task of actually leading the society by the “public mind.” Here we come to the rupture so to speak in Bernays’s book. First I’m going to let him dig the hole himself a little bit. Why should I waste the effort when he’s already done it for me?

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.

The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent, is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.

In some departments of our daily life, in which we imagine ourselves free agents, we are ruled by dictators exercising great power.

In fact, the repeated use of “dictator” and of “regiment” in various conjugations, along with the argument that follows these two paragraphs in the text arguing that propaganda is not deterministic or inherently authoritarian because one man might be subject to the determining opinions of many dozens of authoritative voices seems to prefigure Foucault’s notion of an “economy of discourse” and the similarly militaristic vocabulary Foucault uses to describe this economy in History of Sexuality V.1 among other works. This is interesting, though probably a subject for another essay.

The actual notion of a democracy controlled by the population (in essence, the notion of democracy), is thrown out by Bernays, and his alternative to a nation run on a select elite who understand how to manipulate public opinion sounds a lot like…well…a select elite who understand how to manipulate public opinion.

It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.

Bernays, trying to reconcile these two things, thinks the PR industry must become this “committee of wise men”, and after arguing in the first chapter that propaganda is a morally neutral practice, nevertheless always errs toward some sort of invisible hand guiding the morals of man when he gets in a sticky situation. Whether this is unconscious self-contradiction or an incredibly clever instance of the shape of the text mirroring the content is unclear. What the reader is left with however is pretty clear when logical/theoretical corners are cut and you end up with head-scratchers like this one:

Propaganda is potent in meeting unethical or unfair advertising. Effective advertising has become more costly than ever before.

Maybe the inherent contradiction in this passage was less clear in 1928 and before Thomas Ferguson’s investment theory of electoral politics. Yet issues of oligarchical control of the press was an issue that came up in the founding of the US Postal Service, and the reason for the initial massive subsidies to small publications that came through the USPS in its early years, subsidies documented in Robert W. McChesney’s The Problem of Media. “Freedom of the press is for those who own one.” etc. Bernays, evidently very versed in Freud and Jung given his conceptions of mass psychology, was apparently much less versed in Marx, or for that matter, the founding fathers.

Bernays, though 30 years early on this, ushers in a McLuhan style rebuke as well in this description of the propaganda “machine”:

But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline.

This is a flawed and rather arrogant analogy to draw-all one has to do is look at the massive failure of the “New Coke” campaign to see that advertising hardly works with the dependability of a car. However, the technology metaphor does undercut the moral rightness element of the tools of propaganda that Bernays tries to foster in spite of his own testimony to the contrary. From a McLuhanesque reading, the symbol of the car would also invite an inherent contradiction in the metaphor-that even the elite control the social impact of this car or propaganda technique entirely is a ridiculous notion-the technology has associated with it extensions and amputations. The introduction of mass PR has an effect on the organization and values of society independent of how it’s consciously implemented. As Fredric Jameson has suggested, it brings about the linguistic relativism that isn’t in fact “poststructuralist” but is in fact the manifestation of late capitalism.

Bernays actually invokes, without much consciousness of his invoking it, this very principle of unintended discursive/social results from a seemingly clearly defined ideological movement, suggesting the creation of PR firms is a necessary reaction to the trend of muckraking. The 1961 anthology The Muckrakers also suggests this in its introduction. Bernays lays it down like this:

Twenty or twenty-five years ago, business sought to run its own affairs regardless of the public. The reaction was the muck-raking period…In the face of an aroused public conscience the large corporations were obliged to renounce their contention that their affairs were nobody’s business. If to-day big business were to seek to throttle the public, a new reaction similar to that of twenty years ago would take place and the public would rise and try to throttle big business with restrictive laws. Business is conscious of the public’s conscience.

For Occupy, the meat of the book comes in the sixth chapter, wherein Bernays argues for a breakdown of the difference in methods of say, selling soap or silk, and selling a political candidate. A ridiculous metaphysical assertion, backed only by the then current trends in sociology, kicks off the proceedings:

No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.

This would also serve well as a statement of the book’s thesis. Though Bernays’s reasoning is largely sound and has been borne out by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama campaigns, as Chris Hedges or Thomas Ferguson are quick to point out, Bernays misses the implication that, there is no need for the candidates using his methods to tell the truth or anything resembling it if his theories are correct. If the power to sway the public lay in swaying their “leaders” and through narrative and dramaturgical suggestion aimed at the subconscious or toward a clipped moment of reasoning leading to a predetermined conclusion, there’s no reason the candidate couldn’t just create a fictional narrative. As the types of narratives go, this is a popular one. And more largely, with mass media, that leaders of opinion couldn’t just be installed by those with the most money and access to mass media outlets. And this is just what’s happened. As Jon Jost put it, American politics very much resemble Kabuki theater.

Bernays one stumble in entirely laying out the modern methods of advertising is in chapter six. He argues there must be a concrete connection between the narrative object and the subject being sold. Five minutes of TV would easily disprove this now. Bernays doesn’t really get the concept of branding. Oh well, it was 1928. And actually, to be fair, he hints toward it, describing the relationship between issues, the candidate, and the prospective voter:

In theory, this education might be done by means of learned pamphlets explaining the intricacies of public questions. In actual fact, it can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind, by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of their publics.

In particular “dramatizing personalities” stands out. If you’re looking for a quote for a picture meme to annoy your friends, family, and random strangers with on Facebook or Reddit, you could do worse than Bernays’s summary thesis of the chapter, “Good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold.” Sadly true.

I could probably write another 2000 words on this book, but this post is getting overlong as it is, so I’m going to close out on one last point: Jesus fucking christ was this guy a misogynist! Some choice bits:

The professional woman politician has had, up to the present, not much influence, nor do women generally regard her as being the most important element in question. Ma Ferguson, after all, was simply a woman in the home, a catspaw for a deposed husband; Nellie Ross, the former Governor of Wyoming, is from all accounts hardly a leader of statesmanship or public opinion.

A club interested principally in homemaking and the practical arts can sponsor a cooking school for young brides and others. An example of the keen interest of women in this field of education is the cooking school recently conducted by the New York Herald Tribune, which held its classes in Carnegie Hall, seating almost 3,000 persons. For the several days of the cooking school, the hall was filled to capacity, rivaling the drawing power of a McCormack or a Paderewski, and refuting most dramatically the idea that women in large cities are not interested in housewifery.

Just as women supplement men in private life, so they will supplement men in public life by concentrating their organized efforts on those objects which men are likely to ignore. There is a tremendous field for women as active protagonists of new ideas and new methods of political and social housekeeping.

Oy. Anyway, any thoughts are appreciated in the comments section. I think the next book I’m going to do for this series is either Walter Lippmann’s “Public Opinion” or PT Barnum’s autobiography.

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