While perusing the library today I came across a copy of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda, an influential and historical piece of literature that will be described in centuries to come the way we describe Hobbes’s Leviathan. Bernays is today known as the father of the public relations industry. But back in the day, the two terms were fairly similar, and propoganada had no negative overtones like it does today. In fact, another man (later recognized as a founding communication theorist) named Harold Lasswell said,
“Propaganda has become an epithet of contempt and hate, and the propagandists have sought protective coloration in such names ‘public relations council,’ ‘specialist in public education,’ ‘public relations adviser.’”
Today, when we think propaganda we think silly, overstated images like the posters of WWII; which most of the modern literature on propaganda covers, as there is little material on current application of so-called ‘propaganda’. The term has been garnished with such pejorative overtones that the mere recognition of propaganda for what it is immediately exposes it as some dishonest device, some sinister magic wielded by plotting and evil men in high places. A simple search for soviet propaganda reveals all sorts of images and examples, clearly obvious for what they are. But searching for American examples is much less telling. In America, propaganda is what you call the opinions of those you disagree with.
However, this was not what the 20th century American communication theorists envisioned when they thought of propaganda. Bernays, Lippman, Lasswell saw it as an important tool for democracies. First, Bernays felt that
The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.
– The Engineering of Consent, 1947
Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.
- Propaganda, 1928
Whereas Aristotle believed that democracy needed no more than the freedom and ability of people to forward arguments, reason and decide with good aptitude, Bernays had Hobbesian doubts on the capacity of people to govern themselves. He felt that the capable have a responsibility to manipulate the public for their own benefit – in his own words,
…we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. – Ibid
If this all strikes you as shocking, save it; Bernays was criticized for being “The Young Machiavelli of Our Times”. This is a fair assessment; although most of his work took place in the private and corporate sphere, he was instrumental in overthrowing the democratically elected president of Guatamala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (also the first peaceably elected man there), in the 50s. By branding him as a communist (on behalf of the US based United Fruit Company, now Chiquita), the CIA was able to commence Operation PBFORTUNE and PBSUCCESS, and oust him in a US backed invasion in ’54, to the profit of United Fruit. Seriously, I am not making any of this up; feel free to google it.
The second man I mentioned, Walter Lippman, had similar feelings. You may recognize the title of Herman and Chomsky’s book, inspired by the following.
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. . . . Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.- Public Opinion, 1922
Again, we see here the need for a special class of leaders, the leaders in Lazerfield’s two-step theory of communication, or maybe those who informed the opinion leaders. This is not a new concept in and of itself – this class used to be refered to as the intelligentsia, a special class of people who had the creative and independent capacity to justify the existence of the establishment and propagate its values to others for the future. Their role is virtually the same of the intellectual in a democratic society; but with one chief difference. Whereas…
Intellectuals help societies talk about their problems… [they] are key democratic agents as they stimulate informed discussion about pressing social problems, fulfilling this role by cultivating civility in public life and promoting the subversion of restrictive common sense.- Goldfarb, Civility and Subversion, 1998
… the role of the intelligentsia is to support the status-quo and the agenda of the governing body as they see fit. As L’Etang and Pieczka write,
Lippman advocated a technocratic representative democracy where power resided in the hands of a small, intellectual elite and public consent to their rule was engineered. – 2006
You can probably assume what Harold Lasswell’s feelings were, the third man I mentioned.
Regard for men in the mass rests upon no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best j
udges of their own interest. The modern propagandist, like the modern psychologist, recognizes that men are often poor judges of their own interests, flitting from one alternative to the next without solid reason or clinging timorously to the fragments of some mossy rock of ages. – Harold Lasswell, 1935
In and of themselves, the propagandists sound sinister, but their reasoning was that if they didn’t utilize those skills, someone else would, for ulterior purposes. Bernays, Lippman and Lasswell are influential and important thinkers; but how is their influence felt today? We’ll explore this more later.