For Edward Bernays, 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.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.
PROPAGANDA AND POLITICAL LEADERSHIP
THE great political problem in our modern democracy is how to induce our leaders to lead. The dogma that the voice of the people is the voice of God tends to make elected persons the will-less servants of their constituents. This is undoubtedly part cause of the political sterility of which certain critics constantly complain.
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.
History of the Modern Propaganda
A few things happened in the 21st century that caught the attention of powerful organizations, individuals and public officials. First, the US entered WWI, and many Americans were ambivalent about their involvement.
The government enlisted a group of influential people to serve on the Committee on Public Information, or CPI, designed to help sell the war domestically. George Creel and Edward Bernays (the latter considered the founder of the public relations industry) were enlisted in the effort. Bernays was the newphew of Sigmund Freud, one of the founders of the modern discipline of psychology, and was quite interested in Freud’s theories of personality and psychotherapy. Except Bernays interest was in understanding how to move masses, how to use Frued’s theory of the unconscious to persuade, not individuals, but populations. He would later become quite wealthy, using what he had learned and Freud’s theories to sell a variety of ideas and products and presidents and candidates.
Bernays is considered the most important figure in making it socially acceptable for women to smoke–quite a feat, when you think abou it. Smoking was, in Freudian terms, tied up with masculinity and male sexual prowess, and hence even though one might say smoking was in a sense the height of conformity to a certain set of institutions, Bernays made it seem rebellious, referring to the cigarettes women were smoking as ‘torches of freedom.’
Every industry in a society of 100 + million, if it is to survive as a nation-wide entity, must mass produce. This requires lots of political mobilization–lawyers and lobbyists, influencing legislators and regulators, funding political campaigns, etc., with the intent of making sure that no laws or regulations get passed that would hurt sales or profits, or whose costs could not be passed on to consumers. But mass production implies that what industries are producing has a market. How to get consumers to buy the stuff being mass-produced? Why mass consumption, of course!
The advertising and public relations industries were built around the idea that mass production required means of increasing levels of consumption, and they’ve been pretty darned successful. They’ve taken advantage of research and theory from disparate social scientific fields, especially from psychology–from the work of Sigmund Freud andB.F. Skinner especially. Although as the authors of Age of Propaganda point out, the literature on the psychology of persuasion dates back a few thousand years to the times of the Sophists, Aristotle, Cicero, etc. But while the Greeks looked at persuasion as a means of elevating public debate and discourse, advertisers have used what they’ve learned about persuasion mainly to move products and services, and as an industry to present consumption as the highest expression of post-industrial society.
At some point in the 20th century, a certain segment of the ruling class began viewing citizens less as citizens, less as workers, and more as consumers (of course consuming requires a job, and there have to be some democratic rituals to justify power relations).
Theories and Practice of Mass Propaganda
In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.
We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions. From our leaders and the media they use to reach the public, we accept the evidence and the demarcation of issues bearing upon public questions; from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite essayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time.
In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.
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.
To-day, however, a reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done to-day, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.
The invisible government tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses. To advertise on a scale which will reach fifty million persons is expensive. To reach and persuade the group leaders who dictate the public’s thoughts and actions is likewise expensive.
For this reason there is an increasing tendency to concentrate the functions of propaganda in the hands of the propaganda specialist. This specialist is more and more assuming a distinct place and function in our national life.
New activities call for new nomenclature. The propagandist who specializes in interpreting enterprises and ideas to the public, and in interpreting the public to promulgators of new enterprises and ideas, has come to be known by the name of “public relations counsel.”