Obstruct Reality, Consciously Manipulate, and Deny the Denial: Propaganda, Irish Style

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“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.”

Ask the vast majority of people who said that and it is a fair bet they will probably reply something like: Josef Goebbels, or maybe Stalin perhaps, Saddam Hussein might even come up, maybe even Henry Kissinger, or maybe even, in a lucid moment, they might reply Rupert Murdoch, or for that matter Denis O Brien.  The truth is they would be wrong on all accounts. Although they would at least be relatively close with the last two or three.

But no, none of them said it, but it is a sure bet that all of the above names would understand the sentiment.

The quote is the first sentence from a 1928 book called Propaganda. The writer was Edward Bernays who many regard as the founder of modern public relations.  As a bold and declarative sentence it leaves you in no doubt what so ever as to the logic underlying the words.

That is, the masses can be first organised and manipulated and secondly, even more important, they must be if “democracy” as it is largely understood today is to fulfil its function in maintaining market-driven politics. The logic therefore is that “the people”, the great mainstay of democratic theory and thought or so we are told, cannot and should not be trusted.

Why? Because they are too emotional? Not rational enough perhaps? Or maybe they are just prone to potent over-simplifications?  Either way, his ideas reveal a deep cynicism about the people, self-governance and democracy, and in that  he is not alone.

The opinions of the masses according to Bernays – for their own good obviously, and for the “good of democracy”-must then be manufactured in order to attain and maintain democracy. Bernays’s contempt not only for people but also for democracy is staggering. For that reason alone he is worth deconstructing.

Besides this, one thing is almost certainly for sure- the vast majority of Irish politicians and media gatekeepers, whether they know it or not, have been deeply influenced by his thoughts and ideas. In fact, in all probability they have never heard of him, perhaps proof enough of his persuasive techniques. But, the next time you hear the phrase “deeply regrettable” or “we are committed to promoting and encouraging…” or, better still, “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?” remember that he, and others, had and have a guiding hand in promoting and sustaining the waffle.    

Conscious Manipulation…in Democratic Societies    

Note that Bernays talks of democratic societies, and not totalitarian societies. In totalitarian societies people can be intimated and much worse by secret police and by clandestine government bodies. For the most part, but not entirely, that does not happen here. Yet he is arguing that whether democratic or totalitarian, the principles of control are the same.  It’s a pretty good bet that Bernays or his seminal book does not figure in courses on public relations, mass marketing or advertising, or indeed political science or undergraduate courses on politics. There is good reason for that. Look upon it as the PR bible which no one in the field or related fields reads or has forgotten about. Ignorance is indeed bliss, and bliss is indeed organised stupidity.  Bernays argues right from the beginning in chapter one for the need to “organise chaos”. Writing about the US in the 1920s, he said that a relatively small number of people who understood the “mental processes and social patterns of the masses…control the public mind.”

Organised Opinions

Much of his writing seems, at first glance, measured, even reasonable, even just good common sense. Much of it is in fact naked propaganda for free market capitalism, so called that is. The free market and the ideas associated with it-open competition for example-are seen as common place, normal, and matter of fact. They are presented as irrefutable facts of social life, not as what they are: ideological constructs. That aside, it is in the manipulative engineering of the “consciousness of the masses” that Bernays is really interested. He wrote at a time when commercial control of communications was still relatively new, but was beginning to take hold. Indeed he was prescient and intelligent enough to call it “geographical integration” long before such conceptual ideas became widespread and popular in the social sciences. The “people” in America at the time according to Bernays, who were divided by race, ethnicity, class, and even language, needed “emotionally potent over-simplifications”, mediated by newspapers, radio, and Hollywood films- all the better to construct a myth of American oneness, and of course to obstruct other diverse political and social opinions.  So, perhaps unremarkably, the bullshit did not begin with Fox news.

Unseen Mechanisms?

No, there is no conspiracy, at least not an over-arching one anyway. There doesn’t need to be. The word conspire is derived from a Latin word which literally means to “breathe together”.  It is an apt metaphor for the uniformity and conformity of much our popular press and television, particularly in the domain of what now passes as the news.

Bernays however knew well and understood well what “breathing together” means, and, what it should mean. The social group according to Bernays is motivated by impulses and emotions that is, as distinct from the individual person; meaning of course for Bernays the standard archetype of his day- educated, white, male, and rational. The group mind therefore, he did not specify what the group mind actually meant, probably for good reason, does not “think”, rather it has habits and emotions.  From this premise he then goes onto argue that the group, that is the great unwashed, emotionally and habitually, will always follow a trusted leader.

This is then one of the founding principles of mass psychology, and as a result one of the founding principles of mass marketing. Whether the object that is being marketed is a bar of chocolate, or a tube of toothpaste, or even a political party, or indeed the leader of a political party, it does not matter. For Bernays, the process of selling the product is always the same. In some senses of course Bernays was correct, people do respond to advertising, and they are undoubtedly easily manipulated, we all are. But there is a qualitative difference in being manipulated into buying a bar of chocolate from buying into an economic and political system designed, quite consciously, to maintain the status quo.

An Invisible Government?

There is always a fight for reality in political and social terms, and this is where the media is so important in keeping the political and economic show on the road. The so called first draft of history is the first draft of that fight, control the means by which people consume that constructed reality, and you control their understanding of that reality. Of course, social reality is complex and messy, and control by one entity over another is never absolute. But nevertheless, even an anecdotal review of people’s attitudes and opinions on a host of social, political and economic issues will show you the importance of the mass media in inserting a distorted view of the world- from the Irish Daily Mail and the Sun, all the way ‘up’ to RTE, the Irish times and the Sunday Independent.  A distorted public view which is on the one hand, somewhat paradoxically, reactionary, conservative, and angry, and on the other hand, anti-establishment, paralysed with inertia, and ultimately disoriented.  The main media gatekeepers have now become, just like the politicians, managers rather than chroniclers of public life; and not the guiding lights of the fourth estate as they were once held to be, or held themselves to be. No doubt they still think of themselves as the purveyors of impartial and objective truth, as the journalistic myth goes.

There is of course a lot more to be said about Edward Bernays and his continuing nefarious influence, and more generally the nefarious influence of public relations on politics, the media and elsewhere. Unfortunately this brief introduction only skims across the surface of his impact on all of the above domains of influence on the “public mind”. But I thought it might be better to end this piece with a succinct quote from an unknown source which gets to the heart of the matter, at least in one sense:“Every status quo, every large system, always has beneficiaries who have no real desire for change.”


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