The tone of Edward Bernays’ Propaganda is like that of small child, who, completely lacking self awareness, says the thing that everyone is thinking but would never dare utter aloud for the sake of maintaining a sense of decency: “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.”
I don’t recall where I came across this book, as it was originally written in 1928 and clearly dated in many ways. But it is short, fascinating, and still rings very true, albeit in a more cynical way.
Some of my favorite bits..
Mark Crispin Miller’s introduction does a good job of setting the context:
Bernays derived this vision from the writings of his intellectual hero, Walter Lippmann, whose classic Public Opinion had appeared in 1922. From his observations on the Allied propaganda drives’ immense success (and his own stint as a U.S. war propagandist), and from his readings of Gustave LeBon, Graham Wallas and John Dewey, among others, Lippmann had arrived at the bleak view that “the democratic El Dorado” is impossible in modern mass society, whose members — by and large incapable of lucid thought or clear perception, driven by herd instincts and mere prejudice, and frequently disoriented by external stimuli — were not equipped to make decisions or engage in rational discourse. “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 crashing to a halt. Although mankind surely can be taught to think, that educative process will be long and slow. In the meantime, the major issues must be framed, the crucial choices made, by “the responsible administrator.” “It is on the men inside, working under conditions that are sound, that the daily administration of society must rest.”
While Lippmann’s argument is freighted with complexities and tinged with the melancholy of a disillusioned socialist, Bernays’s adaptation of it is both simple and enthusiastic: “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” These “invisible governors” are a heroic elite, who coolly keep it all together, thereby “organizing chaos,” as God did in the Beginning. “It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” While Lippmann is meticulous — indeed, at times near-Proustian — in demonstrating how and why most people have such trouble thinking straight, Bernays takes all that for granted as “a fact.” It is a sort of managerial aristocracy that quietly determines what we buy and how we vote and what we deem as good or bad. “They govern us,” the author writes, “by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure.”
Although purporting vaguely to be one of “us,” it soon becomes quite clear that Bernays sees himself as an exemplar of that elevated supervisory network, just as he sees his own profession as the most important one up there. Thus Bernays proceeds as both “a truth-seeker and a propagandist for propaganda”; for while he did believe wholeheartedly in his hierarchical conception of “democracy” (and so went on believing through the many further decades of his life, as Stewart Ewen tells us), Propaganda is primarily a sales pitch, not an exercise in social theory. In other words, while Propaganda is by no means an exhaustive treatment of its subject, the book is edifying for its own propaganda tactics, and for the light it sheds obliquely on the hidden zeal with which most winning propagandists do their work, however “scientific” and detached they may appear to be (even to themselves).
Bernays is convinced that the general public has consented to be lead by propaganda as a way to deal with increasing complexity of civiliazation:
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.
Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized — the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.
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.
With the printing press and the newspaper, the railroad, the telephone, telegraph, radio and airplanes, ideas can be spread rapidly and even instantaneously all over the whole of America.
Propaganda has allowed an elite minority to regain control ceded to the masses by kings in the industrial revolution:
But times have changed. The steam engine, the multiple press, and the public school, that trio of the industrial revolution, have taken the power away from kings and given it to the people. The people actually gained power which the king lost. For economic power tends to draw after it political power; and the history of the industrial revolution shows how that power passed from the king and the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. Universal suffrage and universal schooling reinforced this tendency, and at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people. For the masses promised to become king.
Today, 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 in inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done today, 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.
Emil Ludwig represents Napoleon as “ever on the watch for indications of public opinion; always listening to the voice of the people, a voice which defies calculation. ‘Do you know,’ he said in those days, ‘what amazes me more than all else? The impotence of force to organize anything.’”
On leveraging tribal affiliation as a means of persuasion:
As a matter of fact, the practice of propaganda since the war has assumed very different forms from those prevalent twenty years ago. This new technique may fairly be called the new propaganda.
It takes account not merely of the individual, nor even of the mass mind alone, but also and especially of the anatomy of society, with its interlocking group formations and loyalties. It sees the individual not only as a cell in the social organism but as a cell organized into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.
On the propaganda (PR) of business:
The relationship between business and the public has become closer in the past few decades. Business today is taking the public into partnership. A number of causes, some economic, others due to the growing public understanding of business and the public interest in business, have produced this situation. Business realize that its relationship to the public is not confined to the manufacture and sale of a given product, but includes at the same time the selling of itself and of all those things for which it stands in the public mind.
The gating function of modern business is not supply / production, but demand generation:
Another cause for the increasing relationship is undoubtedly to be found in the various phenomena growing out of mass production. Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained — that is, if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity. The result is that while, under the handicraft of small-unit system of production was that typical a century ago, demand created the supply, today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand. A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda, with the vast public in order to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable. This entails a vastly more complex system of distribution than formerly. To make customers is the new problem. One must understand not only his own business — the manufacture of a particular product — but also the structure, the personality, the prejudices, of a potentially universal public.
Politics were the first big business in America:
Political campaigns today are all sideshows, all honors, all bombast, glitter, and speeches. These are for the most part unrelated to the main business of studying the public scientifically, of supplying the public with party, candidate, platform, and performance, and selling the public these ideas and products.
Politics was the first big business in America. Therefore there is a good deal of irony in the fact that business has learned everything that politics has to teach, but that politics has failed to learn very much from business methods of mass distribution of ideas and products.
(tho I think this last claim is no longer true…)
Edward Bernays’ little book Propaganda is short and worth the read.