We found this classic essay by the Australian scholar of propaganda Alex Carey on fanonite.org a fine site edited by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad. Alex Carey died in 1988, and Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent was dedicated to his life. Carey was formerly a lecturer in the Psychology of International Relations at the University of New South Wales. One of his most important books was Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty.
Meanjin Quarterly, 35 (4), 1976, pp. 370-378.
BY ALEX CAREY
At the end of World War II the United States of America enjoyed a pre-eminence in power, prestige and world-wide moral regard that is perhaps unprecedented in the history of human societies. Now, a mere thirty years later, American prestige and moral authority have, for ten years, suffered an almost ceaseless sequence of damaging revelations. Cumulatively these revelations have produced an immense gulf between the claims expressed in popular images and official rhetoric and the increasingly visible and increasingly ugly reality behind the images and rhetoric. Hence the new euphemism for telling lies and being found out — the credibility gap.
Consider for a moment the symbols by which Americans defined their dream and picture their reality: the Statue of Liberty with its Christ-like promise of succour and compassion to all the poor and wretched of the earth; the Declaration of Independence with its noble proclamation of respect for the equal and inalienable rights of all men and women; the unending public litany of adulation for American freedom, American individualism and American democracy; a near religious commitment to the American form of the free enterprise economic system, with its supposed almost immaculate joining of private interest to public well-being.
Consider now the harsh lines of the reality that has broken through the dream-time image so long cherished. Some few of these lines are listed almost at random:
the elitist contempt of high American officials for the ordinary people they are supposed to serve that is implicit in the decades of sophisticated deceit and urbane barbarity revealed by the Pentagon Papers, deceit and urbanity that enabled those officials to wrest from the American people ‘democratic’ authority to desolate three inoffensive peasant societies;
the very nadir of systematic abuse of minds and bodies by American institutions and policies that is revealed in Lieutenant Galleys trial plea after the My Lai massacre: ‘nobody ever told us they were human’;
the discovery that General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tyres, publicly among the most patriotic and self-righteous of American corporations, had privately conspired together to destroy much of America’s public transport system in order to boost
the sale of their products; and that I.T.T. had not only continued during the war to operate factories in Germany that built bombers for the German Airforce, but subsequently collected $27 million indemnity from the American people because the American Airforce bombed I.T.T.’s German factories.
Finally, the most crushing blow of all — the corruption that enveloped an American president (and in no small measure the American presidency also, when it was cynically traded for a lawless pardon). Most crushing of all, because the American President and Presidency had been promoted, over several decades, to the status of a more-than-royal embodiment of 200 years of democratic, humane and generally edifying rhetoric and imagery.
Moreover Nixon was, in 1972, no mistrusted or unwanted president. Since his fall it is common to hear people recall Nixon’s history of deceit, ruthlessness and corruption running back 20 years. But in 1972 he was still the new, warm almost lovable Nixon who, (as responsible commentators observed in their role of official image-makers to his Presidency), had grown, had gained a new stature, almost a new personality, under the sanctifying influence of the responsibilities of presidential office.
While the image-makers thus re-created and projected Nixon so that he won more popular votes than any previous presidential candidate in American history — in this very period, the presidential tapes reveal, the President and his highest aides and ministers were plotting, in the diction and the moral temper of a clique of Mafia thugs, how they might use the powers of the Presidency even farther to corrupt and deceive. Nor is there any longer, unfortunately, substantial reason to believe that, if Kennedy or Johnson had been reckless enough to put the reality behind their public images on as many spools of tape as Nixon, their credibility gaps would have been notably less.
The corruption of American ideals and American power which the past decade has revealed are an American tragedy. But, given the scale of American power, they constitute also a world problem of a quite different order of magnitude: an unpredictable source of exacerbation to the risk of nuclear annihilation. For this reason it is of the first importance to try to understand how the tragic deterioration in the American democratic system has come about — and whether and how it might be remediable.
In so far as cultural history is continuous, any starting date for an explanation of the contemporary American malaise must be arbitrary. That point acknowledged, I shall, for reasons I hope to make clear, start at the beginning of this century.
The most influential social thinkers in the recent history of American society have been William James and John Dewey. Both were men of exemplary character and generous humane intent. But just as Marx did not intend Stalin, so the intentions of James and Dewey have not determined the consequences of their theories. Both were pragmatists; that is to say, they made the truth of a belief depend not on the evidence which leads to its adoption, but on the consequences which follow that adoption.
Because they were also popular evangelists for pragmatism, it is convenient to refer to James and Dewey for a summary characterisation of the pragmatic outlook. (American culture has, of course, a much longer history of pragmatic preoccupation with appearances and consequences. As Boorstin succinctly observes: ‘The whole American tradition of pragmatism, from Benjamin Franklin, who insisted that it was less important whether any religious belief was true than whether the consequences of the belief were wholesome, down to William James… has expressed a consuming interest in the appearance of things.’) James held that ‘an idea’ is ‘true’ so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives and that’ “the true”… is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as “the right” is only the expedient in the way of our behaving’. He maintained, for example, that if the belief that God exists ‘works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true’; and added ,experience shows that it certainly does work’.
Dewey similarly holds that beliefs should be distinguished as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, not as `true’ and ‘false’. Beliefs are good if believing them has beneficial consequences. ‘Facts’ do not exist for Dewey, Bertrand Russell observes, ‘in the sense that “facts” are stubborn and cannot be manipulated’. For Dewey proposed to replace the notion of truth with the notion of ‘warranted assertibility’. Any belief which can be claimed to bring useful consequences may acquire ‘warranted assertibility’ on that ground alone.
The notion of ‘warranted assertibility’ already has an air of Watergate about it. For the moment we shall not follow that particular lead, except to cite Russell’s warning about any philosophy which, by making the consequences of a belief the test of its truth, delivers to those powerful individuals or nations who are able to determine consequences, the right to say what beliefs shall be called ‘good’ or ‘true’. Russell observes:
In all this I feel a grave danger… The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent on facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road toward a certain kind of madness — the intoxication of power… I am persuaded that… any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to (this intoxication) is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.
For twenty years from about 1900 there was, in the American press, a ‘flood of … articles on pragmatism’. This flood was started by James and Dewey. James employed much vivid rhetoric such as ‘truth is what works’, ‘the true is the expedient’ and ‘faith in a fact helps create the fact’.
James and Dewey’s evangelism coincided with the growth of a ‘problem’ for business corporations to which their pragmatic viewpoint authorised a congenial ‘solution’; it was closely followed by the development of a mass communications technology (especially radio and television) which greatly assisted the implementation of that solution.
The pragmatic viewpoint — denying the existence of a world independent of human belief — advocated that, within wide limits, human beings should resolve their problems and frustrations by adopting and promulgating any belief which ‘works’ to that effect. The following observations by V. O. Key, Professor of Government at Harvard University, indicate the congeniality of this viewpoint to American corporations in the political context that developed after 1900:
Businessmen are a small minority highly vulnerable to political attack… They… have to depend on something other than their votes. They have to use their wits — and their money—to generate a public opinion that acquiesces in the enjoyment by business of its status in the economic order… To gain public favour business associations employ in large numbers public relations experts, those masters of the verbal magic that transmutes private advantage into the public good … (and) continuing propaganda calculated to shape public attitudes favourably toward the business system.
Thus ‘as industrial power grew… the conscious policy of managing public attitudes to retain that power came to be adopted’; and, from about 1920, increasing numbers of business corporations appointed public relations executives whose ‘function … was … to deal with words… designed to influence the public without necessarily involving any basic change of attitude or action on the part of the company’.
By the mid-thirties there developed an ‘organised, nation-wide business-propaganda for the sale of ideas to the American people dealing with… the values and merits of the (free) enterprise system’. Rapidly ‘such generally accepted, if not almost hallowed, ideas (of contemporary advertising) as… “all the traffic will bear”, “repetition is reputation” and “truth is believability” … (were) focused on the sale of ideas’.
By 1939 a Senate Committee (the La Follette Committee) reported:
The National Association of Manufacturers has blanketed the country with a propaganda which in technique has relied upon indirection of meaning, and in presentation on secrecy and deception. Radio speeches, public meetings, news, cartoons, editorials, advertising, motion pictures and many other artifices of propaganda have not, in most instances, disclosed to the public their origin within the Association.
After World War II ‘business interests more and more utilised their public relations resources for the dissemination of political ideology … [until they produced] an almost overwhelming propaganda of doctrine … [and] saturation of the media with advertising calculated to sell ideas rather than merchandise’.
By 1948 American business’ anti-New Deal/socialist/communist propaganda campaign was costing $100 million a year for such advertising alone. 1950 brought an interim dividend in Senator Joe McCarthy; and that dividend, duly cultivated, brought in 1952 the final dividend to which the campaign was ultimately directed, — an end to 20 years of Democratic administrations (an unbroken period equal to the sum of all Democratic administrations in the 90 years prior to 1933).
One general point should not escape notice. There is a remarkable correspondence in attitude to truth between pragmatists and propagandists. Both justify the promotion of false beliefs wherever it is supposed that false beliefs have socially useful consequences. Indeed the principal difference between them consists perhaps in this: the ordinary propagandist may know that he is telling lies, but the pragmatist-propagandist, having redefined truth to make it indistinguishable from propaganda, is likely to become inescapably trapped in the supposedly ‘useful’ deceptions and illusions he approves as ‘warranted assertibilities’.
I wish now to trace the growing accommodation of intellectuals associated with American industry to the partisan and pragmatic values of business; and the convenient rationales by which (as true pragmatists in their own right) they preserved their pretensions to integrity without handicap to their career chances.
Until 1900 American business corporations took a contemptuous attitude to public opinion. But from 1900 to 1910 Upton Sinclair and others so effectively exposed the exploitation and brutality of American industry that, as Fortune magazine wrote later, `business did not discover… until its reputation had been all but destroyed… that in a democracy nothing is more important than (public opinion)’.
This discovery led rapidly to the development of a profession of specialists in ‘public relations’ whose task it was to ensure that public beliefs about industry were such as to keep both industry and the public happy. (It should perhaps be recalled that, according to James and Dewey, any public belief that has such consequences is true). Ivy Lee was the first great PR man. He taught business to use the press. But his ‘best known feat’, as Fortune observes, ‘was to convert John D. Rockefeller, in the public mind, from an ogre to a benefactor.’
Following Ivy Lee, Edward L. Bernays was the next major figure in the new propaganda-public relations field; a field he would develop and dominate for the next thirty years. By 1937 Business Week, after noting that Bernays was ‘a nephew of Sigmund Freud, the great Viennese psychoanalyst’, observed that ‘Mr Bernays has attained corresponding stature in his own sphere of psychology’, which Business Week described as the motivation and control of ‘the “mass mind”.’
The next major application of the pragmatic conception of truth came in 1917. With American entry into World War I, a Committee on Public Information (better known as the Creel Committee) was formed. Bernays, who worked with the Committee, reports that I every known device of persuasion and suggestion (was employed) to sell our war aims to the American people’, who were initially unenthusiastic. Bernays observes of the Creel Committee’s activities that ‘Reports that the Germans were beasts and Huns were generally accepted. The most fantastic atrocity stories were believed’. The Creel Committee was credited with producing by such methods ‘a revolutionary change in the sentiments of the nation’.
At the end of the war, Bernays continues, businessmen realized
that the great public could now perhaps be harnessed to their cause as it had been harnessed during the war to the national cause, and that the same methods would do the job. Thus when Bernays and others associated with the Creel Committee ‘returned to civilian life (they) applied (on behalf of business) the publicity methods they had learned during the war’.
The use of propaganda by corporations and industries to control public opinion grew and Bernays prospered. Fortune magazine later observed that ‘the 1920s… were notable for the rise of E. L. Bernays (who) … became known for what he called “the engineering of consent”, and for “creating news”.’ By 1923 Bernays was giving courses in public relations and propaganda at New York University.” In 1928 the American Journal of Sociology published a how-to-do-it article by Bernays entitled ‘Manipulating Public Opinion’, in which Bernays paid tribute to sociologists for the help he obtained from their work.
From 1930 to 1960 Professor Harold Lasswell held a position of academic leadership in the field of propaganda and communication comparable with Bernays’ leading role as a practitioner in the business world. In 1933, in an article for the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Lasswell observes that since the ‘masses’ are still captive to `ignorance and superstition’, the arrival of democracy, in America and elsewhere, has ‘compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda’. For ‘propaganda’, Lasswell continues, is ‘the one means of mass mobilisation which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques’. Moreover propaganda is essential in a democracy because ‘men are often poor judges of their own interests’ and must therefore be swayed by propaganda to make choices they would otherwise not make.
Until the mid-thirties conscientious objection to the engineering of consent had been quite widely in evidence: by 1947 objection on ethical grounds had almost completely disappeared. Large numbers of social scientists and university departments were actively engaged with the practice of consent-engineering — largely on behalf of corporations — and with related research.
In 1947 an article by Edward Bernays entitled ‘The Engineering of Consent’ was published in the prestigious Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. In this article Bernays offers a rationale for the use of propaganda in a democracy which Fortune magazine and others later adopted. The rationale consists in equating ‘propaganda’ with ‘persuasion’, and hence with ‘democracy’. ‘The engineering of consent’, Bernays firmly asserts, ‘is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.”
By this date Bernays displays the same elitist contempt for the ordinary citizen we observed in Lasswell in 1933. ‘The average American adult’, he observes:
has only six years of schooling … (Therefore) democratic leaders must play their part in … engineering consent… Today it is impossible to overestimate the importance of engineering consent; it affects almost every aspect of our daily lives.
In 1949 Bernays was honoured by the American Psychological Association for his contributions to science and society.
In the same year Fortune magazine, following Bernays’ lead, observed that ‘it is as impossible to imagine a genuine democracy without the science of persuasion’ — i.e. propaganda — ‘as it is to think of a totalitarian state without coercion’. That point established, Fortune continued:
The daily tonnage output of propaganda and publicity… has become an important force in American life. Nearly half of the contents of the best newspapers is derived from publicity releases; nearly all the contents of the lesser papers… are directly or indirectly the work of PR departments.
In 1950 a particularly mordant description by Lasswell of the role of propaganda in (American) democracy was republished in readings ‘representative of the best work in the field’:
Conventions have arisen which favour the ventilation of opinion and the taking of votes. Most of that which formerly could be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion. Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of (debate), and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda.
In 1956 Professor William Albig of Illinois University reviewed the work of the previous twenty years on public opinion and related subjects. He observed that in that time ‘there has been more organised study of public opinion in the U.S…. and more special pleading and propaganda… than in all previous cultural history’.
Albig found that, whereas before 1936 there had been continuous concern ‘with questions of ethics in relation to the formation and effects of public opinion’, this concern had largely disappeared from later writing and research. By contrast he found in the later work evidence of the intense excitement of professionals at the vision of the possibility of increased psychological control of their fellow men; and evidence, also, of ‘further degeneration of respect for their target, the common man’. Albig concluded his review with the warning that’many of the younger social scientists’ had not ‘adequately pondered’ the likely political results of the values and assumptions expressed in their work.
In 1960 an American historian, Daniel Boorstin, published a book entitled The Image; or What Happened to the American Dream. Boorstin, who is now Librarian of the Library of Congress, was much concerned about the effects of the huge growth in advertising and associated propaganda. One major effect, in Boorstin’s view had been a popular shift from concern with ‘ideals’ to concern with ‘images’. It is instructive to compare Boorstin’s description of American society in 1960 with the ideas about truth promoted by James and Dewey 50 years earlier.
Boorstin observes that ‘the “corporate image” is, of course, the most elaborately and expensively contrived of the images of our age’; and that ‘the momentous sign of the rise of image-thinking and its displacement of ideals is, of course, the rise of advertising’. Boorstin considers that Americans have underestimated the effect of the rise of advertising. We think it has meant an increase of untruthfulness. In fact it has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth. In consequence of this reshaping, ‘not truth but credibility is the modern [American] test. We share this standard with the advertising men themselves’ and,
All of us… all American citizen-consumers — are daily less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed. As a nation, Boorstin observes, Americans have come to think… that our main problem is abroad. How to ‘project’ our images to the world? Yet the problem abroad is only a symptom of our deeper problem at home. We have come to believe in our own images, till we have projected ourselves out of this world.
now, in the height of our power… we are threatened by a new and peculiarly American menace… It is the menace of unreality… We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can lice in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes … our very experience.
Thus by 1960, some thirty years after the American Journal of Sociology had published Bernays’ article on ‘Manipulating Public Opinion’, American public opinion had been manipulated, in Boorstin’s phrase, ‘out of this world’. In less than another decade, the pragmatic displacement of ‘truth’ by beliefs it was judged desirable people should hold, and of stubborn facts by ‘warranted assertibilities’, had played a manifest part in producing the outcome Russell warned about in 1945: ‘a certain kind of madness — the intoxication of power… increasing the danger of vast social disaster’.
And so to Vietnam and Watergate and the slow, slow, difficult road back to truth and sanity; a road which cannot be traversed until the subject of propaganda and its control in American society — almost entirely neglected for forty years by political scientists — is afforded a high and urgent priority in the nation’s affairs. For the key political problem confronting the United States has neither changed nor ameliorated since Professor Robert Dahl defined it 17 years ago in the following terms: ‘How much of the generally, favourable attitude of Americans toward business’ — and the consequent ‘absence of any well-defined alternative, in the United States to the present order’
can be attributed to deliberate efforts to manipulate attitudes. [M]uch in the way of political theory… depends on the assumptions one makes about the sources of political attitudes… [I]f one assumes that political preferences are simply plugged into the system by leaders (business or other) in order to extract what they wish from the system, then the model of plebiscitary democracy is substantially equivalent to the model of totalitarian rule.
If government of the people by the people for the people, in any meaningful sense, is not to perish from the American earth; if the American Dream is not to end in a better appointed, more adroitly managed, version of 1984; then it is of cardinal importance that the problem described by Dahl isn’t buried out of sight and out of mind by celebrations and symbols which glorify images and ignore realities.
– Notes –
B. C. Snell, American Ground Transport…, U.S. Senate Committee of the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, Washington, 1974. (Snell Report).
A. Sampson, The Sovereign State: The Secret History of ITT. (Coronet, London 1974), p. 45.
D. Boorstin, The Image; or What Happened to the American Dream (Weidenfield and Nicholson, London 1961), p. 212.
W. James, Pragmatism (Longman Green, New York 1907), pp. 75, 222, 299.
J. Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (Holt, New York 1920), pp. 128-30.
B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, New York 1945), pp. 825-6.
J. Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (Holt, New York 1938), pp. 7-11, 118, 546.
Russell, op. cit., p. 828.
P. Wiesner (ed.), Values in a Universe of Chance. Selected writings by C. S. Peirce. (Doubleday, New York 1958), p. 180.
V. O. Key, Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups, (Crowell, New York 1958), p. 103.
Ibid., p. 108.
E. L. Bernays, Public Relations, (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1952), p. 87.
R. Brady, Business as a System of Power, (Columbia University Press, New York 1943), pp. 292-3. See also E. C. Bursk, ‘Selling the idea of Free Enterprise’, Harvard Business Review, May 1948, pp. 372-84.
U.S.A. Congress, Senate Committee on Education and Labor. Report of the Committee on Education and Labor, No. 6, Part 6, pursuant to Special Resolution 266. 76th Congress, 1st Session (1939), p. 218.
Key, op. cit., pp. 106-107.
C. D. MacDougall, Understanding Public Opinion, (Macmillan, New York 1952), p. 568; and ‘Is anybody listening?’, Editorial, Fortune, September 1950, p. 78. 78.
‘Is anybody listening?’… p. 79; and H. G. Moulton and J. C. W. McKee, ‘How good is economic education?’, Fortune, July 1951, p. 126.
Editorial, ‘Business is still in trouble’, Fortune, 39, (5), 1949, p. 198.
Ibid., p. 70.
Editorial, ‘Public Relations — First in the Order of Business’, Business Week, 23 January 1937, p. 34.
E. L. Bernays, op. cit., pp. 71, 75, 74.
Ibid., p. 78.
Editorial, ‘Business is still in trouble’, p. 200.
E. L. Bernays, op. cit., p. 84.
E. L. Bernays, ‘Manipulating public opinion: the why and the how’, American Journal of Sociology, 33, (6), May 1928, p. 961.
Tasswell is the most well-known of contemporary American political scientists… he has probably influenced more work in other people than any political scientist alive today’, B. Crick, The American Science of Politics, (Kegan Paul, London 1959), p. 176.
H. D. Lasswell, ‘Propaganda’, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, (Macmillan, New York 1930-5, 1954 , reprint), .pp. 523, 524, 527.
E. L. Bernays, ‘The Engineering of Consent’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 250, March 1947, p. 114.
Ibid., pp. 114-5.
See Edward L. Bernays Intergroup Relations Award Meeting’, American Psychologist, 4, 1949, p. 265.
Editorial, ‘Business is still in trouble’,… p. 69.
H. D. Lasswell, ‘The Theory of Political Propaganda’, in B. Berelson and M. Janowitz (eds.), Reader in Public Opinion and Communication, (The Free Press, New York 1950), p. 180.
W. Albig, ‘Two Decades of Opinion Study: 1936-1956’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 21, (3), 1957, p. 14. 34
Ibid., pp. 21-2.
D. Boorstin, The Image; or What Happened to the American Dream. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1961), pp. 197-200, 239ff.
Ibid., pp. 184, 205.
Ibid., pp. 227, 212, 241.
Ibid., p. 240.
R. Dahl, ‘Business and Politics: A Critical Appraisal of Political Science’, in R. Dahl et al., Social Science Research on Business: Product and Potential. (Columbia University Press, New York 1959), pp. 37-8, 42.
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