What happened to Democracy?

To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really?

– BBC, promotion of The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis

Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the father of propaganda used Freud’s early work to shape the progressive era isolationists of the U.S. through manipulation of mass media of that era. With a media campaign full of lies and mythical stories Bernays presented story after story of half-truths through silent-films, newsprint, magazines, etc. to sway people from their isolationist policies. Working for the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War I with the Committee on Public Information, he was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe”. This slogan became the key component in his campaign and was attached to a myriad of products, labels, eye catching signs, ads in stores, in newpapers, etc. across the nation. He had awakened the emotions of the American popular imagination and released certain innate desires.

Bernays was influenced by the French writer Gustave LeBon, the originator of crowd psychology, and of Wilfred Trotter, who promoted similar ideas in the anglophone world in his book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. Bernays refers to these two names in his writings. Trotter, who was a head and neck surgeon at University College Hospital, London, read Freud’s works, and it was he who introduced Wilfred Bion, whom he lived and worked with, to Freud’s ideas. When Freud fled Vienna for London after the Anschluss, Trotter became his personal physician, and Wilfred Bion and Ernest Jones became key members of the Freudian psychoanalysis movement in England, and would develop the field of Group Dynamics, largely associated with the Tavistock Institute where many of Freud’s followers worked. Thus ideas of group psychology and psychoanalysis came together in London around World War II.

He would realize after the war that what had worked in shaping peoples imaginations to got to war would work just as well for businesses, so he created the first private public relations firm in the U.S. Realizing that the term propaganda had negative connotations he switched it to public relations to soften its power. He was able to influence the political, social, and business elite that his ideas and methods could be used to sale products and manipulate peoples desires to effect behavioral change. Walter Lippmann, a leading progressive intellectual would write a book Public Opinion to earmark a critical assessment of functional democratic government, especially the irrational, and often self-serving, social perceptions that influence individual behavior, and prevent optimal societal cohesion. The descriptions of the cognitive limitations people face in comprehending their socio-political and cultural environments, proposes that people must inevitably apply an evolving catalogue of general stereotypes to a complex reality. This notion that the mass man in the street was a full of contradictory and somewhat dangerous emotions, that he was in effect an irrational being that needed the guidance and governance of an elite of experts and public officials would guide both government and business practices in the coming decades. Some say such ideas still guide decision making processes around the globe.

Edward Bernays just before WWII would help his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to escape his native Austria, allowing him and his daughter Anna to go to England. As part of this gesture he was able to get his uncle to buy into publishing his complete works into English in the United States. Freud hated the U.S. but consented to the publishing of his works. It was from that time that the influence of psychoanalysis and the theories of Freud would become mainstream business in the U.S. Curtis in his documentary ties most of this history together in a narrative of power, influence, and control both political and corporate as different forces vied with each other to incorporate Freudian theory and practice into the new consumerist society arising in the U.S. and U.K.

In 1939 Freud would die of cancer and leave his legacy in the capable hands of his daughter Anna. She would become the iron leader of the psychoanalytic movement from that time forward, promoting her father’s work at every opportunity even to the point of covering up its underlying failures. What’s of interest in this tale as we follow Curtis’s narrative is the manipulation of humans by both governments and business without any sense of ethical oversight. At every step of the way the underlying mythology of Freud of the irrational sexual and aggressive nature of humans is never questioned. And, when it is done so by such Freudians as Wilhelm Reich, the power of the mythology of a pseudo-scientistic psychology becomes the arm of the State to expunge such dissidents and silence them through legal pressure. Isolated and alone, Reich would develop a set of liberatory theories based not on sex and aggression, but on desire and emancipation as the driving force within humans. This force he would give a name: orgone energy, another mythic icon, revealing the notion that humans did not as in Freud need to be constrained, repressed, and controlled because of their irrational emotions, but rather they needed just the opposite the release from those repressive constraints that warped their characters and forced them into molds and conforming restraints that turned innocence into the deadly monstrous demons of repression. He tried to show how leaders in Fascism had manipulated these repressed desires and channeled them toward other ends using ritual, myth, and sacred scapegoating techniques as old as humanity. Rene Girard and other scholars would later show how such behavior was based on mimetic techniques in all societies in one form or another.

Be that as it may, Reich was ousted from the Congress of Psychoanalysis by Anna Freud herself for his heresies. Curtis presents this and much more about Anna and her promotion of Freud’s theories across the Ocean. Bernays himself would be one of those that would use his own public relations firm to promote these ideas in lectures to businesses around the country, thereby informing and building the consumer society we see around us today. His early branding techniques and ad campaigns, along with trendy slogans, etc. would speak to the mass individual’s desires rather than reason They felt that one could bypass reason and go directly to peoples desires and manipulate them through attraction, allure, and other affective techniques to buy products. Such things did not go unnoticed by those in Germany in the thirties.

It would be Joseph Goebbels himself who would notice that “task of centrally leading both propaganda and education, uniting two concepts that are related but not identical, molding them into a unity that in the long term can serve the government and people.”1 Better than most Goebbels would cut to the core and realize the essential elements of the propaganda system:

Propaganda too has a system. It cannot be made any old way. In the long run, it can only be effective in the service of great ideals and far-seeing principles. And propaganda must be learned. It must be led only by people with a fine and sure instinct for the often changeable feelings of the people. They must be able to reach into the world of the broad masses and draw out their wishes and hopes. The effective propagandist must be a master of the art of speech, of writing, of journalism, of the poster and of the leaflet. He must have the gift to use the major methods of influencing public opinion such as the press, film and radio to serve his ideas and goals, above all in an age of advancing technology.

This notion of fusing propaganda, media and education would allow Goebbels to engender a new form of governance and social control; one he learned from Bernays and Lippmann. For as Guy Debord and so many others have recounted over the years, we are immersed in a propaganda machine, an infosphere of ideology that surrounds us like an invisible envelope, a transparent bubble of information and data that shapes us through powerful Information and Communications Technologies that have been naturalized for the most part in our lives like a seamless dream.

After WWII the consumer society would enter a new phase. With soldiers returning from war, with industry change over from war to civilian economies, with the need to build a new world in which the mass consumer would be taught to buy, consume, and discover the obsolescence of last years product and the need for this years. The capitalist utopia of conformity and compliance shifted gears into hyper-consumption and obsolescence, composition and decomposition, the endless cycle of production and consumption; profit over people. People wanted things, lots of things, a complete house and yard full of things. It was during this era that the greatest control device known to man up to that time was introduced: the television. Television created the couch potato, the passive citizen locked into watching endless cartoons, war films, romances, westerns, crime shows, etc. A world that could be controlled and manipulated by the elites for the elites, the perfect system in which to teach the new consumer society not only what to buy, but how to live, how to behave, how to become what the elites wanted them to become. One can go back and watch many of these early black and white shows from different venues around the web and study the power of this media to shape these fifties citizens. I don’t have time to go into a listing of shows, etc. William Boddy’s book Fifties Television: THE INDUSTRY AND ITS CRITICS gives an informed look at this history for those interested. Tons of related works on media theory and its use as control and propaganda system are available in sociological, psychological, and legal, marketing, and other literatures. Fascinating to see the hype of public opinion, and the actual workings in the backgrounds as elites controlled and manipulated the systems for economic and governmental agendas.

The slow process of remythologizing society over the past century has been a fascinating study in itself. The quirky systems of information management and public relations of Bernays became over a hundred years the emergence of an industry that’s only purpose is to deceive, manipulate, and entertain its consumers as producers of their own desires to consume endlessly.

Think of it with the new neurosciences big business is learning to intervene directly into your actual physical systems now. Just as the early marketers learned from Freud, then from the Human Potential Movement. The problem with the Matrix we live in is that it seems to be crumbling around the edges, it seems to be breaking down, and all the nuts, bolts, hype will never put it back together again.  So goes the story…

For Bernays, Goebbels, and any number of media relations propagandists and manipulators of Public Opinion the keys were to simplify, riddle the world dramatic, formulate the clichés that can bolster the most vibrant enthusiasm. Bernays once said of the average Joe on the street:

The mental equipment of the average individual consists of a mass of judgments on most of the subjects which touch his daily physical or mental life. These judgments are the tools of his daily being and yet they are his judgments, not on a basis of research and logical deduction, but for the most part dogmatic expressions accepted on the authority of his parents, his teachers, his church, and of his social, his economic and other leaders.

Most of us don’t want to believe we are less than individuals, that we’re closer to an amalgam of competiting opinions (doxa) and judgements not our own, and that for all our deep and abiding belief in the notion of the liberal individual Self / Subject what we are in the end is nothing but these floating bits of ideas circulating in that indistinct social assembly system we term society, culture, or —the Symbolic Order. The point here is that most humans are walking clichés, their minds riddled with thoughts and judgements not their own. Which brings us to the old argument of Copy and Simulacrum, or Originality and Plagiarism, Public and Individual Mind. Adding to the mix, postmodern literary theory reminds us that nothing is wholly original-that we depend on remixing and reusing the past, adding to or remaking old plots, insights, and ideas. Across disciplines and fields, we find that plagiarism is not a simple wrong; a full understanding of its role in contemporary intellectual life depends on a broad approach that includes notions of what is original and what role imitation plays in the creation of new texts, individuals, and societies.

It was Montaigne who noted that all knowledge is public property. Rousseau challenged the alternative notion of private property saying it was the cause of every major disaster to befall human society. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality he warned us to beware of the imposter who would have you believe property can be private, and admonished us lest we become lost and “forget that the fruit belongs to everyone, and the earth to no one.” Every legal notion of copyright is based on private property laws. But as Eliot once said, the “Originals were never original anyway,” then what is it that is private?

As numerous contributors remind us, at no time has copyright law guaranteed complete control over an individual work or property. All this reminded me of the recent suit brought by the country of Iceland against a British food chain, Iceland Ltd. for infringement on copyright law. As the Food Chain said in a statement: “While we will vigorously defend Iceland Foods’ established rights where there is any risk of confusion between our business and Iceland the country, we have been trading successfully for 46 years under the name Iceland and do not believe that any serious confusion or conflict has ever arisen in the public mind, or is likely to do so.”

The use of “public mind” as a legal defense in the above is almost hilarious if it wasn’t such a serious case and precedent. Yet, isn’t this at the heart of the essay: the distance between public/private has become indecipherable over the past couple hundred years. We used to hold that the barriers between public and private were essential for a democracy. But we’ve seen the barriers slowly erode and disappear in the past few decades to the point that the public and private as categories of political, or even legal systems means nothing anymore. In a world dominated by digital reproduction and mass replication of data we’ve entered a new era. “Piracy” has become a favorite word to describe even legal copying of material because in the digital age the potential arises to make millions of copies easily.

Even DNA/RNA has become a hot topic in the public/private debates. With cloning and replication, 3D Printers enabled to replicate anything from weapons to biosynthetic molecules we’re living in a realm of CRISPERS and DYI Genetics. The world is becoming strangers day by day, but so is the command and control systems. Surveillance or the replication of the ‘eye’ and ‘gaze’ of the legal and State machine to strip the world of all its hidden spaces and privacy is becoming more and more important in the larger megacities. Civilization is mutating at an accelerating pace into a multitude of niche markets and worlds as if sociocultural evolution was exploding beyond the old public/private distinctions.

If the public/private distinction no longer holds then what about democracy itself? Can we say that in the world where nothing is private and everything has become unoriginal and a copy of a copy to the point that individuality no longer exists and we’ve all become ‘dividuals’  – mere datablips in an organized Surveillance State then what remains of the Enlightenment dreams of Reason? Bernays would once admonish his readers: “The only difference between “propaganda” and “education,” really, is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda. Each of these nouns carries with it social and moral implications. Education is valuable, commendable, enlightening, instructive. Propaganda is insidious, dishonest, underhand, misleading.”

But then again “belief” is in itself a question of Opinion, public or otherwise. So that GroupThink becomes the order of the day, and what one group believes becomes Law and Education. To hook such a notion to the State is insidiousness itself. Are we not seeing this in our own current and past governments. Hasn’t democracy been under such a dark and secret heritage from the beginning? Have we ever truly had a democracy in America, or was it a trick of propaganda and public relations all along? Socrates once admonished that he was an ignorant man, maybe this is a good place to acknowledge just how ignorant we have all become. That for all our modern and post-modern elitism most of our academics, scholars, intellectuals, philosophers, scientists are all under the illusion of living in a democracy when in fact its never been one but in name and myth. Is it time to wake up yet?


  1. Goebbels, Joseph (2009-05-31). Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda (Kindle Locations 34-35). Shamrock Eden Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Bernays, Edward L.. Crystallizing Public Opinion (Kindle Locations 962-968). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

 

 

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