From the Horse's Mouth: Edward Bernays on Propaganda- Part I- The Invisible Government


5 months agoSteemit5 min read

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Bernays' book, written in 1928 could easily been titled "A Handbook For Elitists" or "A Handbook for Oligarchs." In Bernays' world- the world of elitist oligarchs maintaining order (control) by limiting the choices available to the "unwashed masses"- a republic consisting of political parties that represent a variety of political as well as cultural views is anathema. To Bernays and his ilk human beings are inherently incapable of making choices without being "guided" by elites- hence the absolute need for propaganda. In the hive mind, "end justifies the means" groupthink, lying to protect the "common good" or steering the masses toward conclusions they might not otherwise make, to the elites in control propaganda is the chosen tool.

Manufactured consent in the political arena is where the public has voluntarily allowed the government (or the propagandists therein) to narrow the field of issues- propaganda is necessary to accomplish this. The argument of course is that the masses would otherwise be overwhelmed by the plethora of options. In other words the public is too stupid, or uneducated therefore we need a political elite to guide us through the veritable minefield of choices.

"It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading (lobbyists), committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best type of clothes for us to wear and the best kind of food for us to eat. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda." (p. 39)

Quoting King Louis XIV who declared "L'Etat c'est moi," (The State is me) Bernays bemoaned "the good old days" where total political power was vested unchecked not only in one locus of power, but in one person. He blames the march of progress, beginning with the industrial revolution and the blossoming of the bourgeoisie for the decline of monarchy, exacerbated by technology and the rapid dissemination of information. Bernays feared a day where "the masses promised to become king." Bernays, however, did understand the importance of controlling the flow of information.

Fortunately, Bernays had a remedy to prevent the travesty of the common man becoming king- or even a player in the game of power- propaganda. "The minority (elites) has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible to mold the minds 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." (p. 47) Bernays correctly describes propaganda as "the executive arm of the invisible government."

He wrote: "I am aware that the word propaganda carries to many minds a negative connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published." (p. 48) Two glaring inconsistencies jump out of this statement... First: who decides upon the "merit of the cause" and secondly, if the information is valid, propaganda is unnecessary. Bernays cites an article from Scientific American is which they intimate that all transferral of information could be designated propaganda:

"Judged by this definition (The Vatican's College of Propaganda 1627), we can see that in its true sense propaganda is a perfectly legitimate form of human activity. Any society, whether it be social, religious or political, which is possessed of certain beliefs, and sets out to make them known, either by the spoken or written words, is practicing propaganda." (p. 49) However, a distinction must be made here... propaganda is the deliberate distortion of information to achieve a predetermined outcome. Otherwise, information is just that- information. The rest of the Scientific American article goes on to attempt to conflate propaganda with truth (ineffectively in my opinion). Truth is truth and propaganda is propaganda.

Bernays offers his own definition: "Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to CREATE or SHAPE events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group." (p. 52) In the style of a modern politician, Bernays goes on to credit propaganda for many of the positive things going on in society and politics, resembling Barack Obama in style if not substance- and after all, propaganda is style above substance... "We are proud of our diminishing infant death rate- and that too is the work of propaganda." (p. 53)

There's a touch of Fascism to Bernays worldview. To the Fascist mind the individual is merely a cell of a much larger organism- the state. Speaking of the "new propaganda" Bernays says: "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 a cell organized into the social unit." (p. 55)This insight into the "mass mind" goes a long way toward explaining the attraction of Fascism in the cash-strapped Germany of the 1920's and 30's. Not only does the individual want to feel a part of something, they want to feel a part of something working toward a common purpose. It should be noted that Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

I think to close out this first part it's appropriate to give Bernays the last word: "Formerly the rulers were leaders. They laid out the course of history, by simple doing what they wanted. And if nowadays the successors of the rulers, those whose positions or ability gives them power, can no longer do what they want without the approval of the masses, they find in propaganda a tool which is increasingly powerful in gaining that approval. Therefore, propaganda is here to stay." (p. 54)





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