from the quote bin, bernays

February 1, 2021

Edward Bernays is easily cited as one of the founding fathers of the modern propaganda industry, which we so delightfully euphemize as “marketing” and “public relations.” What Bernays recognized and championed was the need for a free market, democratic society to be steered and caressed in order to operate smoothly in lieu of a strong hand.

“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.”

—Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

In 1928, Bernays’ wrote Propaganda entirely unironically. It is an apology for, and primer on, the use of propaganda to shape the taste and minds of free peoples for the sake of order. In 1988, Chomsky and Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent—a turn of phrase borrowed from Bernays’ “engineering of consent”—as a sharp critique of the prevailing model by which democratic societies govern electorates through consent rather than violent coercion.

Bernays again:

“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.

This practice of creating circumstances and of creating pictures in the minds of millions of persons is very common. Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president. Sometimes the effect on the public is created by a professional propagandist, sometimes by an amateur deputed for the job. The important thing is that it is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.”

Now, we are public and propagandists. We’ve become so acculturated to the relationship between propaganda and power, life and order, that the success of social media was low-hanging fruit. Thoroughly acclimated to the logical “practice of creating circumstances” and “creating pictures in the minds of millions,” we awarded ourselves each individually the ruling class pleasure of doing the same. With the proliferation of the technical means to create and propagate media of us by us for us, the power structure of propaganda was seemingly democratized. 

So we took it for a spin, naturally, as all people do when given the keys to dad’s car. We’ve felt the power of the engine pulsating through us. “I am aware,” Bernays writes, “that the word ‘propaganda’ carries to many minds an unpleasant 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.” Whether we like it or not, this proposition—and all the knotty naïvety contained therein—has become one of the foundational truths of our present day.

It’s for this reason that the truth of propaganda deserves rigorous questioning.