Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Selling ice to Eskimos....

After the Supreme Court decision last week, there's been no shortage of outrage about the Five Stooges on the bench handing over the country's elections to corporate control, and no small amount of it over the fact that recent appointees, during their nomination hearings, promised to be moderate and to respect precedent, when, in fact, they turned out to be the raging Federalist Society aristocratic bulls-in-the-judicial-china-shop everyone knew from their histories, pre-nomination, that they would be. C'mon, boys and girls, that's why they were nominated by Bush.

By now, maybe it's essential to understand that nomination hearings are mostly cynical exercises--dog-and-pony shows--that only hint at, rather than explicate, the underlying issues of ideology and competency that all the participants understand much more completely than does the citizen observer.

Nomination hearings, though, are just symptoms of a larger problem: we're the most propagandized people on the planet. Oh, yeah, I hear the wails of protest, that we're a democracy, we're free, we have more information available to us than any society in history.

Too bad that most of that information is pure, unadulterated horseshit. George Carlin probably said it best:

"The table has tilted, folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. Good, honest, hard-working people: white collar, blue collar, it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on. Good, honest, hard-working people continue--these are people of modest means--continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care about you at all! At all! At all! And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. That’s what the owners count on. The fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that’s being jammed up their assholes every day, because the owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American Dream, 'cause you have to be asleep to believe it."

What's putting people to sleep is the most sophisticated propaganda effort ever mounted in world history. That propaganda is a combination of what the government says through the media, what corporate advertising says to the public through the media and how corporate astroturfed public relations spin spreads virally through society unimpeded.

Much of it depends upon the lessons learned from the father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, who developed many of his ideas while advising the government on how to move public opinion to support for Woodrow Wilson's entry of the U.S. into WWI, a policy decision that was generally unpopular among the public. What was critically different about Bernays' approach to public relations was that he actively employed the ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, and the psychology of mass movements to, as he put it, the "engineering of consent."

Think about it. The government, beginning in WWI, began to employ techniques to mold public opinion that depended less and less on appeal to rational thought processes, and more and more on manipulation of the subconscious, and, at the same time, began to create law to enforce the government's policy positions, the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act.

By the end of WWI, Bernays was teaching courses in modern public relations at what is now New York University, and published the first comprehensive book on the subject of public relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion.

It's probably no accident that, not long afterward, American big business began its first major campaign to suck money out of the pockets of ordinary people by convincing them that debt equaled wealth. The result was a decade of bubbles culminating in the Great Depression.

At the end of WWII, the GI Bill helped train a new generation of technocrats, and among them, advertising and public relations professionals, many of whom found employment on both Madison Avenue and in government, a relationship explored in detail by Adam Curtis in his four-part BBC series, "The Century of the Self." From that time onward, both advertising and government propaganda became radically more sophisticated, orders of magnitude more subtle in terms of disguising the motives behind the messaging, and in recent years, has depended more and more upon the neurological research of the cognitive sciences.

The question today, given that history, is whether or not any of us have much free will left to exercise democratically. What portion of our opinions, if any, is independent of subconscious influence directed at us by the powerful in society? We know from bitter recent experience that psychologically damaging torture techniques such as sensory deprivation and sleep starvation can "rewire" the brain (Jose Padilla's lawyers, for example, said that he was resistant to cooperating in his own defense because he thought that might somehow injure George W. Bush). The core intent of such methods is to reduce the person to the state of an infant, without memory, without history, upon which new ideas can be "imprinted." Those shock (and morally shocking) methods, in the minds of the torturers, are the most efficient in terms of the time required to achieve that breakdown of brain function. What if, however, similar effects can be achieved less radically over longer periods of time?

One of the most puzzling aspects of modern American society is the persistence of a significant percentage of voters who, unaccountably, seem to vote consistently against their own economic interests. Many of those people are either single-issue voters, or are attracted to so-called "family values" candidates. They are against abortion law, for example, even though nothing in that law mandates that they themselves participate in abortion. The position is often described as a morally inflexible affirmation of life, but, paradoxically, many of its adherents also believe in the state's right to put criminals to death, as well as in the state's right to engage in wars of choice which inevitably have as a consequence the deaths of large numbers of innocents. Moreover, the candidates for whom they vote, while expressing sympathies against abortion, overwhelmingly seem disinclined to actually change the law, even when they are in control of government, and who are also ideologically inclined, once in government, to favor the interests of the rich and powerful.

Putting aside for a moment the question of the moral implications of abortion, since it is not germane to the current topic, what remains is a remarkably irrational hodgepodge of contradictions. I myself have tried at times to describe those contradictions as consistent with the personality profile of followers of right-wing authoritarianism, but, I sometimes wonder if those contradictions--precisely because the internal logic of them is so inconsistent--are the result of modern propaganda techniques, especially since they seem to result in political and economic advantage for the wealthy elite in this country.

It's difficult to pinpoint the germination of trends, so, it's probably not good scholarship to ascribe to a trend just one single source, but, for purposes of discussion, let's explore a trend and its possible place of birth. In many ways, 1970 was a watershed year in modern history. We saw a polarization of society only rivalled by that in effect today. Huge demonstrations against a futile war encouraged that polarization, as did a new trend of scientifically-based environmentalism. Underlying these many schisms was a generational clash of philosophies about the way society should be structured. In the main, one can label them as an older dominant culture and a younger counter-culture, but, to my mind, what mattered was the way the moneyed classes felt threatened by the ideas of that counter-culture, and there's no better place to see their fears than in what is now referred to as the Powell Manifesto.

In many ways, Powell's memo is an historical and literary document, worthy of serious study on its own, but, it's also worthwhile to think of it as the beginning of a major societal trend that persists today. First, Powell's language is that of war--he talks from the start about the counter-culture's "attack" on what he believes is the very heart of the country--big business. The nature of that attack? A rejection of materialism for its own sake, the repudiation of mindless consumerism, of keeping up with the Joneses, and an abhorrence of the principles of planned obsolescence and disposability. Powell gussies up his argument with what he thinks are persuasive examples of anarchic disrespect for law and order, but, like disingenuous autobiography, Powell knows that everything he cites are threats to the continuing accumulation of profit by his class (Powell himself was moderately well-to-do, but, as a lawyer, he was almost exclusively in the service of powerful corporations).

It's worth noting here that at the turn of that decade, hippies weren't the only threat to profit. Japan was economically ascendant, as was Western Europe--particularly West Germany. Domestic oil production had peaked. The insiders knew that, but the public didn't. Even non-environmentalists could see that the air in America's major cities wasn't fit to breathe, and that rivers catching on fire was not exactly a good thing--especially if one eventually had to drink that petrochemical-laden water, and that post-WWII production and consumption were part of the problem. The only way for the rich to keep on making lots of money was to gradually convert to an economy that depended less on manufacturing and more on financial services, and the only way for financial services to make the profits to which the rich were accustomed was to create a lot of new debt to leverage, and that's where the hippies enter the picture. Any cultural class that discouraged wanton consumption was also discouraging debt accumulation.

Powell's memo, in keeping with his theme of war (and here I hope to finally make my point), also was a plan of battle. It laid out--in rather specific ways--a sophisticated long-term program to change public opinion, and, critically, the means to fund that change. Powell said that the wealthy, in order to protect and increase that wealth, would have to tithe a portion of their income to PR efforts, in the same way that they protected their spiritual wealth by tithing to their churches. The wealthy responded. They funded think tanks, public relations firms and speakers' bureaus. They funded the campaigns of politicians who would, first and foremost, shift public policy in directions helpful to the wealthy and who relished the thought of cultural warfare. The wealthy, quite literally, blitzed Washington, DC, and the nation with the gospel of "free" enterprise and the religion of wealth, and, at the same time, their corporations sought out advertising whiz-kids who would restore to American society the vague subliminal discomforts upon which excess consumption--and, therefore, debt--depends.

All the better that the production fueling that consumption depended less and less upon the American worker. Factories closed because labor was cheaper elsewhere and low-paying service jobs increased debt accumulation and discouraged unionization. The think tanks and PR firms could also use increasing impoverishment to inflame racial and religious differences, in part by enlisting the aid of radio- and television-based evangelists who increasingly preached the prosperity gospel as wages stagnated, and who encouraged--unlike previous times--their flocks to, as Texas-based evangelist James Robison put it, fight godless liberalism and secular humanism by leaving their churches for the streets and the ballot booths, inevitably inciting passions that had nothing to do with the well-being of common people and electing politicians--eventually of both parties--who saw their primary task as furthering wealth accumulation among the wealthy in exchange for incumbency. While the ordinary citizen was exhorted to accept personal responsibility and stand on his own two feet as an almost religious duty to society, the wealthy and the corporations that drive their wealth were increasingly being subsidized by the taxpayers.

Thus, what seems at first glance to be an organic religious movement to bring morality back to society might, in fact, be the result of a well-oiled and sophisticated political PR campaign to return American society to precisely the sort of consumption that benefitted the wealthy forty years ago and was endangered by some very old notions--newly wrapped up in tie-dye--about thrift and economy and the inadvisability of crapping in one's bed. Anecdotal evidence abounds for this view. First, there are the internal logical contradictions of popular Christian evangelicalism today, about life, war, poverty and the peculiar cross-branding of the evangelical right and the GOP and corporations (for example, Jeff Sharlet notes in The Family that members of the New Life Church he met in Colorado Springs almost uniformly disdained the old downtown family-owned restaurants in favor of the corporate chain restaurants of suburbia, which, coincidentally, are the ones that get advertised on television).

Second, there are the undeniable economic and political changes that occurred in society as the PR effort of the wealthy gained traction. Jimmy Carter's appeals to thrift and economy and to wear a sweater were roundly ridiculed, even though what he advised could be found in thousands of Biblical passages and manuals on personal economy. Reagan entered office on a wave of optimism generated in large part out of thin air and vague promises to return the country to the halcyon days of plenty, which was largely fueled by cheap-money debt and a wholesale attack on regulation (which, incidentally, caused the two big burst bubbles of the `80s, the stock market meltdown and the savings and loan disaster). Wages and manufacturing continued to decline, while debt and debt leverage grew, as did protection of the rich from loss by taxpayer bailout.

Wealth inequality grew rapidly as the public grew to embrace economic theory that it largely neither understood nor related to its own declining prosperity, and which had proven--in the real world--to be a failure for ordinary people. Governmental, corporate and private debt exploded. Even today, in the midst of one of worst economic collapses in nearly a century, trickle-down theory and its ugly siblings, "free trade," and "deregulation" are, in the popular mind, the antidotes for the local mom-and-pop store supposedly being suffocated by government taxation and oppression, when, in reality, mom and pop have been driven out of business by their own representatives in government and are now working for a big box store subsidized by property tax abatements and sales tax rebates, subsidies shouldered by the ordinary taxpayers for the benefit of the wealthy.

The mind reels at the contradictions in logic, and the only way to explain such irrationality is that some unseen force must be at work causing it to happen. M'self, I think that stealthy force began with Powell's suggestions on how to change public opinion, using the best propagandists money could buy. An essential of modern propaganda is the principle of the Big Lie. A huge lie, repeated over and over and over again, is more likely to be believed than a small, inconsequential lie, and the Big Lie that Powell sought to have branded in the mind of the public is--reduced to its essence--that the welfare of the rich and powerful is the same as the welfare of the country. That such can be believed with conviction by so many--even as we go careening through the wreckage--is in itself proof that the PR campaign worked.


  • Sheesh.

    Between you, Thomas Franks and Michael Hudson I may never sleep again.

    Thanks for the fine explication, buddy.


    May I blogroll you?


    the Big Lie that Powell sought to have branded in the mind of the public is--reduced to its essence--that the welfare of the rich and powerful is the same as the welfare of the country. That such can be believed with conviction by so many--even as we go careening through the wreckage--is in itself proof that the PR campaign worked.

    By Blogger Suzan, at 2:41 PM  

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