Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds – Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”
Public relations is the polite term for the systematic dissemination of propaganda and disinformation by corporations and the corporate-controlled state. The crude psychological manipulation in most advertising, which appeals to deep insecurities, is ridiculously obvious. TV viewers are told constantly that they’re lonely and sexually frustrated, as well as too old, too ugly and too fat, to pressure them to buy products they neither want nor need.
People are less likely to recognize that all mass media (e.g. movies, TV programming, newspapers, magazines, etc) employs subtle psychological messaging that shapes shape the way we view ourselves, other people and the world at large.
To be effective, any movement seeking lasting political change must address the ideological strait jacket all of us wear to some extent. The good new is that the pro-capitalist indoctrination we’re meant to live by is surprisingly superficial. Under the right circumstances, it can totally unravel. At this very moment young people throughout the industrialized world are waking up and refusing to be taken in by it.
Edward Bernays: Father of Public Relations
Thanks to Edward Bernays, known as the father of public relations, an artificial capitalist ideology has emerged that enables the corporate state to use psychological manipulation, rather than brute force, to control us. This competitive, individualistic pro-consumption ideology is totally at odds with biological programming that has hardwired us to be social animals.*
Competitive individualism holds that all human achievement results from superior individual effort, which directly contradicts historical evidence revealing that all major inventions and discoveries stem from cooperation and collaboration. We’re also conditioned to believe that concepts such as class, society and community are nonexistent – that all social problems, such as poverty, joblessness and homelessness stem from individual failings. Because America is the richest, cleanest, fairest country in the world, any problems we experience must be of own doing.
We are simultaneously bombarded with messaging sowing distrust between young and old, between men and women, between different ethnicities and between straight and gay. Messaging that encourages us to blame convenient scapegoats for economic and social problems – Muslims, feminists, welfare queens, Jews and red necks. Instead of the true culprit: a corporate elite that’s robbing us blind.
Our Fabricated Lifestyle
After nearly a hundred years this careful mental programming, reinforced by schools, universities and middle class helping professionals, has facilitated the breakdown of family and social networks. A traditional lifestyle centered around close family and community has been replaced by a fabricated lifestyle based on continual consumption, low wages and debt-slavery, as people work ever longer hours to pay off debt.
With the breakdown of traditional family and social networks, people must purchase services (e.g. child and senior care, meal preparation, mending, simple repairs) friends and neighbors used to provide for free. Social isolation and loneliness have become epidemic as people struggle to survive in the absence of social connections we’re biologically programmed to seek out.
The PR industry plays on our feelings of emptiness and discontent by trying to sell us yet more products. In Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein writes of a profound inner emptiness that can never be satisfied – an emptiness born out of the breakdown of social networks human have relied on for most of our 250,000 year existence.
Taking the Risk Out of Democracy
As the late Australian psychological Alex Carey describes in Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, Woodrow Wilson first hired Bernays in 1914 to convince a strongly anti-war American public that they should commit sons and tax dollars for a European war that had no direct impact on their own lives. His success in selling World War I led Bernays to coin the term public relations and set himself up as a public relations counselor. Among others, his clients would include corporate giants like Standard Oil, General Electric, the American Tobacco Company, United Fruit Company, CBS and Proctor and Gamble. As Carey describes, in 1919 the National Association of Manufacturers hired him to (successfully) reverse strong pro-union sentiment when steel workers struck for the right to bargain collectively.
Bernays published his seminal book Propaganda in 1928. During the 1930s he assisted Alcoa Aluminum in persuading American doctors and dentists that the toxic waste sodium fluoride improved dental health. In the mid to late thirties he was deeply influenced by the work of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. In 1954 Bernays’s propaganda campaign for the United Fruit Company laid the groundwork for the CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government.
The Rise of Consumerism
The work of Bernays and his successors would also lead to the rise of American consumerism – the transformation of Americans from active involved citizens to passive consumers. As Betty Friedan describes in the Feminist Mystique, the earliest pro-consumption messages were directed towards women. Working class women have always contributed to household income – if not through formal employment, by renting out rooms, taking in laundry or performing children. Moreover working class families tended to share washing machines, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and other home appliances when they first came on the market. The PR industry had to discourage this trend to promote sales. They did so be creating a feminine mystique that measured a woman’s femininity by her ability to attract a man wealthy enough to provide her with her very own home appliances. And a color TV, hi-fi stereo and new family car every year.
*Within the human brain, complex neural networks reward us with powerful “feel good” substances, such as endorphins and oxytocin. Thanks to these substances and “mirror neurons” (believed to be the biological basis of empathy), human beings have met their basic needs through close knit social networks for most of their 250,000 year history.
To be continued, with signs our ideological programming is starting to break down.
photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc