In 1929 Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and creator of the term ‘propaganda,’ paid a group of young and fashionable women to smoke cigarettes in a suffragette march as an act of ‘resistance.’ Mr. Bernays’ goal was to convince women who had hitherto found cigarettes repulsive that smoking was an act of rebellion against male-determined conventions. What he accomplished was to consign several generations of women to poor health and diminished lives for the benefit of cynical (male) tobacco company executives.
Mr. Bernays’ ploy was spectacularly successful if exploiting social vulnerabilities for profit and social control can be termed ‘success.’ The women who were convinced to take up smoking were neither stupid nor more vulnerable to implausible suggestions than anyone else. And the paradox at work, selling psychological manipulation as self-determination, calls into question the very idea of self-determination. These women may well have felt liberated even as they ceded power over their lives to the forces they were nominally rebelling against.
In retrospect this paradox loses more ground still for the suffragettes because Mr. Bernays’ joined psychology to politics in order to take away the capacity for self-determination in any meaningful political sense. By framing the freedom to choose in terms of one’s ‘local’ choice of products, in this case cigarettes, but say Democrats or Republicans, the broader political-economy in intended to be legitimated through the provision of choice. But defining the realm of choice as what is put in front of us is fundamentally authoritarian.
More broadly, this conception of ‘freedom,’ of ‘free choice,’ is the fundamental paradox of capitalist democracy. Its language is self-legitimating by design. Would you rather be executed by a firing squad or electrocution? Either way, the choice is yours. Now live with it. Paradox arises through ‘externally’ given self-determination, through the assertion of social ‘selves’ as individually determined. It isn’t just that the suffragettes were used instrumentally by Mr. Bernays; the way they were used was through the manufactured delusion / illusion of ‘free’ choice.
In this interminable political season cries of ‘resistance’ are being put forward by political operatives who want to return the Democrats to power as well as by people who perceive irreconcilable contradictions in the existing social order. Chatter to ‘resist Trump’ implies that he alone is ‘the problem.’ Toward this end national Democrats have cited those bastions of social resistance and known truth-tellers (not) the CIA, FBI and the corporate-state press to assert that the public’s choice of products was corrupted by ‘outside’ actors.
For those with less mercenary concerns, the question of timing is important here. The Democrat Party is known as the ‘graveyard of social movements’ because it is the graveyard of social movements. Barack Obama was the ‘deporter-in-chief’ who rescued Wall Street while leaving the socially vulnerable to their own devices that set in motion the election of Donald Trump. Bill Clinton ‘freed’ Wall Street to abscond with several generations of Black wealth while launching his racist dog-whistle ‘war on crime’ at the Confederate war memorial that was home to a regional KKK revival. These seem good targets for ‘resistance.’ So where was it?
Any perceived tension between Edward Bernays’ ‘discovery’ that social vulnerabilities can be used to manipulate public perceptions and Antonio Gramsci’s conception of hegemony as sub-textual apologia for an existing social order falls to Mr. Gramsci through Mr. Bernays’ role as technocrat in the service of the American social order. The paradox of self-determination behind the manufacture of public perceptions applies every bit as much to those doing the manufacturing as it does to their targets. There is no paradox-free realm from which to conceive and launch political propaganda.
With full deference to its limited reach and endurance, the experience of Occupy Wall Street illustrates potential issues here. After the movement achieved national notoriety Democrat Party operatives began descending on Zuccotti Park expecting to find a new generation of Mr. Bernays’ suffragettes. To their credit, the more politically aware activists told the Democrats to drop dead in no uncertain terms. While Barack Obama was still bailing out Wall Street and plotting with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare he had his operatives coordinate a nation-wide effort to crush the movement. And it worked. Democrats = graveyard.
Up to here Edward Bernays and the contemporary crafters of public opinion have been granted a degree of brilliant insight they don’t deserve. As with the creation of nuclear weapons and the environmental destruction and social atomization of capitalist production, Mr. Bernays’ operational intelligence knows how to affect outcomes that are in a more encompassing sense less than brilliant. The George W. Bush administration used Mr. Bernays’ methods to persuade the public to let it launch the greatest foreign policy blunder in modern history. The shit being sold by Walmart lowers wages while its production destroys the planet. How brilliant is this?
For those looking past the Democrat’s post-election chatter, Donald Trump’s program proposals to date have been more insistent versions of the same capitalist / neoliberal pabulum that has been their core program for the last forty years. If ‘market mechanisms’ were good enough for Obamacare then why isn’t a ‘purer’ version like Republicans are proposing even better? Conversely, if ‘market mechanism’ is cynical rhetoric to cover predatory and extractive economic relations then why did Mr. Obama shove single-payer to the side to pass the Republican plan (ACA)? How politically ‘pragmatic’ was it to pass a program that is about to be repealed?
With superficial irony, the system of electoral politics that produced the constrained choice between neoliberal hawk Hillary Clinton and aristocratic loose-cannon Donald Trump is now being challenged by Democrats because it wasn’t constrained enough. National Democrats were pushing the ‘Russians are stealing the election’ line to cover their own corruption and incompetence months before their fates were determined at the polls. The charge of ‘outside’ interference is an effort to re-assert themselves as guardians of legitimate political discourse.
Edward Bernays’ paradox of manufactured ‘free’ choice is inescapable within its circular premises because it is ‘true’ in the sense put forward as capitalist democracy. Republicans supported ‘nation building’ (Iraq) and ‘socialized medicine’ (Medicare Part D) when George W. Bush was in office and Democrats supported a ‘unitary Presidency’ (right to kill citizens without due process) and a ‘culture of corruption’ (fewest white collar prosecutions in modern history) when Barack Obama was in office. With functional difference between the major Parties hard to find, their function as ‘opponents’ is to provide the illusion of choice. The rationale for demonizing Russia is to limit the realm of political possibility to this singular establishment.
It is hardly incidental that ‘money in politics’ goes in substantial measure toward political advertising. After Joseph Goebbels, acolyte of Edward Bernays, ruined the term ‘propaganda’ for political purposes it was changed to ‘public relations,’ which later became ‘advertising.’ In the present, U.S. electoral politics are led / fed by manufactured ‘product’ differentiation based on Mr. Bernays’ theories of ‘externally’ given self-determination. The choices are ‘real’ but the context is arranged to preclude politics rather than facilitate them. Again, the rationale for re-starting the Cold War is to restate the realm of ‘legitimate’ politics to exclude ‘external’ actors and possibilities.
Current talk of fascism would be better informed if it made clear that (American) Edward Bernays was a major influence on Joseph Goebbels and not the other way around. The political insight in play is: why tell people what to do when you can get them to believe that doing what you want them to do was their idea in the first place? In the context of Gramsci’s hegemony, and from the perspective of Edward Bernays’ purposely delimited ‘free choice,’ it is irrelevant whether political advertising results in a Democrat or Republican ‘victory’ because the goal is to provide the illusion of choice. The problem made evident in the recent election is that five decades of mal-governance risks a loss of legitimacy for the broader project.
I’m all for resistance. I’ve been marching, walking-out, shutting-down, writing letters of protest and joining various dissident groups for four decades now. The U.S. is currently in the darkest place I’ve known since I was born in the first Cold War. But reform the Democrat Party? Why promote the fiction of choice it represents at all? I was there when the NYPD took apart the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. As with the Black Panther free breakfast program, the ‘threat’ that was destroyed was the demonstration of community outside of official sanction. A similar threat motivated FDR’s New Deal. But why settle for reforms when a functioning alternative can be built?