Propaganda by Edward Bernays: A Review

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, is the father of modern public relations. His project in the pamphlet Propaganda is to defend the practice of propaganda, which he defines as:

“A consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.”

He argues that not only is propaganda not bad as long as it is used “consciously” and “intelligently” — it is necessary for democracy.

In our complex modern society, it is too time-consuming for ordinary citizens to make sense of “the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question.” Apparently, If we tried, our lives would become “hopelessly jammed.” We therefore “consent to have our choices narrowed to ideas and objects brought to our attention through propaganda of all kinds.” (Funny, I don’t remember consenting to this.)

Bernays betrays a distaste for democracy, suggesting that we could obviate the need for propaganda if only our society were an oligarchy:

“It might be better to have… committees of wise men 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 since we insist on giving people tedious things like rights, an “invisible government” is necessary to steer consumer tastes and political preferences in the right direction.

Bernays’ real motivation in promoting propaganda has less to do with some ostensible altruism and more to do with his concerns about mob rule. He writes that as the industrial revolution matured and feudalism gave way to capitalism, the aristocracy ceded its ruling power to the bourgeoisie. Democratizing technologies (e.g. the steam engine, the improved printing press) and policies (e.g. universal suffrage, public schooling) further improved the material conditions of the masses, and, “at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people. For the masses promised to become king.”

To protect against its usurpation, the ruling minority devised methods of manipulating the majority, “molding the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.” Bernays cites the example of modern education, which equips us not with independent thought but rather “rubber stamps” to be used to uncritically approve of the status quo.

Bernays concludes by asserting — correctly, in hindsight — that, like it or not, propaganda is here to stay. In our modern society, which has done away with kingly decrees in favor of public choice, persuading people to adopt a certain product, candidate, policy, etc. is the means by which social change is achieved.

Bernays acknowledges that we ought to employ propaganda in “socially constructive” rather than “untrue or unsocial” ways. But as long as we do, propaganda will allegedly serve its noble purpose of “fighting for productive ends and helping to bring order out of chaos.”

It’s a curiosity whether Bernays is being disingenuous or simply naive in his sunny conclusions. The idea that propaganda will be employed by and large responsibly and for just ends has been made a mockery of by propagandists such as the Joseph Goebbels, Phillip Morris, and ExxonMobil in the ensuing century. Still, his point stands that in a competitive global marketplace, one must employ propaganda in order to gain public acceptance and support for one’s cause. If you don’t, others certainly will.

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