VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda II

This reading carries on from here.

The second chapter of Propaganda is called ‘The New Propaganda’. Here, Bernays elucidates some of the differences between the original approach to propaganda that arose with the advent of mass media, and the “new” approach that was developed after the application of mass psychology techniques to making propaganda more effective.

The industrial revolution has made kings much less powerful than they once were, relative to the masses. It spread economic power, and, with that, political power. The old democrats used to believe that it was possible to educate everyone up to the level where they could participate in rulership – in reality, the average person falls well short of what is required.

Propaganda fills this gap, serving as the means by which the minority can still rule the majority. “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible Government.” The education of the common man, instead of teaching him to think freely, only conditioned him to become receptive to propaganda. Now his mind is receptive to propaganda of all sorts.

Using examples from a daily newspaper, Bernays explains how propaganda works in the mainstream media. Anything stated as true by an authority, such as the State Department, is taken as such. Here Bernays gives us a definition of propaganda: “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.”

In practice, very little is done nowadays without some kind of propaganda campaign alongside it. Propaganda regiments the public mind every bit as much as the Army regiments the bodies of its soldiers. A group so regimented can be every bit as effective as an army.

Today, the approval of the public is necessary for any large undertaking. Therefore, propaganda is necessary for any large undertaking. Formerly, rulers could set the course of history simply by doing things. Today, the masses have control, so propaganda is needed to wrest that control back. As a consequence, propaganda is here to stay.

It was World War I, and the astonishing success of propaganda in that war to manipulate public opinion, that made people aware of what could be done. This was the first time that not only a multimedia approach was made to encourage people to support the national endeavour, but also key men were brought on board in a massive range of industries.

The new propaganda doesn’t just target the individual, but takes into consideration the structure of society and the way that information spreads through it. This is now a feature of society, because new proposals for reform must be clearly articulated before they will be influential. No-one can get anything done anymore without propaganda.

Bernays concludes this chapter by noting that “In the active proselytizing minorities in whom selfish interests and public interests coincide lie the progress and development of America.” The world is controlled by the small number of men that control propaganda, who make the rest of us think as they will, and society only progresses when their will is in accord with the collective good.

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