Sunday, October 17, 2010

Democracy & Propaganda (1)

Let me begin by counter-posing two different conceptions of democracy. One conception of democracy has it that a democratic society is one in which the public has the means to participate in some meaningful way in the management of their own affairs and the means of information are open and free. If you look up democracy in the dictionary you'll get a definition something like that.
 An alternative conception of democracy is that the public must be barred from managing of their own affairs and the means of information must be kept narrowly and rigidly controlled. That may sound like an odd conception of democracy, but it's important to understand that it is the prevailing conception. In fact, it has long been, not just in operation, but even in theory. There's a long history that goes back to the earliest modern democratic revolutions in seventeenth century England which largely expresses this point of view.

Noam Chomsky [1991]

According to Chomsky, a democracy must fulfill at least the following three, vaguely formulated, conditions: (i) citizens have "the means to participate in some meaningful way" in the decision-making process and (ii) citizens have free access to information concerning this process and (iii) this information is "open" (true, uncensored, unfiltered). One might call in question whether the denial of (ii) and (iii) still leave the possibility of (i) but the latter is too indefinite to be tested and has to be further specified.
A clear representative of the „alternative“ conception of democracy is Edward L. Bernays – the godfather of the Public Relations industry. In 1928 he put forward his „invisible government“ theory of democracy by deniying each of these three „conventional“ conditions. In the first chapter of his book „Propaganda“, tellingly entitled „Organizing Chaos“, he maintains that it is practically impossible to match conditions (ii) and (iii) and therefore we should forget about (i) and/or be content with leaving decisions to our invisible leaders:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet. They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons — a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.
Edward L. Bernays
It is not usually realized how necessary these invisible governors are to the orderly functioning of our group life. In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases. Our Constitution does not envisage political parties as part of the mechanism of government, and its framers seem not to have pictured to themselves the existence in our national politics of anything like the modern political machine. But the American voters soon found that without organization and direction their individual votes, cast, perhaps, for dozens or hundreds of candidates, would produce nothing but confusion. Invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four. In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions. From our leaders and the media they use to reach the public, we accept the evidence and the demarcation of issues bearing upon public questions; from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite assayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time. 
In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.
Edward L. Bernays [1928]

We have grown accustomed to go around pricing – most of us do to some extent. We choose among the products offered in supermarkets or real estate agencies, or search for the cheapest flight to our envisaged holiday destination. We have grown accustomed to competition (and we are not surprised about the similarity of prices for similar products because we believe that competition is often not real). This is only possible because pricing is (in most cases) tranparent. If it would be not (and we know such cases), then we would really end up hopelessly lost as Bernays said. Instead, independent institutions for consumer protection have shown great impact to ensure half-way fair competition and free flow of useful information in the marketplace. None of these institutions, in Western Europe mostly set up in the 50s and 60, may be perfectly objective or independent. But this shows only that the independent intitutions monitoring/controlling the actions in a democratic system are always improvable. What Bernays had in mind, when he formulated his „invisible government“ theory in 1928, was a totally uncontrolled marketplace which was, at that time, reality. It was indeed dangerous for the consumer then, just think of German pharmaceutical groups promoting aspirin, heroin and cocain in cough syrup.


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