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Managing Consent: The Art of War, Democracy and Public Relations


It is Edward Bernays who fine-tuned the art of public relations in the 20th century. Using many of the psychoanalytic theories put forward by his uncle Sigmund Freud, he developed a mastery of public manipulation, suggesting that such manipulation was essential to democracy itself. Bernays strongly believed that people are simply “stupid” and in need of being told how to behave, what to believe, what to eat, what to wear, and how to vote. The outcomes of such an experiment reverberate to this day.

Some historians credit Bernays’s efforts in the 1920s and 1930s for turning the modern citizen into a modern consumer. Not only did he convince Americans that a “hearty breakfast” must include eggs and bacon, as opposed to the traditional toast and coffee, he also managed to convince women at the time that cigarettes were a symbol of man’s power and domination; to challenge the male sense of superiority, women needed to smoke. A few public stunts later, sales of cigarettes (which Bernays termed “torches of freedom”) soared, eventually doubling the market for tobacco manufacturers, who, among many other businesses, were Bernays’s clients.

 

It was only natural that such tactics would soon become politicized. Various presidents and presidential candidates utilized Bernays’s theories and services in the interests of power and profit, though some did try to outset the increasing influence of big businesses on American democracy.  Roosevelt‘s New Deal in the early 1930s — which purported to reengage the citizen as a vital component in a functioning democracy — was resented by the corporations, and they ferociously fought to win consumers back and defeat the democratic initiative. Ultimately, they succeeded.

 

Freud argues that a person’s subconscious desires would be utterly violent and sadistic if uncontrolled; his nephew suggested the cure was to curb these desires in a way that generated immense profits.

 

It didn’t take long for Bernays’s tactics to be applied in US foreign policies. Guatemala is a textbook example; when the country was ready to embrace serious popular change in the 1950s, with democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz implementing equitable land reforms that ran counter to the interests of the US United Fruit Company (which was naturally unwilling to concede its highly profitable “Banana Republic”), media manipulators in the US immediately set about to convince Americans that Arbenz somehow posed a threat to American democracy. A CIA-engineered coup deposed the elected president and installed its operative Castillo Armas, who was hailed by visiting US vice president Richard Nixon as a “liberator.”

 

Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents argues that a person’s subconscious desires would be utterly violent and sadistic if uncontrolled; his nephew suggested the cure was to curb these desires in a way that generated immense profits. Successive US administrations have taken note, and their greatest achievement has been to exploit the subconscious factors that infuse fear and paranoia among the masses. Wars have been waged, regimes overthrown, and bombs dropped in the midst of sleeping populations, all in the name of democracy. What Bernays brazenly dubbed “managing consent” — and Chomsky and Herman more honestly referred to as “manufacturing consent” — remains the defining factor that subverts true democracy in the US, and it often leads to the most violent consequences in countries that fall under the US sphere of influence.

 

Despite serious public efforts to counter the anti-democratic union between the state and corporations in the 1960s and 1970s, the latter managed to prevail, using direct repression at times, but also by underhandedly exploiting the same discontented popular movements to promote their ideas and products. This tactic has manifested itself invariably every time a discord between the state and corporation on one hand and the people on the other took place.

 

A more recent example is the way in which President George W. Bush has constantly attempted to manipulate to his advantage the anti-war movement that opposed his 2003 war and invasion of Iraq. His logic — also used by former British prime minister Tony Blair — was simple, yet most deceptive:  The war in Iraq is aimed at achieving the same kind of democracy that allows millions of Americans to disagree peacefully with their government without facing the persecution they suffer under Saddam.

 

While one finds laughable the deduced notion that Iraqis are now reaping the benefits of democracy, one can hardly deny that Bush’s logic took hold among many, even those opposed to the war. Such dialectics managed to shift the debate in many circles from the illegitimacy of the war and its true intentions to altruistic arguments about how “the world is better off without Saddam.” This type of manipulation is anything but new and is hardly exclusive to the Iraq case.

 

Since World War II, the US government and corporate America have carried the democracy banner whenever they sought war and profits. While doing so, the CIA has managed to topple many popular, democratic governments around the world, replacing them with handpicked, puppet regimes. The Palestinian elections in January 2006 were the closest the region had seen of true democratic elections in many years, and yet the fact that it was Hamas — who violently fought the Israeli military occupation and who strongly opposed US policies in the region — was elected to power justified an entire population being starved, physically confined, and violently oppressed by Israel, with the full support of the US and the world’s banking system. The Palestinian experiment is unlikely to conclude soon, but the outcomes have been utterly devastating thus far.

 

Edward Bernays’s direct influence is long gone, but his ideas continue to define the relationships between the corporations, the American state, and the consuming citizen, and even the relationships between the state-corporations’ union and the rest of the world. The carefully managed relationships have undermined democracy and unleashed sadistic wars and uncontrollable violence, of which Freud had warned, but which his nephew shamelessly exploited.

 

-Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada:  A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net   

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