GUEST BLOG: Douglas Renwick – The Political Economy of Thought Control



There is a history behind thought control, it goes way back to classical Greece, where the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle were concerned about what an ideal state would be. Some of their developments carry on right through to the present and have had very significant success, especially in democratic nations. For example the modern development of fear ideology can be traced as far back as Aristotle (and maybe further) in his book ‘Politics’. He was interested in how a state could avoid revolution; there was a strategy which he gave that I will quote. “States are preserved when their destroyers are at a distance, and sometimes also because they are near, for fear of them makes the government keep in hand the state. Wherefore the ruler who has a care of the state should invent terrors, and bring distant dangers near, in order that the citizens may be on their guard, and, like sentinels in their night-watch, never relax their attention. He should endeavor too by help of the laws to control the contentions and quarrels of the notables, and to prevent those who have not hitherto taken part in them from being drawn in.”[i] In today’s time crime and the terror threat seem to be the main ‘invented terrors’ which are employed by the mass media. I will elaborate on this a bit more later on.

Thought control has always been prevalent as a way to control populations, but it never really took off until the 1920’s. Until then, workers could be beaten up by the police, which was the main way to control them. The philosopher Noam Chomsky summed it up well, saying ‘propaganda is to democracy, as violence is to a dictatorship’. The propaganda in dictatorships is inferior and much less believable than the propaganda in democracies, but it doesn’t matter as much in dictatorships since they can use violence to control people anyway. However, in a democracy propaganda has to be much better, and it has to work on the people who are part of the political class: people who do more than just take orders, and have the spare time, under no threat from state violence, and would otherwise use their privilege to liberate people from the injustices of really existing capitalism.

There is an interesting book written by one of the main developers of what was then called ‘propaganda’ during the 1920’s by an intellectual called Edward Bernays, he had created very successful propaganda campaigns in order to convince women to smoke. In his book simply titled ‘propaganda’, he points out in the very first sentence that ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.’[ii] In his book he outlines the different ways propaganda can be used in education, political leadership, business, ect. Going on, he points out that “The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mould the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.”[iii] After world war two, Edward Bernays said that propaganda came to have negative connotations because of the Nazis, so they just stuck to calling it Public Relations instead.

A bit earlier than Edward Bernays book was one written by the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell, who I think developed the early ideas behind the political economy of free thought in his book “Free thought and Official Propaganda”. He noted that “Legal penalties are in the modern world, the least of the obstacles to freedom of thoughts. The two great obstacles are economic penalties and distortion of evidence.”[iv] He went on to say that thought is not free if the profession of certain opinions makes it impossible to earn a living. And that if all arguments on one side of a controversy are perpetually presented as attractively as possible, while the arguments on the other side can only be discovered by diligent search.[v] I think this is pretty much the way thought is controlled up until present day society in democracies. For example, when New Zealand underwent its neoliberal revolution in the 1980’s and 1990’s, economists who were critical of the economic theories that were given were dismissed, in some cases had their research grants cut or were driven from the media. This is been written about by the journalist Bruce Jesson and Professor Jane Kelsey[vi]. Although I do not know much more than this, since it does not seem to be studied. Some of what Bertrand Russell said is truer in our time than was in his. With the massive increase in public relations, arguments favorable to powerful institutions are easily presented to the media while the real stories have to be diligently searched for.

However, the idea that the modern news media would want people with views of their interests, and to prevent people in the news that had views that go against corporate interests was expressed quite eloquently by the American Justice Lewis Powell, back then he was a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, who wrote in a memorandum to the US chamber of commerce that “The day is long past when the chief executive officer of a major corporation discharges his responsibility by maintaining a satisfactory growth of profits, with due regard to the corporation’s public and social responsibilities. If our system is to survive, top management must be equally concerned with protecting and preserving the system itself. This involves far more than an increased emphasis on “public relations” or “governmental affairs” — two areas in which corporations long have invested substantial sums.”[vii] His point is exactly correct. Private power is intolerable to human beings, as constant resistance to it has shown throughout history, and this was recognized by Powell at the time. For a corporation to maintain profits it must not just fulfil its economic purpose but a political purpose as well. The political purpose, later expanded on in the memo included a massive overhaul of the media and educational system.

The use of thought control is much celebrated by the elite in New Zealand, and has become a deeply engrained part of culture, used by all the large business, all the main political parties, and the media. For example, in the general election of 2005, Don Brash won an award for best advertisement campaign of the year.[viii] The New Zealand Herald made their own contribution to supporting the propaganda by calling nationals billboards ‘elegantly simple and humorous’.[ix]


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A question that I think ought to be asked when examining any institution is ‘how is this institution arranged, and how should we expect it to behave because of this arrangement?’ There is a standard institutional analysis that is given by market ideologues in favor of the commercial news media. The argument states that the commercial media is in a competitive market for a share of the audiences. That superior journalism will attract the larger audience size and put the news corporation with inferior journalism out of business, therefore the market gives the audiences what they want.

On close examination of the institutional structure of the media, this argument seems to be nearly the exact opposite of the truth. It’s actually the case that the media is in an oligopolistic market competing for a share of the advertisers, not audiences. The tendency towards oligarchy is the natural evolution of the media in a capitalist environment. Competition eliminates competition, since it gives way to an increasingly concentrated media after a long enough time period. In Britain and America during the nineteenth century, there was a radical press which unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world. However, over time because of the industrialization of the press, costs for breakeven with a newspaper increased considerably. In New York City, in 1851 the start-up cost of a newspaper was $69,000, but by 1920 newspapers were selling for between $6million and $18million.[x] In New Zealand, the broadcast media was mostly handed over to a private power from the 1980’s labour government and early 1990’s national government.[xi] From there the media has become almost completely totalitarian, since corporations are by definition totalitarian institutions. In a corporation decisions are made in secret by a few at the top, and then they get pushed downwards through the hierarchy, that’s the definition of totalitarianism. And the New Zealand media is now mostly owned by foreign financial institutions, and some wealthy people including a well-known climate change denier, Gina Rinehart.[xii]

Advertisers have also played a huge role in shaping the media, as before there were advertisers, a newspaper had to make sell their paper for more than the manufacturing cost to make a profit. However, advertisers can allow newspapers to profit even by selling the paper for less than its manufacturing cost. For television, advertising is where virtually all profits are made, since the audience is not paying for television, (unless it’s a subscription). To take an example of how huge a role advertisers have, during the 1960’s in Britain there were 4.7 million subscribers to a social democratic press, the Daily Herald. It had more readers than the Times, the Financial Times, and the Guardian combined.[xiii] However, it was still unable to compete and went out of business, since advertisers discriminated against the newspaper because the readers were poor. Advertising diamonds and cars to people in the slums tends not to be a profitable business.

Another feature of the media is that costs are reduced through Public Relations. So for example, it is much easier to get news from government, military or corporate PR releases who would love to shape the news in their interest, than for journalists to be researching news themselves. The political economist Robert McChesney notes that in America, in 1960 there were .75 PR agents for every working journalist. In 1990 there was two PR agents for every journalist, 2012 saw a ratio of 4 PR agents to every journalist.[xiv] There has been a similar trend in New Zealand and throughout so-called democracies in general.

These three institutional arrangements that I have given- ownership, advertising, and sourcing were called ‘filters’ for a propaganda model developed by two academics Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent. Their model allowed them to predict the behavior of how the establishment liberal media would downplay the genocides, murders or elections that America supported, and be indignant of genocides, murders or elections that were not supported. The model will also act in horror of the crimes of enemies by describing them in gruesome detail, while the crimes supported by America, when reported at all were reported blandly, with no horrific details. This model has had extremely accurate predictability up to the present. My superficial impression of the New Zealand media is that they would fit this model pretty well, although not as well as the American mass media, since we are no imperial power.

The model goes far beyond just foreign policy, but would attempt to control thought on anything that allows for business interests to grow. It’s interesting to look at the mass media reporting on crime in this country. Reporting on crime has gone way up under the neoliberal period.[xv] While crime has actually gone down. This has had an effect on the general population, 83% of whom think that crime has been increasing.[xvi] For the media I think this has had a dual effect of both increasing profits through sensationalism, but also through atomizing the population, breaking down social bonds and creating an environment of the passive individual consumer. I can’t prove the latter is the case, but it is typical of systems of power to use fear to atomize people.



Some commentators have suggested the internet being a good medium to support journalism. There is an interesting book by Political Scientist Robert McChesney called ‘Digital Disconnect’ which traces the development of the internet, and the role it may have on journalism. The problem with the internet is much the same as the problem with print media. Journalists need advertisers or subscribers to survive. There’s a dichotomy, either you produce news in the advertisers interest and make money, or you produce news in your own interest but don’t get paid. It is very rare that someone on the internet would be able to spend time on doing real journalism for free. Because of this, real journalism on the internet has hardly even happened yet. There is a lot of good information on the internet that would not be found in the print media; however this information requires searching to find it. If people don’t know to search for this information then they cannot find it except by chance.

As for economic forces on the internet, the internet is extremely conducive for monopoly. For example when people use Google’s search engine or Facebook, everyone gains by sharing the single service, so these companies tend towards monopoly at frightening speed. These internet companies then lock a hold onto their monopoly with cloud computing, which is a substantial capital investment in warehouses of computers which allow them to store vast amounts of material on the servers, allowing their product to run more efficiently. This creates a high barrier to entry.[xvii] McChesney thinks that If anyone is to make money doing online journalism, it will almost certainly be as a large centralized operation, a monopoly or close to it.[xviii]


[i] P209 Politics: Aristotle

[ii] P1 Propaganda: Edward Bernays

[iii] P11 ibid

[iv] P3 Free Thought and official Propaganda: Bertrand Russell

[v] P3 ibid

[vi] P71 Fragments of the Labour Government: Bruce Jesson. Chapter ‘The Social Deficit’, The New Zealand Experiment: Jane Kelsey


[viii] P275 Hollow Men: Nicky Hager

[ix] P186 Ibid

[x] P4 Manufacturing Consent: Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

[xi] For a more detailed description of this, read News before Profits: Bill Rosenberg

[xii] P14 JMAD Media Ownership Report.

[xiii] P15 Manufacturing Consent: Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky

[xiv] P183 Digital Disconnect: Robert McChesney

[xiv] P132-138 ibid

[xv] P218


[xviii] P190 Digital Disconnect: Robert McChesney


Douglas Renwick is a young adult studying mathematics and philosophy at Victoria University. In matters of politics and economics he is entirely self educated. His political goal is to defend humans from the massive assault on rationality led by corporate and state institutions.


  1. An excellent read. Thanks for outlining the manner in which political and corporate power is reinforced through propaganda / public relations in the 21st century. It is through these methods that power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few. It is only through education about these methods that the veil can be lifted and a truly informed populace can emerge.

  2. Not so very far removed from what has always been…..the days of human sacrifice …perpetrated and carried out by the High Priests in the high Mayan etc…and thoroughly endorsed by the Kings etc..or any other such like hierarchical society..

    Same old theme….keep them all with their heads down through fear.

    Remember that old song about Idi Amin?….” got to keep the population , singing along ”

    So whether your talking ancient cultures or this present day one…the use of fear in some way , shape or form is the tool used.

    War on terror my arse.

    The only terror is the pricks who keep this whole thing turning to screw down the populace.

  3. Yes, an excelland read, thank you Douglas.would this also explain the fear of illness now, fanatical focus on vaccinations, which don’t seem to have actually improved the health of the nation significantly overall? We grew up with childhood illnesses as activating our immune systems, a part of life, now they are killer diseases, and as for flu…..or I am straying too far?

    • No, I’m with you on that one. I was born in the 1960’s so I had measles like everyone else. I asked my mum, did parents worry about measles, mumps etc back then. She said, not really. You knew that some kids were at risk, but mostly it was harmless. I’m quite shocked at how terrified parents are today.

      The other worry is that no dissent is allowed. This is what one doctor said recently: “My own frustration is that you cannot now even attempt to discuss what he [Wakefield*] may have found, at all, anywhere, ever. This whole area is just shut off completely. Dare to mention even the teeniest thing that Wakefield has said, and it is made crystal clear that you, too, will suffer his fate.” from Doctoring Data by Dr Malcolm Kendrick.

      *Wakefield is the doctor who suggested a link with MMR and autism. Kendrick is not saying he is right, he’s saying you can’t even discuss the subject.

  4. Your understanding of Cloud computing is flawed. Cloud computing actually enables companies to reduce the cost of storage as it enables them to use other people’s storage and processing power rather than having to invest in their own.

  5. I keep coming back to your post!
    “The model will also act in horror of the crimes of enemies by describing them in gruesome detail,…. ”
    Key’s mock outrage in parliament was something to watch, trying to emulate Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”.
    I expect I will keep coming back to this post, so thankyou again Douglas

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