GUEST BLOG: Doug Renwick – A Discourse on Corporate Propaganda Part 2: Moral and Political Economy

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In Plato’s Republic, several political systems were critiqued with a rational analysis in order to decide what the ideal and just city state was. One of these political systems, democracy, was critiqued for its ability to give too much liberty and equality to the general population. Plato wrote that:

‘The utmost freedom for the majority is reached in such a city when bought slaves, both male and female, are no less free than those who bought them. And I almost forgot to mention the extent of the legal equality of men and women and of the freedom in the relations between them.’[1]

Since it was intuitively true to Plato that such a society where women, men, slaves and owners all had the same political rights was an unjust society, a solution was proposed. The solution was that this ideal city state would have a class of philosopher guardians that were trained in specialized knowledge, so that they would be able to make the right decisions on behalf of the rest of society.

This philosophical and moral justification for a technocratic elite-based society, what we might call guardianship, has been repeated in most political systems since Plato’s Republic from what I can tell. In the 20th century, it took multiple forms. One was Lenin’s justification for a vanguard of scientific Marxists, where these intellectuals would bring class consciousness to the rest of society as the working class was incapable of reaching anything beyond ‘trade union consciousness’, not enough to bring about a socialist society.

At about the same time, the progressive liberal intellectuals in America were developing their own form of guardianship that was combined with the development of corporate propaganda as discussed in part 1. The main founder of modern public relations, Edward Bernays, wrote that

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‘Clearly it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically. In the active proselytizing minorities in whom selfish interests and public interests coincide lie the progress and development of America. Only through the active energy of the intelligent few can the public at large become aware of and act upon new ideas’.[2]

This was a common view among elite intellectuals. One of the founders of modern political science Harold Lasswell wrote that the intelligent few must recognize the ‘ignorance and stupidity of the masses’, and not succumb to ‘democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interest’.[3] This was the standard moral justification for the early public relations system, which was miniscule back then compared to what it has become in the present time.

I will now turn to the topic of how this public relations system has managed to develop over time, and it’s interconnectedness with the media and university institutions. I will start by looking at the common aim that elites have expressed in their use of propaganda. That is in maintaining the current political system of what might be called ‘really existing capitalism’. The purpose of maintaining the political system was expressed by American Justice Lewis Powell, back when 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.’[4]

The political purpose, which he later expanded on in the memo, included a massive overhaul of the media and educational system.

In 1977 a similar view was expressed by the president of the Institute of Directors in Australia, Sir Robert Crichton Brown (also another Tobacco executive), who addressed fellow directors on the future role of the institute. He proposed that the institute’s purpose was to ‘publicise and sell the benefits of the system it espouses.’ Sir Robert concluded that:

‘We cannot relax until… we have convinced society at large that our influence is indeed for its good. That … will take up some of your time and some corporate systems money. The expenditure of both will be well worthwhile if it succeeds in obtaining for the corporate system society’s seal of approval thus relieving our successors of the need to spend their resources of time and money on the further promotion of the system.’[5]

Thus it was understood that without the intensification of the public relations industry in its role of indoctrinating people with the values of capitalism, that this system wouldn’t be around for much longer.

It will be useful now to ask how this doctrinal system works, by analyzing the political economy of the media and the educational system. The media has a capitalist institutional structure which has evolved over time into a highly concentrated private oligopoly. The Inputs into this structure, or ‘filters’, were described in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. They call it the propaganda model.

Over the 20th century in various industrial societies, a more radical and widely read working class media was wiped out by market forces. For example, in the 1960’s in Britain, there was a widely read social democratic media that was read by millions of people. Even though it was widely read, it went out of business, as advertisers were not willing to support the newspaper that had a readership with no money to buy the products that could be advertised to them.[6]

The capitalist media is also dependent on outside support. This includes support from the public relations industry which creates news for the media. 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 was .75 PR agent 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.[7]

Another source of outside support is think tanks, which in themselves are funded by concentrated private capital. The head of the American Heritage Foundation, Dr Feulner, presented his basic thesis to an audience of elites in Australia that the role of think tanks was that while academics and intellectuals are necessary for the production of ideas, ‘it takes an institution to help popularise and propagandise an idea… This is the role of organisations like the Institute of Economic Affairs or the Adam Smith Institute in London, my own Heritage Foundation in the United States and the Centre for Policy Studies and the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia.’[8] Using the analogy of Procter & Gamble selling toothpaste, Feulner explained that ‘They sell it and resell it every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer’s mind.’ By the sales effort, including the dissemination of the correct ideas to ‘thousands of newspapers,’ it is possible to keep debate ‘within its proper perspective.’[9]

On top of this academics are selected from the right departments in the university by the media, and they give the appropriate analysis. The educational system also has its own institutional constraints. These constraints filter out those who are too openly disobedient. At the university level it starts partitioning off into separate specialized disciplines. And if you don’t agree that say for example, economic history should play no or very little role in undergraduate economics education, then you aren’t going to continue learning economics. There are exceptions to this, of course.

Then there are disciplinary measures. The neoliberal economic model has imposed disciplinary techniques on those work in the media and the educational system. The Auckland University of Technology has a report on the ownership of the media that comes out every year, and in New Zealand the media has basically become a duopoly for each medium, with most of the ownership of the media being controlled by foreign financial institutions, like private equity, which make money by cutting jobs.[10] This incidentally has a side benefit of imposing discipline on those who want to keep their jobs, since they will be more fearful of the job cuts. In the educational system student debt has a similar side effect. It forces people to focus on whatever will get them to pay off their debt sooner, rather than valuing their own independent but ill-paying research topics. So it has a disciplinary effect, but I should say that I don’t know whether this is intentional or not.

Research grants don’t come from the poor, so they are typically aligned towards those that don’t deviate too far from elite values. A good example of this is research grants for climate change. Kevin Anderson (University of Manchester) of Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research said on an interview to Democracy Now that “So far we simply have not been prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly… many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research… our science now asks fundamental questions about this idea of economic growth in the short term, but we’re very reluctant to say that. In fact, the funding bodies are reluctant to fund research that raises those questions.”[11]

The next several parts of this Discourse on Propaganda I will be drawing on examples from both the media and the university. In the last part I will suggest some alternatives to the current system. The example’s I use show very rarely that propaganda is about outright lying or censure, although that does sometimes happen. But a large part of it comes from the selection of topics and framing the boundaries of acceptable discussion. So long as people in the doctrinal institutions accept this framework, it is a highly effective system. And I do not by any means think that people are unaware that they are being subjected to it. Journalists and bloggers rate extremely untrustworthy in polls as professions go. So I think many are aware in some way that they are being subjected to propaganda.

Douglas Renwick is a student at Victoria University. He can be contacted atrenwicdoug@myvuw.ac.nz

[1] Plato’s Republic as cited in Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works, p9

[2] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, p31

[3] Noam Chomsky, Profit over people, p55

[4] Powell Memorandum, Retrieved from http://law2.wlu.edu/deptimages/Powell%20Archives/PowellMemorandumTypescript.pdf

[5] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty, p118

[6] Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p15

[7] Robert McChesney, Digital Disconnect, p183

[8] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty, p111

[9] Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, p23-24

[10] Auckland University of Technology Media Ownership Report, Retrieved from http://www.aut.ac.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/608366/JMAD-2015-Report.pdf

[11] Top Climate Expert: Crisis is Worse Than We Think & Scientists Are Self-Censoring to Downplay Risk, Democracy Now! Dec. 8, 2015. As cited in Counterpunch, does-methane-threaten-life March 15, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/03/15/does-methane-threaten-life/

13 COMMENTS

  1. Good analysis, Douglas.

    In NZ the system has become so corporatized that institutions we would expect to be ‘screaming at the top of their voices’ about Peak Oil, Abrupt Climate Change, Over-population and Over-consumption now have ‘no opinion’ or are not permitted to say anything: with a few notable exception such as Mike Joy, a deafening silence.

    Indeed, that was the situation when I tackled the University of Auckland back in 2005. ‘Nobody knew anything’ and the outrageous position of ‘burn-more-coal’ Chris de Freitus, so-called Head of Environmental Studies was justified by the Vice Chancellor’s Office as acceptable on the pretext of ‘academic freedom’ -which was obviously just a cover for corporate control and the business model, which had already established a stranglehold. Around that time the University of Auckland Chemistry Department had nothing to say about the link between CO2 emissions and warming, and the University of Auckland Geology Department had nothing to say about oil. The Department of Engineering did acknowledge that without oil modern industrial societies could not function but had no public position on the matter of when global extraction would go into decline, bringing the system to a standstill; indeed the whole topic was taboo.

    Presumably, 11 years later the situation is even more dire within most academic circles, with the business model of fossil-fuel-powered consumerism being the main driver of academic teaching -most notably in the economics and commercial fields- even as we head straight off the cliff, financially, socially, energetically and environmentally.

    Interestingly, the period when I was most active (1999 to 2009) was arguably the last opportunity to deal with the matters that needed to be urgently dealt with, and it was during that very time that the forces of corporatism were organizing to become effective in blocking discussion.

    The following recent report indicates it is now far to late to make even as small dent in the unfolding catastrophe, even if there was a will to do so.

    https://cosmosmagazine.com/climate/trees-and-plants-reached-peak-carbon-10-years-ago

    ‘Trees and plants have had enough. For the past few decades they’ve obliged us by guzzling ever-greater amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide every year – but now they’ve gone on a diet.
    New data shows ‘peak carbon’, when vegetation consumed its largest carbon dioxide feast, occurred in 2006, and since then appetite has been decreasing.

    “It’s the first evidence that we are tipping over the edge potentially towards runaway or irreversible climate change,” says James Curran, former chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and co-author of the study published in the journal Weather.
    The news has come as a shock. Previous estimates indicated that peak
    carbon would not be reached until at least 2030…….’

    ‘We’ are now past the seasonal CO2 minimum and judging by the latest data on the next up phase that leads to 4012/3 ppm next year, and 450 ppm in the not-too-distant future.

    • Best yet and I agree with Afewknowthetruth on his take also, as this Neo liberal plans to keep forcing the growth of productivity is stupid as it will be our certain demise as Mike Joy so rightly infers.

      We used to know what “restrain” meant but now its all about beating blood out of a stone for profit and nothing else.

      The bloody fools corporates are. “how much is enough”?

  2. Great writing Douglas – very coherant – and despite having read widely in the past I’m learning lots from these articles.

  3. ‘Coca-Cola and Pepsi aren’t known for their nutritional values, but the two soda giants have managed to promote a positive image for their brands by sponsoring health organizations, making them “unwitting partners” to the cola agenda, a new study claims.

    The study, conducted by researchers at Boston University (BU) and published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, found that the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sponsored a combined total of at least 96 health organizations between 2011 and 2015.

    That breakdown includes 12 organizations that accepted money from both companies, one which accepted cash from just PepsiCo, and 83 which only accepted funds from Coca-Cola……’

    https://www.rt.com/news/362207-%D1%81oca-%D1%81ola-pepsi-sponsor/

  4. This is a must read for every journalism student and of course many others!

    Propaganda is highly sophisticated now, and most out there are not even aware how much they get manipulated.

    And it seems truth does not even matter much anymore, following the daily reporting and endless spin and outright lies by governments.

  5. I quote from above:
    “The political economist Robert McChesney notes that in America, in 1960 there was .75 PR agent 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.[7]

    Another source of outside support is think tanks, which in themselves are funded by concentrated private capital. The head of the American Heritage Foundation, Dr Feulner, presented his basic thesis to an audience of elites in Australia that the role of think tanks was that while academics and intellectuals are necessary for the production of ideas, ‘it takes an institution to help popularise and propagandise an idea…”

    Not surprising then, we do have the MSM we now have, and we have the kind of corrupted society we now have before us as a result of all this. “Think tanks” are regularly quoted and commented on by the media, as if whatever reports (often based in carefully designed “research” projects) they present, are the absolute and indisputable truth and offer the needed solutions.

    But as they also often have political purposes (think tanks), they do mostly only do the kind of “research” that is likely to bring the results they so desire.

    Correlation does not imply causation, that is often not clearly mentioned. Many reports are based on narrow scopes and observations, and can be disputed by alternative reports based on other criteria, different scope and hence also different observations. Scientists are usually very careful with drawing firm conclusions, but the PR, marketing and other “experts”, and of course the MSM see it differently. Also are governments keen on the kind of “evidence” they desire, to prove their policies are “fact based”. Think of the “investment approach”, social impact bonds and what else our government is playing with at present.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation

  6. “One was Lenin’s justification for a vanguard of scientific Marxists, where these intellectuals would bring class consciousness to the rest of society as the working class was incapable of reaching anything beyond ‘trade union consciousness’, not enough to bring about a socialist society.”

    There is nothing elitist about a vanguard of scientific Marxists. Marxism is open to all classes. It is true that workers do not spontaneously understand the inner workings of capitalism that allows them to draw the conclusion that a socialist revolution is necessary. But then neither do bourgeois or petty bourgeois intellectuals unless they are Marxists. It is no accident that Marx, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky were of petty bourgeois or even bourgeois origin. They were educated as philosophers, political economists, lawyers, journalists etc. They had the opportunity therefore to scientifically study and critique existing bourgeois ideology as part of their committment to socialism.

    That critique, most importantly in the work of Marx, showed that capitalism was not only an exploitative society (that much was understood by Smith and Ricardo) but also that no legitimate claim could be made to part of that value as profit or rent by landlords and capitalists. Marx’s scientific breakthrough proved that capitalism was an historic mode of production in which the fundamental contradiction between labour and capital would ultimately present a barrier to further growth, destroying labor and nature of which labor is part, and creating its own gravedigger in the form of the proletariat.

    Marx also showed that this scientific analysis was necessary to explain why it was that capitalism could present itself ideologically as non-exploitative, harmonious and capable of infinite growth. Any disturbances, or conflict over the distribution of income, therefore appeared as an aberration from the harmony or equlibrium assumed to be the norm and thus called for correction in the form of political reforms.

    Thus far from constructing an elite that “brought consciousness” to the workers, Marxism critiqued the role of bourgeois ideology in presenting workers as citizens no different from landlords and capitalists who buy and sell commodities as equals thus covering up class exploitation at the level of social relations. Once workers could see this truth then they were no longer prey to bourgeois intellectuals who merely reinforced the existing bourgeois ideology (neoclassicals, corporate media, public relations, academia etc) or who critiqued it at the level of the distribution of income calling for reforms (eg Chomsky, social democrats etc) and could organise as the proletariat on the basis of a revolutionary program to overthrow capitalism.

    Ironically, it was not the “elitist” or “authoritarian” Bolshevik Party that brought the Stalinist dictatorship to the fore in Russia (a regime that discredited the Bolshevik Revolution) but the “elitist, authoritarian” power of the ruling classes in the Western capitalist countries that unleashed their propaganda wars and military attacks on the Soviet Union to isolate it and force it into submission (70 years later).

    To the extent that (petty) bourgeois intellectuals remain trapped in bourgeois ideology, they continue the rule of the capitalist “elite” over the proletarian masses.

    • Well i’m no scholar on Marxism, but that was my interpretation from Lenin’s idea of how a revolutionary society ought to be organized, as he stated in “What is to be done?” The pamphlet or book that he wrote in the early 20th century.

      I don’t associate vanguardism with marx, he was long gone before lenin started advocating his own ideas and there being a split between bolsheviks and the mensheviks, so my article had nothing to do with marxism when i wrote that, rather it was just going off lenins ideas.

      I agree that to a large extent Western aggression to Russia forced it to submission and authoritarian policy, and the cold war would have ended much earlier if the west didn’t do a lot of the things they did.

      But my understanding from the Russian Revolution was that economic democracy was crushed during the civil war by Lenin, pretty soon after he took power-The soviet councils were suppressed, there was the konstradt rebbellion that was suppressed, and the anarchists in Ukraine were suppressed, violently, by trotsky.

      You’re misrepresenting Chomsky, he thinks the capitalist and wage-slavery system ought to be abolished.

      I also think calling Marx’s analysis scientific to be a bit disingenuous or overly ambitious. That goes for any 19th century social science. He made serious mistakes, but even if he was a 100% correct. The social world changes, it isn’t like natural law. So how ‘capitalism’ works today is a lot different than it used to be, though some of what he says is still true of course.

      • Marxism holds today against competing bourgeois theories that go back even further in history. No other scientific theory can explain the long term dynamic of capitalism right up to today. It is that knowledge that has to be passed on to those who remain trapped by bourgeois ideology and that applies to all people in all social classes. My main point is that Marxism is a scientific tool to liberate the masses from a bankrupt ruling class and its ruling ideas which range from neoliberalism to anarchism, and this has to be done by Marxists in the first instance, just as all human progress depends on scientific breakthroughs in knowledge and its application to social production and reproduction. To caricature Marxism as a dated social theory when its bourgeois competitors are totally bankrupt in the face of the breakdown of society and nature, just contributes to that ongoing ignorance.

        • ‘My main point is that Marxism is a scientific tool to liberate the masses from a bankrupt ruling class and its ruling ideas which range from neoliberalism to anarchism, and this has to be done by Marxists in the first instance, just as all human progress depends on scientific breakthroughs in knowledge and its application to social production and reproduction.’

          That is a very long sentence which makes no sense at all to me.

          Anarchism mean without hierarchy, i.e. no leaders, so how can the ruling class have ruling ideas encompassing anarchism?

          And what does progress mean in a world in which most life forms (including human) are being driven to extinction via industrialism?

          What is ‘social production? I am completely lost.

          And where is the connexion to reproduction?

          it all comes through as arcane gobbledygook.

          • The main ruling class ideas are, first that capitalism is a society of individuals able to exchange freely on the market. Second, the role of the state is to guarantee the operation of the free market and the freedom of sovereign individuals.

            This ideology is shared by the libertarian right and the anarchist left.

            The libertarian right wants to get rid of the modern state because it limits the rights of individuals as a trade off in reproducing capitalism as a whole.

            The anarchist left wants to get rid of the “state” and replace it with direct democracy.

            Socialists want a workers state to plan and organise socialism until such time as the working class no longer needs it to stop the return of capitalism.

            Progress means reducing necessary labour time. That is, less time worked each day to allow us to buy all we need to survive and prosper.

            Progress stops when capitalism fails to provide work, income, and the necessities of life, and starts destroying the social and ecological conditions for social reproduction and human survival.

        • Well, in order to help people liberate themselves you have to ask how they are being oppressed. Ok, i agree with the elites that the main source of oppression within the ‘capitalist’ system is the role of propaganda, at least in the rich nations. A lot of this propaganda in New Zealand has little to do Marxs ideas that talked about in the 19th century. To pick some examples, there is climate denial and welfare bashing. And the attack on big government. I see marx as a theorist on how 19th capitalism works. It’s helpful for oppressed people to understand how capitalism works.

          My personal goal is liberation and empowerment of the poor. I think i can help with this by simply providing them with the facts that are needed in order to defend themselves from mental enslavement.

          calling marxism as it was conceived in the 19th century a dated social theory is useful for the left, as is calling 19th century physics a dated natural theory is useful for 21st century physicists.

          I happen to read neomarxist works as i’ve referenced them in previous blogs, like John Bellamy Foster for example. I think they do well to chuck out the old stuff that is no longer relevant.

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