Friday, 8 March 2019

"Guided democracy" and the century of spin

The term 'managed democracy' has been applied to most modern states one way or another - and, as the documentary maker Adam Curtis would have it, the best way of managing things is to induce a sense that we can't do anything anyway:
Futures Forum: Managed democracy: "The deliberate undermining of people's perception of the world, by creating confusion and contradiction ... undermining any opposition to existing power structures ... which leaves us feeling helpless and depressed and to which the only response is: 'Oh dear'."

The writer and journalist Peter Pomerantsev looks at models of 'virtual' or 'imitation democracy':
Futures Forum: How the political fringes became part of the mainstream
Futures Forum: "Political technologists" - is this the future of democracy?
Futures Forum: Moving beyond the ideological boundaries and "empowering people to find the solutions to their problems themselves"

The latest edition of the Baffler magazine looks at these issues - and an Adam Curtis documentary:

The Century of Spin

In the formative days of public relations, elites imagined a “guided democracy”


Social media’s favorite frenemy Kanye West shared a YouTube video on Twitter: “It’s 4 hours long but you’ll get the gist in the first 20 minutes,” he wrote. “Basically Sigmund Frued’s (sic) nephew Edward Bernays capitalized off of his uncle’s philosophies and created modern day consumerism.” He linked to an upload of The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis’s four-part 2002 docu-essay examining the links between Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Bernays, and the concurrent development of public relations, consumerist culture, and government propagandizing. The story should be familiar to even the most casual of media theorists: Edward Bernays, who was indeed Freud’s nephew, pioneered the field of modern public relations after serving under Woodrow Wilson during World War I, overseeing propaganda initiatives aimed at selling the war to the public and maximizing recruiting efforts. He published several books outlining his theories, spinning the much-maligned practice of propaganda into a treatise on the modern, softer-sounding communications strategy he dubbed public relations.

Bernays also claimed to have used many of his uncle’s writings on the complexities of the human psyche in order to find new and creative ways to not only sell products, but also to manage public opinion itself—exploiting repressed desires buried in the public unconscious to achieve his, and his clients’, ends. Curtis, together with other theorists of commercialized and manufactured consent such as Noam Chomsky and Stuart Ewen, have understandably made much of Bernays’s relationship with Freud, and though this popular narrative surrounding the development of public relations isn’t wrong, it is somewhat incomplete. This story doesn’t adequately position Bernays and the professionalization of public relations in their proper historical and political context. Nor does it lay out the ways in which public relations itself is a technology, one that is scarcely confined to the manipulation of individual desires toward commercial consumption but emanates out of a broader ideological project entirely. Bernays’s new discipline would indeed come to decisively shape the political and cultural machinations atop the American social order for the next century.
But contra the enthusiasts of the Freud-Bernays connection, the PR revolution wasn’t steeped in psychological sophistication—rather, its signal achievement was to repackage the broad insights of Freudian inquiry into a version of mass consumer psychology uniquely congenial to American business civilization...
Plenty has been written on Bernays’s supposed instrumentalizing of psychoanalysis—if anyone were to be bold enough to attempt to translate Freud’s volumes into a technology for merely selling meaningless goods, it would be the Americans. But critics have paid less attention to Bernays’s place within his historical and political milieu. Bernays’s career took off during the interwar years, at a time of great theoretical debate about the legacies and limitations of liberalism in the wake of World War I and the rising threat of European fascism. One of Bernays’s contemporaries who also served under the Wilson administration, Walter Lippmann, was greatly involved in these debates. His most famous work, Public Opinion, published in 1922, is an intellectual precursor to Bernays’s own writings on public relations—a critical look at the ways in which subjective perception can be manipulated to nefarious ends through the complex structures of mass media. Lippmann’s work here is more descriptive than prescriptive, a critical assessment of what he sees as democracy’s inherent limitations and contradictions that, left unattended, would result in disaster. This wasn’t, of course, a new diagnosis—much has been made throughout the history of political thought about the tyrannical tendencies in democracy left unchecked, from Aristotle to Tocqueville—but what is significant about the interwar era’s re-theorizing of liberal democracy are the solutions these thinkers come to advocate. Bernays took Lippmann’s critical assessment a step further with the publication in 1923 of his career-making study, Crystallizing Public Opinion. As Bernays himself was fond of saying well into his old age, Lippmann provided the theory, while he provided the practice. Indeed, in Crystallizing Public Opinion, he subtly inverts some of Lippmann’s critiques, offering up opportunity where Lippmann finds blind spots. In order to combat the masses’ susceptibility toward tyranny, for instance, Bernays argues that we must entrust a great deal of civic-didactic power to the thought leaders of a professionalized managerial class, which will shoulder the smart man’s burden of subtly coaxing or gently suggesting prescriptions aimed at advancing what they alone understand to be the public’s best interest... 
Bernays was not the only thinker to capitalize on Lippmann’s critiques. In 1938—just as Bernays was publishing Business Finds Its Voice, a book focused on teaching corporations to publicize their social virtues alongside the intrinsic value of capitalism as a way of winning over popular support—the French philosopher Louis Rougier convened the Colloque Walter Lippmann. This meeting, inspired by Lippmann’s high-profile dissent from New Deal statism, AInquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, convened twenty-six global intellectuals to investigate the recent decline in interest in classical liberalism and—far more consequentially—to captain a reconstruction (or re-branding, as the case may be) of a new liberalism for the next century. Along with Lippmann, some of the age’s most pre- eminent classical liberal and libertarian economists and philosophers were on hand: Michael Polanyi, Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich August von Hayek. It was here in Paris that these men formulated a new liberalism—which Rüstow anointed neoliberalism—a theoretical repudiation of the totalitarian formations this policy directorate saw as an insidious and inherent flaw of democratic social planning and state-managed economies. Nine years later, the Colloque Walter Lippmann reconvened, with several new members and this time under the direction of Hayek, at the Swiss resort of Mont Pèlerin—and there the group’s foundational debates were marshaled into a principled ideological project with clear political aims and targets...

Then again, it may be that no one wants to acknowledge the neoliberal dispensation of our age because doing so would involve acknowledging neoliberalism’s colossal failure to produce anything resembling a just or even functionally stable social order. Our society looks nothing like what the neoliberals envisaged—the Hayekian Valhalla of lean states securing private liberty and the peaceful transfer of power along with soft management of freely existing global capital markets committed to international accumulation through competition. Rather, populist rage burns through the deracinated industrial centers of the global north as liberal urbanites concentrate in increasingly isolated, privatized, and financialized city-centers. The technocratic elites, after the earthquake of the global financial crisis in 2008, have lost all legitimacy as effective stewards of the public good and are plainly no longer able to suppress the reactionary tendencies that an impoverished democracy yields...

Rather than come to terms with the stark reality of our situation—I’m sorry to say, but this, in fact, is your society—and take on the courageous, difficult work to think beyond the zero-sum landscape of liberal social fatalism and envisage something we might dare call the New, we retreat, collapsing into the arms of the only people seemingly capable of providing any semblance of structure, security, and authority: the corporations. And this is where Edward Bernays’s prophetic vision has been lavishly fulfilled. As digital monopolies steadily enclose whatever still remains of a public sphere, an impressive array of PR professionals have worked overtime to make it all sound liberating and democratic. Press releases gush out of all available servers, print articles and op-eds consistently reminding us not of the use value of their products (useful products, it should be noted, are not a Silicon Valley specialty) but, just as Bernays taught us, of the value of the corporations themselves: the great services they provide, the glorious number of jobs they create, their moral and ethical right-mindedness, and their proper place as the cultural and social pillars of all things American and exceptional—which is to say all things Hayekian and free. Far from simply building brand stories and shaping images, modern public relations is a perverse spin on what Bernays originally imagined the profession to be: it seeks to enshrine a privatized technocracy, swathed in the shallow veneer of a rhetorical, and endlessly fungible, commitment to social justice. And if present trends continue, our digitally administered information state may indeed be poised to finally extinguish the irksome throwback legacy that Bernays and his milieu found so threatening: democracy itself...

The Century of Spin | Liz Franczak

See also:
Futures Forum: Silicon Valley Values @ Radio 4's Analysis
Futures Forum: The promises of technological innovation >>> >>> >>> "The rise of the techno-libertarians: the five most socially-destructive aspects of Silicon Valley"

Here's an introduction to Adam Curtis' series:

Introduction to Century of the Self - YouTube

Plus something from journalist and film maker John Pilger - where the first few minutes take us from how the American people were persuaded to enter the First World War to how American women were persuaded to take up smoking: 
The War You Don’t See on Vimeo

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