I Will Not ‘Move On.’

Tony Blair almost makes this atheist wish for a hell. Today’s ruling by the High Court is reasonable in its own terms. There is no crime of aggression in British law and, even were we to enact one tomorrow, it would be questionable to apply it retroactively. With the International Criminal Court unable to act on the events of 2003, it seems all legal routes are closed. There is no justice. Just us.

This is our shame as a nation. Britain, which postures and swaggers at summits and conferences and brandishes its ‘democracy’ and its ‘rule of law’ literally has no mechanism for laying a million skulls at Blair’s feet and demanding a reckoning.

I’m not going to rehearse the arguments of 2003 here. I’m done with that. As the invasion loomed, I spent months in fruitless debate with journalists and message board posters arguing the toss over every issue, supplying reams of citations and hoping to hammer home to each interlocutor the savage injustice of the attack. On some level, I was doubtless assuaging my own guilt, hoping that one more pointless victory online would somehow be the toothpick that stopped the monster’s jaws from snapping shut. I literally pleaded with some journalists to expose the lies, which were so easily refuted if one had the will to do so, to stop the tanks in their tracks. I hoped to the last that by forcing Britain from the train the whole murderous campaign could be derailed. Even afterward, I continued the arguments; as if any of them would restore a son to his mother or arms to a body.

The lies and hypocrisy still burn today. No, there were no weapons of mass destruction, save for the decayed remnants we already knew to be there. No, Saddam was not working with terrorists. No, he didn’t hate America. The WMD pretext in ashes, Blair now argues that it was ‘still right to remove Saddam’ -eliding the truth that the US announced it would invade even if Saddam and his family went into exile. Now it’s portrayed as a great humanitarian enterprise gone awry -our noble vision to bring democracy brought low by our own naivete and Arab scheming. We didn’t wage a war – we didn’t go out of our way to provoke a war – no, we were ‘sucked into’ the war. We were the victims. Iraq was wearing a short skirt, your honour.

No, I will not forget. We weren’t asked to help the Iraqis. We weren’t asked what could be done to free them from their dictator. That would have delivered the wrong answer. That would have led us to first stop doing what were doing to keep him in power. We’d been keeping him in power since the 1970s, even after the first Gulf War when the US had actively stopped Iraqis overthrowing Saddam in order to maintain the ‘regional balance’ (in US favour).

We were told that they were a threat; a danger so great that we had no choice to begin killing them. Imagine the media coverage if we had journalists who had the guts to say that. We’re not ‘commencing operations,’ we beginning to kill. “We started killing at 1am and my sources tell me they will go on killing Iraqis until they stop fighting back.”

The invasion was not a British decision but enabling it was. The attack was inevitable and the inspections just adding to the torture. Every time Blair went through the motions of responding to Hans Blix he knew that it was a charade, that it was a side show while troops were massed and armour transported. Did he give ordinary Iraqis hope? Did any of them genuinely pray for inspections for be a success, hoping that the nice Mr Blair, who looked so honest, so trustworthy, so reasonable, was telling the truth? Iraq in 2003 was a nation of 26 million people, half of whom were under 15. In the final weeks, the price of Valium skyrocketed because Iraqi parents were trying desperately to get their kids to sleep. Blair knowingly have them false hope: that maybe, just maybe, the bombs wouldn’t fall.

And how I loathe the journalists who affect world-weary cynicism but trot after ‘statesmen’ like puppies, tails all waggy. How I loathe their plastic compassion and the pompous declamations that ‘something must be done,’ that they ‘can’t stand idly by’. Their tears fall and dry to order, always on tap to grease the wheels of the war machine. Iraq, Libya, Syria, soon Iran or N. Korea or Venezuela; they care as long as it’s convenient to their masters. Vapid hacks who were musing on their favourite Starbucks last week are pontificating on international politics the next. Simpering New Labour apparatchiks tutting at me for not considering Tony Blair’s ‘legacy’ in the round – as if Sure Start and the Minimum fucking Wage can be put on a set of scales drenched in blood.

NSAnd how I resent being told to ‘get over it’; as if rage over Iraq were some hang-up, some teenage obsession and that caring about all those poor little brown people is just so passé. We live in a country that can’t stop commemorating World War One and Two. We’re constantly being told how grateful we should be to The Fallen, how we owe them our freedom. Even today, on the state-sanctioned commemoration of Passchendaele, the New Statesman retweeted their article telling us to ‘move on’. Yet our press pilloried Jeremy Corbyn for not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph -when it’s our dead ‘moving on’ is forbidden. We know the names of our dead. I’ve lost count of the number of articles about the ‘costs’ of Iraq that number our dead but can’t even be bothered to give the weight in tons of the Iraqis we’ve murdered.

If we had justice, Tony Blair would be sent to Iraq. He’d be locked in one of Saddam’s old palaces with a hammer and a chisel. And every day he’d be visited by Iraqis who’d hand him small slips of paper, each one bearing the name of one of the dead. And he’d have to carve every one of those names into the walls until nobody was left uncommemorated. Only then, would be allowed to ‘move on’.

I will not get over it. I will not forgive. I will not forget. And until there is justice I will not move on.


Selling America to the Americans

Last week, I sketched the outlines of Public Relations’s development during the period from World War One through to the beginning of the next global conflict, World War Two. Rapid economic growth during the 1920s saw PR flourish. Business, seeing the importance of thought control in formally democratic societies, drew upon and expanded the techniques developed by the American and British propagandists who marketed the ‘Great’ War. Then, when the US economy collapsed in 1929, PR was deployed in order to maintain popular consent for the corporate capitalist system and forestall the perceived threat of revolution.

This project was still in motion when World War II came. As the nation pulled together pressure for social and economic reform faded behind ‘national’ priorities. ‘War and war only,’ wrote the philosopher Walter Benjamin, ‘can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.’[i] For business, the fortunes of war were mixed. The wartime ‘miracle of production’ ‘symbolized one of the finest hours of the free enterprise system’, restoring to it a measure of prestige.[ii] Profits rose, business control over the economy broadened, and the Marshall Plan opened European markets and was a lever against left-leaning governments.[iii] Nonetheless, business fretted that the ‘miracle’ came at a price.

Since the government had regulated so much wartime production, business feared that success had strengthened relations between government and labour unions and promoted continued interventionism. They also feared that the American public was once again prey to ‘strange and bewildering doctrines’ about mutualism, cooperation, and industrial democracy. Surveys conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation and the Psychological Corporation found that people neither ‘feared nor understood State Socialism’ and neither craved nor understood the system business likes to call ‘free enterprise’. One prominent captain of industry of the time, W. W. Suitt stated publicly that,

the thinking of the general public must turn from acceptance of controls, restrictions and regulations placed as a war-time exigency on business as well as individuals, to a demand on the part of the voter for a return to a system where a work economy can function –– where business can seek its own level in a free competitive enterprise.[iv]

this-is-americaAs the President of Sun Oil, J. Howard Pew put it at the time, business must not ‘let the praise now being showered on industry blind us to the fact that our American way of life barely survived the onslaught against it in the thirties’.[v] Nor had the danger passed as, emboldened, the working class  might extend its influence beyond pay and conditions to assail the sacred domains of pricing and investment.[vi] Note that, once again, the ‘American way of life’ was under potential threat from the American people.

These fears of business highlight one of the late Alex Carey’s most telling insights: because modern wars require broad-based support, wartime propaganda has little choice but to valorise the ‘humane, egalitarian, democratic character of the home society in a way that no elite or business interest has any intention of allowing actually to come about.’[vii] The proposition has become only more absurd in the present day, when humanitarianism and ‘bringing democracy to the world’ can be taken seriously only when facts are scratched from the page.  Back in 1946, the hollow promise of a ‘world made safe for democracy’ would be followed by a PR campaign to ensure that such elevated notions never penetrated those realms properly reserved to the Captains of Industry. A year before war’s end, business began to prepare for the next war, its gaze fixed once more on the enduring foe.

When international hostilities closed, business assessed that its position had indeed declined. Following the rash of strikes during 1945-46, business writer Whiting Williams warned of industrial unrest that threatened ‘nothing less than a catastrophic civil war.’[viii]  According to the sociologist, Robert Lynd, the ‘old liberal enterprise system’ had to ‘fight for its life’. PR firms eagerly stoked these anxieties – one grim prognosis giving the  ‘present economic system, and the men who run it… three years — maybe five at the outside — to resell our so-far preferred way of life as against competing systems…’[ix] Business would have to act quickly, while the afterglow of the war remained. As the War Advertising Council concluded, because the nation’s wartime information mechanism had been ‘powered almost entirely by American business’, with the war over ‘business could ill-afford to abandon the powerful advantage spawned by the image of this “unselfish” contribution to the war effort.’[x]

9eced8de366d0cd8ab3dc94e073bc17b--free-poster-team-usaTo achieve the required reconversion of thought, business found itself with remarkable new resources. To manage war-time PR, Roosevelt had created the Office of War Information (OWI), a less innovative scion of the CPI. In peacetime this released 100,000 cutting-edge practitioners into Civvy Street. A new generation of firms emerged, including modern day giants Edelman and Burson-Marsteller. PR technique was being studied on campuses throughout the nation and the number of academic articles and professional journals increased markedly.[xi] By 1949, there were 500 independent PR firms, many with annual turnovers exceeding half a million dollars as well as 4,000 corporations with dedicated departments.[xii] The foundation, in 1948, of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) symbolized this growth.[xiii]

Likewise, the means of propagating the faith were improving. Radio continued as one of the best carriers of the corporate message with the 1940 census revealing that it reached almost 83% of American families.[xiv] In 1954, Herbert Muschel introduced the first PR newswire service, providing the beginnings of a news service that gave PR offices access to newsrooms across the globe.[xv]

Then there was the medium of the 20th Century, which with ‘skilful use’ could reach into the ‘hearts and minds of… 134,000,000 people…’[xvi] In the early fifties, business began to shift its institutional advertising out of radio and into television. The importance of advertising to American television should not be understated. As Michael Dawson argues,

In reality, television in America has always been permitted to operate as a subsidiary institution of modern corporate marketing. Marketers pay for the lion’s share of the U.S. television system, which is devoted almost entirely to transmitting sales communications. Under such arrangements, as every television veteran knows, the programs are merely lead-ins to the advertisements, which are the raison d’etre for the whole institution.[xvii]

Or, as a French TV executive put it in 2005, the function of television is to sell ‘human brain time’ to advertisers.[xviii]

More than ever, corporate PR after World War II drove at a broadly political object, rather than the narrow commercial considerations of shilling for this or that product or company.[xix] The prominent businessman, Vernon Scott spoke of ‘the greatest ideological war of all times,’ against government economic planning. General Floods’ PR supremo amplified this, warning that if PR did not win over ‘men’s minds and men’s loyalties’ people would continue to expect government to ‘keep an eye on business’.[xx] The Psychological Corporation’s Henry C. Link restated the familiar strategy that business should downplay ‘free enterprise’ in favour of the ‘freedom of all individuals under free enterprise; from capitalism to the much broader concept: Americanism.’[xxi]  PRSA President Howard Chase urged business to identify with simple goals, such as better education, health and nutrition, housing, and social security. Likewise, Edward Bernays pressed business to lead ‘the fields of racial relations, housing, and education’ and the head of the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson held that business must develop a ‘permanent and complete social policy’.[xxii] Absent from this was the citizen in a democracy, only the consumer in the market.

In sum, businessmen[xxiii] and their PR swamis advocated using corporate propaganda to push welfare capitalism in order to forestall a welfare state. Taking a lead in social policy would challenge what one Fortune editorial consultant called ‘the curious assumption’ that it should rest with government. Government’s accretion of competence in social policy severely compromised the rights of private business and so the ‘principle of private initiative in social matters’ should be reaffirmed.[xxiv]

Business, Opinion Research Inc. counselled, should also roll back the grassroots ‘collectivist and authoritarian ideology’ of government as a necessary safeguard against miscreant business. [xxv] For example, in 1947 business lobbying managed to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which significantly reversed the business regulation introduced by the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935. The act, passed over President Truman’s veto, was itself drafted by corporate lobbyists.[xxvi] I won’t belabour the obvious parallel with Brexit, the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, and the malign caperings of Liam Fox. Suffice to say, business seizes any opportunity to free itself of red tape, even when that tape is fire retardant.

The rollback required a dual PR strategy. Firstly, it had to undermine New Deal interventionist assumptions and welfare state programmes. Corporations instructed  America that ‘prosperity could only be achieved through reliance on individual initiative, the protection of personal liberty, and increasing productivity.’ Radio programmes, for instance, editorialized on the importance of profits in the ‘American Free Enterprise System’ and the  threats to ‘our’ ‘American Way of Life’ and the ‘freedom of the individual’ augured by a  ‘Welfare State’. [xxvii]  Business spent $100m a year on an ‘almost overwhelming propaganda of doctrine’, which saturated the media with ‘advertising calculated to sell ideas rather than merchandise’.[xxviii] By the mid-50s, 20 years of institutional broadcasting and associated PR combined with other PR activities helped business achieve the status of a respected institution in American society.

marrycommy1The strategy’s second component boosted corporate social policies as an alternative to the New Deal. This was helped by international politics. The rise of the Soviet Union and the second ‘Red Scare’ – personified by the incendiary scheming of J. Edgar Hoover[xxix] – allowed a pogrom against ‘New Deal liberals’ and collectivists. Hoover, a 20th Century Matthew Hopkins, even managed in 1953 to secure the ‘burning of all books in American Information Service libraries throughout the world that were offensive to him; from books suspected of being “soft” on communism to detective stories by pro-communist authors’.[xxx] Such was the appetite for expunging  ‘communist fellow travellers’ business also used the ‘Red Menace’ to lobby for a ‘war economy’ and the massive funding of the new ‘military industrial complex’ ­– an analysis echoed in government planning documents of the time.[xxxi] This had the advantage of maintaining state intervention but ensuring that it intervened in favour of business.[xxxii] Corporate PR, therefore, portrayed massive corporate welfare as a patriotic, necessary defence and decried New Deal programmes – social welfare ­– as communism cloaked.[xxxiii] Again, how little has changed. The 2008 financial crisis (widely and wrongly referred to as a ‘recession’) shows how much business welcomes state intervention in its favour.

The corporate assault on ‘communist’ social Keynesianism in favour of military or commercial Keynesianism continued throughout the 1950s. The New Deal was significantly reversed, mostly notably price controls, health insurance legislation, and government house-building.[xxxiv] While the economy grew, this welfare capitalism model reigned unchallenged.[xxxv] Business advertised itself as reformed, with class divisions finally healed. In 1951, Fortune celebrated a ‘permanent revolution’ in capital-labour relations, with ‘left-wing ideologies’ routed.[xxxvi] It was finally ‘the end of history’.

Next week. PR, marketing, and democracy in the modern era.



[i] Walter Benjamin (1936) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” available at https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

[ii] Seymour Melman (1974) “The Permanent War Economy, American Capitalism in Decline,” p 15.

[iii] Meyer Weinberg (2003) “A Short History of American Capitalism,” p. 245. One of the conditions of the Economic Recovery Plan was the exclusion of left-leaning elements from the governments of recipient nations and the introduction of capitalist policies.

[iv] W. W. Suitt, quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Social History of Spin”, p. 345. The scale of federal wartime expenditures had been immense and far exceeded total spending on all New Deal programs of the 1930s. Between 1939 and mid-1945, the size of the armed forces, as measured by active-duty personnel, grew more than 36 times and annual military spending grew almost 60 times The U.S. Treasury became the dominant source of capital investment during the war and, between 1940 and 1943, supplied almost 70%  of industrial investment, in contrast to 5% in 1940. None of this diminished the economic power of private industry, which in 1945 controlled 66.5% of all industrial assets as compared to 65.4% in 1939 (Robert Higgs, “Private Profit, Public Risk: Institutional Antecedents of the Modern Military Procurement System in the Rearmament Program of 1940-41,” p. 188 quoted in Weinberg 2003, p 229).

[v] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 342.

[vi] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf  (1992) “Selling Free Enterprise: the Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960,” p. 2.

[vii] Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty,” p. 137.

[viii] Quoted in Fones-Wolf (1992), pp. 16, 32.

[ix] Fones-Wolf (1992) p. 37.

[x] War Advertising Council, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 346. 1942 also saw the formation of the War Advertising Council, which used domestic PR to combat absenteeism, promote rationing, sell war bonds and so forth (Scott Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,”  p. 528).

[xi] Cutlip (1994) p. 528; Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Spin,” p. 103. In 1946, there were only 26 institutions in the in the whole of the US that offered courses on PR. By 1964, there were 300, with 14 offering bachelor degrees (Cutlip 1994, p. 529).

[xii] Fortune (May 1949), pp. 68-69, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 356.

[xiii] Cutlip (1994) pp. 528-29

[xiv] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf ‘Creating a Favorable Business Climate: Corporations and radio broadcasting, 1934 to 1954,’ in Harvard Business History Review Vol. 73, No. 2; Pg. 221-255 Summer 1999.

[xv] Cutlip (1994), p. 529.

[xvi] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 386.

[xvii] Michael Dawson (2003) “The Consumer Trap”, p. 103.  Dawson was writing before the advent of pay television services such as Netflix but his point still stands for broadcast media.

[xviii] Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant, TF1, described the purpose of his company thus ‘There are many ways of talking about television. But from a business perspective, let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available.’

The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.’ Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005  available at  http://mondediplo.com/2005/01/16press

[xix] A parenthetical note of caution here. While the 20th Century saw large-scale, explicitly political campaigns by business to shore up the stability of the corporate system, one should be wary of reading a political intent into everyday advertising. This is where I would agree with Dawson argue that writers like Stuart Ewen (and before him Herbert Marcuse) over-egg the pudding: ‘While most owners and managers of big businesses are undoubtedly opposed to the growth of coherent class struggle from below and often take or condone strong action to prevent and combat it, while ads do generally reinforce market values and can and perhaps should be read politically, and while advertising and marketing certainly have tremendous political side effects and implications, the truth remains that the vast majority of corporate advertisements are neither intentionally motivated by politics nor dedicated to directly political ends’ (2003, p. 98). Individual adverts are, 999 times out of a thousand, simply small acts of class coercion designed to affect our private behaviour.

[xx] Ewen (1996) pp. 357-58.

[xxi] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 360.

[xxii] Ewen (1996), p. 362.

[xxiii] And in those days it was men.

[xxiv] Russell Davenport, quoted in Ewen (1996) p. 363.

[xxv] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 359. Meanwhile, business was also setting about the dismantling the governmental infrastructure that allowed it to regulate ‘miscreant business’.

[xxvi] John B. Judis (2000) “The Paradox of American Democracy, Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust,” p. 11.

[xxvii] Fones-Wolf (1999).

[xxviii] $100 million figure from MacDougall 1952, quoted in Carey; Key, V. O. (1961) “Public Opinion and American Democracy,” pp. 106-7.

[xxix] Aided by the House Un-American Activities Committee  and the less notorious Senate Internal Security Committee.

[xxx] Ewen (1996) p. 365; Carey (1995), pp. 64-74.

[xxxi] According to Seymour Melman (1974 p. 16.) from the onset of the Cold War ‘methods of military containment, nuclear and nonnuclear, were given high priority by American planners. The concept of a “permanent war economy” formulated in 1944 was soon made a reality.’   The principal government planning document of the time, widely regarded to have shaped American post-war planning for decades was National Security Council Memorandum 68 (April 14th 1950, declassified in 1975), ‘United States Objectives and Programs for National Security’ (NSC 68), written by an ad hoc committee under the direction of Paul Nitze (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Vol. I, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977, pp. 234-292; the basic concept of the military industrial complex was developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower (then only  a General) in a 1946 memo to War Department. In the memo he argued that WWII had ‘demonstrated more convincingly than ever before the strength our nation can best derive from the integration of all our national resources in time of war’ and that ‘civilian resources which by conversion or redirection constitute our main support in time of emergency be associated closely with the activities of the Army in time of peace.’ (quoted in Melman (1970) “Pentagon Capitalism,”, p. 231); As President, Eisenhower later coined the term in his ‘Farewell Address’ on January 17, 1961 . Perhaps contritely, Eisenhower warned that, ‘Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.… We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications… we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.’ (reproduced in Melman 1970 pp. 235-239, my emphasis); During this period, US military spending rose enormously. According to Hogan (1998) during the first two decades of the Cold War the US federal government funnelled $776bn into national defence, approximately 60% of the entire federal budget.

[xxxii] Melman (1974, p 16) ‘The ideological consensus that evolved from World War II transformed the justification for military spending from a time-limited economic effort to achieve a political goal (winning World War II) to a sustaining means for governmental control of the economy.’

[xxxiii] Melman (1974, p. 17), for example, notes that the war economy required the support of the American people and that, by the 1950s a ‘cross-society political consensus had developed… Businessmen, industrial workers, engineers, government employees, intellectuals all joined in the confident assessment that war economy on a sustained basis was not only viable but economically desirable.’

[xxxiv] Carey (1994), p. 34; Ewen (1996) pp. 366-369.

[xxxv] As Meyer Weinberg (2003 p. 247) describes, ‘Rearmament was welcomed by many large enterprises… Many lucrative contracts were awarded without bidding. There being no civilian market for most defence goods, defence producers did not constitute competition to non-defence producers. Political connections were critical…Increasing federal support for research and development (R & D) contained commercial subsidies in disguise… whether financed by government or business. In one way or another, federal patronage through research subventions or outright purchase proved decisive to the future of numerous critical products. This was especially the case in the electronic revolution after World War II.’

[xxxvi] Fones-Wolf (1994, p. 68) observes that many historians have accepted that the introduction of welfare capitalism ended the conflict between capital and labour. However, as she observes, while unions made concessions, especially in the area of managerial prerogatives, ‘the fight for economic security  continued to galvanize workers for serious struggle’ and only the ‘threat of strong union action brought increased wages and benefits’.

The Science of Persuasion

Last week, I discussed WWI as the great testbed for the techniques of manipulation. It was, at that point, the most successful use of propaganda in history, using forms of deception still effective a century later when, in September 2002, the US and UK prepared the ground to seize Iraq with a $200m ‘PR blitz’ of domestic and foreign audiences; particularly ‘sceptical Arab populations.’[1] In this article, I’ll cover the post-war rise of PR through to the beginnings of the WWII.

Modern Public Relations rose like a poppy from the battlefields of the Great War. George Creel’s vast programme ‘released into the American private sector a demobbed army of public relations experts’ and, by the end of the war, companies such as AT&T, Swift, Bethlehem Steel, and Du Pont, as well as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), had established PR operations. Business, conscious of being ‘a small minority highly vulnerable to political attack’, valued the practical application of scientific persuasion and ‘regimenting the public mind’.[2] WWI had demonstrated that,

…wars are fought with words and ideas as well as with arms and bullets. Businessmen, private institutions, great universities –– all kinds of groups –– became conditioned to the fact that they needed the public; that the great public could now perhaps be harnessed to their cause as it had been harnessed during the war to the national cause, and that the same methods could do the job.[3]

The techniques for which the war provided such a splendid test bed were refined as PR professionals became students of the psyche, particularly Freudian psychology. In so doing, they largely abandoned the Progressives’ original belief in a reasonable public and instead aimed their efforts at manipulating the ‘crowd’. In this they followed the French philosopher and polymath, Gustave Le Bon, who argued that, while an individual person might be civilised, educated, and reasonable in isolation, in a crowd they become an unreasoning barbarian.[4] Danny Baker, for instance, supports Millwall.



Edward Bernays

Symbolic imagery became the currency of a new form of communication that appealed to the psyche, emotions, and instincts. The ‘Father of Public Relations,’ Edward Bernays, was moulded by his experiences in the Creel Committee and also by his heritage: he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Yet while Freud ‘sought to liberate people from their subconscious drives and desires,’ Bernays wanted only to exploit them for his clients.[5] Nor was Bernays shy; speaking and writing with his characteristic brio of the need to ‘manipulate the public mind’ and using, with almost gleeful abandon, a word that among intellectuals had become virtually profane, ‘propaganda’.

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.[6]


NAM ‘This is America’ poster, circa. 1925

As the Twenties began to roar, the PR industry grew in size, if not stature. The war vastlyexpanded America’s productive base and created a demand for consumer goods after several years of relative austerity. In the afterglow of its recent triumph, PR shared the general economic trajectory, supplying experts in advertising, marketing, fundraising, and boosting generally. While most PR still boosted individual products and companies, post-war corporate propaganda began the process of fusing business values with ‘traditional’ American values –  transmuting ‘private advantage into the public good.’[7] PR trumpeted the abstract tenets of the ‘American Way’ – individualism, independence, freedom, and social harmony – and made fashionable consumption, the crucial economic motor, their durable incarnation.[8]

The effect on public opinion was substantial. ‘So profoundly pro-business was the national temper and so successful were business efforts in keeping the favor of the public,’ that no other group could withstand them.[9] The ‘business of the United States is business’ proclaimed President Coolidge joyously. Jeremiads on the stump against ‘industrial feudalism’ by firebrands likes Upton Sinclair seemed distant indeed, as the major presidential candidates proclaimed ‘their faith [in] Wall Street and the self-regulating economy’ to maintain good times for all.[10] This was in 1927.


The Great Crash

The Wall Street crash in November 1929, and the Great Depression that followed, shattered the American economy. Between 1929 and 1933 US Gross National Product (GNP) fell from $103.1bn to $55.6bn. 100,000 businesses failed and there were 23,000 suicides during a single year.[11] For a time, capitalism itself was thrown into question.[12] Popular discontent was high and a ‘series of coordinated actions took place on a nationwide basis’ lead by political radicals including the Communist and Socialist Parties.[13] Despite repression and concerted state violence, however, for a remarkable period advocacy of  government ownership, socialism, and even communism became respectable in mainstream American discourse.[14] When Franklin Roosevelt entered office  in 1933, one of his closest advisors warned that they faced either an ‘orderly revolution’ – the New Deal – or the ‘violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalist structure.’[15]

The New Deal heralded a move from 1920s laissez faire economics to increased government intervention, and modernization, curbing some of the Depression’s triggers, notably currency speculation.[16] Facing trenchant business animosity, Roosevelt’s publicity team introduced many of the modern techniques of political PR.[17] In doing so they deployed publicity against the failed ‘religion of private enterprise’.[18]


NAM billboard, circa. 1937

The business press reported this with characteristic candour and, by 1934, the captains of industry realized the renewed threat to their estate. Several organisations, including the NAM[19] set their muscle to the task of disseminating ‘sound American doctrines to the public’.[20] The PR industry counselled them to sell ‘the American way of life to the American people’; a statement that is intelligible only when one interprets the ‘American way of life’ as business’s way of life.[21]

During the next thirteen years, the NAM spent more than $15 million on leaflets, school films, article reprints and short movies seen by millionin order to fight  the ‘newly realized political power of the masses’ and their ‘many strange and bewildering doctrines’ that were such a ‘hazard to industrialists’. In the words of the NAM’s president, they blanketed every media in order to ‘[pound their] message home with relentless determination’: the centrality of business to American life and the ‘unabashed assertion of the profit motive in U.S. Civilization.’[22]

Major concerns, such as Ford, Du Pont, and General Motors (GM), sponsored network radio programmes with messages designed to improve their image. Radio had begun operating in the 1920s with a mix of profit and non-profit broadcasters but, by the end of the decade, two major networks – National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBC) – had begun operations, and radio commercialized rapidly. The number of homes with radios reached 30% by 1928, doubling between 1930 and 1940.

NAMThe use of radio was extensive and effective. The NAM’ radio series, ‘The American Family Robinson’ – described by Variety as a ‘thinly veiled attack on the policies of the Roosevelt administration’ was being broadcast by 207 stations within 6 months of its inception and, by the late 30s almost 300 small non-network stations carried it. According to the NAM’s PR director, the programme was ‘industry’s effective answer to the Utopian promises of theorists and demagogues at present reaching such vast audiences via the radio.’ To take another example, from 1934 to 1936, a group of conservative business leaders calling themselves the  ‘Crusaders’ fought the New Deal on a programme broadcast on 79 CBS stations. This was backed by the executives of General Foods, Du Pont, General Motors, Nabisco, Heinz, Sun Oil, Weirton Steel, and Standard Oil of Indiana.

In 1939, the US Senate’s  La Follette Commission reviewed business’s assault on popular opinion. It condemned the activities of the NAM in particular as a ‘propaganda which in technique has relied upon indirection of meaning, and in presentation of secrecy and deception.’[23]  1939 marked a major moment in the history of PR. Though it had decried Roosevelt’s plans as but a shade off communism and  fascism, business still recognised the authentic face of tyranny, and so it called a brief ceasefire in its war on the American public, in order to direct its might against the Axis Powers.[24] Next week, this story of PR comes to World War II.



[1] Tim Reid, ‘America Plans PR Blitz on Saddam,’ in the Times (London), September 17th 2002. They chose September because, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card put it, in marketing ‘you don’t introduce new products in August’ (quoted in William Schneider ‘Marketing Iraq: Why now?’ Cable News Network, 12th September 2002, available at http://edition.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/09/12/schneider.iraq/ ).

[2] The description of business is from V. O. Key (1964) “Politics, Parties & Pressure Groups,” p. 91.

[3] Edward Bernays (1952) “Public Relations,” p. 78.

[4] Gustave Le Bon (1895) “The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind”.

[5] Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations,” p. 97 and Chapter Nine.

[6] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda”, p. 9.

[7] Borrowing a phrase from V.O. Key.

[8] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (1994) “Selling Free Enterprise,” p 16.

[9] Cochrane and Miller, (1961) “The Age of Enterprise: A Social History of Industrial America”, pp. 343-44.

[10] Quoted in Fones-Wolf (1994), p 16.

[11] Ewen 1996, p. 233; C N Trueman “Wall Street Crash of 1929 and its aftermath,” The History Learning Site, 22 May 2015, available at http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/america-1918-1939/wall-street-crash-of-1929-and-its-aftermath/

[12] Eric Hobsbawn in “The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991” (1994 p. 87) observed that, while economies have always had their heady ups and chilly downs, the crash was genuinely ‘system-endangering’. The reaction to the crash was all the more intense because the Soviet Union, derided and vilified for its decision to break free from capitalism [at least western capitalism], appeared utterly immune from the slump.

[13] The Communists organized Unemployed councils and, in Chicago in March 1930 alone, they distributed 200,000 leaflets, 50,000 stickers, and 50,000 shop papers (Meyer Weinberg (2003) “A Short History of American Capitalism” p. 219).

[14] During one demonstration in 1930 in New York City, ‘Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting… all with whom they came in contact. … A score of men with bloody heads and faces sprawled over the square with police pummelling them.’ At Ford plants in Highland Park and Dearborn, near Detroit, Communists led 3,000-strong march of unemployed people. Police responded with tear gas and machine guns against the unarmed marchers (who responded by throwing stones), killing four and wounding many more. According to the executive committee of the Detroit American Civil Liberties League, ‘most of the injuries received by the paraders consisted of gunshot wounds in their sides and backs.’ (Weinberg, p. 219-220). Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 24.

[15] Rexford G. Tugwell, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 237. The New Deal was praised by many as a return to Progressivism and the re-emergence of a ‘disinterested’ class. The Supreme Court judge, Felix Frankfurter, for example, wrote that it had put ‘more intelligent and more purposeful and more disinterested men in the service of government than there has been for at least half a century’ (quoted in Judis (2000) “The Paradox of American Democracy, Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust,” p. 17).

[16] Stuart Ewen (1996), “PR! A Social History of Spin,” pp 238-239.

[17] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power,”p. 526.

[18] Ewen (1996), p. 246.

[19] National Association of Manufacturers.

[20] ‘NAM Historical Highlights’ available at http://www.nam.org/About/History-of-the-NAM/

[21] Fones-Wolf (1999).

[22] Cutlip (1994): 107; Fones-Wolf (1999). ‘Many strange and bewildering doctrines’ was the phrase used by the DuPont family to described the various socialistic and radical ideologies being expressed (Ibid). To ‘blanket’ the media and ‘pound home’ the message are the words of  President of the NAM, speaking to a meeting of business leaders in 1935 (Rippa, 1958, p. 60, quoted in Carey, p. 24). Jackall & Hirota (2000) “Image Makers,” p. 47.

[23] US Congress 1939, p. 218, quoted in Carey, p. 24.

[24] Carey, p. 27.

Regimenting the Public Mind

Last week, I made a sketch of one of the dominant strains of establishment intellectual thought: disdain for the masses and, by extension, genuine democracy. ‘The scholar,’ wrote the noted American economist Edwin Seligman, ‘must possess priestly qualities and fulfil priestly functions, including political activity’ in order that the people learn their true needs and the means of their satisfaction.’[1]

Democracy is, of course, notoriously difficult to define and I’m not going to take Dahl, Beetham, and Sartori from the shelf now. It’s enough to say that by democracy I mean a thing deeper than merely the occasional popular ratification of political decisions made by elites in a political sphere kept carefully separate from its economic foundations (largely the system we have today). I mean genuine popular participation in the formulation as well as the contestation of policy.

Business has done its best to keep democracy in its place by using two principal tools. First, by lobbying for and buying legislation at source and, secondly, by attempting to control popular opinion. It’s the control of opinion that concerns me here. The problem of business manipulating public opinion was predicted long ago. In 1909 Graham Wallas, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, warned of the consequences should business feel its position threatened by a surfeit of democracy,

Popular election may work fairly well as long as those questions are not raised which cause the holders of wealth of and industrial power to make full use of their opportunities… If they did so there is so much skill to be bought, and the art of using skill for the production of emotion and opinion has so far advanced, that the whole condition of political contests would be changed for the future.[2]

Business’s interest in public opinion arose from the drubbing it took during the Progressive Era (circa. 1890-1920) when ‘muckraking’ journalism had enjoyed a golden age. A succession of often sensational newspaper and magazine articles revealed gouging, quackery, mountebankery, vice, corruption, and criminality. Meanwhile, anti-trust laws challenged property rights and virtually every populist politician made play of their opposition to ‘industrial feudalism’ and the ‘conspirators of Wall Street.’[3] Yet while the middle and intellectual classes had initially been behind using the ‘great moral disinfectant’ of publicity, they soon came to revile it. The Progressives wanted greater social equity but they did not want revolution. Muckraking  – to the Progressive eye – soon went beyond smoothing the rough edges from corporate industrialism to having the potential to punch a bloody hole through the capitalist machine and undermine belief in the equity of the business system itself. ‘There is in America to-day,’ wrote Walter Lippmann in 1914, ‘a distinct prejudice in favor of those who make the accusations.’ He continued,

“Big Business,” and its ruthless tentacles, have become the material for the feverish fantasy of illiterate thousands thrown out of kilter by the rack and strain of modern life… all the frictions of life are readily ascribed to a deliberate evil intelligence… that ten minutes of cold sanity would reduce to a barbarous myth.[4]

As Fortune magazine recorded years later, ‘business did not discover… until its reputation had been all but destroyed… that in a democracy nothing is more important than [public opinion].’ Alex Carey argues that, with the extension of the franchise impossible to reverse, business aimed to ‘corrupt’ the electorate by manipulating public opinion. So, business became determined to fight ‘words with words’ and hired former newspapermen to act as publicity advisors. America’s first publicity firm, The Publicity Bureau, was founded in 1900 and over the years that followed a number of larger companies created their own in-house PR departments.

The techniques of early PR were comparatively crude, with unsophisticated dishonesty and whitewash commonplace. Despite the immaturity of the profession, it nevertheless fulfilled Abraham Lincoln’s prediction, that big business would try to ‘prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people…’[5] As it developed in the first decade of the 20th Century, PR also took the first steps to moving beyond the simple ‘fact-based’ press agentry approach of the Progressive journalists, to develop a more symbol-orientated approach that would eventually become known by scholars of the field as the two-way asymmetric model or ‘scientific persuasion’.[6]

BruteIt was World War One that is arguably the single most important event in the development of modern PR, as it marked the formation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The US Government was keen to participate in the War, as it and American liberal intellectuals generally had been successfully propagandized by the British. The details of this effort are too extensive to go into here but for years the British Establishment had been drumming into the British people (and American intellectuals) the absolute and unconditional evil of the German people. Sir Norman Angell wrote of a ‘propaganda which did not even pretend to tell the truth since its object was to make us hate the enemy and want to go on fighting him,’ which span fables of Germans ‘boiling down the dead for glycerine and of cutting off babies’ hands for amusement’.

I turn over my note-book to find similar signs that will record the time when men, educated men, took leave of sense and reason. Here are the papers printing long letters protesting violently against giving Christian burial to the Germans brought down in a destroyed Zeppelin… Half a page devoted to a debate in Parliament about leaving an elderly German archaeologist in charge of ancient documents in a museum. There is a great slaughter, it appears, of dachshunds, though one correspondent with qualms wants to be quite sure that the dogs really did originally come from  Germany. The Evening News prints lists of those who had undertaken to help feed the children of interned Germans, harrying with headlines (“ Hun-coddlers” was the invention for the occasion) Quakers and others who had been guilty of, explains the Evening News, “ feeding the tiger’s cubs with bits of cake.[7]

Though there was a kernel of truth, presumably, to some accounts of atrocities, the bulk was lies and exaggeration. Little has changed in the hundred years passed: the swindle of Iraqi soldiers ripping Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on cold floors during the first Gulf War in 1990; the myth of Saddam’s human shredders in 2003; and the tall stories of an impending massacre in Benghazi that were without foundation are but three examples. The bitter rhyme of this unreason, of course, was that the public scepticismroads_bprop_1 of government pronouncements WWI propaganda engendered  burned into the late 1930s when stories of real Nazi atrocities reached our shores.

Whatever the long term folly of the British propaganda, it secured US elite opinion. In the country at large, however, the war was unpopular. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on the platforms ‘He kept us out of the war’ and ‘Peace Without Victory.’[8] The working classes, particularly socialists and trade unionists, saw the war as a ‘rich man’s conflict’ and had no yearning – to borrow trades unionist Eugene Debbs’ phrase – to ‘furnish their corpses’ for other people’s property. Similarly, large parts of middle class America were still strongly isolationist and wanted to hold Wilson to his slogans. While privately he had said I will be with you, whatever, a considerable effort was still needed to instil in a timorous America the necessary ‘blazing passion of retaliation.’[9] How time turns the tables.

In April 1917, Wilson put newspaperman George Creel in charge of the newly-formed Committee for Public Information and charged it with securing popular support for the war. Creel had himself urged Wilson to create an agency to coordinate ‘[n]ot propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.’’[10] This was to be an effort on many fronts, to reach ‘every community in the United States by written or spoken word or motion picture; until every individual, native, naturalized, or alien, has it seared into his consciousness that this war is a war of self-defence, and that it has got to be master of his every thought and action.’[11]

The CPI’s task was ‘so distinctively in the nature of an advertising campaign’ that they turned almost instinctively the advertisers and the fledgling PR industry.[12] By this time, the advertising industry was moving from simply describing goods and services towards using symbolism and psychology. Rather than merely informing consumers of their wares, advertisers pioneered a  ‘seductive mix of words and images’, which they attempted to associate with the public’s ‘emotional lives’, ‘needs, cravings, aspirations, and fears…’

The advertising industry furnished many willing servants who had boasted for some time that, since their techniques moved recalcitrant consumers to buy their clients’ products, they could also sell ideas. The CPI, with half a million dollars, 250 employees, 5,000 volunteers, and 75,000 speakers, supplied articles to 30,000 newspapers, produced 75,000,000 books and pamphlets, and secured $30m of free advertising.  Creel’s committee sustained a ‘general climate of thought control,’ facilitated by espionage, censorship, and Sedition Acts under which critics were rounded up and tried.[13] As the President warned his people, ‘conformity will be the only virtue and any man who refuses to conform will have to pay the penalty.’[14]

The catalogue of malign idiocies that ensued almost defeats comprehension. 14 states passed laws forbidding the teaching of the German language; Iowa and South Dakota outlawed the use of German in public or on the telephone; German-language books were ceremonially burned;  the Philadelphia Symphony orchestra and the New York Metropolitan Opera Company were refused permission to perform Beethoven, Wagner, and other German composers; German Shepherd dogs were renamed Alsatians; and Sauerkraut became known as ‘Liberty Cabbage.’

And if the intervening century stales some of the poison in that, recall that after the French insisted on more time for UN weapons inspections in 2003, French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries, alleged appeasers were addressed as ‘Monsieur,’ and Country band The Dixie Chicks had their ‘treachery’ punished with ‘possibly the biggest black balling in the history of American music.’[15] Educated people may still be induced to ‘take leave of sense and reason.’

The techniques of the CPI were so successful that Hitler later credited them as a key factor in Germany’s defeat; praising the ‘amazing skill’ and ‘really brilliant calculation’ that achieved such ‘immense results.’[16] Though much of the Committee’s output, following the British model, was later found to be distortion, exaggeration, and lies, at the time it did the job: the beat of propaganda summoned up the blood and drove the nation to war. As Voltaire is generally held to have said, ‘anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit atrocities.’

As the ‘Father of Public Relations,’ Edward Bernays, later said, ‘it was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind’.[17] And it is to that I will turn next week.


[1] Quoted in Fink (1993) “Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Documents and Essays,”

[2] Quoted in Alex Carey (1995), “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,” pp. 134

[3] Thomas Frank (2001) “One Market Under God. Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy,” p. 37.

[4] Walter Lippmann (1914) “Drift and Mastery,”p. 23-24.

[5] Quoted in David Korten (1995) “When Corporations Rule the World,”) p. 58.

[6] Grunig and Hunt (1984) “Managing Public Relations,” p. 35.

[7] Norman Angell (1926) “The Public Mind its disorders: its exploitation,” p. 31

[8] Larry Tye, L. (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Spin,”  p. 18.

[9] Norman Angell’s description of the similar fury ignited by propaganda in Britain.

[10] Quoted in Jackall & Hirota (2000) “Image Makers, Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy,” p. 13. Creel was referring back to the origins if the word ‘propaganda,’ which stem from the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, a committee established by the Vatican in 1622 to propagate Roman Catholicism

[11] War Information Series, No. 17 (February 1918) excerpted in Delorme & McInnis (1969) “Antidemocratic Trends in Twentieth-Century America,” pp. 66-77

[12] Quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Secret History of Spin,” p. 113.

[13] Ewen (1996) p. 121.

[14] Z, Mickey (2002) ‘Convincing the Skeptics,’ (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/convincing-the-skeptics-by-mickey-z/ ).

[15] The Chicks had the temerity to tell a British audience  “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” In return, a full-on boycott of their music was called for by pro-war groups. ‘Radio stations who played any Dixie Chicks songs were immediately bombarded with phone calls and emails blasting the station and threats of boycotts if they continued… Dixie Chicks CD’s were rounded up, and in one famous incident were run over by a bulldozer… The Dixie Chicks lost their sponsor Lipton, and The Red Cross denied a million dollar endorsement from the band, fearing it would draw the ire of the boycott. The Dixie Chicks also received hundreds of death threats from the incident.’ http://www.savingcountrymusic.com/destroying-the-dixie-chicks-ten-years-after/ and https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/nov/19/the-dixie-chicks-tour-is-country-music-ready-to-forgive

[16] Quoted in Pratkanis & Aronson (2001) “Age of Propaganda. The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion,” p. 317

[17] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda” available at http://www.historyisaweapon.org/defcon1/bernprop.html

The Voters Have Spoken – the Bastards.

I voted Remain and, like Corbyn, I’m a 7/10er. I think there is much to criticise about the EU, which is an undemocratic, business-dominated behemoth but, on balance, I think that we are now, if not heading off a cliff, certainly rattling down a steep hill in a tin bath. But that was the verdict of the referendum and, flawed as it was, I think there’s no alternative but to respect it. Not everyone agrees with me and, if you’ve spent any time on social media or reading the press in the last year, you’ll know that opposition ranges from ‘call another referendum’ to ‘It. Never. Happened’.

I’m not going to waste time surveying the case for opposing the referendum result here. If you’re reading this, you’ll know the outlines:

A) the campaign was riddled with lies, distortion, and scaremongering.

B) the majority wasn’t big enough.

C) the referendum was only ‘advisory’.

D) the result was wrong. Idiots.

As it happens, in my opinion, all four points are correct although C is specious. It’s also the case that A might well be true but we still have no way of knowing that, had the campaign been of unimpeachable honesty and clarity, the result would have been any different. Had the vote gone the other way by the same margin, the first three of these points would still be correct and D would be correct for almost as many people as it is now, just different people. And the victorious Remainers would be making none of them – while sneering at Leavers who did. A. C. Grayling stood for the rest when he wrote,

But MPs live with a fetish: the fetish of the plurality in a ballot… The structures of representative democracy exist to provide a filter against mob rule moods and errors. In that respect MPs have the kind of responsibility that we are all pleased to think airline pilots feel for their passengers. In a case like the madness of Brexit, we want them to exercise it.[i]

So there you have it, the public are passengers – a mob – who need to be protected when their betters judge that they’ve made a mistake. This recalls 2004 when the people of the Irish Republic rejected the Nice Treaty on EU enlargement and were castigated by the British press for their ‘civic infantilism.’[ii] New Labour’s Peter Hain, then UK Minister for Europe, was reported as saying that the Irish hadn’t really rejected the Nice Treaty, as they couldn’t have ‘known what they were voting about… because if they had, they would have voted in favour of it.’[iii] Doubtless Grayling would have agreed with the deputy head of the German Social Democrats’ Party who observed that sometimes ‘the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.’[iv]

Strangely, voter ignorance about the Treaty was only a problem after the ‘no’ vote, despite pre-referendum polls indicating that 50% of the electorate ‘did not understand it, or know even vaguely what it was about.’[v] Nor did the Irish Government seem eager to encourage careful deliberation for the rerun in October 2002; deciding on a 30 day campaign despite evidence that just 16% ‘felt they understood the issues’.[vi] This second referendum was duly won, allowing EU enlargement to proceed unhindered by popular interference. Indeed, it brought the added benefit of endorsing a provision to keep the public out of future decisions.[vii]

Intellectual disdain for democracy is nothing new. The US, for instance, is pleased to present itself as the pinnacle of democracy with a constitution that is venerated as a model for all other societies. Yet, as Gordon Wood noted, the Constitution was ‘intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period’ that would bestow power upon the better people and exclude ‘those who were not rich, well born, or prominent from exercising political power.’[viii] James Madison himself, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, said,

In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, them property of landed proprietors would be insecure…Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.[ix]

The fear of the rabble is aggravated in particular during periods of wider social discontent when demands from below risk jeopardising the position of those above. Historically, the upper middle classes have always walked a tightrope between wanting more rights and liberties and a fairer society for themselves but not wanting this to spill over and allow the lower classes to get out of hand. The ruling class, of course, uses this fear to maintain control.

The current period of economic upheaval, popular unrest, and right and left populist leaders like Trump, Sanders, Le Pen, Mélenchon, Farage, and Corbyn is reminiscent of late 19th Century America when there were similar popular anxieties; particularly a widespread mistrust of big business, anger about egregious inequality, and fear of immigration. A Dickens of his day, Upton Sinclair summed up late 19th and early 20th Century America:

See, we are just like Rome. Our legislatures are corrupt; our politicians are unprincipled; our rich men are ambitious and unscrupulous. Our newspapers have been purchased and gagged; our colleges have been bribed; our churches have been cowed.[x]

I won’t belabour the obvious parallels with today’s conflict between The Many and The Few.

Intellectuals recognise the reality of popular sovereignty but, as the noted American intellectual Walter Lippmann put it in 1925 in The Phantom Public, it must be ‘put in its place, so that each of us may live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd.’[xi] For Lippmann, democracy was merely a ‘pacific substitute for civil war in which opposing armies are counted and the victory is awarded to the larger before any blood is shed.’ In Britain, Sir Norman Angell’s treatise on the ‘disorders’ and ‘exploitation’ of the public mind maintained that the ‘hope of democracy’ lies in ‘fully realising the truth that the voice of the people is usually the voice of Satan.’ Furthermore, Angell held that, while there was ‘no alternative to popular judgement as the basis of government, ’ it was necessary to ‘correct and guide the [public’s] natural tendencies…’ with ‘the right social disciplines and educational processes…’[xii]

One of the most eminent American political scientists of the 20th Century, Harold D. Lasswell,  was similarly contemptuous of ‘democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests’. Education’s failure to eradicate ‘ignorance and superstition’ necessitated propaganda as ‘the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques…’[xiii] ‘If the mass will be free of chains of iron,’ Lasswell declaimed, ‘it must accept its chains of silver. If it will not love, honour and obey, it must not expect to escape seduction.’[xiv]

In essence, Lippmann, Lasswell et. al. advocated a theory of ‘democratic elitism’ in which rival elites would define policy and compete for the public’s approval – expressed through electoral ratification. This doctrine relies on a ‘division of labour’ between pilots and passengers and the idea that, once installed, elites should be left to carry out policy free from interference from the ‘bewildered herd’.

In the 1960s, there was much academic literature on the so-called ‘crisis of democracy’ or the ‘overload’ thesis, which was a response to another period of political and social turbulence, particularly in the US and Western Europe. A variety of movements emerged – student rights, environmentalism, anti-nuclear, regionalist, and feminist, for example; all of which challenged the existing social order and demanded new forms of participation.  Michael Crozier, considering the ‘crisis’ within Europe, noted that the ‘superiority’ of European democracies had been built on a ‘subtle screening of participants and demands’. The ‘overload thesis’, however, held that the ‘information explosion’ was eroding the ‘traditional distance’ deemed necessary to govern.[xv]

Britain, the leading political scientist Anthony King concurred, was once thought an ‘unusually easy country to govern, its politicians wise, its parties responsible, its administration efficient, its people docile’. Yet things had now ‘gone wrong’. Modern problems were ever more intractable and the people had become ‘increasingly bloody-minded.’ Increased complexity, diminished government capacity, and increased public expectations had combined to create ‘mass dissatisfaction’ that threatened to jeopardize ‘political arrangements’.[xvi] What were those ‘arrangements? The noted British politician, Norman St. John-Stevas, succinctly characterised them as policy ‘defined by the executive and made acceptable to the man in the street through propaganda and advertisement.’[xvii]

In 2003, New Labour launched its ‘Big Conversation’, touted as a massive consultation exercise in which the Blair Government would listen to its electorate. This exercise in ‘conspicuous listening’ was lauded by the former Deputy Leader of the Party, Roy Hattersley, as ‘clearly bogus – and greatly to be welcomed.’ The dialogue, wrote Hattersley cheerfully, was really ‘a monologue in disguise’ but this did not obscure the welcome fact that ‘[a]n obeisance is being made in the direction of the humble and the meek.’[xviii] And the scraps of New Labour still apparently retain the same inclusive attitude. ‘In the unlikely event Corbyn wins,’ stated John McTernan in 2015, something would have to be done “swiftly and quickly to restore the party to its sense… who cares about the grassroots? if you get a strong leader, it doesn’t really matter what the grassroots say.’[xix] Well, of course squire, we’re only passengers.

This has been a necessarily short survey of a recurrent theme in the thought of the priests of our day. I’ve not even touched on the attitude of our ruling class to whether the bewildered herds of other countries be allowed to rule over themselves.

Next week, I’m going to continue with this theme by looking at business’s response to democracy during the past century.


Note: The title to this piece is a quote generally attributed to the American politician Morris Udall after he failed, in 1976, to secure the Democratic Presidential nomination.

[i] AC Grayling, “Article 50 ruling: the EU referendum was only ever “advisory” (3/11/16) http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/11/article-50-ruling-eu-referendum-was-only-ever-advisory

[ii] John Plender, “From disenchantment back to democracy…,” Financial Times June 22nd, 2001

[iii] “Fortress Europe”, Telegraph 17 Jun 2001 ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/4263094/Fortress-Europe.html )

[iv] Quoted in Tony Paterson ‘Change law to give us vote on EU, say Germans. Schroeder comes under growing pressure to hold referendum on new constitution,’ Sunday Telegraph, August 1st 2004.

[v] Quentin Peel, ‘An Upset for Europe…’ in the Financial Times, June 11th 2001.

[vi] John Murray Brown And George Parker, ‘Ireland fixes date for re-run of referendum Nice Treaty Yes Vote Urged To Pave Way For Enlargement,’ in the Financial Times, September 20th 2002.

[vii] The second referendum also asked for approval for future moves on EU integration to be put to a parliamentary vote instead of a referendum. Leader, ‘EU Gets The Vote It Wanted,’ in The Scotsman, October 21st 2002.

[viii] Gordon Wood (1972) ‘The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787’pp. 513-14

[ix]  James Madison (1787) Term of the Senate, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-10-02-0044

[x] Quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Social History of Spin”, p. 49.

[xi] Lippmann (1925), ‘The Phantom Public’, quoted in Rossiter & Lare (1963) “The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy”, p. 91

[xii] Angell (1926), “The Public Mind its disorders: its exploitation,”  pp. 175, 177.

[xiii] Lasswell (1933) ‘Propaganda,’ in Edwin R.A. Seligman, (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, New York: Macmillan, 1933, Vol. 12 (reprinted in 1954 edition), pp. 527, 523-526

[xiv] Ewen (1996) p. 175; Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy,” p. 23.

[xv] Crozier (1975), pp. 12-14.

[xvi] King, A. ‘Overload: Problems of Governing in the 1970s,’ in Political Studies vol. 23 (1975): 284-96.

[xvii] St. John-Stevas in King, A. (Ed.) (1976) ‘Why is Britain Becoming Harder to Govern?,’ London: BBC Publishing.

[xviii] Roy Hattersley, ‘A confidence trick in a good cause Labour’s exercise in listening is bogus – but to be welcomed’, in The Guardian, December 1st 2003.

[xix] Sebastian Payne, “John McTernan: if Corbyn wins the Labour leadership, he should be deposed immediately,” The Spectator July 2015 https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2015/07/john-mcternan-on-labour-leader-who-cares-about-the-grassroots/