Propaganda is not always obvious. No longer does it take the form of full-on jingoistic portrayals of the enemy, whoever it might be at any given time. The term is certain to bring up images of those hostile xenophobic posters from the First World War urging working people to sacrifice their bodies and lives for their respective ruling classes. Images, too, of dictators adorned with bouquets of flowers from adoring children will spring to mind.
Modern propaganda is a much more sophisticated beast than that of the early 20th century, but its results are no less effective. Its destructive reach extends way beyond the theatre of war and conquest, influencing heavily the decisions we all make every day as consumers. Not only are we indoctrinated into supporting rapacious wars around the globe, we are programmed on a mass scale to devote our lives to consumption, no matter what effect it has on our collective well-being. Propaganda today is presented to us along with the faces of well-known celebrities, displaying the latest crap we ought to buy. On television and in the print media, propaganda is pretentiously cloaked in airs of “objectivity” and “impartiality”.
The first BBC report on the unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003 reveals a lot. Plush words such as “precision-guided bombing”, “missile attacks” and “raids” were used to describe the actions of the US/UK invaders. Compare this with the tiresome language used to describe anyone other than western governments who use violence. The resistance movements in Iraq, Palestine, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala and all the other countries whose populations are considered by us in the west as non-people are always “terrorists”, “bombers”, “gunmen” and “murderers”. The invaders, of course, are “our boys”. Indeed, “imperialism” is a word rarely heard on the airwaves.
Reporting of the long-running occupation of Palestine is consistently ridded with propaganda, half-truths and lies. Mainstream outlets aim for “balanced” and “unbiased” reporting on this issue, as though there were a moral equivalence between occupier and occupied. Mainstream media is also intensely selective of what atrocities and injustices go reported or unreported. The suppression of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s was news. The genocide of more than a million people carried out by General Suharto, capitalism’s dictator, was not news. His crimes remain largely unknown in the west. He was “our” dictator. He provided “stability” to a volatile region, as did Gadaffi, Mubarak, Batista, Pinochet and the endless list of other dictators propped up by the West’s “democratic” governments.
During a visit to the United States, a group of journalists from the Soviet Union, awed by the passivity of western citizens, asked their American hosts: “How do you do it? In our country, to achieve this, we throw people in prison; we tear out their fingernails. Here, there’s none of that? What’s your secret?”
Following the pointless slaughter known as the First World War, the term propaganda had a negative connotation. Something new was needed to mould the minds of the population of the “free world”. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is often described as having been the “father of public relations”. In his book, Propaganda (Bernays was quite explicit in his admission that he was a propagandist), he wrote: “If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” This was called “engineering consent”, the aim of public relations.
Bernays was the darling of the advertising industry, which, of course, is propaganda by another name. His insights were sought by a range of corporations seeking to boost sales and profits. Among his most famous feats was the encouragement of large numbers of women to take up smoking, which had previously been seen as a masculine pursuit. Cigarettes were referred to as “torches of freedom” and smoking was said to be a blow against gender inequality. Sales of cigarettes skyrocketed. Bernays’ legacy of manipulation and dishonesty continues today in the modern advertising and public relations industries.
Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008 was one of the greatest accomplishments of propaganda since the Second World War. The world was greeted with ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with many expecting the closing of the Bush era to represent the end of imperialist America. It was, of course, all image and no content. It succeeded in raising the hopes of millions. This was the power of ‘Brand Obama’, which earned him the accolade of Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008.
Since taking office, Obama has continued Bush’s wars and presided over the imprisonment of truth teller Bradley Manning. He has enthusiastically embraced the use of unmanned drones, which have slaughtered more than 2,000 people. According the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 392 of the victims were civilians, 175 of whom were children. The people who were sold ‘hope’ and ‘change’ by Obama’s vast propaganda network have been sorely let down.
Following the crash of 2008, public and political anger across the globe was geared towards those who caused the crisis, namely, bankers and the rich. The crisis took the mainstream media by surprise, whose “impartial” economic commentators, having been thoroughly schooled in neo-liberalism, saw the boom of the 2000s as proof that capitalism had triumphed over all other systems. The agenda of the same “experts” who failed to foresee the crisis now dictates political discourse. The blame has been shifted onto low-paid public sector workers and those in receipt of welfare. “The deficit”, a term most people would not have heard discussed before the Great Recession, is now the big political issue of the day. Yet, for most of the population, it is a non-issue. Noam Chomsky correctly pointed out in his recent book, Occupy: “The issue is joblessness, not the deficit. There’s a deficit commission but there’s no joblessness commission.”
The mainstream narrative, pushed by the same gang of neo-liberal economists who failed to foresee the crisis, is tiring. The welfare state must be dismantled. Health care must be privatised. The public sector has to shrink. “There is no alternative,” we are told. Yet, if there are no alternatives, why do we bother having elections, parliaments and other supposedly democratic institutions? What’s the point of democracy if nothing can be changed, if we have to persistently bend to the will of “the markets”?
Aside from the broader political scene, our everyday behaviour, too, is heavily influenced by propaganda. We are now exposed to thousands of advertisements every hour of our lives. The aim of this wasteful industry, true to the legacy of Bernays, is to influence human behaviour on a mass scale. It plays on our most primeval desires and, among many people, seeds a constant feeling of deep dissatisfaction. It entices us to continue destroying the planet we rely on for survival for the sake of a short-term thrill, while at the same time driving us further into personal debt and diminishing our savings.
The existence of propaganda in the west is rarely acknowledged, yet its influence extends further than ever. Vast PR machines, invisible to the general public, dictate the news. Advertising invades our lives and rapacious wars destroy nations, which go misreported and, in many cases, unreported.
“The finest trick of the devil,” it was once said, “is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
– This article was published in The Morning Star