Book Review: “Propaganda” by Edward Bernays

Propaganda was a field that in so many ways was created and codified by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud (whose letters and ideas largely shaped Bernays’ philosophy and career, based as they were in the understanding and manipulation of human psychology). Bernays thought that his new science of influencing the opinions, behavior, and buying decisions of the public would make the world a better place, even a Utopia. As he would put it, “There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda, because propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group” (Chapter XI).

Unfortunately, Bernays’ ideas were adopted part and parcel into the official doctrine of the Nazi Party. After WWII, Bernays quietly rebranded his career and consulting as “Public Relations.” Along with work by luminaries like Thomas Watson (the psychologist who used models on street corners and savvy movie script edits to make smoking a unisex staple of American pop culture), Bernays’ ideas shaped almost every aspect of what citizens in modern, mass-consuming, globalist democracies take for granted as “everyday life.” The discipline is nothing more or less than the scientific pursuit of effectively influencing and shaping the conscious and subconscious thinking and behaviors of society (at the individual and collective levels).

From describing the path that modern political parties have taken to accurately describing the evolution chosen by modern Universities, Bernays’ rather frightening intellect is balanced by his commitment to clarity, brevity, and simplicity of style. Using practical examples that would have been well-known to his audience but which are largely meaningless to modern readers like myself, he illustrates how any government, company, or social group can influence society to achieve better, more enlightened ends (which, coincidentally, profit the Propagandist as well). Bernays seems truly to have believed that his art was the path to making society act, think, buy, and live smarter; but even his rosy-tinted predictions carry occasional warnings and signs that he knew all too well how amoral forces could (and likely would) abuse this power. Even so, his simple, powerful, and we might argue ominous closing to the 168-page volume was prescient and remains accurate today:

Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.

Considering the Victorian and even Spencerian overtones of his prophecies, the reader is left wondering how the world might have looked had the optimistic, principled Propagandist of Bernays’ imagination prevailed (instead of those which seem to predominate the militaristic, corporatist landscape of the 20th and now the 21st centuries). And despite all the ways in which the author’s vision went terribly wrong, perhaps we can take two useful messages away from the text.

1. We must educate ourselves on all the conscious and subconscious manipulations from the systems of wealth and power in our daily lives; though manipulation is inescapable, awareness reduces its ability to create harmful patterns. As the increasingly controversial former comic Russell Brand used to say, we cannot stop programming from happening to us; but we can *choose better programming,* and perhaps even learn to program ourselves.

2. It is impossible to move through the world without manipulating and being manipulated by others. However, if we follow Bernays’ ideas to their conclusions, we do have the power to chose positive, intelligent, scientifically sound manipulations that improve not only our lives but the lives of those around us.

In sum, sometimes dated, eerily prescient, Bernays’ “Propaganda” explains the trajectory of the past century and serves as a primer on the basics of influencing human beings (individually and collectively). How one chooses to use these skills, sadly, is very much a matter of individual choice.

It was oddly appropriate that I found myself studying this toolkit of mass corporations while using writing tools proudly bearing the branding of mass corporations.

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