“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” — Edward Bernays, Propaganda 1928
Premise: the false assumption of the left
It strikes me odd that throughout history the left still has a great deal of trouble in attracting popular support. One would think that the universal message of communism—a raceless, classless, stateless society—would have an almost instant appeal with the vast majority of humanity, struggling and striving more mere pittances under the boot-heel of the capitalist system. Why, then, has this not occurred?
The 1917 Russian Revolution is, of course, the first case study. Much as I am loathe to say so, Richard Nixon was right in saying that although the loud and excitable portions of the left-leaning segments of society gave the impression that the public as a whole was left-leaning, the “silent majority” actually wanted no great changes in society at all. The same can be said of the Russian Revolution. It was carried out by a small and highly-committed band of revolutionaries which gained public support as it went on. But even at the absolute height of the revolution, and even discounting all those against the revolution—the White Russians, the Triple Entente armies which had decamped in Russia to prevent it, the Ukrainian nationalists and the neo-liberal capitalist bourgeoisie—the vast majority of the Russian population was not invested in the Revolution.
In Cuba, too—and the rest of Latin America, for that matter—and in Italy and France and Britain, the vast majority of the populace was (while possibly generally supportive) not receptive to the arguments of the left. We on the left often advocate glorious revolution outside the democratic instruments—not unreasonable if we accept that representative democracy is in itself a sham intended to perpetuate the capitalist agenda—but we also know that the only way in getting the “People”—that vast, silent majority—on our side is through “raising class consciousness” to understand the theories of alienation, materialistic dialectics, and class warfare. The presumption is that any rational person who understands these arguments would surely join his fellow comrades in revolt.
This is a false assumption: people are not rational.
People are not rational, and neither should propaganda be
Sigmund Freud revolutionized psychology—no, the world with his utterly groundbreaking theory that the vast majority of human personality, mentality, and psychology lied in the great subconscious of the human mind. The idea that humans are controlled without their knowledge by subtle processes deep in their own minds was startling to say the least. The validity of many of his other theories has been disproven, but his base discovery—the power of the subconscious—is still (and rightly) dogma among the scientific community.
It was not long, then, before men put this knowledge to ill use. One Mr. Edward Bernays, none other than the nephew of Sigmund Freud himself, rose to riches and power as the first “public relations advisor”—essentially a peacetime propagandist without the negative connotation—in history. He worked under Woodrow Wilson in America and Europe, first as a wartime propagandist and then as a peacetime spin doctor, utilizing psychological theories to fantastic effect. He then transitioned to the private sector. It is because of him that the average American thinks of him- or herself as not just a citizen but a consumer. Although a previous contributor on this site pegged the post-Civil War era as the beginning of the modern capitalist age, I believe that distinction must be truly pegged to the “Roaring ‘20s.” It was during this 10-year span that the American people bought into the idea of buying for want rather than need. It may shock the average American today, but the vast majority of his ancestors only purchased something when he actually needed it for some particular reason.
An anecdote is a better way to illustrate how Bernays captured the irrationality of the human race and used it to his own advantage: the head of the American Tobacco Corporation contacted Bernays on how to get women—half the market—to let go of the social taboo preventing them from smoking. Bernays called one of New York’s leading psychologists, who told him flatly: “Cigarettes are penises: you should make women ‘take control’ by having them smoke the phallic images.” Bernays gave some cigarettes to fashion models and told them to walk around the Easter Day Parade smoking. He proclaimed that cigarettes were now “torches of liberty.” Naturally, the press ate it up, and within a few years you were considered a terrible reactionary if you were a woman who refused to smoke.
Of course, the idea of cigarettes as “torches of liberty” doesn’t hold up to rational scrutiny. Torches of liberty? What does that even mean? And why should cigarettes be “phallic images” in the first place? They’re simply shaped the way they are because it’s convenient. But that is precisely the evil genius of Bernays’ methods: it’s not rational, and that’s the point.
How this applies to the Left
I believe, in my rational mind, that the “best” society would be a communist one. And yet, when I hear someone advocate the socialist cause or advocate revolution, I experience a visceral, almost emotional revulsion to it. (The leaders of the United States during the Cold War used Bernays’ techniques to indoctrinate the American populace against leftism during the “baby boomer” era; the effects of this are still widely felt today. This is also why left-leaning people tend to be more educated: on average, educated people have been trained to think rationally more often than not.) This, I expect, is a feeling I share with many Americans and perhaps even a few fellow socialists. I choose to live by rational thought, but I am very much in the minority. The vast majority of humanity lives by emotion and gut feeling almost exclusively.
The Left will get nowhere should it continue on its approach of appealing to rational arguments and reason over feeling. The American capitalists and the German National Socialists understood this—one controls the world, the other would have had it not been for the first. They were able to harness the irrationality of the human psyche to win the public heart.
I am not advocating, mind you, that the Left use the same odious techniques as Mr. Bernays. I am, rather, rejecting the notion that all propaganda needs to be rational. Rather, the Left, as the party with the moral and philosophical high ground, must make emotional and sentimental appeals to the human psyche and the subconscious. The “raising of class conscience” will never be achieved while one party has the upper hand in its methods. The Left must harness the power of the subconscious mind to reach the masses.