I welcome the political awakening I see among friends and co-workers, caused in great part by the rise of Donald Trump as the leading Republican candidate, and Bernie Sanders as a challenger to the Democratic establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. It has pained me to observe my fellow Americans sleepwalk through the last decades in an apolitical stupor.
It’s worth asking why American’s have been so apolitical, so docile in the face of mounting inequality and worsening living standards.
Reading Alex Carey’s, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, I’ve been reminded that the American people are apolitical and docile because they live in the most propagandized country in the world.
As Carey sees it, “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy”.
Propaganda in the US should be understood as advertising and public relations, something that most of us are familiar with. Corporations spend billions every year to ensure a pro-business attitude among Americans.
The goal of this vast and ongoing corporate propaganda system is to “associate corporate values with the American way of life”. Essentially, American propagandists have successfully conflated capitalism with democracy. The psychological power of this association cannot be discounted and it has proved to be an enduring feature of American power relations.
Carey makes the crucial (and often forgotten) point that in a democracy, “the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion” in a way that is not true in authoritarian societies. Therefore elite propaganda must assume a “more covert and sophisticated role”. Domestic propaganda in the US is not directed outward at some foreign enemy but inwards, “to control and deflect the purposes of the domestic electorate in a democratic country in the interests of the privileged segments of that society”.
In the US, corporate propaganda has played upon the high level of religious beliefs of its citizens, where they’re predisposed to see the world in Manichean terms. This outlook leads towards a preference for action over reflection that is “perfectly suited to the corporate aim of identifying positive symbols with business, while assigning negative values to those that oppose them, such as labour unions and welfare provisions.” Carey says that US propaganda has been so successful because it has succeeded via the mass media in identifying “free enterprise” with democracy and in portraying any challenge to corporate elites as either “subversive” or “extremist”.
Carey argues passionately for a society that encourages people to become genuine citizens able to participate in meaningful ways in their immediate environment. To achieve this a diversity of views must be promoted.
The reality of America today, is that we’re ruled by a plutocracy, and the idea that the US is a representative republic is a quaint relic. Public exposure to views other than corporate is greatly feared by elites, who rightly believe that their power and privileges would increasingly come into question.
To obscure this grim reality we have the world-class propaganda system that Carey describes.
The founder of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, described propaganda as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the habits and opinions” of democratic societies. He called it an “invisible government”.
The invisible government in America is all about ensuring control by elites and the corporations they control. To glimpse this invisible government it’s only necessary to examine the policies pursued by these elites.
Take trade, for example. Before this election, where anti-establishment candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders forcefully challenged globalization, elites in both parties assured Americans that trade policies like NAFTA and the proposed TPP were the best thing for them since sliced bread. Of course, they lied. So-called free trade has been detrimental to the vast majority of Americans, a fact that quite a few of them have come to appreciate.
Today the intellectual case for so-called free trade lies in tatters. Even long time booster Paul Krugman admits that trade policies have precious little to do with trade and are essentially about control.
A lot of the things that we need to do in America are not that hard. The key stumbling block is the control of our system by the plutocracy, kept in place by the corporate propaganda system that Carey describes.
Ian Welsh nails it when he says that, “our current political-economic organization does not want to implement policy that helps the majority of people if doing so will upset current concentrations of money and power.”
What’s that JFK quote about peaceful change again?