Reporters Without Borders: A “New Era of Propaganda”
As some of you know, I’ve been a long-time student of propaganda. It was my area of special interest at university, and I continue to monitor new developments in the black art. For me, nothing illustrates the post-Enlightenment and the “mental-rational consciousness now functioning in deficient mode” (as Gebser has it) than the applied ensemble of formulae and techniques that make for propaganda — the technologies of psychological and social control.
Propaganda continues to “evolve”, if that’s the right word, and adapt its methods to changes in communications technology, new knowledge from neurology, and the social environment. In fact, “propaganda” isn’t even the preferred nomenclature, today. It’s “perception management”, which allies it more with the magical consciousness structure.
I mention this today because of an article that appeared in The Guardian — a Report from Reporters Without Borders on World Press Freedom for 2016, in which they conclude we have entered a “New Era of Propaganda“.
The history of the word “propaganda” is quite illustrative. Its origins are closely connected with changes in the meaning of the word “technology” itself over the generations. Technology, originally, or “the logos of the techne” (reasoning about means or art) referred to grammar, and was closely associated with theology — most particularly as encompassing the Medieval Trivium, or high sciences, of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These comprised “technology” as it was understood then — the study of the ways and means to represent eternal, ever-lasting truth in logic and language with high fidelity. This was aligned, of course, with the struggle against “heresy” and for the purposes of the Church’s missionary work. How to represent “truth” adequately in language was the original meaning of technology, and the executive or implementing branch of that science was called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide — the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Like so much else today that describes itself as “secular”, propaganda and technology began as aspects of theology, and more specifically as the activities of the Church for both spreading and defending the faith through the applied high sciences of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Trivial became the Enlightenment pejorative term to describe the Trivium — the devaluation and overthrow of the high sciences of grammar, logic, and rhetoric by the subordinate orders of the “Quadrivium” — mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. As you can tell, it was the overthrow of the qualitative or immeasurable by the quantitative or the measurable. And this extended to the meanings of technology and propaganda, too, which underwent a “secularisation” process themselves, gradually becoming more rationalised as the technologies of political, psychological and social control, emerging in that form during the French Revolution and especially with Napoleon, who famously remarked that a free press was more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.
But propaganda as a self-conscious and rationalised activity (a “science” as it were) really only came into its own with the First World War and the convergence of a number of different trends — corporate advertising (and the rise of the corporation), radio, the war effort, and discoveries in the human and social sciences — anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc. (and especially Pavlov in Russia and Freud elsewhere). And what might be considered the first real “technical manual” for the conduct of propaganda as a rationalised technology of psychological and social control was published after the World War in 1928, by Edward Bernays. Bernays was, coincidentally, a nephew of Sigmund Freud and his book was simply entitled Propaganda. The book is exemplary for its cynicism as well as for distilling, streamlining, and rationalising all the lessons learned in mass manipulation during the World War.
Of course, the techniques of social, psychological and political manipulation and control have “progressed” over time, especially abetted by changes in communications technology and accumulating knowledge in the human behavioural sciences. And one of the more notable changes in that respect (and especially with the advent of television) was a change of nomenclature, from “propaganda” to “perception management”. But during all these “developments” something else was happening, too, and which is connected with Gebser’s “perspectivism” as the deficient mode of the mental — the more propaganda was exercised, the more objectified became “society” and the “public” –as “the masses”, and the less the propagandist inclined to any sense of solidarity or identity with his or her society, and became more isolated in his or her “point-of-view” or ego-consciousness as well — a gated mentality, as it were. Society, so rationalised, perspectivised, and objectified, simply becomes an object to be manipulated — an “It”. Bernays’ life history is, in fact, quite exemplary of this.
Relatively open and democratic societies are more susceptible to propaganda or perception management than relatively more closed or authoritarian ones. Authoritarian ones rely more on forceful coercion and overt compulsion — the truncheon, the jackboot — and so are quite open about their propaganda too. They call their ministries of information “Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment” (the Nazi State) or just “Ministry of Propaganda”. In Orwell’s dystopian state, it’s called “MiniTruth”. In fact, in authoritarian states propaganda tends to be quite overt and clumsy, too, because more attention and more energy is channeled into visible means of social coercion — concentration camps, death squads, torture, jackboots and truncheons.
That’s to be contrasted in more democratic states, where social compulsion and coercion must be more subtle, refined, and covert. There’s an incentive there, then, to continuously improve and develop propaganda technique and to disguise it. That is the meaning of the late Harvard Political Science professor (and reactionary) Samuel Huntington (whose own cynical reason seems unbounded),
“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”
And therein lies the rationale for front groups, astro-turf organisations, “dark money” and so on. Propaganda and perception management have done more to dissolve society into “us” and “them” than anything, perhaps. So, it’s often in the study of propaganda that you see most clearly Gebser’s description of the mental-rational consciousness (or “perspectivist” consciousness) functioning in “deficient” mode, which means also the resurrection of the deficient magical. So, it’s not just the content of propaganda — whether it’s “true” or “false” is quite beside the point — it’s the form and function.
Where dialogue exists, or the possibility of dialogue, propaganda really can’t function because propaganda is essentially monological technology, which is why in more democratic or open societies the propagandist must operate mostly in the dark. But there is the danger that this “darkness” may become engulfing, displacing the dialogical mode of life completely, or merely retaining a semblance of the dialogical. And this was one of Gebser’s great concerns.
The advent of the computer, the World Wide Web and “Open Media” means that the technology of propaganda and perception management must adjust its means once again, as it did with print, then radio, then television. The possibilities of “mass surveillance” certainly present the propagandist with a powerful new tool, but is often also challenged by the very relative openness of the media, and the difficulties of trolling and controlling it. So, we are beginning, once again, to see some measure of resort to more traditional overt coercion and intimidation as reported by Reporters Without Borders — not excluding the liquidation of journalists and activists. And rather than signal a “new era of propaganda” the resort to violence may well signal the end of the propaganda regime. But… I’ve never discounted the ingenuity and inventiveness of those who seek power and control to discover new means to get around such difficulties.
Particularly concerning for me is the present tendency to exploit the findings of neuroscience by corporate advertising and propaganda to stimulate and prod the so-called “Lizard Brain” — the most primitive, basic and brutal aspect of the human physical form, concerned with basic drives of survival, sex, hunger, etc. This is the “Mr. Hyde” aspect. This is the “ancient force”, as Seth calls it, and its arousal is the significance of the awakening of the beast or dragon in its mountain lair in folklore and myth.
This tampering with the ancient force is having, and will have, nasty consequences, especially as it is conducted in the dark. The ancient force can be very destructive if not properly guided by an “enlightened ego consciousness” — which is why attaining Gebser’s “integral” consciousness is now so important.