The Propaganda System That Has Helped Create a Permanent Overclass Is Over a Century in the Making

Andrew Gavin Marshall
May 2, 2013


Pulling back the curtain on how intent the wealthiest Americans have been on establishing a propaganda tool to subvert democracy.

Propaganda Poster - 1915Where there is the possibility of democracy, there is the inevitability of elite insecurity. All through its history, democracy has been under a sustained attack by elite interests, political, economic, and cultural. There is a simple reason for this: democracy – as in true democracy – places power with people. In such circumstances, the few who hold power become threatened. With technological changes in modern history, with literacy and education, mass communication, organization and activism, elites have had to react to the changing nature of society – locally and globally.

From the late 19th century on, the “threats” to elite interests from the possibility of true democracy mobilized institutions, ideologies, and individuals in support of power. What began was a massive social engineering project with one objective: control. Through educational institutions, the social sciences, philanthropic foundations, public relations and advertising agencies, corporations, banks, and states, powerful interests sought to reform and protect their power from the potential of popular democracy.

Yet for all the efforts, organization, indoctrination and reformation of power interests, the threat of democracy has remained a constant, seemingly embedded in the human consciousness, persistent and pervasive.

In his highly influential work, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, French social psychologist Gustav Le Bon suggested that middle class politics were transforming into popular democracy, where “the opinion of the masses” was the most important opinion in society. He wrote: “The destinies of nations are elaborated at present in the heart of the masses, and no longer in the councils of princes.” This was, of course, a deplorable change for elites, suggesting that, “[t]he divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.” Le Bon suggested, however, that the “crowd” was not rational, but rather was driven by emotion and passion.

An associate and friend of Le Bon’s, Gabriel Tarde, expanded upon this concept, and articulated the idea that “the crowd” was a social group of the past, and that “the public” was “the social group of the future.” The public, argued Tarde, was a “spiritual collectivity, a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental.” Thus, Tarde identified in the growth of the printing press and mass communications a powerful medium through which “the public” was shaped, and that, if managed appropriately, could bring a sense of order to a situation increasingly chaotic. The newspaper, Tarde explained, facilitated “the fusion of personal opinions into local opinions, and this into national and world opinion, the grandiose unification of the public mind.”

The development of psychology, psychoanalysis, and other disciplines increasingly portrayed the “public” and the population as irrational beings incapable of making their own decisions. The premise was simple: if the population was driven by dangerous, irrational emotions, they needed to be kept out of power and ruled over by those who were driven by reason and rationality, naturally, those who were already in power.

The Princeton Radio Project, which began in the 1930s with Rockefeller Foundation funding, brought together many psychologists, social scientists, and “experts” armed with an interest in social control, mass communication, and propaganda. The Princeton Radio Project had a profound influence upon the development of a modern “democratic propaganda” in the United States and elsewhere in the industrialized world. It helped in establishing and nurturing the ideas, institutions, and individuals who would come to shape America’s “democratic propaganda” throughout the Cold War, a program fostered between the private corporations which own the media, advertising, marketing, and public relations industries, and the state itself.

‘A Genuinely Democratic Propaganda’

World War I popularized the term “propaganda” and gave it negative connotations, as all major nations involved in the war effort employed new techniques of modern propaganda to mobilize their populations for war. In the United States, the effort was led by President Woodrow Wilson in the establishment of the Committee on Public Information (CPI) as a “vast propaganda ministry.” The central theme of the CPI was to promote U.S. entry into the war on the basis of seeking “to make a world that is safe for democracy.” This point was specifically developed by the leading intellectual of the era, Walter Lippmann, who by the age of 25 was referred to by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the most brilliant man of his age.” Lippmann was concerned primarily with the maintenance of the state-capitalist system in the face of increased unrest, resistance, and ideological opposition, feeling that the “discipline of science” would need to be applied to democracy, where social engineers and social scientists “would provide the modern state with a foundation upon which a new stability might be realized.” For this, Lippmann suggested the necessity of “intelligence and information control” in what he termed the “manufacture of consent.”

Important intellectuals of the era then became principally concerned with the issue of propaganda during peacetime, having witnessed its success in times of war. Propaganda, wrote Lippmann, “has a legitimate and desirable part to play in our democratic system.” A leading political scientist of the era, Harold Lasswell, noted: “Propaganda is surely here to stay.” In his 1925 book, The Phantom Public, Lippmann wrote that the public was a “bewildered herd” of “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” who should be maintained as “interested spectators of action,” and distinct from the actors themselves, the powerful. Edward Bernays, the ‘father of public relations’ and nephew of Sigmund Freud got his start with Wilson’s CPI during World War I, and had since become a leading voice in the fields of propaganda and public relations. In his 1928 book, Propaganda, Bernays wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” Modern society was dominated by a “relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses,” and this was, in Bernays’ thinking, “a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” Bernays referred to this – “borrowing” from Walter Lippmann – as the “engineering of consent.”

For the leading intellectuals and social engineers of the era, “propaganda” was presented as distinctly “democratic” and as a necessity to the proper functioning of society. John Marshall of the Rockefeller Foundation focused on what he called the “problem of propaganda” and sought to create, as he wrote in 1938, a “genuinely democratic propaganda.” Marshall pursued this objective through the Rockefeller Foundation, and specifically with the Princeton Radio Project in the late 1930s under the direction of Hadley Cantril and Frank Stanton, though including other intellectuals such as Paul Lazarsfeld and Harold Lasswell.

In 1936, Marshall wrote that the best way to expand the use of radio and film was for the Rockefeller Foundation to give “a few younger men with talent for these mediums an opportunity for relatively free experimentation… men interested primarily in education, literature, criticism, or in disseminating the findings of the social or natural sciences.”

In 1939, with the war in Europe under way, the Rockefeller Foundation had organized several conferences and published several papers on the issue of mass communication, directed by what was called the Communications Group, headed by Marshall and other Foundation officials, and with the participation of Lasswell, Lazarzfeld, Cantril, and several others. Early on, the Communications Group noted that with “an increasing degree of [government] control… in regard to all phases of communication, such as in the schools, the radio, the films, the press, and even eventually in all public discussion,” it was necessary to arrive at a consensus – among the “experts” – as to what role they should play as the state expands its authority over communication. Sociologist Robert Lynd took a page from Lippmann and wrote that a “goal” of experts in communication should “be that of persuading the people that there are many issues too complicated for them to decide, which should be left to experts.” One other participant commented on Lynd’s suggestion: “Mr. Lynd feels we need a restructuring of democratic action in terms of the capacity of different groups of the population and an abandonment of the American idea of the responsibility and capacity of the man on the street.” In 1940, John Marshall wrote:

In a period of emergency such as I believe we now face, the manipulation of public opinion to meet emergency needs has to be taken for granted. In such a period, those in control must shape public opinion to support courses of action which the emergency necessitates… No one, I think, can blame them for that impulse.

In a 1940 memo for the Communications Group, Marshall wrote that, “We believe… that for leadership to secure that consent will require unprecedented knowledge of the public mind and of the means by which leadership can secure consent… We believe… that we gave available today methods of research which can reliably inform us about the public mind and how it is being, or can be, influenced in relation to public affairs.” The memo concerned some officials at the Rockefeller Foundation, noting that it could be misinterpreted and that such research should be careful about becoming a mere tool of the state, with one official noting: “Public opinion and vested interests are… violently opposed to such a development which would be labeled as fascist or authoritarian.” Another official suggested that the memo “looks to me like something that [Nazi propaganda chief] Herr Goebbels could put out with complete sincerity.” While one Foundation official referred to the memo as resembling “the methods by which democracy has been destroyed,” he added that, “finding out regularly and completely what the mass of the people feel and believe and think about things and policies is a necessary part of the modern democratic process.” Marshall and the Communications Group refined their approach from a more overt authoritarianism of “one-way” communication between the state and the population, to a more Lippmann-centered concept of “manufacturing consent” and what has been referred to as “democratic elitism.” In the final report of the Communications Group in 1940, it was noted that two-way communication between the government and population was essential, as without it, “democracy is endangered,” and that it was required for the population to give “consent.”

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