THE INTELLECTUALS AND DEMOCRACY
The threat of democracy troubled some leading intellectuals as well as politicians and business lobbyists. In the US this manifested in a concern about how society’s elites might cope with the potential consequences of the extended franchise. ‘The crowd is enthroned’, as PR pioneer Ivy Lee put it in 1914. Lee believed in the necessity of ‘courtiers’ to ‘flatter and caress’ the crowd. The courtiers were the professional propagandists. It was essential, wrote Walter Lippmann, the most important US theorist of the trend, that ‘the public be put in its place’ so that ‘each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd’. The fear of the irrational crowd ‘became an insistent note among leading intellectuals’. At the end of the nineteenth century Gustav Le Bon had sounded the alarm in his influential book The Crowd. Le Bon argued that ‘a crowd thinks in images’ and ‘an orator in intimate communication with the crowd can evoke images by which it will be seduced... The powerlessness of crowds to reason prevents them displaying any trace of the critical spirit of discerning truth from Le Bon’s work was developed by Gabriel Tarde, who distinguished between the ‘crowd’ and the ‘public’. For Tarde, the ‘crowd’ was the power of the past. Now, with new means of mass communication such as the telegraph, printing press and railway, a collective ‘public’ was created even though people were not physically present in the same place and time – ‘a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental’. ‘The crowd is the social group of the past’, Tarde wrote. ‘Whatever its forms, standing or seated, immobile or on the march, it is incapable of extension beyond a limited area; when its leaders cease to keep it in hand, when the crowd no longer hears their voices, it breaks loose... But the public can be extended indefinitely.’ In his view the public was both more affected and less of a threat than the crowd. More affected in the sense that newspapers distribute through time and space information and ideas which impinge on, implicate and influence countless thousands – ‘even those who don’t read papers, but who talking to those who do, are forced to follow the groove of their borrowed thoughts. One pen suffices to set off a million tongues.’ This power is a potential threat to society – the socialist or anarchist state of mind did not ‘amount to anything’ before ‘a few famous publicists, Karl Marx, Kropotkin and others, expressed them and put them into circulation’. But the political dangers posed by the public are less pressing than those of the crowd.
Tarde gave the example of ‘feminine publics’, made up of ‘readers of popular novels or fashionable poetry, fashion magazines, feminist journals and the like’. These he says ‘scarcely resemble’ feminine crowds and have a ‘more inoffensive nature’. Women assembled together on the street though, ‘are always appalling in their extraordinary excitability and ferocity’ The geographical and social distribution of the public meant new strategies for communicating with the masses were required. The management of public communication was becoming a practical and political imperative for elites and intellectuals. Tarde concluded his essay on the public and the crowd with a ringing challenge to intellectuals to win the battle of ideas with the public in order to maintain elite power in the face of the rise of the public:
What will preserve the intellectual and artistic summits of humanity from democratic levelling will not, I fear, be recognition of the good that the world owes them, the just esteem for their discoveries. What then? I should like to think that it will be the force of their resistance. Let them beware if they should separate.
In both the US and Britain a number of writers and thinkers responded to these new circumstances by working together to resist democracy. Many of this group shared a fascination with the possibilities of social control and the management of consent. Walter Lippmann was the most influential of all the theorists of propaganda-managed democracy. Lippmann’s view was that the ‘manufacture of consent’ was both necessary and possible. ‘Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self conscious art and a regular organ of popular government.’ Edward Bernays, as one of the most influential early PR practitioners, tried putting Lippmann’s ideas into practice. Both his first two books (Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928)) were published a year after Lippmann’s interventions (Public Opinion(1922) and The Phantom Public (1927)). Bernays argued that:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised 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.
The manipulation could only take place because the mass public was conceived as irrational and responded not to facts but to feelings or prejudices. Bernays’ thinking was influenced by some of the early social psychologists such as Le Bon and Tarde, but also by his uncle Sigmund Freud. Bernays later had Freud’s works translated and published in the US and personally promoted them. But it was not only nephew Edward that Freud influenced in the 1920s. Both Ivy Lee and Walter Lippmann had become interested in his work. ‘I have found’, Lee told an interviewer in 1921, ‘the Freudian theories concerning the psychology of the subconscious mind of great interest... Publicity is essentially a matter of mass psychology. We must remember that people are guided more by sentiment than by mind. Lippmann too had come across Freud, but much earlier. In one of those curious twists of fate Lippmann wrote his fi rst book in a cabin in the backwoods of Maine in the company of his friend from Harvard, Alfred Kuttner, who was at that moment translating Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams into English under the direction of one of the early US psychoanalysts, A.A. Brill. As a result Lippmann studied Freud with, as he wrote to Graham Wallas, ‘a great deal of enthusiasm’. The result was that Lippmann’s book, A Preface to Politics(1913), was replete with Freudian terms.
In the United States the threat of democracy was created by the extension of the franchise from 15 to 50 per cent of adults between 1880 and 1920. This was accompanied by rising antagonism to the power of business, expressed succinctly in the label ‘robber barons’, which was given to corporate leaders and the super-rich at the time, including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and perhaps most famously, John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil company had provided an object lesson in how big business might accumulate and retain power. By 1885 the company ‘had its own network of agents throughout the world, and its own espionage service, to forestall the initiatives of rival companies or governments’. Despite this, the rise of organised labour and the attacks on business from investigative and campaigning journalism led to a backlash against corporate power and the rich. As a result anti-trust legislation was introduced to prohibit cartels and anti-competitive business practices. This meant that some of the biggest corporations in America were broken up. Standard Oil was divided into numerous smaller corporations, creating in the process some of the most important oil companies of the twentieth century such as Exxon, Amoco, Mobil and Chevron.
The corporations – individually and collectively – increasingly adopted public relations, propaganda and lobbying techniques to resist the encroachment of popular government or to counter attack to win new sectional concessions. The defence of their interests was accomplished by hiring their own public relations personnel, by banding together in class-wide lobby groups and by creating policy planning groups to try to exert influence on public policy questions.
In 1906 J.P. Morgan and Company hired Ivy Lee to defend them against anti-trust moves by the government. In 1907 Lee was asked to do a similar job for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Vice-president M.J.B. Thayer noted this was because they had ‘come to the conclusion... that the time had come when we must take “offensive” measures as it were, to place our “case” before the public’.19 Corporations also tried to go on the offensive by using the new techniques to re-engineer perceptions. Leaders in this area were AT&T, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Goodyear Rubber, National Cash Register and Standard Oil. These were the first few steps along the road to the branding and corporate governance practices of today. They attempted to humanise the corporation. ‘The word corporation is cold, impersonal and subject to misunderstanding and distrust’, wrote Alfred Swayne of the Institutional Advertising Committee in advice to General Motors. Over at AT&T, advertising executive Bruce Barton wanted more than a vague positive feeling. People no longer feared the big corporations – at most they would ‘only tolerate them’. But even though the public did not ‘fully understand’, ‘fully trust’ or even ‘love’ the corporations, it was felt corporate propagandists should try to create such sentiment.
The National Association of Manufacturers was created in 1895. In 1903 an internal leadership ‘coup’ transformed NAM from ‘an international trade organization into a virulent anti-union one’. Its activities included hiring an employee of the House of Representatives as a spy; making campaign contributions to sympathetic Congressional candidates; creating a front group called the Workingmen’s Protective Association to campaign for Republican candidates; paying operatives to waylay Congressmen on the way to the chamber so they would miss important votes; marshalling a disguised propaganda campaign through newspaper syndicates; distributing significant amounts of propaganda to schools, colleges and civil society organisations. This was all revealed at the first Congressional inquiry into lobbying in 1913. The inquiry concluded that:
The correspondence between officials and employees of the association laid before your committee and placed in evidence shows it to have been an organization having purposes and aspirations along industrial, commercial, legislative, and other lines so vast and far-reaching as to excite at once admiration and fear – admiration for the genius which conceived them, and fear for the ultimate effects which the successful accomplishments of all these ambitions might have on a government such as ours.
Corporate leaders also formed a new policy planning group called the National Industrial Conference Board. According to its own account it was ‘born out of a crisis in industry in 1916. Declining public confidence in business and rising labor unrest had become severe threats to economic growth and stability.’ It was ‘an entirely new type of organization. Not another trade association. Not a propaganda machine. But a respected, not-for-profit, non-partisan organization that would bring leaders together to find solutions to common problems and objectively examine major issues having an impact on business and society.’ The concern to find solutions was tested in 1919 when the NICB was one of three representatives of business summoned by President Woodrow Wilson, partially in the hope of averting the then looming steel strike, to a ‘National Industrial Conference’ to discuss methods of bringing capital and labour into close co-operation, and to canvass every relevant feature of the present industrial situation, for the purpose of enabling us to work out, if possible, in [a] genuine spirit of co-operation a practicable method of association based upon a real community of interest which will redound to the welfare of all our people.
The ‘management participants refused to accept any type of collective bargaining’, thus making progress impossible and showing the real role of the Conference Board as a corporate policy planning and lobby group. The NICB was set up by four corporate bosses, three of whom have been described as ‘professional militants’ who had made careers out of promoting corporate interests. All four ‘enjoyed some notoriety during their active careers only to pass largely unnoticed into the silence of history’. The Conference Board (as it later became) was in other words formed out of a desire by corporate leaders to ‘unite American employers’ into a class-wide organisation.
According to some accounts ‘The “dollar decade” of the 1920s temporarily put to rest the nation’s fears of the power of business.’ But clearly this was accomplished in part by the use of techniques to manufacture consent. These activities – the ‘deliberate use of propaganda’ as Bernays put it – transformed the political fortunes of big business from ‘ogres’ to ‘friendly giants’ by the mid 1920s.
Shortly before the war... the newspapers of New York took a census of the press agents who were regularly employed and regularly accredited and found that there were about twelve hundred of them. How many there are now  I do not pretend to know. But what I do know is that many of the direct channels of news have been closed and the information for the public is first filtered through publicity agents. The great corporations have them, the banks have them, the railroads have them, all the organisations of business and social and political activity have them.
But even this growth in publicity does not account for the full range of techniques used. The key moment which saved the day for the corporations in the 1920s was the pioneering of techniques for strike-breaking which welded the new propaganda techniques together with intimidation, harassment and violence. The decisive period was 1919–21. In 1919 more than 4 million workers were involved in industrial disputes, four times the number in the previous year. Beginning in 1919 almost 400,000 miners went on strike, sparking one of the longest-running industrial disputes in the US which resulted in the destruction of the miners’ unions. Ivy Lee was retained to defend the strike-breaking activities of the Logan County Coal Operators Association in October 1921. They hired armed Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts ‘detectives’ and were authorised to sign up their own ‘deputy-Sheriffs’ to crush a miners’ march in Logan and Mingo Counties, assembled to protest police brutality against union organisers: ‘In pitched battles over 6 days that became known as the battle of Blair Mountain, some 70 miners were killed.’ In the face of an influx of state police, national guards and federal troops ordered in by the President, the defeat of the miners was inevitable. Lee’s job was to justify the strike-breaking tactics. He quickly issued a series of Miner’s Lamp and Coal Facts bulletins and a number of pamphlets full of ‘false and exaggerated information’ about the dispute. This information came from the mine operators and was ‘published as truth’ by Lee. The pamphlets were purportedly published by the ‘Logan District Mines Information Bureau’, a fake front group set up by Lee for his client. In the Great Steel Strike of 1919 the same new propaganda tactics were used in alliance with the traditional harassment and intimidation (20 people lost their lives in the strike).
Five days after the strike began the steel corporations launched a campaign of full-page advertisements which urged the strikers to return to work, denounced their leaders as ‘trying to establish the red rule of anarchy and bolshevism’ and the strike as ‘Un-American’ and even suggested that ‘the Huns had a hand in fomenting the strike’.
Louis Post, the Secretary of Labour at the time, complained that intense corporate propaganda ‘produced an anti-red hysteria about an invented plan by workers and their leaders to overthrow the government’. The Interchurch World Movement concluded that the strike was defeated by ‘the strike breaking methods of the steel companies and their effective mobilisation of public opinion against the strikers through charges of radicalism, bolshevism and the closed shop. None of which was justified by the facts.’ As a result, trade union power was decisively defeated during the 1920s. ‘Civil liberties were left prostrate, the labour movement was badly mauled, the position of capital was greatly enhanced and complete antipathy towards reform was enthroned’, wrote historian Robert Murray. In addition, ‘the Communist Party had been shattered and gone underground... institutions of police repression had been installed and the United States had been made safe for business’, as historian and activist Joel Kovel has put it. The role of the early propaganda experts in this transformation was central. As Editor and Publisher summed up the transformation of the reputation of Rockefeller on his death in 1937:
It must be admitted without a grudge, that Ivy Ledbetter Lee did a swell job of press-agentry in not only removing the stigma of commercial pirate that the old gentleman wore for so many years, but actually substituting it for a saintly halo... He [Rockefeller] paid little attention to newspaper comment until the Colorado mine massacre turned the big Eastern papers loose at him and invested 26 Broadway with a howling mob of protesting pickets. Then the suave Lee entered the picture, gave the Rockefeller press relationships the guise of candour, played no favourites and succeeded, it must be admitted, in more than once turning merited public anger toward approval.
‘Among the nations of the earth today’, wrote one observer in 1921, ‘America stands for one idea: Business.’ The ‘robber barons’ were not transformed simply by the manipulation of words and ideas, but by the use of new techniques of press management in alliance with older coercive practices.