Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia
by Alex Carey

Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1995.
214 pp.
ISBN: 0 86840 358 X

Review by Dale Wharton

Dale Wharton is a retired computer programmer who writes two-page
book reviews as a hobby. He was a seaman in the US Navy at the end of WWII.
He received his B.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri in 1949.

CENTURY XX saw democracy develop two ways in the USA. (1) By 1920 voters doubled in number to about 30% of the population, owing largely to woman suffrage. (2) Organized labor grew rapidly during the muckraker era 1902-18. Business circles took these as signs of danger. Might this mass of voters demand a regime to referee prices, profits, salaries--the economy? Would unions give force to employees' requests? Corporate response: programs to guide opinion among working people and the public--to steep the nation in business theory and market dogma.

Alex Carey taught psychology and industrial relations at UNSW. In 11 essays he looks at string-pulling across the Propaganda Century. He traces a theme that links the common good to private-sector interests --that is, to the wealth of the few. The book has three parts: Closing the American Mind, Exporting Free-enterprise Persuasion, Propaganda in the Social Sciences. Editor Lohrey, who sat 13 years in the state legislature of Tasmania, now does language research in Sydney.

Carey argues that US society leans toward a binary view of the world. Its symbols tend to be Good or Evil, Sacred or Satanic. Blends of the two require study. Action-loving Americans prefer to do first and ponder later, if at all. (Thought may hinder deeds.) Their native pragmatism tests a belief by its result. One needs no prior grounds, no moral code, to justify the test. In the US critical thought sleeps.

These biases expose a society to subtle controls, says the author. Though safe from the naked power of a slave driver, we must still serve interests other than our own. How does this come about in the USA? "By associating welfare [and public health care and other goods] with Socialism/Communism and ... [equating] the Free Enterprise System with Loyalty, Patriotism, Freedom, the American Dream, [and] the American Way of Life, propagandists [work] Satanic and Sacred symbols" (p 16). They play on powerful emotions and may even summon "threats to national security." Domestic propaganda keeps nationalist feeling both intense (easy to excite) and shallow. Carey rejects these tricks as undemocratic. He sees the "free-enterprise system" itself as a sham--a device to protect the riches of elites. Without their propaganda machine it would collapse.

William James and John Dewey both urged pragmatism. (Truth is what works.) "James held that `an idea is true so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives' .... " Dewey agreed. "Beliefs are good if believing them has beneficial consequences. `Facts' do not exist for Dewey ... in the sense that `facts' are stubborn and cannot be manipulated" (p 77). Such easy virtue suits business fine. May it not be kindly to delude? useful to beguile? profitable to mislead?

Users of propaganda--publicity, advertising, public relations--pretend it is mere persuasion, the method of democracy. By 1940 protests at its harm fade as engineering of attitudes proceeds. Ad agencies reshape the concept of truth. Images replace ideals in public regard. America lives an illusion. As Ms Liberty's words comfort the world's needy, US forces lay waste poor peasant societies of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. President Nixon, exposed in his crimes, goes on to corrupt his office further by trading it for a lawless pardon.

"Modern wars require the support of everyone, and so wartime propaganda idealizes the humane, egalitarian, democratic character of the home society in a way that no elite or business interest has any intention of allowing ..." (p 137). With peace, people who sacrificed for principles expect reform. What they get is drama in three acts. (1) Outside menace focuses popular consciousness. (2) Conservatives spot danger inside social and political order, arising from liberal reforms and ill will toward corporations. (3) Threats 1 and 2 merge to rally defeat of reforms--and party, persons, and policies behind them. As in 1919-21 and 1946-50, so in 1976-80: business resumes its throne.

Adam idled happily in the Garden of Eden. His part was "to dress it and to keep it"--Gen 2: 15. That was before the Fall. To punish him, God condemned Adam to work: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"--Gen 3: 19. Came the Industrial Revolution and this idea of labor as penalty had to change. By 1800 toil emerged as what makes us human. To escape the pit we must cast off sloth and devote body and mind to work. "The puritan preachers of the Protestant ethic are the spiritual ancestors of today's industrial psychologists" (p 153).

From research of the 1950s on how to change beliefs in small groups to the human resources school today, an old-world odor taints "classic" studies of people at work. All play down the effects of material reward on productivity, all imply low output is neurotic behavior.

Folks who instinctively sense brainwashing usually look the wrong way for who does it. Carey blames George Orwell. In his novel 1984 Orwell foresaw a tyranny of the Left that would erase civil liberty. But most of the peril this century comes from the Respectable Right. Corporate mass media now impose thought control over much of the globe. Behold their ideal: propaganda-managed democracy.

Corporadoes shoot for yet more license to swindle us. Their daily barrage aims to deliver them from taxes, regulation, limits, inquiry. Some yearn to be free to fix prices (ADM), free to cut corners (Valu- Jet), free to corner markets (Morgan Stanley), free to wrong Blacks (Texaco), free to break strikes (Caterpillar), free to back genocide (Chase Manhattan), free to clearcut forests (MacMillan Bloedel), free to addict youth (Brown & Williamson), free to fire people wholesale (AT&T), free to poison air and water (Exxon, Union Carbide, General Motors, Freeport-McMoRan, Dupont, Alcoa, Procter & Gamble, ...)

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