The Century of the Self

Bill English presents NZ’s 2016 budget

       Blog No. 91.

The Budget. May 26th, was budget day in New Zealand. The neo-liberal National government is doing relatively well in the present global economy and carefully maintaining the balance of its books. Thus, yesterday, the modest surplus in the current account could be used to pay off some debt and to make a few additional payments towards education, healthcare and infrastructure.

No new taxes were announced – except a rise in the indirect tax on cigarettes (which will serve to further impoverish the lowest income section of the community, thereby taking food out of their often, already underprivileged, children’s mouths.) Next year is election year and the budget speech held out the promise that by then, the economy would be doing so well that significant tax reductions for the middle and upper classes could be anticipated. Such cuts hardly affect the poor, who have too small an income to see much benefit from direct tax reductions. Nor do they affect the very rich, who have been able to afford the best advice and have already worked out their avoidance strategies. Those, whose advantage and at whose votes the tax cuts will be aimed, will be the middle classes.

After the budget, the pollsters again got to work and reported on the almost universal delight among middle-class New Zealanders, at the prospect of further tax cuts. The budget was delivered against a background in which the media was full of the plight of the growing numbers of homeless families living in cars, vans and garages, failing mental health services, etc.

None of these problems facing the poorer strata of the New Zealand community will be addressed by tax cuts. On the contrary, they will be robbed of the additional and much needed social support that could have been provided had the fruits of society’s economic success not been diverted into the pockets of those higher up the ladder of inequality.

Those welcoming the impending tax cuts must know perfectly well that their gain is someone else’s loss – but they don’t care enough to worry about the longer term consequences of their self-seeking. How have we arrived at this point of social decline?

‘The Century of the Self.’ I recently spent four successive evenings watching the four, one hour, episodes of a 2002, BBC documentary –

century-of-the-self-dvdBasically the series offers an explanation as to why modern society is as it is. It all starts with Sigmund Freud and his arguments, which gained huge public attention between the two world wars. In essence, Freud’s position was that the human mind is not a machine for rational decision making, but a dark and uncontrolled centre of violence and irrational behaviour governed by ‘unconscious desires.’

The role of the state is to help repress these dark urges by channeling them into a polite and structured conformity. (One has to assume that the ruling elites are somehow immune from the potential for bestial behaviour that affects the masses they rule.) This acceptance of social conformity should be actively sought after by the ruled, who should be content for their own good, not to allow their minds to stray from the roles of producer and consumer, which form the basis of the stable society.

Edward Bernays. Sigmund’s nephew, Edward Bernays was an American citizen and saw the huge potential contained in his uncle’s works: consumption as the key to contentedness, social order and the suppression of chaos.

“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 ..”

Bernays invented the term ‘Public Relations.’ From the 1920s to the 1960s and beyond, he was acknowledged as the foremost practitioner of the profession he thus created.

Century 2

The Freudian age of PR. For five or so decades, the manipulation of the sheeple based on Freudian principles, had unchallenged reign. This was the age of mass production when the corporations flocked to Bernays asking him to create a mass market for their goods, cigarettes, cars, food products, beauty products, etc. Bernays, displaying an amazing genius for innovative campaigns, rose magnificently to the challenge and the US corporations prospered.

William Reich. A dramatic sea-change in social attitudes started to become apparent towards the end of the 1960s, boosted by domestic opposition to the Vietnam War. For the first time, Sigmund’s ideas faced a significant challenge. Though they had been mainly developed in the 1930’s, the ideas of Sigmund’s former student,  now started to gain traction in the public mind.

Reich argued that the human mind was not vile and in need of the strait-jacket of a top-down consumer society. In contrast to his former tutor’s ideas, Reich believed that the human mind was creative and benign. To be fulfilled, individuals had to openly express their own, unconscious self, its desires and wishes, and to break away from the strictures of social conformity and sexual repression. With the threat of the draft and the arrival of the contraceptive pill, Reich’s ideas of letting it all hang out, had found their time in which to come of age.

Bernays’ genius was to be unfazed by the societal change and to seamlessly adapt his ideas and strategies to take advantage of the change in social norms. The new consumers now chose to give outward expression of their individuality by choosing not to buy what the Joneses had bought, but to spend lavishly on products, which expressed their own unique individuality and life-styles. With the rapid developments in production technology, Bernays’ corporate clients were able to switch their capacity to shorter runs and multiple product lines. Bernays had no problem finding his corporate clients new customers among the new consumers.

Century 3

The focus group. Bernays introduced the concept of the focus-group in which small groups of consumers were carefully polled to reveal what products they wished to have made available to them. In the new age of the self, on the surface at least, the consumer could believe they were king or queen and the corporations their servant. In 1909, Henry Ford could get away with stating “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” Sixty years later, no corporate CEO would have dared venture such a remark.

Bernays’ influence was so dominant that it could well be argued that he, more than any other individual, was responsible for the development of the consumer society we know today.

Bernays Quote 3

Bernays quote 2

Bernays and international relations. However, Bernays’ influence was not restricted to consumerism. He played a key role in enabling the CIA to develop the techniques it has subsequently used to arrange sundry regime change operations around the globe.

In the early 1950s, the United Fruit Company, which believed it had bought the right to own the democratically elected government of Guatemala, asked Bernays to act on its behalf to avert the threatened nationalisation of some of its banana plantations.

By careful placement of editorial in the American main stream media, Bernays succeeded in convincing both the American public and their elected representatives that the ruling, mildly nationalist and fundamentally democratic government of Guatemala, was in fact a communist front; a Trojan horse, preparing to launch an assault on the USA.

Bernays’ success in this misinformation campaign empowered Allen Dulles, head of the CIA under Eisenhower (and a major shareholder in the United Fruit Company), and his brother, John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State, to gain congressional and public acceptance of the violent coup d’état that they organised.

The CIA provided arms and training to a relatively small group of Guatemalan mercenaries from outside the country. By giving them aerial support with unmarked aircraft and mounting a Bernays supervised, propaganda campaign within the country, the CIA panicked the legitimate regime. This, having naively, first appealed to the USA for assistance, when that was not forthcoming, fled the country.

Diego Riviera “Gloriosa Victoria”

In doing so, they left the banana republic once again in the hands of a puppet of the United Fruit Company who, after his assassination, was succeeded by a murderous succession of US puppet dictators, who, while maintaining an uninterrupted flow of bananas, worked to CIA hit lists and their own paranoia, in exterminating all left-wing opposition as it emerged. (don’t be put off by the warning note, this hyperlink has been opened several times without ill-effect!)

Those who have read my previous blog about the CIA whistle-blower stranded in New Zealand – will have noticed how the government of Guatemala was the source of the initial $6 billion note that Harmon Wilfred was required to launder in Lichtenstein on behalf of the CIA. I haven’t done any research into Guatemalan history subsequent to the 1954, Bernays legitimised coup, but from this fact, it would seem safe to assume that, at the end of the 20th Century, the CIA was still able to exercise significant control over the Guatemalan government and its president.

By being instrumental in bringing the Guatemalan government back under control of the American Government, or more accurately of the CIA, Bernays established a model for future coups. The attempt on Cuba, an almost carbon copy of the Guatemalan operation, might have failed at the Bay of Pigs, but similar tactics of training external groups of mercenaries and inserting them to destabilise inconvenient regimes, can still be seen being applied today in the Syrian campaign.

The lessons Bernays taught about how to lead the domestic flock up the garden path, continue to be put into effect long after his death. The CIA and other agencies and lobby groups continue with the conscious manipulation of western opinion in regard to dangerous overseas adventures. The WMD scare against Saddam Hussein and the presentation of Syria’s Bashir Assad as the universally loathed devil incarnate, are both cases in point. Another is the current branding of Russia as the villainous aggressor, while it is NATO’s forces that move ever closer to surround it and threaten its defences. Both claims defy common sense, but continue to be naïvely accepted as gospel by the vast majority of the victims of Bernays’ hidden manipulators.

Domestic policy. If foreign policy could be manipulated using Bernays methods; so too could domestic politics. If the polling of focus groups, dotted around the country, could inform corporations of the products that would be most likely to result in success at the tills, similar focus groups could inform political parties of the policies most likely to result in success at the polls. With the coming of the new age of Reich’s self-liberating individual, came politicians of similar mind-set, able to tap this new mood of increased duty to self and decreased duty to society. Focus Group

The Reaganite and Thatcherite governments marked the transition of government out of the hands of the old patrician classes, who had patronised the mass of the electorate with their acceptance of noblesse oblige; of the well-to-do’s responsibility towards those less fortunate than themselves. Now, power passed into the hands of those such as Clinton and Blair (and John Key of New Zealand) who derived their populist policies from what the focus groups told them the mass of the electorate wanted – which was a leg-up for themselves and devil take the hindermost. The hindermost being those sectors of society less well-equipped to make the mental and life adjustments demanded by rapidly changing technologies and/or otherwise disadvantaged. Western governments no longer lead. Instead, they endeavour to follow the mass, subconscious wishes of their electorates, which, according to Freud, are so dark and bestial and to Reich, so entirely selfish.

All nations that have fallen prey to this new consumerist, self-centric fashion of thought, are witnessing a rapid divergence in the fates of those on the rising escalator of wealth and health and education and those on the descending. Of all those disadvantaged by this government of self-interested majorities, the most disadvantaged, will be those doomed to live in future generations.

Climate change. Historians will look back on the greatest disaster that has yet to befall the greatest number of humans ever to have existed on the planet and lament a most unhappy coincidence. The time, around the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, when awareness of the potential for the use of fossil fuels to cause disastrous climate change was becoming generally accepted among the scientific community and among the better informed in society, was also marked by the general acceptance of Reaganism, Thatcherism and neo-liberal ideology, in which political policies tended to be based not on forethought, but on the latest indications of selfish, popular yearning.

Popular yearning is in turn manipulated by the corporates who control the media and, like all other corporates, are governed by considerations of their bottom line rather than the welfare of humanity. This wiki deals with events in the USA, but with the American dominance of the global economy, corporatocracy, as so recently made obvious in the Panama Papers and the formulation and negotiation of the TPPA, is coming to rule the world.

This bodes ill for any hopes of the dramatic action called for at this eleventh hour to combat rapid climate change. Hugely wealthy corporates have a vested interest in preventing any realistic counter-measures. Likewise, other enormous lobby groups using Bernays techniques, work to persuade voters and governments not to take the actions needed to curb international travel and the rapid growth in the consumption of animal products, both of which are major contributors to the impending debacle.

The latest forecasts show a rise in average ambient temperature around the globe of  at least  and that sea levels will rise by more than a metre by the end of this century. Any simple Google search will spell out the dire consequences of such scenarios.

Is there any neo-liberal, populist government willing to impose discipline on the unsustainable consumption of their electorates, or gainsay the demands of the lobbyists that no government should intervene in their meeting of those demands on which their profits depend?

The chums, who changed our world

Time for a rethink? For those who are not clear in their minds as to what is entailed by neo-liberalism, George Monbiot, that most admirable journalist and author, says much of it at this hyperlink. (A strongly recommended read!)

He finishes with the following quote “What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st Century.”

Monbiot is asking for a lot. Any ‘coherent alternative’ along the lines he is advocating, will have to break with the central principle of all industrial and post-industrial economic theories. While civilisation remains confined to planet Earth, the pursuit of ‘growth’ has urgently to give way to that of sustainability. This will only happen if there is a dramatic reversal of society’s current, over-arching acceptance of consumerism as a socially acceptable way of life and expression of individuality. Frugalism should be the new code and the offering of helping hands, the benchmark of an individual’s identity and self-esteem. If social attitudes undergo such a sea-change, the economy (and, it not already too late, the climate) will follow.

This will have to take place in the face of bitter opposition from the current corporate masters of the universe who, exercising control over the media, through which ideas are dispersed, will be striving alongside Exxon and with no holds barred, to maintain the current and fatal status quo.

George Monbiot’s new book,’ How Did We Get into This Mess?,’ Is published this month by Verso.


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One thought on “The Century of the Self

  1. James Wilson says:

    Wonderfully presented essay. Thank Hugh.

    It seems a quantum leap from where we are politically and economically to where we should be. Who is going to throw the first brick, I wonder.

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