As a break from my usual reading and re-reading I have currently been reading Propaganda (1928) by Edward Bernays. As well as being a fascinating look at the world of public relations, a field which Bernays undoubtedly pioneered, it provides a moral defence of the ubiquity of propaganda for the functioning of an orderly society. Ironically, reading it through the lens which this book describes one sees it as a defense of the current social order.
This week, I also went to the theatre to see Shakespearean classic, Macbeth. I have only been the theatre a few times in my life and, like the other times, it was a fantastic experience. I wanted to see this play because like many English children, I was forced to read Shakespeare (at my school, Macbeth) for my English GCSE (~16 year old exams) yet, probably because I went to a poor state school in a very deprived area, I’d never actually seen it.
About a decade later, confirming much of my suspicion that I had probably not really understood much of the play’s content considering the adult themes, I have finally seen it. I think now, although I have been an adult for years, my education in philosophy and social sciences has given me an even greater understanding than I could have had years ago. And this is wherein I will try to connect my reading of the play with Bernays’ Propaganda, since it’s fresh in my mind.
Part of Bernays’ defence of propaganda and public relations is that they are necessary to maintain the functioning of an orderly society. This order is, and Bernays does not deny, really the idea that society consists of the, mostly powerless until they come together, masses, and those who with power and privilege are thus responsible for the guidance of the masses. Of course, as part of the powerful minority, Bernays’ defence characterises this position of responsibility as somewhat noble, while also patronising the masses as unable to guide themselves and maintain a stable society.
Bernays’ description of society importantly omits how throughout history it is not just in the interest of a stable society that this, albeit simplified here and in Propaganda, order is maintained by those with the power to do so. Bernays also argues how propaganda can, is, and always should be used for the public good without questioning the justness of such an order. However, I don’t wish in this article to go in that direction of interrogation but instead think even more with a tin foil hat about the methods of propaganda and how it effects our moral intuitions.
Returning to Macbeth with this in mind, what kind of effect does it have as propaganda? Macbeth is a story of regicide- killing the monarch. The ambition to become king leads Macbeth not only to kill the king to whom he was once loyal and amicable, but murder his best friend out of paranoia and insanity. It also, whether Shakespeare intended to or not, teaches its audience a moral lesson beyond killing is wrong, since it is unquestioningly alright to kill your fellow man at war, nor even regicide is wrong as King Macbeth is justly slain at the end (no spoiler alerts on a four centuries old play), but that it is wrong to disturb the social order.
Of course, to Bernays and perhaps other conservative thinkers who might genuinely believe in their role and how it entails massive responsibility, this could also be a tail of justice. Indeed, Bernays points to other ways propaganda can be used not just to mobilise the masses for the purposes of business, politics, and most infamously, war, and Bernays admits the potential for its malicious use. However, he argues that propaganda can help promote universal values and ethics that are genuine public goods, ideas that I doubt many people who have spent time considering right and wrong would have much problem becoming universally conscious. Marketing and PR to Bernays are not the devil that the sceptics worry about it being.
Perhaps Bernays’ concept of propaganda is too broad? Can we consider, for example, Aesop’s fables as propaganda? While not giving any explicit criteria, I think they would fit neatly among his various descriptions of examples throughout the book. What separates this from other books and textbooks, plays like Shakespeare’s or modern ones, or even TV and film as being propaganda? Are all of the technologies of mass communication since the printing press really potentially, and because of how useful they can be, probably used as technologies of propaganda?
Especially when considering that Bernays makes the point of how the best propaganda techniques utilise the most up-to-date knowledge from psychology, but even those less effective forms are still propaganda, then the answer is yes! And to think thusly one perhaps has to realise that even this website and the books I’m working on fit the criteria too- I want to “mould minds”, “shape habits”, become what Bernays called “an invisible governor”.
It sounds nefarious and perhaps treacherous to consider this as truth because it would mean I previously occupied the role of being one in the masses. But it is not completely novel as a moral quandry I have had before about my position and role in society. In the next article of my other current series about my “cleft habitus” I will discuss the idea of class betrayal and what some thinkers have called “the emotional imprint of social mobility”.
To be dramatic, the moral torment of Macbeth about his ambition versus his loyalty sometimes feels not dissimilar from my own feelings about my social mobility. Perhaps being overly dramatic- Macbeth has a cleft habitus! Just like me (definitely being over-dramatic)! Moving “up” in the world can sometimes feel like you betray your origins even though it does not necessarily mean I have given up on holding on to that class’ interests.
Unlike Macbeth, I do not have a choice in being socially mobile or my cleft habitus. It is also difficult to examine how much luck was involved in creating my situation because, like Bourdieu who first theorised about habitus, my class mobility is an exception to the rule about how our inherited capitals, our origins, determine our destinations. However, my choices probably steer me towards social mobility, and indeed, I actively try to make such decisions despite the guilt that sometimes accompanies them- but should I take alternative choices that reduce my freedom, my quality of life, my chances of achieving my life goals? How much of luck is unfair and requires societal or legal intervention to “level the playing field”? At what point does doing what modern society requires of one to get ahead, perhaps abandoning the class interests as a whole yet still working towards more justice and opportunities for those like myself that want to move up, equate to killing the king?