This is How We Make Belief
The Bernays Method in the screen age
This is the fourth part in a series on propaganda. It examines the development of the Bernays method in the digital age, and how this has changed the modern self.
A Ghost in the War Machine
The ghost of Kiev is an example of the Bernays model - to connect a feeling (heroism) with a symbol (The Ghost of Kiev) and giving it life in a staged situation (shooting down 40 Russian planes). His goggles were supposed to be auctioned in London, despite never having existed. Video game footage had been earlier presented as evidence of his prowess, but this fact did not deter the Times newspaper from extolling his virtues. Two days later the media finally announced it was a fake.
In like fashion the leader of the world’s most corrupt nation, himself a placeman of an oligarch, has been attached to heroic and even saintly imagery. It seems too obvious to point out that the cult of Zelensky is not the expression of a popular need for a charismatic figure of hope. He is a product, which has been packaged and sold to the masses like a cut price ready meal. Consuming this product will not nourish you, but it will make you feel like you are one of the Good Ones.
Freud and Bernays both recognised the immense appeal of making everything about ‘me’. In the age of the internet, it is always me time.
Propaganda - From the Word of God to the Cult of the Self
Bernays always considered the term propaganda unjustly maligned, having its origins in the actions of Pope Gregory XV. In 1622, Pope Gregory sought to counter the spread of the Islam of the West, Protestantism, with The Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de propaganda fide)
“They are to take account of and to deal with each and every concern for the spread of the faith throughout the world.”
It is revealing that Bernays would compare his own work to that of the mission of the Catholic Church - the salvation of souls in the service of God. This is an apt reduction of Modernism itself. It equates the self with the Divine. In discarding God for Man, it prepares the way for the three Religions of Mankind - Communism, Fascism and Liberalism.
Modernism valorises a self which sees in itself no need for further justification for its desires than that they can be brought into being. “It is enough that I want it - now where is it?” This is the cry of the perpetual child, which is Man divorced from his Father. Never does the child ask whose voice it was that whispered these desires into his ear. The Modernist has no need of any wider moral framework than that provided by his immediate desires.
The Me Generator
The breathtaking narcissism of Bernays is indivisible from his work, which was to mass produce his own identity through the manipulation of symbols suffused with emotion, intended to replace real people with creations of his own.
A major prophet of the modern cult of the self, Bernays’ methods result in the replacement of real events and real people with fakes made up to sell you on something. This is how he makes belief, by presenting as relatable, credible, desirable that which is (not yet) real. He creates the impulse to reach for the object, which is there only in the mind, attached to the grand desires of freedom and wisdom and liberation and virtue. The hand reaches out in space and grasps nothing, but it matters not, because
‘People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed.’
and they have been. This is the reason one catchphrase succeeds the next. One generation ago, much of light entertainment was based around these simple lines delivered with a wink, designed for involuntary memorisation and easy mimicry. Now our worldview is delivered as easily as a trademark quip from a celebrity comic.
The symbols (BLM, the kneel, the mask, the sunflower, the rainbow flag, the transqueer flag, ‘Freedom’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Justice’, ‘Equality’) are suffused with aspirational feelings of hope, liberty, virtue and superiority - things for which people naturally yearn in an existence which provides few encounters with the real life counterparts of these eye-catching features.
Their content is usually simpler - they signify ‘good’. An exclusionary label, notifying the user that its absence in the profiles and preferences of other people is evidence of its opposite. The result of Bernaysian methods is a divisive narcissism which permits people to despise others in the absence of any moral good or effort. This pernicious revaluing of human worth, a function of consumer ‘choice’, is a means of giving permission to hate and feel good about it. It is obviously evil, and as with all sin, has a superficial allure which conceals the damnation which is its true promise.
The sale of the self
To displace reality with manufactured memes, to infuse products and packaged opinion with false aspirations and real congratulation, is of course to achieve the victory of successful branding: the promise sells the product. This promise is always superior, the product never satisfies. The ultimate promise is that of a better, more desirable, superior personality. A new YOU. With each catchphrase craze comes the opportunity - not to be missed - to throw out the old and be in with the new. No one wants to be left behind.
This trick helps to stimulate constant desire. Desire is nullified by nourishment.
How is this hunger perpetuated? Have we not learned to be inured to sales techniques? The very idea presumes an intact personality at the inception of every sales pitch, be it for new plastic trash or a popularised opinion.
What has happened in fact is that technology has advanced the Bernays method to the point that this method has displaced the inner life of the population it once sought to persuade. Instead of mere demonstration it now also subsists on a subscription model. We depend on the internet to update us now. On the internet, the time is always now. The cybernatural self is trapped in the immediate, in the ever-present of the online world. It is isolated - in space, in social relation, in time as it has no historical continuity. It sees its detachment from any wider moral framework as liberating.
Emotion, self esteem, the Correct Opinion of the Moment, our entire world view and those issues about which we must be seen to care- these are all outsourced to a cloud. We receive our beliefs about the world and our feelings about ourselves like updates on the phones used to transmit them to us.
Cyber+ Bernays => Cybernatural
Bernays in the cyber age, the age of immanent internet, is the age in which the virtual world has become integrated into the modern personality. Simply put, much of the modern self now exists on the internet. Upvotes, avatars, comment posts, social media personae are the means by which we connect to our imaginary friends - who knows how many of them are real? How real are the real ones, anyway?
The phenomenology of the mass media age is typified by an interdigitation of the bodily and virtual self. This virtual self is twofold:
it is the self we project into the internet
it is the sense of self we receive from it
Both parts have elements of complete unreality. Retouched photos, cartoonish memojis, idealised photographs filtered for effect. Twitter profiles, Disqus comments, TikTok videos, YouTube tropes. The self we present to the world takes the form of the vessel which delivers it. It is abbreviated to the house styles of social media.
The self we receive is more determining of our inner life. It comes to displace it through a process which results in addiction. Typically social media is charged with creating dependence, personality disorder, mental health issues. In fact, the whole mass media operation does this, and it is its object to do so.
Media is no longer merely a system of product delivery. It does not simply present opinion to be selected based on preference.
It is content delivery - and it is delivering the contents of your mind.
Your Emotions Have Arrived. Update Now?
In our time the self is increasingly dependent on outside sources for a sense of itself.
Management of media memes, of catchphrase crazes, of perpetual crises entails the collapse of complex problems in reality into sterilized, safe and simplistic symbols. Something as dreadful as the war in Ukraine becomes a sticker, an avatar to display. Instead of having to contend with the complexities, nuances and contradictions of the real world, the media personality can rely on the factories of opinion to present them with a symbol to which they can attach their feelings.
To reject these symbols – the kneel, the mask, the sunflower, the rainbow flag – is to invite an ostracism which an unstable personality cannot tolerate. Thinking itself involves tension, to which the anxious are averse. To think is to have to entertain a paradox – two or more contending ideas at once – whose conflict must be resolved in the mind of the individual to produce opinion.
It is far safer then to outsource this discomfiting process to Trusted Sources, who will package reality for you in a way which guarantees a ready made clamour of approbation.
There are no Trusted Sources for reality
There are two main ideas here: one, that the modern media self is dependent on the cloud for its emotions, social adjustment and sense of self esteem (as well as its opinions and sense of reality). Two, that the process produces dependence on itself and independence from thought.
It is noteworthy that this process is invariably a brief reward for adopting opinions to the detriment of the individual through a practice which reinforces anxiety, since it panders to a retreat from personal confrontation with reality. To act in this manner is to become reality-averse, to shrink from the cold water shock to which you can, through repeated exposure, become habituated.
In short, the media makes addicts of its viewers, and makes them fear the ostracism which they imagine will result from any attempt at recovering their autonomy.
This is the society which is managed today along Burnhamite and Bernaysian principles. A society in which people are indeed dependent on the engine of correct opinion that is Big Tech and Big Media. To adjust positively to a machine, to download your thoughts and emotions like updates from a carefully managed cloud server of Correct Opinion is to become less capable, less continent. It results in the emotionalism we see attached to every popularised symbol of the moment, wherewith hysteria is a sign of wisdom and normal behaviour framed as extremist.
The contemporary self is not liberated but addicted to news-as-therapy. Our media management system, in place and continually updated since Bernays practically invented it in the 1920s, creates broken addicts of a nominally free and informed population. This is a factor of SCALE, the Leviathan birthing all our social ills.
Our declining model of social organisation is attempting to preserve its own life at the expense of ours, and it is dehumanising in a way unimaginable to most thinkers of even recent generations.
Look out for the conclusion of this series in Part Five.