Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is propaganda an argument against direct democracy?

"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.
We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.  This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society." - Edward Bernays, Propaganda.

So begins the opening paragraphs of Edward Bernays "Propaganda" first published in 1928.  It is a fact, asserts Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Feud, that we are dominated by the relatively small number of people "who understand the mental process and social pattern of the masses". Such people constitute an invisible government that "pull the wires which control the public mind."

The invisible government of Bernays is not a coordinated group of shadowy figures manipulating   governments for their own ends. Rather this invisible government is in open competition with themselves for our time, our attention and our money. The fitness industry for example may compete against the computer gaming industry while both groups are apathetic and mostly unaware of the cotton industry who are nevertheless competing to shape our attitudes and desires to cotton based products.

The group mind Bernays refers to several times throughout his book is strangely mundane and yet powerful. We live in an society with a large number of groups divided by social, political, economical, racial and religious grounds. Each of those groups have leaders who influence us. It is through identifying and persuading these interconnecting groups that the masses can be influenced and our desires molded.
This invisible, intertwining structure of groupings and associations is the mechanism by which democracy has organized its group mind and simplified its mass thinking. To deplore the existence of such a mechanism is to ask for a society such as never was and never will be.  To admit that it exists, but expect that it shall not be used, is unreasonable. 
Is such propaganda not an argument against direct democracy?  Direct democracy is a form of democracy in which people decide on policy initiatives directly, as opposed to a representative democracy in which people vote for representatives who then decide policy initiatives.

Modern states contain both political and economic institutions; mediating between the two is the public sphere which includes all organizations and activities capable of generating debate - TV, radio, blogs, pubs, cafes etc.  The public sphere is the context in which free speech and open deliberation became a value in it's own right as individuals exercise their civil rights.  A healthy public sphere is essential in any democracy, but even more so in a direct democracy: in an ideal state a government is only legitimate when it is in alignment with the majority opinion of the public sphere. But this is exactly where direct democracy becomes undone.

In theory each person makes up their own minds in private, but in practice few of us have the time, or even the incentive, to study abstruse economies or to shift through the data involved in every question.  So we accept shortcuts by allowing information to be filtered and organized through news channels, professors, governments, journalists etc. Indeed, any group of humans must have leaders and people with influence over us. As Bernays argues, this is simply how the world is and how it must be. In a direct democracy, those capable of controlling the public sphere through influencing our unofficial leaders, control the democracy. We are left with the illusion of control, of making our own decisions.

Representative democracy also suffers from this filtering and management of information but to a lessor degree because rival political parties have the financial power to also deploy propaganda and act as a self-interested layer between Bernay's invisible government and the public sphere. The battlefield for public opinion is more competitive with easily identifiable leaders open to scrutiny.

In summary, direct democracy is more susceptible to propaganda than a representative democracy because the public sphere is easier to influence.


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