Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia
By Alex Carey
University of NSW Press, 1995. 214 pp., $19.95
Reviewed by Alex McCutcheon
As Alex Carey sees it, "The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy".
Throughout this book of collected essays with its unified theme, Carey succeeds in showing the reader that far from being a natural outcome of "market forces" or some natural "law of nature", the present hegemony that corporations enjoy has been the result of a consciously pursued goal whose origins lie within corporate America.
Carey makes the crucial (and often forgotten) point that in a technologically advanced democracy, "the maintenance of the existing power and privileges are vulnerable to popular opinion" in a way that is not true in authoritarian societies. Therefore elite propaganda must assume a "more covert and sophisticated role".
In the US, corporate propaganda has played upon the high level of religious beliefs in the community, beliefs which leave its citizens predisposed to see the world in "Manichean terms". This outlook leads towards a preference for action over reflection, a "pragmatic orientation" that is perfectly suited to the corporate aim of identifying positive symbols with business, while assigning negative values to those that oppose them, such as labour unions and welfare provisions.
The organised dissemination of these symbols had its initial impetus in groups such as the National Americanization Committee, which succeeded in manipulating nationalist and patriotic symbols during World War I to associate corporate values with the "American way of life". The psychological power of this association cannot be discounted: it has proved to be an enduring feature of the political climate in the US today.
Since then the corporate agenda has embraced all areas of society — media, schools, academia and the workplace — with focuses on different levels from "grassroots" to "tree-tops". It has succeeded via the mass media in identifying capitalism with democracy and in portraying any challenge to corporate elites as either "subversive" or "extremist".
This campaign to vilify those who do not adhere to the desired apathy is exemplified by the shameful way in which some industrial psychologists portray economic interests of employees to be somehow neurotic or dysfunctional. Their shabby efforts to lend an air of science to this field are put under the spotlight by Carey and found severely wanting.
The US system of corporate propaganda has since been exported wholesale to Australia, with little if any concession to local cultural values.
Carey argues passionately for a society that encourages people to become genuine citizens able to participate in meaningful ways in their immediate environment. To achieve this a diversity of views must be promoted.
However, public exposure to views other than corporate has been greatly feared by elites, who rightly believe that their power and privileges would increasingly come into question. In the absence of an environment such as that Carey argues for, procedural democracy occurs, whereby the populace is merely called upon to ratify corporate decision making.
Noam Chomsky has advocated that citizens undertake a "course of intellectual self-defence" to arm themselves against the one-sided view of the world that is presented to them through the media. In this respect, Taking the Risk out of Democracy is an important contribution towards understanding the reasons for the current conformity.
As well, it leaves one in no doubt that despite the "harmony" in society that conservatives invariably extol, there is a highly conscious class war being fought from the top.