Propaganda in the US

Corporate Propaganda

Corporations use propaganda to protect themselves from perceived anti-business ideas, policies, and democratic pressures.  Since corporations are the most concentrated forms of power in modern democratic state societies, they protect themselves by finding ways to influence and control the ideas of people, in order to ensure policy outcomes that will not interfere with the continuing collection of wealth. The seminal researcher on this topic, Alex Carey, has described the modern period in the US as marked profoundly by this development:

The twentieth century has been characterized by three development 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. (Alex Carey, 1978, 18.)

US business has developed sprawling networks of propaganda resources and manufactured something like a “propaganda-managed democracy”:

The enduring cultivation need for a mass propaganda effort] has brought into being a vast complex of institutions which specialize in propaganda and related social science research. This complex of institutions has been created expressly for the purpose of monitoring public opinion and managing it within ideological confines acceptable to American business. (Carey, 19.)

Corporations are institutional structures for concentrating and controlling wealth within state capitalist society. Forms of popular participation in policy are direct threats to corporations, since the two forms of power are inimical to each other and to some extent mutually exclusive, their interests being almost precisely contradictory (consider tax policy, for example, or trade policy).

For these reasons, unions and popular organizing are the most serious perceived threat to corporations.

Corporations have learned to use mass propaganda campaigns to influence and control public perception. If corporations can spend 5% of their budgets on public relations and the outcome is that people learn to think like a corporation and to internalize corporate values instead of democratic ones, then the payoff for corporations is well worth the money. Carey writes that,  taken as a whole, “the subject embraces a 75-year-long multi-billion dollar project in social engineering on a national scale” (Carey, 20).

There’s no propaganda here!

One of the crucial functions of propaganda in a democratic, free-speech society is to ensure that it does not appear to the public as propaganda. Thus, a main feature and goal of the propaganda system is to convince public that society is free of propaganda and that free speech is in fact practiced across the full spectrum of available ideas.

It remains, as ever, an axiom of conventional wisdom that the use of propaganda as a means of social and ideological control is distinctive of totalitarian regimes. Yet the most minimal exercise of common sense would suggest a different view: that propaganda is likely to play at least as important a part in democratic societies (where the existing distribution of power and privilege is vulnerable to quite limited changes in popular opinion as in authoritarian societies (where it is not). It is arguable that the success of business propaganda in persuading us, for so long, that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant propaganda achievements of the twentieth century (Carey, 21).


The US mass propaganda system had its origins in WWI. Following the British, the US government under Wilson implemented an astonishingly effective mass propaganda machine, quickly whipping up the virtually the entire US intelligentsia into hysterical support for the war. US business quickly internalized these lessons and would soon come to apply the same techniques to further the ends of business.

Allied governments expended unprecedented resources on the development and dissemination of propaganda to heighten patriotism and hatred. Propaganda became a science and a profession. A campaign launched by President Wilson on America’s entry into the war in 1917 filled every home, workplace and leisure activity with its messages. The campaign produced within six months so intense an anti-German hysteria as to permanently impress American business … the potential of large-scale propaganda to control public opinion (Carey, 21-22).

Intellectual elites within this crowd included eminent journalist Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, fan and nephew of Sigmund Freud.  Bernays, keenly observing the effectiveness of the state’s war propaganda on the  public, transferred these insights and methods into business models, and soon became the pre-eminent business propaganda paragon. He would write, in his seminal work on the subject, Propaganda (1927), that

 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 and 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 me we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. […]

 Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons–a trifling fraction of our [entire population]–who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world

The role of those controlling the mechanisms of propaganda was to govern invisibly, by controlling, out of sight, the minds of the public and directing them paternalistically toward those policies which are perceived by the controllers to be most beneficial:

Today, however, a reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Whatever of social importance is done today, […] must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government (48).


When the war ended, Bernays later wrote, business ‘realized that the great public could now be harnessed to their cause as it had been harnessed during the war to the national cause, and the same methods could do the job.’ ca 22.

State Propaganda: Press, Democracy, and Free Thought

State propaganda in a totalitarian system is far more readily identifiable than in a democratic system. The result is that there is a much wider range of dissident thought in the totalitarian system, because nobody buys the official line. In the democratic system, however, the official line is the one offered by the intelligentsia, who function basically as state propaganda agents, usually without their knowledge–a structural feature of the system.

Consider the thinks tank spokespeople, the experts and authorities who come on TV to tell us what to think about a topic and stage heated debates over the smallest range of differences. The public is duped on two levels; first that they take the intelligentsia to be independent, autonomous, dispassionate thinkers (when in fact they are part of a propaganda system firmly dependent on concentrations of power for their careers and institutional stability, which inevitably inflects their thought and provides its limits and ideological parameters); and second that when the public sees heated debate over an issue, everyone is caught up in the heated debate in front of them, ignoring the unspoken assumptions left entirely out of the debate. So we see passionate discussion, say, about gay marriage, but perfect silence on the US nuclear stockpile or the legitimacy of US foreign military bases or a host of other important topics. These questions are treated as settled, rather than laid out honestly as presuppositions or assertions in the heated political displays the media shows us. These heated arguments thus have a deeply mystifying effect on public thought, since their unspoken premises are never exposed, acknowledged, or scrutinized–let alone debated.



Under the crippling effects of insidious indoctrination, unaided common sense might not always be able to see clearly through the sophistry. The power of State propaganda, even in a relatively open society, can hardly be overestimated. In fact, the totalitarian system of thought control is far less effective than the democratic one, since the overt official doctrine is readily identifiable as pure propaganda, and this helps to free the mind. In contrast… the democratic system seeks to determine and limit the entire spectrum of thought by leaving the fundamental assumptions unexpressed. They are presupposed, but not asserted (Radical Priorities, 12).


The press and the intellectuals are held to be fiercely independent, hypercritical, antagonistic to the “establishment,” in an adversary relation to the state… The more vigorous the debate, the better the system of propaganda is served, since the tacit unspoken assumptions are more forcefully implanted… Any expert in indoctrination will confirm, no doubt, that it is far more effective to constrain all possible thought within a framework of tacit assumptions than to try to impose a particular explicit belief with a bludgeon. It may be that some of the most spectacular achievements of the American propaganda system, where all of this has been elevated to a high art, are attributable to the method of feigned dissent practiced by the responsible intellegentsia (cited in Otero, 12-13).

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