Today happens to be July 4 as always, marked by lofty rhetoric about the significance of this traditional American celebration of independence and democracy (and maybe a day at the beach). Reality is not so uplifting.

Independence Day was designed by the first state propaganda agency, Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), created during World War I to whip a pacifist country into an anti- German frenzy and, incidentally, to beat down the threat of labor which frightened respectable people after such events as the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) victory in the Lawrence, Mass., strike of 1912.

The CPI’s successes greatly impressed the business world; one of its members, Edward Bernays, became the leading figure in the vastly expanding public relations industry. Also much impressed was Adolf Hitler, who attributed Germany’s failure in World War I to the ideological victories of the British and U. S. propaganda agencies, which overwhelmed Germany’s efforts. Next time, Germany would be in the competition, he vowed.

The influence of the great generalissimo on the propaganda front, as Wilson was described by political scientist Harold Lasswell, was not slight. Independence Day was one contribution. This particular propaganda exercise began with business-government initiatives to Americanize immigrants, to inculcate loyalty and obedience and expel from their minds alien notions about the rights of working people.

4th of julySuch programs would turn immigrants into the natural foe of the IWW and other destructive forces that undermine the country’s ideals and institutions, the CPI founding document read.

At a major conference of civic organizations (organized labor excluded), government and private organizations of all kinds and creeds had pledged themselves to cooperate in carrying out Americanization as a national endeavor, the organizers reported, while issuing plans for a successful Americanization program for the coming Fourth of July.

The CPI took up the cudgels, now using the wartime fanaticism it had helped engender as another weapon against pacifists, agitators and other anti-American groups, notably the hated Wobblies. The Generalissimo joined in with a May 1918 endorsement. The title of the indoctrination ceremonies was to be Americanization Day ; on reflection, Independence Day seemed preferable.

“… attempting to set up a paternalism that will bring the workers of this country even more absolutely under the control of the employers, … strengthening the chain of industrial tyranny in this country. [That is what lies behind these efforts]

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… to sanctify and confirm oppression by waving the American flag in the face of its victims and by insidiously stigmatizing as unpatriotic any attempts they may make to throw off the yoke of the exploiting interests [that the organizers] represent. “

But labor could not compete with state-corporate power, and lost this battle just as it failed to save May Day. (A jingoist holiday in the U. S., it is celebrated elsewhere as a labor festival which was begun in solidarity with the struggles of brutalized American workers.)

As the war ended and industrial strife renewed, Generalissimo Wilson launched his Red Scare, which devastated labor and independent thought, initiating a reign of virtually unchallenged business rule that was happily thought to be permanent. Many of the features of a corporate-run, propaganda-managed democracy are illustrated by the achievements of the Generalissimo and his business associates, among them the very concept of Americanism and anti-American.

Such notions are expected in totalitarian cultures ( anti-Sovietism, etc.), though rarely elsewhere. Their prominent place in a society that is unusually free is a far more significant phenomenon, hence rarely investigated.

We’re living in a strange period. Z Magazine’s Mike Albert described the country as an organizer’s paradise. True, though there are chilling prospects as well. Perhaps the most likely in the short run at least is the continuation, even acceleration, of the deliberate policy of driving the country toward a kind of Third World model, with sectors of great privilege, growing numbers of people sinking into poverty or real misery, and a superfluous population confined in slums or expelled to the rapidly expanding prison system.

Lurking not too deeply in the shadows is the threat of movements of a fascist character, perhaps with a populist streak (as often in the past), and imbued with the religious extremism that is a striking feature of American culture.

But there are also more hopeful opportunities in a country where over 80 percent of the population recognize that the economic system is inherently unfair and the government run for the benefit of the few and the special interests, not the people. (This figure is up from a steady 50 percent for a similarly worded question in earlier years though what is meant by special interests is another question.)

The general population stubbornly maintains social democratic attitudes that have resisted the propaganda assaults of the past half century. Substantial majorities believe the government should assist people in need, oppose increased Pentagon spending and budget-balancing that entails cuts for health and education (contrary to the message of many a headline and lead paragraph), and so on, pretty much across the board.

There has, furthermore, been no genetic change since the mid-19th century when a lively and independent press run by factory girls, mechanics, and other working people condemned the degradation and the loss of that self-respect which had made the mechanics and laborers the pride of the world, as free people were forced to sell themselves, not what they produced.

Its writers described the destruction of the spirit of free institutions, with working people reduced to a state of servitude in which they see a moneyed aristocracy hanging over us like a mighty avalanche threatening annihilation to every man who dares to question their right to enslave and oppress the poor and unfortunate.

They bitterly condemned the New Spirit of the Age: Gain Wealth, forgetting all but Self, a demeaning and shameful doctrine that no decent person could tolerate.

They who work in the mills ought to own them, working people wrote without benefit of radical intellectuals. In that way, they would overcome the monarchical principles that were taking root on democratic soil well before the modern corporation was given its remarkable powers early in this century, mainly by courts and lawyers.

Years later, that became a rallying cry for the organized labor movement. It is by the people who do the work that the hours of labour, the conditions of employment, the division of the produce is to be determined, Henry Demarest Lloyd urged in what labor historian David Montgomery calls a clarion call to the 1893 AFL convention. It is by the workers themselves, Lloyd continued, that the captains of industry are to be chosen, and chosen to be servants, not masters. It is for the welfare of all that the coordinated labour of all must be directed. This is democracy.

Such values and insights into reality have only recently been suppressed, and can be recovered.

While attitudes are resilient remarkably so, given that they receive little support and are often held in virtual isolation, the propaganda offensive has taken its toll. Irrational cults are proliferating alongside of the traditional supercult of mainstream intellectual culture, with its mindless rituals about the Purpose of America and the dedication of our leaders to democracy, markets, and human rights, al
l visibly under attack.

People who would have been working to build the CIO 60 years ago are now joining paramilitary organizations. Many people are not only angry not surprisingly, as their lives and world collapse, but also deeply confused.

There are many illustrations of this. While over 80 percent of the population thinks that workers have too little influence, only 20 percent feel that way about unions and 40 percent consider them too influential. Despite a huge propaganda barrage, popular opposition to NAFTA remained high coupled, however, with condemnation of unions lobbying for very much the views of the NAFTA critics, something they may not have known, thanks to the exclusion of the major union positions from the media.

The welfare debate reveals similar confusions. The same people who believe that the government should help the poor oppose welfare. Few are aware that the Pentagon system is largely a welfare system for the rich, catering to welfare freaks like Newt Gingrich, who brings more federal subsidies to his district than any other suburban county outside the federal system itself while his wealthy constituents self-righteously denounce the nanny state and commentators admire the entrepreneurial values of people who know only how to feed at the public trough.

Nor are many aware that the Pentagon system was established in explicit recognition that high-tech industry could not survive in a competitive, unsubsidized, `free enterprise’ economy, and that the private sector has relied extensively on such subsidy, including advanced technology readily transferred to commercial use, until the present, as is at last being investigated and acknowledged even in mainstream academic work. The authors believe that their (useful) discoveries refute beliefs of analysts from both the right and the left, but that is because they ignore the business press and left publications, which have long made just the same points.

They conclude that the defense industrial base should be maintained appropriately, on the understanding that the wealthy must be protected from market discipline and the population tricked into subsidizing them.

Nor are many likely to discover the euphoria in the business press about record-shattering profit growth while real wages continue their decline from 1980Propaganda depicting unions as the enemy of the worker, welfare queens driving Cadillacs and breeding like rabbits, liberal elites and pointy-headed bureaucrats stealing our money and interfering in our lives, and the rest of the familiar refrain, may have left attitudes substantially unchanged. But it has reduced much of the population to bewilderment and irrationality. If the current mood is one of anti-politics, that is in no small measure a tribute to the success of campaigns to erase the understanding of elementary reality expressed by the UMW leader quoted earlier.

That reality, traceable back at least to Adam Smith, was well-described by John Dewey: Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, and as long as this is so, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance. The scale and intensity of these propaganda crusades is rarely appreciated, and little studied.

What has been unearthed confirms the judgment of the late Alex Carey, the Australian social scientist who pioneered the investigation of corporate propaganda, including his study of Americanization campaigns, from which I drew earlier.

The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance, Carey wrote in a 1978 paper: the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

From their modern origins, the corporations that now dominate much of the domestic and global economies, casting their shadow on all other aspects of life, recognized the need to control the public mind and engineer consent by what their leaders frankly called propaganda in more honest days.

In his 1943 classic, Business As a System of Power, Robert Brady pointed out a natural correlation: Propaganda tends to be more prevalent in societies that are more free. At the same time, in his (unpublished) introduction to Animal Farm on literary censorship in England, George Orwell observed that in free societies, Unpopular Ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban. Dewey, Robert Dahl, and others made similar observations, which have been supported in the last few years by substantial documentation.

It is intriguing to see the reaction among the more passionate ideologues, who take such work to imply that its authors believe that the U. S. is a totalitarian or fascist society, equivalent to Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany; they utterly fail to comprehend that the clear and explicit thesis is precisely the opposite. (I’m citing current commentary, so foolishly as to be hardly worth refuting, and interesting only for what it reveals about the intellectual culture.)

Seventy years ago, the business world and the responsible men who arrogated to themselves the right of political and doctrinal management assumed mistakenly, the popular struggles of the 1930s revealed that the great beast, as Alexander Hamilton termed the people, had been caged. Business reacted with alarm, warning of the hazard facing industrialists in the newly realized political power of the masses.

We are definitely heading for adversity unless their thinking is directed to more proper channels, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) warned. Its PR budget increased over 20-fold from 1934 to 1937.

The hazard only grew in severity as Americans joined the social democratic currents sweeping the world after the war. One PR firm warned in 1947 that our present economic system, and the men who run it, have three years, maybe five at the outside, to resell our so-far preferred way of life as against competing systems.

A huge campaign was undertaken to win the everlasting battle for the minds of men, in the words of the chair of the NAM’s PR Advisory Committee; only the tools of the PR industry were powerful enough to stem the current drift toward Socialism, he warned. From 1946 to 1950, the NAM distributed over 18 million pamphlets:

Forty percent went to employees as part of extensive programs to indoctrinate employees, Fortune reported; the rest mostly to students and community leaders. Business propaganda had a circulation of 70 million people, Fortune editor Daniel Bell wrote, along with other propaganda that was staggering and prodigious in scale.

By the early 1950s, 20 million people a week were watching business-sponsored films. The entertainment industry was enlisted for the cause, portraying unions as the enemy, the outsider disrupting the harmony of the American way of life, and otherwise helping to indoctrinate citizens with the capitalist story, as business leaders formulated the task.

Every aspect of social life was targeted, and permeated: schools and universities, churches, even recreational programs. By 1954, business propaganda in public schools reached half the amount spent on textbooks. Labor sought to combat the plan to sell the American people on the virtues of big business, recognizing that the commercial media would follow the policy of damning labor at every opportunity while carefully glossing over the sins of the banking and industrial magnates who really control the nation.

With a circulation of 20-30 million, the 800 labor newspapers that still survived sought to expose racial hatred and all kinds of anti-democratic words and deeds and to provide antidotes for the worst poisons of the kept press. But labor utterly lacked the resources to compete.

The story continues to the present, including the concerted efforts of corporate America to change the attitudes and values of workers and convert worker apathy into corporate allegiance, Advertising
Council campaigns saturating the media and reaching practically everybody (Fortune), university Chairs of Free Enterprise and other measures to subvert the educational system, as well as the whole panoply of devices available to those for whom cost is no consideration.

So effectively has functioning civil society been dismantled, that Congress can now ram through programs opposed by large majorities who are left in fear, anger, and hopelessness.

The achievement is real. For working people, David Montgomery observes, the most important part of the Jeffersonian legacy was the shelter it provided to free association, diversity of beliefs and behavior, and defiance of alleged social superiors in society.

The structures of civil society obstructed bourgeois control of American life at every turn. Hence, the unremitting campaigns to demolish the independent press and eliminate effective forms of community solidarity, from trade unions to political clubs and organizations. They have been conducted with passionate intensity and considerable success.

The propaganda assault is fully in accord with prevailing concepts of democracy, a matter I’ve discussed at length elsewhere. It adapts to the conditions of 20th century America the principle on which the sociopolitical system was founded: To protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, as James Madison formulated the primary concern of government in the debates of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

But history records many successes of popular resistance and struggle and only the most dedicated commissar can believe that it is somehow at an end.


Noam Chomsky is a real cool guy. You should read more of his works. And if you see him, tell him we love him.