It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hasn’t it? A Pfizer executive admitted under oath that all those claims that the Covid vaccine would protect you from catching Covid had no data at all backing them. Inevitably, corporate media flacks are now insisting at the top of their lungs, in the teeth of ample evidence, that nobody ever made the claims in question. Ukrainian agents used a truck bomb to damage the bridge that links Crimea to Russia; Russia, which has supposedly been running out of missiles since about a week since their forces invaded Ukraine, responded by sending a flurry of the missiles they aren’t supposed to have any more to blow up another round of Ukrainian targets, focusing on the energy and transport facilities the Ukrainians are going to need to face the massive winter offensive Russia is all too clearly preparing.
The rate of inflation here in the US has reached levels not seen since Jimmy Carter’s day, while the economy in the US and globally is reeling in ways that normally signal a serious recession on the way. The mix of inflation and recession is called “stagflation,” for those of you who don’t remember the Seventies, and it’s no fun. The prices of fossil fuels are swinging all over the place, up because supplies are dwindling, down because a failing economy means that fewer people will be able to afford to burn them. Oh, and Greta Thunberg has come out in favor of nuclear power, because it’s less ecologically damaging than burning coal. (As you’d expect from a child of privilege, the one thing she can’t possibly imagine is getting by with a lot less.)
There’s plenty that can be said about any of these things. Just now, though, I want to focus on something a little different. The events that fill newspaper websites and give media pundits raw material for their gyrations don’t happen out of the blue, for no reason at all. They are the results of cascading chains of cause and effect that ultimately reach back into the tangled recesses of collective thought. It’s been pointed out, and truly, that politics is downstream from culture; it needs to be remembered in turn that culture is downstream from imagination. The shapes that fill today’s daydreams and nightmares are anything but irrelevant to the future. They will presently become cultural icons, and thereafter make their way into the political sphere.
This is why it’s worth paying close attention to the way that so many people in the comfortable classes are now insisting at the top of their lungs, in remarkably shrill tones, that nobody ought to do their own research or think for themselves. Social media in recent weeks has been full of that theme. Mention that you’re looking into something yourself or making up your own mind, rather than believing whatever tripe the fashionable pundits approved by the corporate media want you to believe, and you can be sure to field a flurry of denunciations in tones ranging from clumsy mockery to saliva-flecked rage.
This is new. Not long ago it was still fashionable to give lip service to thinking for yourself and doing your own research, even though the unstated rule was that if you did so you had to come up with the same results as the talking heads on corporate media. No doubt many of my readers recall how a few years back, asking a woke activist for evidence for their claims would get the instant response, “It’s not my job to educate you! You need to go educate yourself.” Go back a few more decades and you’ll find pundits insisting in smug tones that liberal democracy was superior to all other systems because it thrives on free inquiry and the clash of competing ideas.
So how did we get, in rather less than half a century, from liberal pundits preening themselves over the open society to their present-day equivalents demanding blind faith in the dogmatic utterances of officially approved experts? That’s a complex story, and we can begin it with a famous BBC documentary titled The Century of the Self, which originally aired in 2002.
The Century of the Self focused on one of the more interesting offshoots of the psychological revolution of the early twentieth century. That revolution, as most of my readers probably know, was kickstarted at the beginning of the century by the Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, who became convinced that the widespread psychoneurotic diseases that plagued middle- and upper-class women in the European society of his time were caused by repressed sexual desire. He was almost certainly right about that, and the proof is in the results: most of the illnesses in question became vanishingly rare just as soon as it became possible for people in the comfortable classes of the time to admit to themselves that sexual desire is normal.
Freud went on to construct a system of psychotherapy and a model of the human mind that took sexual libido as the driving force behind all human desire and activity. As Victorian prudery went out of style, Freud’s ideas became wildly fashionable across the industrial world. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays took these ideas and put them to work in the field of advertising, more or less inventing modern public relations in the process. Bernays believed that most human beings are incapable of independent thought and will inevitably believe whatever they’re told, provided that the tellers use Freudian lures to sink hooks into the psyches of their audience. That became a popular view among the educated classes, and found its way into plenty of books—Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, published in 1957, was one that hit the bestseller lists.
Did Bernays’ methods work? That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. Bernays insisted in his books and press releases that psychologically based publicity was omnipotent, but then he was always his most important marketing project. A vain, arrogant, self-important man, he was notorious for trumpeting his successes and covering up his failures. (That habit has been taken up by his many present-day admirers. You can read any number of essays about the self-proclaimed “Father of Public Relations” without seeing any mention, for example, of the fact that he worked for Herbert Hoover’s failed reelection campaign in 1932.) Certainly advertising has some effect in some cases, but the claim that human minds are putty in the hands of a well-funded publicity campaign simply can’t be justified by the results.
If Bernays was right, after all, Hillary Clinton would be well into her second term as president of the United States. If Bernays was right, audiences would have flocked to movie theaters to see Morbius and loved it, and the same would be true of any number of other abysmal Hollywood flops of recent years. If Bernays was right, for that matter, no government anywhere would have had to bother with mandates for the Covid jabs so massively marketed over the last two years: the publicity would have been rolled out, the crowds would have lined up, and they would still be lining up eagerly for their fifth booster as I write this.
The curious thing about The Century of the Self is that its producers and writers never let themselves notice this. The documentary took Bernays’s claims about the power of public relations at face value. It didn’t talk about Bernays’s many failures, or the even more abundant failures of public relations since his time; it didn’t consider the possibility that Bernays’s writings were not much more than sales pitches for the services he was offering at a hefty hourly rate to corporate clients. It also never got around to mentioning that the Freudian theory on which Bernays based his approach to public relations crashed and burned decades ago.
The implosion of Freudian psychology is one of the most remarkable events in recent intellectual history, and one of the least discussed outside the psychological literature. The problem faced by Freud’s disciples and their students was that his methods were very effective against the specific set of psychoneurotic conditions that he faced in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and basically didn’t work with anything else. Study after study has shown that Freudian psychotherapy provides no detectable benefit to the great majority of patients. Nor has Freudian theory stood up any better; Freud’s fixation on sexuality made sense in the backwash of the Victorian era, when a century of frantic sexual repression left middle- and upper-class society filled with the walking wounded, but it simply doesn’t work now that most people are calmer and more realistic about their sexual desires—whether or not they choose to do anything about them.
Rather than being taken at face value, The Century of the Self needs to be recognized as a product of its own era, a reflection of the attitutes and emotional needs among the managerial classes at the time it was produced and shown. By 2002 those who paid attention could no longer ignore the hard fact that something had gone dreadfully wrong with the grand project of endless material progress on which the industrial world had staked its survival in the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution of 1978-1980. The architects of that counterrevolution insisted that the energy and resource crises of the 1970s had been purely a matter of failed economic policies; by 2002, rising prices and declining discoveries of oil and natural gas made it painfully clear that there was much more involved, and that the deeper causes could not be fixed by throwing more money at the already rich.
The Anglo-American attempt to seize and exploit Iraq’s oil wealth in the Second Gulf War was one consequence of that realization. There were many other consequences, and one of them was an increasing (and entirely justified) nervousness on the part of elites and managerial classes alike about their ability to keep the masses in line. By 2002, decades of impoverishment, immiseration, and malign neglect inflicted on the poor and the working classes were already bearing fruit: the masses were becoming hostile and suspicious toward their supposed betters. To those who were paying attention, again, it was becoming painfully clear that this could get much worse, and potentially imperil the survival of the elites and their managerial hangers-on.
The Century of the Self was thus an exercise in organized reassurance. Documentaries don’t appear on the BBC if they fail to uphold the values and agendas of the Anglo-American polticial class, and most people don’t watch highbrow BBC documentaries. Those who do watch them are disproportionately from the upper twenty per cent or so of the social structure. The Century of the Self was aimed by, for, and at that audience, and doubtless helped many of them sleep better at night, lulling themselves into sweet dreams with the comforting thought that the propaganda of the corporate-bureaucratic state would surely keep the masses docile and obedient.
It was far from the only such exercise. I wonder how many people have noticed the way that entertainment pushed by the corporate media has helped foster modern conspiracy culture, by flooding the collective imagination with conspiracy-themed movies, games, and novels? Like The Century of the Self, these all served the purpose of trying to convince people that the corporate-bureaucratic state was run by invulnerable, omnipotent masterminds who planned out in advance everything that happened in the world. That’s a very common habit of ruling classes on the way down. (Do you recall all those old science fiction movie villains who inevitably screamed “No! This cannot be! I am invincible!” a few seconds before being reduced to a rapidly expanding puff of vapor? The equivalent is surprisingly common in real life.)
Of course it didn’t work. The defeat of the officially approved alternatives in the Brexit vote and the US presidential election in 2016 are obvious markers here, but there are plenty of others. Here in the US, for example, it’s interesting to watch the way that Covid vaccination rates have dropped steadily over time. Something like 70% of Americans got the first round of shots (officially; my guess is it’s closer to 50%, and the rest made use of the lively market for forged vaccination certificates), but that figure has dropped steadily with each round of boosters. The current multivalent booster, despite nonstop propaganda all through the corporate media, hasn’t yet been taken by 5% of the adult population.
The accelerating failure of Covid vaccination in the US has of course been treated by true believers as proof of the irremediable stupidity of the American people. It is nothing of the kind. Most people by now have noticed that the Covid vaccines available in this country don’t keep you from catching Covid or transmitting it to others, as an army of authority figures from Joe Biden on down insisted they would. They’ve noticed that the rate of harmful or fatal side effects from those same vaccines are a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the rate from all other commonly administered vaccines put together. They’ve noticed that it’s not the unvaccinated, by and large, who are getting hit by Covid three and four and five times in a row or facing a sudden unexplained collapse in health. They’ve also noticed, some of them, that heavily vaccinated countries have unexplained increases in crude death rates that mostly unvaccinated countries do not. And of course they’ve noticed that every time the party line about Covid pivots, as it does so often, the thought police of social media (aka “fact checkers”) instantly claim that the authorities never said what, in fact, it can be easily documented that they said.
That is to say, most people in this country understand that the authorities are lying to them.
I notice, for example, a recent NBC poll that found that only 9% of American voters think that climate change is an important issue. Global warming-themed propaganda backed up with outright censorship of opposing views has been the order of the day for years now, but that hasn’t convinced anybody—quite the contrary, the number of people who take anthropogenic climate change seriously has gone down as the propaganda has ramped up. Why? Because it’s become painfully clear to everyone that the corporate green agenda is riddled with hypocrisy and graft. All those claims of imminent apocalypse that turned out to be wrong, not to mention all those earnest lectures from celebrities whose lifestyles parade their utter disregard for the eco-pieties they recite, did a fine job of canceling out decades of propaganda about global warming.
There’s a sharp irony in the collapse in public support for the global warming narrative, because anthropogenic climate change is of course a reality; it’s a much slower, more complex, and more nuanced process than politicians and their media shills want to admit, but it’s real. The bitter droughts sinking their claws into western North America and southern Europe right now and the torrential rains that flooded Pakistan earlier this year are testimony to that reality, but so are the warmer temperatures and wetter weather that are giving Russia a record wheat crop just now, and the freighters sailing from East Asia to Europe through Arctic waters that were thick with ice not that many decades ago. The same shifts in climate belts that are turning Lake Mead into a mud flat are turning the Australian Outback green.
Climate change is a constant reality in the long history of this planet: that’s one of the things you’re not supposed to think about. The current round of climate change has winners as well as losers: that’s another. The increasingly strident attempts to bully people into believing what they’re told, when what they’re told is all too often an obvious pack of lies, has had the usual effect of such maneuvers: more and more people assume as a matter of course that the authorities are lying to them, even when (as does happen sometimes) the authorities happen to be telling some approximation of the truth.
The frantic demand that people stop thinking for themselves or doing their own research is thus the endpoint of a long slow process and the beginning of a far more dramatic one. It’s something that should be familiar to anyone who remembers the last days of the Soviet Union. In the decades leading up to the sudden collapse of 1991, most Soviet citizens finally recognized the hard facts that the grand promises of Marxism were never going to be kept, that Communism was an abject failure as an economic system, and that the apparatchiks who insisted that everything was fine and the capitalist countries would surely succumb to proletarian revolution any day now were mouthing phrases that not even they believed any more.
That had immense political consequences. The collective enthusiasm that allowed the Soviet Union to build an industrial economy from the ground up in record time, crush Nazi Germany, and lead the world into space gave way to the savage mockery of Zinoviev’s The Yawning Heights and the icy calm of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Then the Soviet Union faced its final crisis, and the great-grandchildren of the people who rushed to the barricades to overthrow the Tsar, and the grandchildren of the people who endured tremendous privation to defeat Hitler, shrugged and let the whole thing come crashing to the ground.
We are far closer to such scenes here in the United States than most Americans realize. For that matter, our European client states may be much closer to a repetition of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact states in 1989 than most Europeans realize. Again, politics may be downstream from culture, but culture is downstream from imagination. Now that the corporate-bureaucratic system has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the public, and the parade of officially approved experts marching past the cameras of the mass media has become a clown show earning more guffaws than genuflections, the unraveling of the current state of political affairs is coming closer by the day. It’s simply a matter of when the system runs into a crisis it can’t meet without the help of the people, and the self-anointed masters of the world discover to their horror that the help in question will not be forthcoming.
How soon will that happen? In the nature of things, that’s impossible to know in advance. One thing that interests me is that a great many people seem to grasp this, at least on an intuitive level. The increasing contempt for government and corporate flacks and their abject dishonesties isn’t expressing itself in a rush to the barricades or the kind of violent outbursts so many people have expected. Instead, people are hunkering down, cutting their losses, ignoring the increasingly hysterical demands coming from government and corporate sources, and waiting. My guess is that they’re waiting for the fall of the current system—and it’s by no means certain that they will have to wait all that long.