100 years isn’t so very long. Anyone past the age of 30 knows how fast a decade goes past, and it’s only 10 of those. Yet it is long enough to replace the entire population of Earth barring a few centenarians. The oldest verified lifespan ever, Jeanne Calment (1875-1997), was 122, so let’s allow 130 years to eliminate every last straggler; claims for higher ages crop up, but so far have been unconvincing. The movers and shakers of the culture turn over much more frequently than that – for most practical purposes 50 years, but 80 at a stretch since not many people accomplish anything beyond their own education much before age 20 or beyond their own survival much after 90. True, there are exceptional child and teen prodigies as well as nonagenarian overachievers (e.g. Henry Kissinger), but there is a vanishingly small chance of the same person being both.
The musings of 80 years ago or 100 years ago – once again, not so far back – are often a curious mix of the still relevant and the obsolete, but the still relevant most commonly dominates. The modern industrial economy was well-established a century ago as were the general cultural and intellectual trends that continue to this day. Watching a movie from the ‘10s, ‘20s, and (especially) ‘30s, one is struck by how easily one could step into that world. However, there is a difference in tone that pervades works of the era. It is very evident in two books I read earlier this week, both originally from 1928: The Open Conspiracy by HG Wells, and the classic Propaganda by Edward Bernays. Both are notably more honest than books with similar themes today.
Starting with the title, it is hard to imagine a book better designed to confirm the worst fears of conspiracy theorists than The Open Conspiracy. “See, I told you so!” will be their inevitable shout. Yet, the book needs to be seen in context. World War I had been such a colossal calamity that it convinced many people including HG that the world could not go on as before with its old national and religious rivalries. Without a new social order, the ongoing advance in the science and technology of war threatened civilization itself. All the while, that same science and tech held a potential for a new egalitarian prosperity. It’s hard to fault HG’s assessment of the situation. It is his response that many will find problematical.
HG sees the solution in the evolution of a broadly socialist global governance and New World Order. This won’t be doctrinaire Marxism, which is so 19th century, “But as soon as the Socialist or Communist can be got to realize that his repudiation of private monopolization is not a complete programme but just a preliminary principle, he is ripe for the ampler concepts of the modern outlook.” HG foresees governance and economic organization on a scientific basis, run by the minority of enlightened folk with the capacity for such governance. “It [the Open Conspiracy] does not want to destroy existing controls but either to supersede or amalgamate them into a common world directorate.” The duties of these future social-scientist/directors will include eugenics, an intellectual fad in Wells’ day: “There is a clear hope that, later, directed breeding will come within his scope,” he tells us. The primary strategy of the Open Conspiracy is to spread the mores and values consistent with this new society through education, re-education, and persuasion; change in the correct direction necessarily will follow. Whether one finds HG’s Conspiracy appealing or appalling, it is at least…well…Open.
It is no surprise that Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) quotes HG Wells at one point in his classic book Propaganda, which describes the tools that every persuader and re-educator needs. Bernays doesn’t use the term “propaganda” in its common pejorative sense, but in its technical neutral sense, independent of whether the propagated information is true, false, helpful, or harmful. He had plenty of first-hand experience with propaganda in his work for governments and businesses, making especial use of what we nowadays would call “cool by association.” For example, he organized Torch of Liberty Brigade marches that helped popularize cigarettes among women by associating them with suffragists. He pioneered the modern PR news release, framing releases so news media would treat advertising as legitimate news. He saw the possibilities of new media and of inherent messages in them: “The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today.” He was well aware that truth wasn’t a central tenet of the toolkit: “But even supposing a certain propaganda is untrue or dishonest, we cannot on that account reject the methods of propaganda as such.” Bernays had no qualms about any of it. On the contrary. He saw the work of the few manipulating the many as essential and beneficial:
“Those who manipulate the 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.”
Of course, where a free (or relatively free) press exists, propaganda comes from opposing directions. This can disrupt that smoothly functioning society. He recognizes this too, but concludes nonetheless, “Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help bring order out of chaos.”
Maybe so, but one issue Bernays does not address is the risk of propagandists being taken in by their own propaganda, an all too common eventuality with dire consequences in his own day and serious ones in our own. A nephew of Sig should have recognized the danger. Perhaps he did, but for reasons of “spin” passed over it.
Overall, both books are stunningly candid. Whatever one thinks of their messages, that was and is their value.
The Offspring: Conspiracy of One