Propaganda: Edward Bernays

Edward Louis Bernays was an Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations”. He was born 122 years ago, on November 22, 1891, in Vienna, Austria. He died on March 9, 1995, in Cambridge, Mass. His most famous book was probably Propaganda, first published in 1928. It can be accessed online as a PDF here. The opening of the book appears below:


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 an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes fomed, 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.

“Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.”

Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.

They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take 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 hundred and twenty million—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.

It is not usually realized how necessary these invisible governors are to the orderly functioning of our group life. In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases. Our Constitution does not envisage political parties as part of the mechanism of government, and its framers seem not to have pictured to themselves the existence in our national politics of anything like the modern political ma- chine. But the American voters soon found that without organization and direction their individual votes, cast, perhaps, for dozens or hundreds of candidates, would produce nothing but confusion. Invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice to two candidates, or at most three or four.

In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions. From our leaders and the media they use to reach the public, we accept the evidence and the demarcation of issues bearing upon public questions; from some ethical teacher, be it a minister, a favorite essayist, or merely prevailing opinion, we accept a standardized code of social conduct to which we conform most of the time.

In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if every one went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.

It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.

Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized—the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.

As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.

With the printing press and the newspaper, the railroad, the telephone, telegraph, radio and air- planes, ideas can be spread rapidly and even instantaneously over the whole of America.

H. G. Wells senses the vast potentialities of these inventions when he writes in the New York Times:

“Modern means of communication—the power afforded by print, telephone, wireless and so forth, of rapidly putting through directive strategic or technical conceptions to a great number of cooperating centers, of getting quick replies and effective discussion—have opened up a new world of political processes. Ideas and phrases can now be given an effectiveness greater than the effectiveness of any personality and stronger than any sectional interest. The common design can be documented and sustained against perversion and betrayal. It can be elaborated and developed steadily and widely without personal, local and sectional misunderstanding.”

What Mr. Wells says of political processes is equally true of commercial and social processes and all manifestations of mass activity. The groupings and affiliations of society to-day are no longer subject to “local and sectional” limitations. When the Constitution was adopted, the unit of organization was the village community, which produced the greater part of its own necessary commodities and generated its group ideas and opinions by personal contact and discussion directly among its citizens. But to-day, because ideas can be instantaneously transmitted to any distance and to any number of people, this geo- graphical integration has been supplemented by many other kinds of grouping, so that persons having the same ideas and interests may be associated and regimented for common action even though they live thousands of miles apart.

It is extremely difficult to realize how many and diverse are these cleavages in our society. They may be social, political, economic, racial, religious or ethical, with hundreds of subdivisions of each…

[The rest of the book may be accessed online as a PDF here]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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32 Comments on "Propaganda: Edward Bernays"

  1. Liam_McGonagle | Nov 22, 2013 at 9:55 am |

    “He died on March 9, 1995, in Cambridge, Mass.”

    So they would like us to believe.

  2. Chaos_Dynamics | Nov 22, 2013 at 10:12 am |

    Happy Birthday Edward.

    May the worms of paranoia dance eternally upon your brow.

  3. Ted Heistman | Nov 22, 2013 at 10:32 am |

    Are you into numerology Majestic? 22 is the number of the “master builder”

  4. BuzzCoastin | Nov 22, 2013 at 11:07 am |

    ”We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government…”

    I never agreed to that

    • Rhoid Rager | Nov 22, 2013 at 6:47 pm |

      Welcome back. Go off on holiday somewhere for a few weeks?

      • BuzzCoastin | Nov 23, 2013 at 11:05 am |

        am now in Hawaii developming an 8 acre prop into a permaculture paradise which now takes up most of my time

        • Chaos_Dynamics | Nov 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm |


          Please apply Edward’s dancing worms to permeate the permascape as appropriate.


          • BuzzCoastin | Nov 23, 2013 at 7:40 pm |

            if you knew something about permaculture
            you would not be so easily effected by propoganda
            nor be such a twit

        • Rhoid Rager | Nov 23, 2013 at 4:09 pm |

          Back in Der Homeland? Excellent. Good luck to you with the permaculture, too.

          • BuzzCoastin | Nov 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm |

            I’m in the Kingdom of Hawaii
            another Homeland occupied country

          • Rhoid Rager | Nov 24, 2013 at 6:15 am |

            Japan is occupied as well–by proxy with the main archipelago, with secondary military bases in Yokohama and what not. But Okinawa is probably one of the few cases that is ruled like a Russian troika doll–the kingdom of Okinawa ruled by the Japanese ruled by the Americans.

            Enjoy your paradise!

    • Welcome back indeed. You may be my favorite Disinfo poster. Cheers to your return.

      I somewhat disagree that you never agreed to allow an “invisible government” to (fill in the blank).

      I think we all can’t help but have agreed to it…initially. We were born into a system we had no choice over; a system that we simply must acquiesce to if we wish to live even a moderately happy and secure life. We’ve all given up certain liberties and turned a blind eye to certain moral dilemmas necessary to continue our cherished way of life. To truly and completely reject the invisible hand that guides our life choices would be an almost full-time job. Most of us simply cannot fathom becoming truly autonomous, however much we might desire it.

      Hopefully though, through the world’s first truly open and democratic forum…the internet, people will start questioning whether the price we pay for our way of life is worth it. Or…more importantly…if our beloved “way of life” is even worth having.

      I used to be quite into conspiracy theories. 9/11 was the big one. Over time, I’ve lessened my conspiracy fervor. I’ve still got questions and I’m not sure what to believe on certain issues. While I used to be almost evangelical in the certainty of many conspiracy theories, lately I’ve come to take an agnostic stance on…damn near everything. Sort of a Robert Anton Wilson-ish rejection of certainty altogether.

      But……the one conspiracy theory I still think is absolutely true is the one that is basically the entire thesis of Edward Bernays’ essay above. It’s not only the most all-encompassing and pervasive of any conspiracy theory, but it’s also the most simple and obvious. SO simple and obvious that it’s almost impossible for the uninitiated to even notice it. That conspiracy theory is simply this: The “elite” few who control 99% of the world’s reserves of Wealth and Power spend all of their time and energy engineering society, culture, government, economics, and religion to make sure nothing changes…and to make sure we the people cheerily help them take advantage of us.

      It really is that simple. Wealthy Powerful People desire the security of what they already have, a hunger for more of the same, and a fear that their house of cards will be blown down if too many of us catch on to their game.
      Who could possibly argue this isn’t the hand humanity has been dealt? It’s probably the one Conspiracy everyone can agree on, once people have been educated on a few key facts of course.

      “The bigger the lie, the easier it is for the people to believe.”
      That’s often attributed to Hitler. I’m not sure if it really was from him…though it seems logical.
      That quote has almost become a cliche…but it really hits the nail on the head. All the 9/11, JFK, and Roswell conspiracies have NOTHING on the one conspiracy that is in plain sight. Those minor conspiracies are fun at best and disturbing at worst. But the genuine conspiracy is the one that literally colors in our semantic map of the world for us, unbeknownst to us.

      It’s kind of sad that an essay written almost 100 years ago still sounds entirely relevant today. However, I think our one saving grace is the internet…and that’s why ANY law that seeks to restrict the internet in ANY way is quite literally the most important civil rights issue of our time. Without uninhibited open global communication we’re doomed. With it, and I think the tide will turn. I think it IS turning. Everyone I talk to agrees. It’s odd…just 10 years ago these sort of revolutionary discussions and thought experiments were barely brought up. If they were, it was science fiction at best. But these days, everyone I talk to…in line at the store, drinking coffee at a cafe, on a message board…everyone is starting to notice it: We’re waking up. It’s actually happening….and fast!

      I think it’s only a matter of time till Bernays’ essay is read not with a sense of contemporary relevance, but with a sense of astonishment and horror…the same way we read of the Medieval Catholic Inquisition today.

      • BuzzCoastin | Nov 24, 2013 at 7:28 pm |

        acquired conditioning is nothing new
        Bernay simply pointed out the obvios
        and suggested modern methods of exploitation

        the idea that wee need government
        is based on acquired conditioning
        not your pefsonal experience

        • Tell me more about my personal experience.

          • BuzzCoastin | Nov 25, 2013 at 12:27 pm |

            quite possibly you need government
            but in my entire life
            I have never needed government
            except to protect me from government

            I have never needed Uncle Homeland
            but he desperately needs
            my money, my time, my submission

          • Eric_D_Read | Nov 26, 2013 at 12:01 am |

            That sounds like something Ayn Rand would say.

          • Jin The Ninja | Nov 26, 2013 at 5:56 am |

            actually it’s quite a bit more emma goldman. ayn rand would slavishly praise ‘the market’ and sociopathy.

          • Eric_D_Read | Nov 26, 2013 at 12:00 pm |

            She’d definitely say that as well. But from what writings of hers I was ever able to trudge through, the government was always what stood in the way of those heroic free market sociopaths.

          • it also sounds like something Stanhop & Hicks would say
            or something any reflective human would say

  5. Lookinfor Buford | Nov 22, 2013 at 1:12 pm |

    Present day Media has twisted and abused this power to the point they now wield it in order to create divisiveness and profit greatly from it. Perhaps we should tone down the ‘voluntary agreement’.

  6. Thank you for posting this and the accompanying pdf. Readers should also realize Edward Bernays is the reason you’ve all been dosed with fluoride throughout your lives. Rest in Hell Eddie!

  7. Craig Bickford | Nov 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm |

    Same day as our most under celebrated holiday, national Presidential head Wound day, coincidence? I think not.

  8. DeepCough | Nov 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm |

    Joseph Goebells (the chief propagandist of the National Socialist party in Germany during the 20th century) was a big fan of Edward Bernays (who was Jewish, by the way).

    • That is why the political tactics and strategy that got Hitler into office are considered the first “modern” political campaign.

      • DeepCough | Nov 24, 2013 at 10:47 am |

        And that’s why I say “Nazism” was more of fashion statement in Germany, whereas here in the United States, it was (still is) a way of life.

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