The Hidden Dissuaders and the Theft of Democracy

“Neoliberalism is everywhere and nowhere; its custodians are largely invisible.”

For those of us who were around at the time, Vance Packard’s 1957 block-buster ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ seemed a chilling sequel to Orwell’s pre-war, but more seemingly surreal, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’.

Packard’s ‘hidden persuaders’, however, already had visible and tangible substance by 1957, even though in that apparently least-threatening of familiar environments – the shop and the supermarket. For Packard was announcing the arrival of the professional psychologist and motivational researcher in the basic hum-drumming of our daily lives; flanked by the now-familiar cohorts of smooth-talking advertising and marketing devotees, evangelising this break-through in the divination of consumer wants and desires.

The Hidden Persuaders’ was an international best-seller of a book, going through 27 re-prints between 1957 and 1974, though the full significance of its 3 over-lapping readerships was (and still is) mainly missed, and so its full potential as a social and political wake-up call largely dissipated.

The first of these ‘publics’ was, of course, the shoppers and consumers themselves, first in America and then around the world; and well launched on their buying spree after the dismal deprivations of war. Many felt fascinated, intrigued and mildly flattered that their wants and hopes should be brought centre-stage in this way. They were, in fact, the innocent pioneers of ‘consumerism’ which was to become the prime agent of an assumed perpetual economic growth, fueled by induced obsolescence and profligate waste; and to provide the powerful engine of our still expanding corporatism.

A second eager public comprised, as you would expect, the happy beneficiaries of the psychology and advertising professions, between whom many lucrative corporate marriages were to be brokered and today’s continuing path to riches set.

Their ever expanding retinue of satellites has included the burgeoning of all manner of ‘advisory’ and ‘consulting’ services; the whole towering edifice perched, like Pelion-on-Ossa, on an uneasy pyramid of  agencies; and topped by the now ubiquitous ‘business-school’ (the latter to be, in due course, a special focus of our more forensic interest and attention, given their acknowledged failure to produce the high-performing, professional management cadres that were promised).

Yet it was the third ‘public’, the unexpected axis of Government and Industry, which was most fundamentally and politically impacted by Packard’s book and its 1960 sequel, ‘The Waste Makers’. We are still, in the US, UK and a fast globalising world, living with the consequences.

For, to the political devotees of the ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ turn of mind, the notion of people as ‘insatiable consumers’, their wants benignly engineered and sustained by in depth research and marketing, seemed the answer to the dream of unending economic growth and power. US President at the time, Dwight D.Eisenhower, was first in a long line of Heads of State around the world to embrace the virtue of ‘patriotic consumption’ to sustain our voracious appetites and economies; thus also setting us on our accelerating course towards climate change and planetary depredation.

The re-classification of people as consumers also, de facto, met the expansionary desires of industry and corporations themselves; though with it came less-predictable corporate consequences which soon began to activate Packard and other percipient observers – the progressive importation of social engineering and deep motivation techniques into the workplace itself. ‘Team-playing’ and ‘group-think’ became prized virtues of the day, spawning new agendas across businesses and their satellites; and progressively eroding earlier and wider affiliations of class, history and social identity.

Packard himself, and another great social commentator of the time – William H. Whyte – were soon examining more critically some of the social and political implications of his thesis. In ‘Organisation Man’ (1957) Whyte argued that a ‘rationalised conformity’ was becoming more and more a prized corporate characteristic and cited the appearance in growing numbers of ‘social engineers’ willing and able to help business managements with their personnel problems, without messy recourse to labour unions. Whyte suggested that businessmen, already deploring ‘creeping socialism’ in Washington, might well look at some of the subtle but pervasive changes going on right in their own backyard.

What was going on in that ‘backyard’ was a massive ‘de-politicisation’ of the American work-force and electorate which set it, and the subsequent workings of the US industrial economy, on a divergent path from its UK and wider European equivalents. As early as 1906, this had already led the German sociologist, Werner Sombart, to ask the question “why is there no socialism in the United States”?

We now know, perhaps surprisingly, that there indeed was, or had been, (socialism in the US) and that nearly a million Americans had cast their votes for a socialist presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, in 1912. The ‘Appeal to Reason’, a socialist newspaper, had half a million subscribers; there were two socialist members of Congress, more than a hundred socialist mayors. All this is set out in “The Age of Acquiescence: the Life and Death of American Resistance to Organised Wealth and Power” by Steve Fraser.

Sadly, however, the Fraser thesis is mainly the story of a growing political apathy and acquiescence in the USA. In a perceptive review of Fraser’s book (in the London Review of Books, July 2015) Jackson Lears succinctly describes the unprecedented psychological re-profiling of US workers, unions and the corporate establishment which has produced the current social impasse and malaise…

“The Second World War and the Cold War completed the assimilation of US unions by creating an atmosphere of permanent emergency that normalised conformity and cleansed public language of any words that exuded even a faint aroma of Marxism – ‘class struggle’, ‘exploitation’, ‘plutocracy’, ‘ruling class’ and the like…

…During the 1970s, as competition from reconstructed post-war economies brought a decline in the corporate rate of profit, American capital began its migration from industry to finance. Sacking workers became the surest way to inflate stock prices.. As austerity became the cure for stagflation, weaker unions became the prescription for greater competitiveness.

…The ruling class, meanwhile, had redefined itself as ‘the successful’ – a meritocracy that deserves to lead”.

Such semantic manipulation has always been a favoured tool of neoliberal mythology and there will be much more to be said on the significance of this as our narrative unfolds. For the moment, the most relevant of Lear’s insights into neo-liberal rhetoric is the way their naturalistic-sounding concept of ‘market forces’ has, in reality, been successful camouflage for a mind-blowing growth in the processes of government-corporate collaboration; both inside and outside the visible formalities of democratic control.

“The whippets of Wall Street whined for (and received) bailouts when their buccaneering schemes collapsed; the wizards of Silicon Valley overlook their debt to decades of government research and funding. Neoliberal strategies of global capital, far from rejecting the state, are dependent on a network of property laws, trade treaties, and quasi-government institutions (the IMF, the World Bank)…

There is no common culture of resistance to concentrated wealth in America. It disappeared three-quarters of a century ago. It had flowed from pre-capitalist traditions—republican, populist and Christian–that combined to promote a sense of commonweal, of public good, that transcended private gain. Now that sense is nearly gone from political life.”

The well-informed and argued Fraser / Lears’ analysis gives a relatively down-beat assessment of expectations for change in the US anytime soon. That 93 million eligible Americans should have failed even to cast their vote in the 2012 Presidential election seems to point in the same direction. And what do we make more recently of a UK electorate which, after 5 years of unremitting austerity and pain, rewarded their conservative tormentors with five more years in power? How could this be, after the long, and supposedly successful, battles of our fore-bears for the vote? Or has neo-liberalism captured our hearts and minds?

That is why, against tradition, I have chosen to start this narrative in 1957, with ‘The Hidden Persuaders’. For this was the seminal era when the twin ideologies of ‘markets rule’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ first met and thought to bond; and the related subversions of language, on which the they depend, emerged as seemingly perfect prototypes for Marshall McCluhan’s then visionary ‘the Medium is the Message!’ And since I have also learned that creative insight often comes best when the familiar is re-examined from the less familiar angle of vision, I was happy to find the direction of my intent foreshadowed in Jackson Lear’s chilling but evocative assertion:-

“Neoliberalism is everywhere and nowhere; its custodians are largely invisible“

The plan is to throw some missing but necessary light on aspects of this covert omnipresence; and, as the narrative develops, explore some more effective ways of neutralising its pernicious doctrine.

Next Time: “The Beatification of Homo Economicus”

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The Hidden Dissuaders: Preamble