To the rulers of America, people are valued solely as consumers: People who buy their products are, by definition, “good,” while those who can’t amount to little more than what the Nazis called “useless eaters.”
Any interests corporations have in the otherwise non-consuming poor arise from their ability to capitalize on government programs providing them with goods and services.
In California, for example, courts have upheld the demand that corporate officers and directors act in the interests of their investors—their share values and dividends—right up until the moment they file for bankruptcy, at which point a state appellate court has ruled that the and only then do they also assume responsibility for the corporation’s debtors. In Delaware, conversely, even bankruptcy doesn’t end the prime directive of looking out for Number One. California spells out its duties in law, in the form of the state Corporation Code while Delaware, the incorporation capital of the country, uses Common Law, the unwritten but court affirmed doctrines of English Common Law brought over by colonists before the revolution.
Whether created by common law or legislative statute, the corporation has become the dominant institution of the age, a multinational entity with no loyalty to anything other than the bottom line. Governed by the ethos of the psychopath [the term shrinks now use instead of sociopath], the corporation will relentlessly endeavor to offload all possible operational costs onto the physical, biological and human environments, where they are reckoned as “externalities” to the corporate ledger.
The only constraints on the psychopathic corporate zeal for profit are those imposed by statutes, regulations, and the civil and criminal courts,
protections severely eroded by decades of neoliberalism and regulations, a development made more insidious by the ceding of national sovereignty to the increasingly opaque institutions of international finance.
But what, you may ask, does this have to do with atomization of the self?
From citizen to consumer
The transformation of American self-identity from a citizen-based model to a corporate corporate consumer has profound implications. Had any group of corporateers announced to the nation in the 19th Century that their intent was to seize the public commons for private ends, to sow the soil with deadly toxins, the entrap the masses into debt servitude, and to strip the working class of any protections granted then or in the future, the nation would’ve witnessed a massive and probably bloody rebellion.
Nonetheless, that’s exactly what happened. Our identities have been transmuted by an inexorable process. By 1928, Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and the founder of modern corporate public relations was able to declare in his seminal book Propaganda (How The Media Molds Your Mind) :
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. In almost every act of our 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 who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.
Quite simply, the Post Modern American has become the most thoroughly manipulated person in history. And here consider the origins of ITAL person ITAL in the Latin persona, which refers to the masks worn by actors. Psychology has adopted the word to mean the “public face” the individual presents to the world, while in literature it refers to the scripted character.
The aim of Bernays’s puppet-masters is nothing less that seizing control of the persona, the individual’s presentation of self to the world. Just as ranchers with their cattle, corporations seek to round up and brand every stray head of humanity.
And they are willing to kill to insure their profits, and Bernays was there to help. Consider this from The Museum of Public Relations:
George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company and an eccentric businessman, recognized that an important part of his market was not being tapped into. Hill believed that cigarette sales would soar if he could entice more women to smoke in public.
In 1928 Hill hired Bernays to expand the sales of his Lucky Strike cigarettes. Recognizing that women were still riding high on the suffrage movement, Bernays used this as the basis for his new campaign. He consulted Dr. A.A. Brill, a psychoanalyst, to find the psychological basis for womens smoking. Dr. Brill determined that cigarettes which were usually equated with men, represented torches of freedom for women. The event caused a national stir and stories appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Though not doing away with the taboo completely, Bernays’s efforts had a lasting effect on women smoking.
His hook? Cigarettes in his campaign were transformed from smelly, unhealthy fire hazards into “torches of freedom.” As another lung cancer-pusher later advertised, “You’ve come a long way baby.”
As media critic Neal Gabler wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay shortly after the death of Uncle Siggy’s nephew in 1995:
Indeed, in Bernays’s opinion, these P.R. men were the ‘true ruling power of our country.’
Here Bernays may very well have been right. Before Bernays and fellow P.R. consultants like Ivy Lee and Ben Sonnenberg came on the scene, a reader might have assumed that what he read in the daily newspaper was harvested by reporters steeped in the faith of objectivity. After Bernays, whether the reader realized it or not, information had been commodified. The historian Daniel Boorstin later coined the term ‘pseudo-events’ to describe the sorts of subterfuges the P.R. fraternity devised — events like the Green Ball [a dance themed on the Lucky Strike Green brand logo—esnl], which seemed authentic but were staged for some ulterior purpose.
It was an apt word, but it perhaps failed to convey how thoroughly public relations had transfigured the relationship between reality and its commercial facsimile. By the time the P.R. men were done, it was often impossible to tell the real from the bogus, information from misinformation, an actual event from a sponsored one. In short, Bernays helped erect a hall of mirrors that changed the nature of reality itself.
And those mirrors are the mass media—billboards, logos, earworms, icons, broadcasts, even scents—which bombard us from the moment we arise to the hazy seconds when we slip into slumber.
Their messages, endlessly reinforced, redefine us by linking our very identities with the products they pitch.
The Century of the Self
In 2002, Adam Curtis produced a four-part series for BBC called The Century of the Self, illuminating the subversive impacts of Bernays, his uncle, and their descendants on contemporary culture.
No other documentary is as revealing of how we came to this impasse. Here tis:
The Century of the Self, Part 1
The Century of the Self, Part 2
The Century of the Self, Part 3
The Century of the Self, Part 4