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Taking the Risk Out of Democracy:
Propaganda in the US and Australia
By Alex Carey
Edited by Andrew Lohrey
UNSW Press, 1995, $19.95
ISBN 0 8640 358 X
Reviewed by Linda Kaucher
Do you remember a time when our culture had other values besides economic rationalism ?
Do you remember when workers generally believed that unions were on their side, defending them against exploitation?
Things changed. Unions came to be seen often as coercive forces, operating against workers' interests. Any social values not based on corporatism and economic rationalism became marginalised, and difficult to support. The "collapse" of communism in the Eastern Bloc was, in the eyes of the economic rationalists in the West, proof that there was no alternative to unrestrained capitalism.
So how did this cultural change happen?
Taking The Risk Out Of Democracy attempts to show how Australian corporate propaganda has deliberately created this cultural change over the past 20 years in Australia, and how this is a flow-on from the free-enterprise propaganda that has shaped US society this century.
Noam Chomsky wrote the foreword to this collection of essays, published after the death of the author, Alex Carey. When Chomsky launched the book on his recent visit to Australia, he acknowledged both the groundbreaking nature of Carey's work and how much it had influenced his own work.
In these essays, Carey traces the history of corporate propaganda from the early years of this century, when it was formulated in the USA as a reaction to the growing strength of the International Workers of the World organisation (IWW). He describes the part that McCarthyism played in creating a free-enterprise culture, and how propaganda techniques used in the USA have been taken up so strongly and effectively in Australia over the past two decades.
Using the terms "grassroots and treetops propaganda" he defines the different levels on which public opinion manipulation operates.
The purpose of what he has called "grassroots propaganda" is to reach "as vast a number of people as possible in order to change public opinion so that it is sympathetic to business interests". This includes: discrediting unions, diverting worker's attention from pay and working conditions by introducing worker participation in low level decision making, and creating a perception of a connection between free enterprise and patriotism.
"Treetops propaganda" is aimed at "the leaders of society". "Its immediate purpose is to set the terms of debate, to determine the kinds of questions that will dominate public discussion - in a word to set the political agenda in ways that are favourable to corporate interests." It includes the activities of think tanks, which produce, promote and disseminate market oriented "policy research", the pressures placed on government to introduce legislation and on academics to produce research that suits the corporate purpose.
In the Australian context, Carey quotes Hugh Morgan, the head of Western Mining Corporation whom he calls "the noisiest of apostles for the vision of a democracy where minds are safely guided by the dominance of corporation-sponsored think tanks". Morgan has said that politicians "can only accept what is accepted in the opinion polls. So you have to change public opinion". Note Morgan's recent statements on how the Mabo decision has caused insecurity in the mining industry.
Spelling out the tactics, organisations and key people in the manipulation of public opinion, Carey reveals the patterns in a coherent form, allowing readers to recognise the forces that affect the direction of our society. Recognising and naming propaganda is a vital step in defending against it.
"The twentieth century," Carey wrote, "has been characterised by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy." Since his death in 1988, these have developed further, and some of his hopes for resistance have proved inadequate. This important book provides fundamental information for people who want to resist the tide of corporatism.