The Century of Spin

In the formative days of public relations, elites imagined a “guided democracy”

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Last June, Atul Gawande began his commencement speech at U.C.L.A. Medical School with a warning: “Graduates, wherever you go from here, and whatever you do, you will be tested. And the test will be about your ability to hold onto your principles.” Gawande is, of course, a revered fount of life wisdom for matriculating graduates and adults alike; he’s not merely a widely respected surgeon, medical researcher, and Harvard professor but also the author of four New York Times best-selling books, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and amasser of more than 271,000 Twitter followers. He is an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, a vigorous defender of the Affordable Care Act, and has been a permanent fixture on cable news punditry roundtables over the last decade or so. “This is a radical idea,” Gawande explained at U.C.L.A., “one ultimately inscribed in our nation’s founding documents: we are all created equal and should be respected as such. . . . We in medicine do not always live up to that principle. History has been about the struggle to close the gap between the aspiration and the reality.”

Nineteen days later, Amazon announced that it would name Gawande CEO of its as-yet-unnamed (and highly secretive) joint health care and research venture with JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway. As the press releases poured in and Silicon Valley and stock market gossip sites cheered on the hire, Gawande’s publicist booked him for a series of high-profile appearances on the thought-leader circuit. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, just three days after the announcement, Gawande offered a diagnosis for universal health care in the age of casualized gig work:

Gig employment, independent contracting, temporary workers. That’s the world my kids are now walking into. When they get their employment, they are most likely to be in that category. That’s what life in employment is going to be like. So I think the only way we go is by having us collectively paying into a system that no matter where you’re employed, you have coverage all along the way, and that’s what I think people mean by single payer. It’s the necessary way to go. Now whether it’s . . . all Medicare that people get, even that’s confusing. . . . You can find any number of versions of systems in the United States. It will be in American form, but it will need to be something that allows us to have coverage, as we move between employment, especially since most of the job growth is in forms of employment that don’t have coverage.

In the United States, Amazon is the second largest employer, Berkshire Hathaway the sixth. JPMorgan Chase comes in at a paltry twenty-first, sandwiched between some lesser-known small businesses named AT&T and McDonalds. If Gawande is right, that future job growth will be in temporary, precarious employment and that these jobs will not have any benefits to offer—and I think it is safe to assume he might know a thing or two about the future of employment that we don’t—then it should come as no surprise that the world’s richest man, the man who sets the terms for said employment, Jeff Bezos, might be interested in exploring potential solutions (and business opportunities) within—or more likely, in order to supplant—the health care marketplace. Who better than Gawande, with his Ivy credentials and liberal bona fides, to be the ambassador of such private equity financed monopolistic interest? Typically, this type of business move is known as a “public relations coup.” As a writer, Gawande might characterize it as just another failure to close the gap between aspiration and reality. But as the history of modern American public relations shows in unmistakable detail, the line between both of these interpretations has always been vanishingly thin.

Century of Pelf

Less than two weeks before Gawande’s commencement speech, social media’s favorite frenemy Kanye West shared a YouTube video on Twitter: “It’s 4 hours long but you’ll get the gist in the first 20 minutes,” he wrote. “Basically Sigmund Frued’s (sic) nephew Edward Bernays capitalized off of his uncle’s philosophies and created modern day consumerism.” He linked to an upload of The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis’s four-part 2002 docu-essay examining the links between Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Bernays, and the concurrent development of public relations, consumerist culture, and government propagandizing. The story should be familiar to even the most casual of media theorists: Edward Bernays, who was indeed Freud’s nephew, pioneered the field of modern public relations after serving under Woodrow Wilson during World War I, overseeing propaganda initiatives aimed at selling the war to the public and maximizing recruiting efforts. He published several books outlining his theories, spinning the much-maligned practice of propaganda into a treatise on the modern, softer-sounding communications strategy he dubbed public relations.

Edward Bernays spun the much-maligned practice of propaganda into a treatise on the modern, softer-sounding communications strategy he dubbed public relations.

Bernays also claimed to have used many of his uncle’s writings on the complexities of the human psyche in order to find new and creative ways to not only sell products, but also to manage public opinion itself—exploiting repressed desires buried in the public unconscious to achieve his, and his clients’, ends. Curtis, together with other theorists of commercialized and manufactured consent such as Noam Chomsky and Stuart Ewen, have understandably made much of Bernays’s relationship with Freud, and though this popular narrative surrounding the development of public relations isn’t wrong, it is somewhat incomplete. This story doesn’t adequately position Bernays and the professionalization of public relations in their proper historical and political context. Nor does it lay out the ways in which public relations itself is a technology, one that is scarcely confined to the manipulation of individual desires toward commercial consumption but emanates out of a broader ideological project entirely. Bernays’s new discipline would indeed come to decisively shape the political and cultural machinations atop the American social order for the next century.

But contra the enthusiasts of the Freud-Bernays connection, the PR revolution wasn’t steeped in psychological sophistication—rather, its signal achievement was to repackage the broad insights of Freudian inquiry into a version of mass consumer psychology uniquely congenial to American business civilization. In his autobiography, Bernays notes that post World War I America had rediscovered psychoanalysis, partly due to the “the avant- garde[’s interest] . . . in using it as an excuse for a sex palaver.” Bookstores were increasingly stocked with popular theories of psychoanalysis, yet Freud remained unpublished in America. Bernays, ever the commercial opportunist, saw this as his opening: “No authoritative book by Freud himself gave the story of psychoanalysis . . . for laymen,” Bernays recalls. “It would popularize psychoanalysis in America authentically.” Years later, he attempted to connect Freud with American magazine publishers, suggesting a series of advice columns for Cosmopolitan, including the hilariously now-anachronistic “A Wife’s Mental Place in the Home.” Freud responds to this idea in characteristic, almost comically, terse fashion: “The absolute submission of your editors to the rotten taste of an uncultivated public is the cause of the low levels of American literature and to be sure the anxiousness to make money is at the root of this submission. . . . Had I considered regards like those of your editor from the beginning of my career I am not sure I would not have become known at all neither in America nor in Europe. So we have to drop this business altogether.” It is unfortunately still trendy to announce that Freud Was Wrong, but in his psychic diagnoses of American popular culture, I think we can at least agree he was onto something. Nevertheless, Bernays insists his uncle’s hesitation to publish in America was nothing more than a fundamental misinterpretation of the popular appetite for a keener understanding of the subconscious mind.

Bernays casts Freud’s reluctance, in other words, as a simple problem of misunderstanding—his trademark approach for the many messaging challenges Bernays would tackle, from war preparedness to tobacco marketing—but was it Freud or Bernays suffering the misunderstanding? When you read through Bernays’s correspondence with his uncle, you see early on that the enterprising nephew’s grasp of psychoanalysis was deficient in many key particulars: the published translation of the Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis was riddled with errors, much to the irritation of Freud. In 1920 Freud writes, “I note the use of the word ‘suppression’ for Verdungrung. In literature in England, it has been agreed to translate this as ‘repression.’” This strikes Freud, and I would think even cursory readers of Freud, as a quite significant translation error. Substitute “suppression” for “repression” in psychoanalytic theory and we are suddenly discussing entirely different psychic processes: repression, as Freud describes, occurs at the level of unresolved unconscious urges. Freud discovered that patients, unbeknownst to themselves, bury, forget, or block traumatic memories and uncomfortable impulses. Suppression, however, is typically useful for the subject: it is a way of seamlessly managing inappropriate thoughts and feelings—an entirely conscious decision not to indulge in every errant emotion or reactionary impulse.

Souled American

A problem of translation perhaps, but Freud has another characterization for this type of mistake: parapraxis. Commonly referred to as a slip of the tongue—or Freudian slip as we’ve garishly Americanized the term—a parapraxis reveals something hidden, something repressed, in the unconscious. “I was no expert psychoanalyst or translator. I had done what I could,” Bernays later explains, much like a dog returning to his owner with his tail between his legs, or a man coming to terms with his own inadequacy on the tweed couch. But Bernays sticks to his convictions: “It was quite clear that Freud had no idea how widespread his popular appeal was here; nor did he realize that a scientific body of knowledge could be popularized without diminishing its validity.” Perhaps inadvertently, Bernays lands on something poignant here: there is a tension in America—perhaps an irreconcilable one—between the mass popularization of ideas and a need for nuanced analysis, for the type of empathetic and rigorous specificity required of a democratically engaged society. Bernays seems to view this as an opportunity, not unlike the technocrats and media machines of Silicon Valley that carry on his work in the unwitting psychic profiles of their own mass clientele today. And this intensive effort to render the unresolved darkness and dread of psychoanalytic theory at its core a sunnier, market-friendly exercise in mood adjustment and opinion shaping arises out of the same tension Bernays exploited, unconsciously or not, for the rest of his career.

As Bernays himself was fond of saying well into his old age, Walter Lippmann provided the theory, while he provided the practice.

Plenty has been written on Bernays’s supposed instrumentalizing of psychoanalysis—if anyone were to be bold enough to attempt to translate Freud’s volumes into a technology for merely selling meaningless goods, it would be the Americans. But critics have paid less attention to Bernays’s place within his historical and political milieu. Bernays’s career took off during the interwar years, at a time of great theoretical debate about the legacies and limitations of liberalism in the wake of World War I and the rising threat of European fascism. One of Bernays’s contemporaries who also served under the Wilson administration, Walter Lippmann, was greatly involved in these debates. His most famous work, Public Opinion, published in 1922, is an intellectual precursor to Bernays’s own writings on public relations—a critical look at the ways in which subjective perception can be manipulated to nefarious ends through the complex structures of mass media. Lippmann’s work here is more descriptive than prescriptive, a critical assessment of what he sees as democracy’s inherent limitations and contradictions that, left unattended, would result in disaster. This wasn’t, of course, a new diagnosis—much has been made throughout the history of political thought about the tyrannical tendencies in democracy left unchecked, from Aristotle to Tocqueville—but what is significant about the interwar era’s re-theorizing of liberal democracy are the solutions these thinkers come to advocate. Bernays took Lippmann’s critical assessment a step further with the publication in 1923 of his career-making study, Crystallizing Public Opinion. As Bernays himself was fond of saying well into his old age, Lippmann provided the theory, while he provided the practice. Indeed, in Crystallizing Public Opinion, he subtly inverts some of Lippmann’s critiques, offering up opportunity where Lippmann finds blind spots. In order to combat the masses’ susceptibility toward tyranny, for instance, Bernays argues that we must entrust a great deal of civic-didactic power to the thought leaders of a professionalized managerial class, which will shoulder the smart man’s burden of subtly coaxing or gently suggesting prescriptions aimed at advancing what they alone understand to be the public’s best interest.

Critics might call this a psychic power grab on the part of a privileged elite; Bernays instead hailed it as the great civilizing mission of public relations. This vision proved by far the most influential account of the higher spiritual calling of PR—and indeed, as the trials of modernity continued to assail the American democratic experiment, Bernays’s elegant, expert-driven solution to the quandaries of liberal governance in mass democracy became all but official political writ. Lippmann was often critical of the role of public relations and media manipulation, and yet even he, too, eventually submitted to the same rationale advocated by the more opportunistic Bernays: in 1934, the same year Adolf Hitler solidified his role as both Führer and Chancellor of the German Reich, Lippmann wrote that it had become necessary to “work out collective technical procedures by means of which the modern state can balance, equalize, neutralize, offset, [and] correct the private judgments of masses of individuals.” Perhaps the kernel of the public relations apparatus, then, is found less within the specific, highly individualized insights of the complex study of psychoanalysis, and more in the supposed need to corral the unwashed masses away from the chaos they’ll inevitably fall into without adult supervision. “[Statesmanship] consists,” Lippmann writes, “in giving the people not what they want but what they will learn to want.” In this glum didactic formulation we can glimpse the modern technocracy’s ideological coming-of-age.

© Lindsay Ballant

Miracle at Mont Pèlerin

Bernays was not the only thinker to capitalize on Lippmann’s critiques. In 1938—just as Bernays was publishing Business Finds Its Voice, a book focused on teaching corporations to publicize their social virtues alongside the intrinsic value of capitalism as a way of winning over popular support—the French philosopher Louis Rougier convened the Colloque Walter Lippmann. This meeting, inspired by Lippmann’s high-profile dissent from New Deal statism, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, convened twenty-six global intellectuals to investigate the recent decline in interest in classical liberalism and—far more consequentially—to captain a reconstruction (or re-branding, as the case may be) of a new liberalism for the next century. Along with Lippmann, some of the age’s most pre- eminent classical liberal and libertarian economists and philosophers were on hand: Michael Polanyi, Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich August von Hayek. It was here in Paris that these men formulated a new liberalism—which Rüstow anointed neoliberalism—a theoretical repudiation of the totalitarian formations this policy directorate saw as an insidious and inherent flaw of democratic social planning and state-managed economies. Nine years later, the Colloque Walter Lippmann reconvened, with several new members and this time under the direction of Hayek, at the Swiss resort of Mont Pèlerin—and there the group’s foundational debates were marshaled into a principled ideological project with clear political aims and targets.

The nimble wordsmith Lippmann is credited with developing this consolidation of managed rule from above into the pithy, if not paradoxical, “guided democracy.”

The Mont Pèlerin consensus was clear; social democracy, with its insistence on egalitarian outcomes that must, by definition, be socially engineered, was an impediment to personal liberty; thus, it would prove over the long run to be a handmaiden to tyranny. In order to secure the rights of individuals, property, and private freedom, social democracy had to be dismantled and replaced with the orderly maintenance of free markets. This meant, first, a reversal of the core logic of social-democratic political economy, with a full-scale privatization of all public goods and social provisions. More than that, though, the neoliberal turn mandated a different conception of the self—one that was organized in perfect concert with the dictates of free-market libertarianism. The neoliberal political subject was the limit case of what Michael Sandel has called “the unencumbered self”—a capitalist ideal-type bereft of foundational attachments to family, community, solidarity, or equality. This meant not just that neoliberal political actors bore sole responsibility for their individual failures and successes; it also mandated—and ideologically rationalized—the annihilation of the very idea of the social itself. Hence Margaret Thatcher’s immortal gloss on neoliberal social thought: “There is no such thing as society.”

It’s testimony to the broad success of the neoliberal project that a significant segment of our own liberal punditocracy has spent the last several years denying the existence of any such thing. In reality, of course, the decades since Mont Pèlerin have seen a steady institutional and intellectual consolidation of neoliberal orthodoxy—in the Austrian School, the Freiburg School, among the ordoliberals, and, not least by a long shot, in the economics faculties at the University of Chicago and George Mason University. These hardy libertarian vanguardists have not just sought to overthrow social-democratic thinking within economics but have also mounted similar offensives within philosophy, politics, theology, jurisprudence, the natural sciences, and the social sciences writ large. (Not for nothing have the neoliberal lords of rational choice taken to calling economics the “imperial discipline”—it’s the one instance in which their market forecasting powers have not failed them.)

All this dizzying, counter-revolutionary plunder has come at the behest of several generations of committed intellectuals across nearly every discipline and every industry, tasked with decades-long strategies to re-make the entire world in their own preferred image. That, indeed, may be one of the key reasons why it is so difficult for the leading lights of our American pundit class to articulate just what and who is responsible for the neoliberal revolution of the last forty years and its subsequent discontents; it is simply the taken-for-granted atmosphere in the professional-managerial circles they move and work in. At a more complicated—perhaps psychoanalytic—theoretical remove, one can also discern a legible repressive logic in the circulation of neoliberal orthodoxy as simple socioeconomic common sense: those in power have a material interest in obfuscating the details of this complicated cast of characters and ideological interventions, choosing instead to endorse neoliberal governance as a fatalistic “second nature” brand of post-political wisdom. This version of modern political history has the far from incidental effect of further consecrating our liberal pundits’ rightful place amid the technocratic managers tasked with the mission (in Bernays’s formulation) of “manipulate[ing] this unseen mechanism of society.” The nimble wordsmith Lippmann, for his part, is credited with developing this consolidation of managed rule from above into the pithy, if not paradoxical, “guided democracy.”

Unguided Plutocracy

Then again, it may be that no one wants to acknowledge the neoliberal dispensation of our age because doing so would involve acknowledging neoliberalism’s colossal failure to produce anything resembling a just or even functionally stable social order. Our society looks nothing like what the neoliberals envisaged—the Hayekian Valhalla of lean states securing private liberty and the peaceful transfer of power along with soft management of freely existing global capital markets committed to international accumulation through competition. Rather, populist rage burns through the deracinated industrial centers of the global north as liberal urbanites concentrate in increasingly isolated, privatized, and financialized city-centers. The technocratic elites, after the earthquake of the global financial crisis in 2008, have lost all legitimacy as effective stewards of the public good and are plainly no longer able to suppress the reactionary tendencies that an impoverished democracy yields. In its insistence on economizing every aspect of society, neoliberalism has privatized even its “unseen mechanisms”: global monopolies accrue power and wealth on a truly unprecedented scale, and in-house public relations teams act as handmaidens, carefully priming the population for the transition to new systems of private dominance. Unlike Gen-X rebels who railed against corporate culture and its overreach, today’s liberals clustered around the centers of Democratic Party power are perfectly willing to accommodate the increasingly monstrous governing structures that monopolistic capitalism imposes.

As digital monopolies steadily enclose whatever still remains of a public sphere, an impressive array of PR professionals have worked overtime to make it all sound liberating and democratic.

Indeed, PR firms and the management teams they represent have found a welcoming public, so long as their consciences are swayed by stories of best practices in HR departments, diverse corporate boards, and mythical CEO origin fables. While Donald Trump and his Koch-fueled cronies dismantle what remains of the American regulatory system and throw the last shreds of our social fabric into the pyre, liberals wring their hands and disavow any responsibility for the present dismal-to-dystopian status quo. Note the subtle disavowal present in the popular rallying cry “Not My President!” In such prim rhetorical formulations, hatred and spite give way to outright dismissal and denial—if he isn’t my president, then this isn’t my government, and this surely isn’t, surely can’t be, my society. Like a tumor metastasizing undetected, this is the eerie, twisted echo of Thatcher’s apothegm about the illusory nature of society.

Democracy, by contrast, is the practice of creating a shared future built on a vision for society that must—through a substantive commitment to egalitarian purpose and emancipatory struggle—include everyone. Today’s neoliberal degradation of democratic dogma is a moralistic, rancorous phantasm, and its adherents are increasingly drunk on rewarding those whom they deem worthy while delighting in the dismissal and even the outright punishment of those they deem not worthy.

This, not coincidentally, is the same invidious rhetoric of superior virtue favored by the liberal’s adversary. Both sides in today’s storied partisan divide are thus stuck repeating the synchronized steps of an intricate yet ultimately inconsequential culture-war dance. “Besides,” Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine in 2017, “if National Review says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?” It’s unclear whether Rich believes suicide is not a social phenomenon—a tragedy that has long served as a classic indicator of social and economic instability and decline—or whether, what’s clearly worse, he simply doesn’t care. Perhaps this is what remains when democracy itself is degraded, delegitimized without being destroyed: a politics bereft of futurity and common purpose, an anarchic wellspring of unbridled revenge.

Rather than come to terms with the stark reality of our situation—I’m sorry to say, but this, in fact, is your society—and take on the courageous, difficult work to think beyond the zero-sum landscape of liberal social fatalism and envisage something we might dare call the New, we retreat, collapsing into the arms of the only people seemingly capable of providing any semblance of structure, security, and authority: the corporations. And this is where Edward Bernays’s prophetic vision has been lavishly fulfilled. As digital monopolies steadily enclose whatever still remains of a public sphere, an impressive array of PR professionals have worked overtime to make it all sound liberating and democratic. Press releases gush out of all available servers, print articles and op-eds consistently reminding us not of the use value of their products (useful products, it should be noted, are not a Silicon Valley specialty) but, just as Bernays taught us, of the value of the corporations themselves: the great services they provide, the glorious number of jobs they create, their moral and ethical right-mindedness, and their proper place as the cultural and social pillars of all things American and exceptional—which is to say all things Hayekian and free. Far from simply building brand stories and shaping images, modern public relations is a perverse spin on what Bernays originally imagined the profession to be: it seeks to enshrine a privatized technocracy, swathed in the shallow veneer of a rhetorical, and endlessly fungible, commitment to social justice. And if present trends continue, our digitally administered information state may indeed be poised to finally extinguish the irksome throwback legacy that Bernays and his milieu found so threatening: democracy itself.

Corporate Rites of Consent

Neoliberalism’s stolid refusal to acknowledge social responsibility on anything other than a metric of enlightened consumerism makes this subtle move from public governance to private enclosure that much more intuitive. Perhaps more distressingly, the reflexive dismissal of even the possibility of public governance in favor of a seemingly more efficient, more right-minded privatized one makes the disavowal of society that much more seductive. When he wrote Public Opinion, Lippmann bewailed the obsolescence of the old Jeffersonian ideal of the “omnicompetent citizen”; now that conceit seems quainter than ever in the age of the omnicompetent corporation.

The logic of the corporate enclosure of the public sphere is truly a neoliberal wonder to behold. As our power elite steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any broader responsibilities or demands than the mandate to continue amassing ever greater quarterly returns, the rest of us meekly pantomime an odd parody of consent of the governed by focusing inordinate attention on the ever-mythic specter of enlightened corporate political agency. At least, we’ll cry, Twitter and Facebook will de-platform that rabid lunatic Alex Jones—that’s accountability! Or, at a minimum, we’ll plead, Nike will cast Colin Kaepernick in their sneaker campaign—that’s solidarity! Or again, at the very least, we’ll point out, Amazon is bringing jobs to Long Island City—that’s leadership!

In our actually existing consensual reality, it of course matters not a whit that the culture-war sport of celebrating corporate censorship betrays any supposed democratic commitment to protecting the rights of all citizens on an equal basis, subtly charging both Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey with the power to decide what is and is not free speech. (“If Trump supporters don’t care about my speech, I don’t care about theirs,” a typical liberal disputant will snort on any given social-media platform, in full Frank Rich dudgeon.) And no matter that Nike, a Hydra of exploitative global supply chains with dubious labor practices, degrades Kaepernick’s protest of racialized police brutality to the inert and content-free mantra “Believe in something”—a funny-except-it’s-not late capitalist parody of empty advertising slogans. (“Say what you will, but Nike is taking a risk and making a powerful statement,” the contented liberal online commentariat will predictably tweet.) Amazon might hold entire cities hostage, dangling jobs in front of desperate mayors in exchange for public cash, private development contracts, and access to municipal security apparatuses, but “only New Yorkers could complain about getting 25,000 jobs,” Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost scoffs.

New Secessions of the Successful

One of the impossible-to-miss lessons of the 2016 presidential ballot was that the decades-long neoliberal project had gutted rural American communities of jobs, pensions, social services, and public education—and thereby fomented the pseudo-populist backlash of 2016. Now it appears we’re on the cusp of another rude inversion of neoliberal dogma—the revolt of the urban elites. Armed with the fierce moral certitude that comes with the corporate multiculturalist rejection of the racist myth-mongering and contempt for elites that served as the Trumpian enemy’s battle cry, the self-appointed liberal gatekeepers of public discourse have now run into the safe arms of the corporation. If Trump is what comes from democracy, they reason, then perhaps we don’t need democracy. This is the neoliberal dream paradoxically both realized and gone rogue—a malignant mutation of what Bernays, Lippmann, and Hayek all envisioned as a battery of peaceful management strategies for neutralizing and suppressing the errant ways of the masses nearly a century ago. This is the technocracy taken to its logical conclusion: as Washington crumbles and Silicon Valley rises, the final act of the neoliberal war on the public sphere now appears to be the corporate enclosure of the state itself. For all the phony populist rhetoric of the Trump insurgency, Trumpian governance has brought this process to a head—both a continuation of and a garish conclusion of the neoliberal assault on the political sphere, as a vast retinue of corporate vultures lurk in the shadows of the cabinet, picking apart and selling off what little remains of our decaying democracy.

Toward the end of Bernays’s autobiography comes a section about Joseph Goebbels. Here, Bernays addresses what always sounded like an urban myth: the notion that Hitler’s minister of propaganda was greatly inspired by Bernays’s work, even going so far as to offer Bernays himself a position as a consultant for the Reich. As the legend goes, Goebbels consistently referred to Bernays’s book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, when crafting the architecture and technology of The Final Solution. Bernays wrote that he’d heard through a friend that the rumor of Goebbels’s embrace of Freud’s American nephew as a model and mentor was true. Although scholars still contest the extent to which the Nazis used his work, Bernays was, understandably, quite upset by the reports of a Goebbels connection. In March 1933—just five years after Bernays published Propaganda and five years before the world’s leading economists would meet in Paris to launch another ideological project aimed squarely at the same social democratic threat—the Nazis opened Dachau. Two months later, the newspapers reported the widespread burning of Freud’s life's work out in the streets of Berlin for all to see. The mob reportedly chanted, “on behalf of the nobility of the human soul, we offer the flames the writings of Sigmund Freud.” Perhaps it’s now worth asking just what it was about Freud’s work that posed such a threat to the Reich, and determining why his insights—difficult, specific, uncompromising, uncomfortable —might be deemed too dangerous to be allowed on the bookshelf of any self-respecting Reich supporter. And it’s probably worth asking just what this scene meant for the contested interpretation of Edward Bernays’s life work and tangled legacy. Goebbels may have wanted to rid Germany of Freud’s psychoanalysis—but he evidently found much to admire and emulate in Bernays’s Americanized, professionalized scheme to discipline and manage the citizenry of commercial republics all throughout the globe.

Liz Franczak is a writer based in San Francisco.

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