The Common Sense and the Road to Tyranny

Note from the author: this is a non-technical, impressionistic introduction to the political aspect of my PhD dissertation. It doesn’t contain a mountain of technical references or jargon, and is going to be developed much further and with more rigor, when I reach those stages of the project. Think of it as an extended “Provocations” piece for now. To that end, it is broad in scope and sometimes impassioned in tone.

By Daniel Tippens

With Felicia Chacon

On June 11th, 1963, the buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sat down cross-legged in the middle of an intersection in Saigon, South Vietnam, pressed his hands together in prayer-like fashion, and had a fellow monk douse his body in gasoline. Moments later, he lit himself on fire. As the flames grew stronger, he remained in place, his body retaining an unwavering pose of stability as he disappeared into the flames. While this event was one of tragedy, it was also one of heroism. Thích was protesting the brutal persecution of buddhist monks (and nationalists more generally) by President Ngo Dihn Diem, and a New York Times reporter watching the event snapped the photo shown below:

Buddhist Monk

Once he took the photograph, Malcolm W. Browne rushed to get the image to the Associated Press. When it arrived 15 hours later, it was broadcast to the world. The reaction to the photo was dramatic, with U.S President John F. Kennedy later saying, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one.” Humanity, having a common sense of what is unjust, tragic, heroic, terrifying, and angering, felt the same reactive attitudes of indignation, profound sadness, compassion, horror, and rage, toward the same respective objects — the oppression in Vietnam, the cause of the monks, and Thích himself. Within weeks, waves of people around the world assembled to protest in solidarity with the monks. Kennedy, who had been promoting Diem’s regime, withdrew support. Just a few months later, President Diem was overthrown in a rebellion, and the oppressive government was replaced.

There are too many striking things contained in this event for one to unravel thoroughly, but one which particularly hit me is how people, of all stripes and cultural backgrounds around the world, felt the same reactive attitudes when they viewed the image. This easily could have failed to obtain. Suppose, for example, that Thích had decided on a different method of martyrdom, perhaps using a gun or a katana, instead of fire. Had he used a gun, would the population in the U.S have felt the same reactive attitudes as another nation’s population, given our particular feelings about guns and suicide? Would the people in Japan have experienced the same reactive attitudes as the French, had he used a katana? Moreover, what if Thích hadn’t sat still as he self-immolated, but rather expressed his pain by rolling on the ground? Would the world have reacted with the particular set of unified reactive attitudes that it did?

But things get even more interesting when you contrast this event with the collective reactive attitudes of the population of the U.S, throughout its history. Citizens of all backgrounds, having a common sense for what is tragic and unjust, reacted to the Pearl Harbor attacks with compassion for their fellow citizens and allies around the world, and anger toward the Axis powers. When the Pentagon Papers were released by Daniel Ellsberg during the U.S invasion of Vietnam, the citizens largely reacted in solidarity with him, feeling collective indignation toward the U.S government and the war of aggression. But these things make one wonder: why, when ‘we the people’ were presented with the image of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President in 2016, did we not feel collective disgust and repugnance, reacting against him, or feel collective pride and excitement, reacting for him? If humanity had a common sense — such that they reacted with unity toward  the situation in South Vietnam — why didn’t our common sense ignite in us the same reactive attitudes in the 2016 election? Why did we not react with unity (in one way or the other) to the image of Trump, the way humanity did to Thích’s self-immolation?

P.F Strawson, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ruminations in Philosophical Investigations, popularized the notion of reactive attitudes in his landmark paper “Freedom and Resentment.” Reactive attitudes are our automatic sentimental responses to things we encounter. We laugh at jokes while leaning forward and holding our stomachs, the automatic behavior indicating that we feel that the joke is funny. We cry in movies and shed tears. We grow angry reading literature, and clench our fists. We feel wonder, inspiration, and awe at art and dance, and our eyes widen and our mouths hang open, as we sense that the works are beautiful.

Strawson was interested in the question of how we come to hold people morally responsible for their actions, and this led him into a detailed discussion of our moral reactive attitudes — resentment, disgust, compassion, approval, disapproval, etc. — and the conditions under which they are apt. What he was not interested in, however, was the question of how we come to have the patterns of reactive attitudes that we do — of how we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, such that many of us will feel the reactive attitude of awe, together?

It is one thing to ask about the general causes of these reactive attitudes I have alluded to; it is another to ask about the variations to which they are subject, the particular conditions in which they do or do not seem natural or reasonable or appropriate; and it is a third thing to ask what it would be like, what it is like, not to suffer them. I am not much concerned with the first question; but I am with the second; and perhaps even more with the third (Strawson, 1962; my emphasis).

What I have been calling a common sense, broadly, is what I take to structure our patterns of reactive attitudes. If you and I cry at the same scene in a play, then we have a common sense of what is sad, and our tears reflect our sense of that property. If we crouch down and hold each other in fear together, when a loud noise booms above us, then we have a common sense of what is dangerous. We will sometimes co-react to the same objects, in this case some loud booms (even artificially emitted ones). As long as we have at least one object that we co-react to, we share some degree of common sense, with respect to the relevant property. What I will be concerned with, in this book, is the common sense of citizens.

As parents, we have a common sense of what is dangerous: local strains of disease, drunk drivers, online bullying, and perhaps child abduction, etc. We have a perspective as parents insofar as we have our own set of objects that we have acquired a common sense for.

As citizens of the U.S, we have a very different common sense of what is dangerous: terrorism, police brutality, North Korea, Russia, etc. While we don’t have direct access to these things through perception (most U.S citizens will never see North Korea), mention of them will bring about reactive attitudes of fear in us when we are engaging with the world as citizens.

When we take a perspective as parents — perhaps when playing with our children at the park — we are concerned with sharp objects and bullies, not threats from Russia. When we go as citizens to meet with our congresswoman about climate change reform, we will be concerned with more national issues. The citizens of another country may not share our common sense of what is nationally dangerous, and so they may not manifest any reactive attitude toward these things when they are mentioned. Of course, we also have a common human sense of certain things — remember that, ceteris paribus, all of humanity, when presented with the image of Thich’s self-immolation, felt compassion, fear, horror, anger, and sadness. One of my primary interests will be on the question of how we acquire a common citizen sense? What structures our collective reactive attitudes, as citizens, such that we will all react together when something like Pearl Harbor happens?

Answering the question of how we acquire a citizen common sense of what is dangerous, tragic, inspiring, etc., is a pressing task. For while one might think that it is always a delight to see people acting from a common sense — like looking at a group-photo of people laughing together — one cannot relish in this fantasy for too long. Unfortunately, populations acting with unity in reactive attitudes should also remind us of some of the most terrible moments in human history:

Nazi Soldiers.png
Marching Nazis.png

These images depict what authors throughout history have described as tyrannical societies, which I will define as societies in which the citizens only have a common sense with the state (or governing body), and not with each other. If the state — those people acting as state-agents — reacts with disgust toward a minority group, the citizens do so as well. If the state reacts with indignity toward a perceived offense, the citizens feel it too. When a dictator salutes, all citizens salute back. There are no longer people who sometimes act from their common state sense and other times from their common citizen sense, as the former has replaced the latter. The citizenry has lost control of their common sense, and are caught in the grip of tyranny.

Tyrannical societies are depicted in their most pure and extreme forms in a battery of classic dystopic texts such as 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Harrison Bergeron, and Brave New World. In each of these works, we are shown a different picture of a society in which the population’s common sense is unified with the state:

Orwell hate week 2
Orwell hate week 1
Handmaids tale sitting women
handmaids tale pointing blame

Contrasting these fictional depictions of tyrannical societies with the actual depictions shown above, our eye is naturally drawn to the unity displayed in the citizens’ behavior, which reflects their shared reactive attitudes. When all members of IngSoc in 1984 participate in hate week, their facial expressions manifest a shared anger toward the external enemies of the state — some foreign nations. In Handmaid’s Tale, the finger-pointing handmaids display their shared reactive attitudes of blame toward an internal enemy; a fellow female citizen who has acted out of the party line.

The issue with reading these works of literature is that while we know such societies are possible — indeed, some societies have come close to being completely like them — it is hard to see exactly how a state could take control of its citizens’ common sense in this way, and to this extent. Since the authors have set their stories in the final stages of societal decay, we are only shown a world in which the state has already achieved taking control of it. Indeed, most dystopias leave the historical chain of events which led to tyranny a hazy mystery, reflecting both the way the citizens feel toward their past, and our own lack of understanding, as readers, of how they got to that point. Because of this, when we read dystopic works we are likely to extract only warning signs of approaching tyranny and not a model which explains why those things are red flags.

Consider how we have extracted catch-phrases from 1984. ‘Thought crime’ or ‘thought police’ tokens the image of a mass-surveillance society, in which citizens are monitored constantly, by everyone in their community. This includes their friends, relatives, and even children. ‘Double-think’ refers to the ominous phenomenon in which citizens caught in the grip of tyranny will appear to have contradictory beliefs, when we watch them as observers. Perhaps worse, the population won’t seem to have almost any grasp on the truth, or its close relatives, at all. ‘Newspeak’ brings to mind instances of state-agents saying “Surely we didn’t commit mass extermination. We were pacifying the village, a notion covered by state law, mind you!” Tyrannical societies will manifest widespread abuses of language which are intended to circumvent, alter, and ultimately control the common sense of the citizenry. ‘Big brother’ focuses us on the thought of a dictator — in this case a slightly elusive agent personifying the state, similar to the Progressive advertising character Flo,’ who was hired to personify and sell a company brand.

Two additional Orwellian themes seem worth discussing, even though they never achieved celebrity-status virality. First, The ruling party, Ingsoc, uses war as a cudgel to instill existential fear and dependence in the population. They hammer the citizenry with depictions of ‘the enemy’ — some distant “other” — maiming their innocent countrymen. They will constantly remind the citizens that the enemies of the state “want to kill your children and everything you love!” Of course, since all citizens have a common sense for what is terrifying, which includes death by invading forces, they will react with fear and begin to look to the state for safety.

Second, members of the population only co-react with their fellow citizens when it either benefits, or is for the sake of, the state. Direct and voluntary co-reaction between citizens happens infrequently or is suppressed. We can see this in the citizenry in the Republic of Gilead, who only have sex with each other for the purpose of state-sanctioned-reproduction, and never look at one another in the eyes while doing so. Perhaps even stranger, or just eerie, is that this aversion to one’s own fellow citizens is ubiquitous, happening both inside and outside of the institutions owned by the ruling powers. In the novel, when some handmaids coincidentally run into one another, their exchange is often reduced to a momentary and mutual transaction of trite phrases — ‘praise be!’ or ‘blessed be the fruit’ — which have been given to them by the state. If we see a lack of co-reactivity between citizens in our society, even if we’re unsure about whether it is the result of malicious forces, we should take pause.

All of these ideas constitute something of a tyranny watchlist, whereby if a juggled handful of them appear in a society, we would say that it is more or less Orwellian. However, what dystopic authors did not give us is a more rigid understanding regarding why these warning signs of Tyrannical encroachment should be taken as such at all. While it is unsurprising that these literary writers didn’t tell us exactly how the road to tyranny will unfold, it is hard to deny that we would like more on the matter.

Fortunately, the novels do suggest some strong hints regarding how tyranny descends upon the people. We can start with the fact that the arts and letters institutions are completely controlled by the state. Fashion is strictly regulated, and comedy and philosophy have all but disappeared. The media, film, and academia churn out content that serves only to provide the state with justification for its behavior. Similarly, music, dance, and the fine arts more broadly are used as the state’s drum beats, inspiring the sentiments of the ‘masses’ to favor the ruling powers.

The second hint is just as conspicuous as the first, and somewhat similar: propaganda is rampant. In 1984, the Ministry of Truth is responsible for publishing pro-state news, and will constantly rewrite old articles that have fallen out of the party’s favor. Propaganda about progress on the domestic and international war fronts spans every inch of society, and yet whenever the citizens see the news, no matter how absurd and contradictory, they react with the attitude of complete credulity.

How could state-control of the arts and letters institutions, and ubiquitous dissemination of propaganda, result in a tyrannical society? How could it lead to their patterns of reactive attitudes being controlled by the state? Uncovering the answer to these questions could explain why the Orwellian warning signs would count as such. This should strike anyone as important once one considers for a moment that the U.S today is obviously and clearly Orwellian. Consider:

Proxy Wars

Orwell quote
Soldiers in Afghanistan

Abuses of Language

War is Peace
Alternative facts


Ministry of Truth
Trust in media low
Zuckerburg fake news

Mass surveillance

WInston lonely
Snowden NSA
Handmaids spying
Iphone Spying

Citizens voluntarily avoid co-reacting with each other, when in direct perceptual contact.

Handmaids not looking at one another
People on bench with phones
Handmaids walking
Iphone walking

The United States has been engaged in proxy wars in the middle east for almost two decades, with no end in sight, and worse conflict appearing on the horizon. Media institutions are widely believed to have a political bent (there is liberal news and conservative news), and many people get their political content from social media, which filters them personalized news feeds, creating echo chambers; spaces where people with similar views pass information back and forth. Fake news — egregiously false articles masquerading as journalism — circulates widely on the internet, and is shared more frequently than well-vetted stories. Additionally, the arts and letters institutions are bleeding, as attendance to public museums has hit record lows. We also hear frequent reports of colleges downsizing their humanities departments, laying off swaths of faculty who are teaching philosophy, english, and the fine arts. Even more concerning is the general impression of hostility between conservatives and liberals, which gives us the striking impression that the we do not have a unified citizen common sense. Given this background, Donald Trump was elected, despite losing the popular vote, and a surge in book sales for 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale ensued, reflecting a general sentiment bubbling; that our situation in the U.S smells of tyranny.

This book is an attempt to understand how tyranny takes hold of a population’s common sense, and brings its citizens’ reactive attitudes in line with its own. We will see that this can happen quite easily in both democratic and non-democratic societies. But first (Chapter I), I’d like to develop the idea of the common sense, and use an interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of art as a way to explain how we acquire, maintain, and alter the common sense we have as citizens. Tolstoy recognized art as a means of emotional communication between human beings, and that something is a piece of art when it elicits shared reactive attitudes in the viewers, which the artist sincerely intended to convey.

“Art is not… pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well‐being of individuals and of humanity…. however poetical, realistic, effectful, or interesting a work may be, it is not a work of art if it does not evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)…. And if men lacked this other capacity of being infected by art, people might be almost more savage still, and, above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.. And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused.”-Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

For Tolstoy, the artwork is only successful if the audience, upon viewing the piece, undergoes those intended reactive attitudes together toward the same object(s), such that they feel what Tolstoy calls “spiritual union” with their fellow viewers as well as the artist. They all co-react, and feel that they are co-reacting, toward that object. An audience watching Saving Private Ryan sobs together, and feels that they are sobbing together, when Tom Hank’s character weeps over the loss of a young, brave, and loyal soldier under his command. All of the audience members who feel this “spiritual union” of sadness in the scene have undergone a reactive attitude toward the same object, and have felt that they were co-reacting. Now, they have a common sense of what is sad — the loss of an American soldier. They will feel this heartache together, when they are later informed of American casualties in war, or see similar images, or hear similar sounds. Engaging in the practice of co-reacting with one’s fellow citizens is what instills, maintains, and alters our common sense of things for us (in this case) qua citizens.

Imagine that Dave Chappelle is giving a stand up show at the Comedy Club in New York. In a bizarre event, all of the people who attend the club laugh at the same time, and with the same strength, at every joke. What this would mean about the audience is that they have a unified common sense of what is funny, such that they all co-react with perfect symmetry at the same jokes. If a stranger to U.S society were to attend the club on this night, and many nights thereafter, he would begin to co-react with the audience, entering into spiritual union with them, and in doing so would acquire their common sense about what sorts of things are funny, as a U.S citizen (so long as the jokes are made at that level). In addition to acquisition, we can maintain a common sense by continuing to co-react toward objects that we have encountered to before. This is how, for example, we are able to keep inside jokes between friends “alive.” Altering a common sense is also possible by, among many other things, producing a work of art that has a profound impact on the audiences that view it.

Sad in theatre
Happy in Theatre
Romantic in theatre
Surprised in theatre

Notice the overlapping behaviors, which indicate co-reactivity.

(Chapter II) If we accept this interpretation of Tolstoy’s view, we have an answer to the question that P.F Strawson was less interested in — how we can come to have the pattern of reactive attitudes that we do, as citizens. We visit the public museums (both as children and adults), congregating with our fellow citizens, and we acquire a common sense of what is beautiful, ugly, tragic, heroic, and so on. We do the same thing when we go to see films, comedy shows, take a philosophy or history class, etc. At this point it should start to be clear why tyranny tries to erode the public arts and letters institutions, and how it uses them to serve its interests. If the state controls what is depicted as beautiful, ugly, tragic, and heroic, it can bring the citizens’ common sense in line with its own.

(Chapters III and IV) But of course, in a democratic society, we would be alarmed if the state systematically starting eroding the arts, for citizens have a common sense of what is ugly, and it includes the state having too much power in this way. So, supposing we lived in a world in which the arts and letters institutions were untouched by the state, and completely controlled and funded by the citizens — how could tyranny take hold? Surprisingly, it can be achieved by using three very simple and specific types of propaganda, which are intended to break the common sense of the citizenry, atomizing the population into individuals who only have a common sense with the state, and not with each other.

In his books “Propaganda” and “Crystallizing Public Opinion,” Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, laid out a system of techniques for “regimenting the public mind” and controlling “public opinion” — techniques designed for controlling common sense. Regrettably, this hasn’t been given any serious treatment by philosophers.

Bernays, a public relations expert, recognized that one of the best ways to bring a population’s common sense in line with your client’s is by disseminating, on a mass-scale, certain kinds of insincere art (advertisements) to sub-interest groups. For example, suppose I am the owner of a Walmart, and so I want to attract my relevant interest group — customers — which in this case is the whole community. I hire Edward Bernays to help get the teachers, workers, parents, and children (the community) to bring Walmart into their common sense of friend, not just of store, because if Bernays can successfully achieve this, then all community members, let us suppose, will feel the reactive attitude of devotion or loyalty when they consider where — or in this case who — they want to shop with. If they are loyal, the owner of the Walmart makes money.

What Bernays does is what we now call targeted advertising. Suppose he isolates a target sub-customer-interest group: parents. He first does “market research” on them by knocking on their doors and asking them what kinds of things they need for their kids, their budget, etc. One thing he finds is that many of the parents in the community celebrate their anniversaries together, at the same time. At this point, he mails advertisements to the parents in the community, which say that Walmart is offering massive discounts on anniversary gifts for a specific span of time, because they care about parents’ being able to celebrate the life they have created together. The letter ad’s cover might look something like this:

Celebrate Anniversary.png

The parents see these advertisements together, and if they co-react to them in the intended way — perhaps by exchanging a quick glance and saying, “That’s really nice of Walmart!” — they will come to include Walmart in their parental common sense of friend, but not as customers. They will begin to feel reactive attitudes of devotion toward Walmart, when deciding where to shop for their anniversary; when they are deciding where to shop as parents.

Bernays then runs the exact same process on the teachers and workers, such that all of these sub-customer-interest groups feel loyalty to Walmart when considering where to shop as teachers and workers — all from their own special interests. All of the community members will be loyal Walmart shoppers. As I plan to show, propaganda in many of its forms is no different, except that it’s relevant interest group is citizens, and the sub-citizen-interest groups are politicians, workers, friends, relatives, parents, children, siblings, etc. If the propaganda is distributed successfully, the population will be composed entirely of loyal citizens to the state. Just as the community can come to love Walmart, the citizens can come to love Big Brother.

Of course, just as people can be manipulated into loving something, so too they can be manipulated, in the same kind of way, to hate or feel disgusted by something. Suppose Walmart wanted to weed out their competition, and were allowed to engage in hostile advertising. They could run the same process just described, except targeting the special interests people have for disliking certain things. If Walmart were to systematically release targeted advertisements to sub-interest groups, saying that their competitor K-Mart is eco-destructive, over-priced, and unfriendly to disabled groups, the community will come to hate K-Mart. Some people, being members of a climate-conscious club, will co-react to the ad with disgust toward K-mart. Others, being particularly agitated by companies that overcharge, may co-react to the ad with resentment toward K-mart, and so on and so forth for all of the relevant sub-interest-groups.

Propaganda that works like targeted advertising can be used to systematically atomize a population, by first breaking their citizen common sense, and then regimenting it in line with the state. Broadly, what I will call “atomization” is the process of moving a society from what a utopic stage to an atomized one. Here is the scenario:

Imagine a society which is a representative democracy — there is a congress, judiciary branch, executive arm, and an electoral college. Also, the arts and letters institutions are intact, being both funded and run by the people. However, it is also capitalist, in the sole sense that there are no laws protecting the arts and letters institutions from corporate privatization or slow and steady state intervention through corporate power. The only defense against the public arts and letters institutions coming under control of the state, is the common sense of the citizens. If the state qua state reaches into these institutions in an overt manner, the people will co-react with unity in defiance and indignation. So here is the question: how could a state, under these conditions, bring the common sense of the citizens in line with its own? How could it go from a utopic society to an atomized one?

Utopic society: All citizens have a unified common sense with one another. They all run from the same threats, cry during all of the same scenes at the theatre, react with credulity or incredulity to the same historical claims, clench their fists and snarl at the same aggressions, and smile at each other when they cross paths. They attend, contribute to, and curate, the public arts and letters institutions. In this way, they maintain control over their common sense. There is no propaganda.

Atomized Society: All citizens have a unified common sense with the state, but not with one another. They run from the same threats, cry during all of the same scenes at the theatre, react with credulity or incredulity to the same historical claims, clench their fists and snarl at the same aggressions, but do not smile at each other when they cross paths. They attend, contribute to, and curate the state arts and letters institutions. Their only exposure to art is in the form of propaganda. In this way, they do not maintain control over their common sense. Propaganda is rampant.

Atomization is possible by implementing two types of propaganda which rely on targeted advertising tactics —  fracturing propaganda, and regimenting propaganda. Fracturing propaganda is intended to create factions within the citizenry– groups of people with incongruous common citizen senses. Two groups have incongruent common senses when they have incompatible reactive attitudes toward all perspective-relevant objects, such that they cannot coordinate with one another. They are unable to work together and form shared political goals.

Suppose a liberal and a conservative are in a bar. The bartender, being a young and politically active citizen, invites them to sign a petition to stop climate change. The liberal will react with delight, pride, and support, but the conservative will react by rolling his eyes, feeling anger and resentment. The liberal and the conservative will be unable to work together, and sign the petition, because they have incongruous reactive attitudes toward the same object. If liberals have incongruous reactive attitudes with conservatives on all objects of citizen-concern (climate change, economic decline, immigration, police brutality, etc.), then they will be unable to work together simpliciter. Whenever liberals collectively cheer, conservatives collectively snarl, and vice versa — the groups are uncoordinated because their common citizen sense is incongruous.

What this results in, eventually, is the development of suspicion toward one’s fellow citizens, and persistent conflict between citizen-factions. Suppose, for example, that someone undergoes frequent incongruous reactive attitudes with his fellow citizens, toward objects of political concern. In this happens, this person will come to include his fellow citizens in his common citizen sense of suspicious, or stupid. Once all citizens have reached this point, they will be unable to coordinate on any issues of political concern — they will have to rely on the state to facilitate collective action for them.

Think about one of the primary reasons for the civil court system. When we are unable to settle our interpersonal conflicts on our own, we defer to the courts to tell us what to do. When we are unable to co-react congruously we require a higher power to unify our behavior — to regiment us such that we do not co-react incongruously toward the same object of legal concern. Unfortunately, the U.S appears to be approaching  atomization, as we clearly have deep-seeded citizen factions with wildly incongruous common senses in the population; we are currently susceptible to being regimented (Chapter V). Orwell vividly captures the outcome of systematic fracturing propaganda in 1984, when the villain, O’Brien, says,

We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer… There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother (3.3.34, O’Brien).

Regimenting propaganda attempts to instill that loyalty toward the state, of which Orwell speaks. Its purpose is not to create incongruous common senses, but rather a state-imposed congruous common sense, oriented in a desired direction. Regimenting propaganda takes the same form as the Walmart-style advertising described above, as it attempts to get all citizens to include the state in their common sense of loving, credulous, just, and so on, such that their common citizen sense is replaced by the common state sense. If fracturing propaganda was successfully implemented, the population will be incapable of co-reacting congruously — with unity — on all matters of political concern. Once this has happened, the state can impose a congruous common sense in the citizenry, such that they have unified co-reactivity in line with the state.

Here’s a general idea of how this process works. Suppose that Bernays is hired by a weapons-grade manufacturer, which depends upon continuous war for profit. War, of course, is a difficult thing to get support for, and so Bernays will try to do two things in order to democratically pass a bill to start war-making. First, he will use fracturing propaganda to create factions amongst the citizenry, breaking their bonds of trust and loyalty toward one another. If it is successful, factions — e.g liberals and conservatives — will come to include their fellow citizens in their common citizen sense of suspicious or disgusting.

Once this is done, he can regiment the population’s common sense in line with the weapons manufacturer, by using targeted advertising on all sub-citizen-interest groups, such that they come to approve of war. He may send targeted propaganda to parents, telling them that the government — via war-making — will keep their children safe. If they co-react in the intended way, parents will come to approve of war. The same process will be run on a variety of socio-economic sub-citizen-interest groups.  If he is successful, the citizenry will all co-react with agreement when war-making policies are proffered, but from their own special interests. The parents will approve of war because it has entered their parental common sense of protective, and if Bernays sells them on promises of war-derived prosperity, the lower-class may include war in their common sense of helpful. All citizens will react with approbation toward war-making, for their own sub-citizen yet perspective-relevant reasons.

(Chapter VI) The effects of fracturing propaganda in the U.S are quite obvious. U.S citizens surveil one another constantly, using their phones to report — either to the police, social media, or news outlets — their neighbors, friends, and even family members, regarding all manner of evils: racism, sexism, and bigotry (liberals), and anti-patriotism, extremist anti-fascism, and censorship (conservatives). All of this is fueled by further fracturing propaganda which has become an ordinary part of our lives, and clearly attempts to maintain our incongruous common citizen senses, like this:

See something say something.png

In addition to surveillance, congress is frequently deadlocked, divided on issues of national concern, and the population too frequently approaches a 50/50 split in our two-party presidential election. Consequently, the “popular vote” is increasingly out of sync with the electoral college.

In the meantime, mass shootings of our fellow citizens are on the rise, with more attempted shootings in recent years than in all of U.S history, reflecting how one’s fellow community members are increasingly included in the common citizen sense of suspicious and disgusting.

Income inequality has also reached astounding levels. A phenomenon known as “suburban poverty” is on the rise, in which families live in middle-class neighborhoods, but with an income level hovering around poverty line. The rates of suburban poverty have exploded over the past 10 years, as we are seeing 100% increases in the phenomenon, in most states around the country. Food pantries are popping up in these areas, and food stamps are becoming widely used by “middle class” citizens. In 2013, the top 10% of families in the U.S held 76% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% of families held 1%. Oxfam has found that eight super-rich people, six of whom are Americans, own as much combined wealth as half of the human race. Surely all of these things this reflect a lack of compassion and trust in the population, and betrays pervasive sentiments of disgust or apathy toward other citizens.

At this point, I hope that the reader has a prima facie sentiment that the U.S population is being regimented, whether it be intentional or not. But this still leaves us with an important question: What is regimenting the population? What is bringing about tyranny in the U.S? What is disseminating propaganda on a mass scale, and how have we gotten to this point of societal decay? I believe that the answer to this question is corporate power.

Remember that targeted advertising just is propaganda, when aimed at sub-citizen-interest groups. Private (corporatized) media institutions (FOX, CNN, Brietbart, New York Times, etc.) are constantly disseminating targeted articles and advertisements to the citizenry. They target sub-citizen-interest groups according to their own profit-seeking goals, and pressures from the government. Unfortunately, the government itself is beholden to strong financial interests, and so their pressures on the media reflect the needs of corporations.

Social media are probably the most widely used communications networks that exists. The most popular platforms are shamelessly designed for propaganda and advertising. No status is posted, no tweet sent out, and no photo uploaded, unless it has first gone through the necessary steps to target certain populations. While every person is a potential viewer of social media content, not all people will in fact be viewers of it. Those of us who are (un)lucky enough to receive a post do so because we have been targeted. Somewhere, someone (or something) has determined that this content — this advertisement/propaganda — would work on your relevant community, given your collective special interests.

We receive a mix of advertising and propaganda which fractures and regiments us in line with corporate interests. This seamlessly explains, I hope to show, both the fact that the U.S citizenry is divided, and the increasing wealth gap. The common sense of U.S citizens — our shared set of rules for emotional coordination — is being regimented in line with corporate agencies.

As I alluded to earlier, this is because, in the United States, the arts and letters are completely susceptible to slow and steady intervention by corporate power — they are not protected from the encroachment of privatization and profit-seeking motives. Of course no corporation could, or would, actually attempt to erase the public arts and letters institutions. But what they can do is turn the citizens against them by means of more propaganda and advertising. One doesn’t have to beat the competition by trashing their stores, sometimes all one needs to be do is perform a trick with which magicians are familiar: distract your audience. If one can regiment citizens to react with boredom or moral indignation toward the arts and letters, nobody will pay any attention to them. Just as a law with no enforcement is no law at all, so too an art museum with no attendees is no institution to nurture common sense. If every member of society is disgusted by the arts and letters for their own particular reasons, a power can take control of the market with the consent — at least tacit –of the public.

It should be clear that this is happening as we speak. As mentioned earlier, attendance to public museums has hit record lows, humanities departments are being closed at universities around the country, and music and film is dominated by pop culture, which is yet another institution under corporate control. At the same time, many U.S citizens openly decry “morally-problematic” art. We refuse to watch comedians whom we find offensive, call for those films created by moral villains to be banned, and many (even prominent physicists) publicly scoff at the uselessness of philosophy. Our society is literate, but we do not value it. Instead, we advocate for narrowing the materials upon which we may develop our common sense.

If you reads Bernays, you will not be surprised that art is being taken over by corporate power. In the very first pages of Propaganda, he acknowledges that the “tastes” of citizens in the U.S must be controlled. It would seem that he thought tyranny was necessary for democracy:

We are governed, our minds are 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. Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others, so that when those millions are exposed to the same stimuli, all receive identical imprints. It may seem an exaggeration to say that the American public gets most of its ideas in this wholesale fashion. The mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale is propaganda, in the broad sense of an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society… 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 (Bernays, pp.1 – 5).

Note that Bernays was a professional advertiser and propagandist — a public relations agent — for massive corporate agencies. He became known for getting an enormous number of women to smoke by selling them “torches of freedom” during the women’s rights movement. He managed to persuade people to feel that Dixie Cups were more sterile (safer) than regular cups, and doctors to recommend smoking to their patients. With a corporate client, and nearly unlimited financial support, the public relations expert — the corporate propagandist — is capable of regimenting the common sense of the masses.

Finger-pointing corporate power is fraught with prejudice, politicization, strong sentiments, and confusion. Many have decried the influences of powerful financial-interests in democratic societies, which has poisoned the well for healthy discussion. It is also unclear what one is even referring to when they speak of corporate power, other than perhaps some abstract, nefarious villains lurking in the shadows. The poison which has infected the well, I believe, is not some kind of innate tribalism or selfishness, as many have been quick to claim. Rather I think, to draw on Bernays, our “minds have been molded.” A mix of fracturing and regimenting propaganda is a potent psychological cocktail.

I ask the reader to keep an open mind with regard to the criticisms I will make, in the following pages, of corporate power in a democracy. I hope that one can engage this book with a receptiveness that Thomas Paine called for when (anonymously) advocating for American independence from Great Britain, at the start of his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense:

In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense; and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves; that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a [human being], and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day (Thomas Paine, 1776).

American citizens have needed to establish independence from controlling powers in the past, and we are in need of doing so now, lest we allow our bonds with one another to be broken, and our common sense regimented. I sincerely hope that the following pages will resonate with the reader’s common citizen sense of credulous, just as Paine’s pamphlet did over 200 years ago, before America fought for their independence.

(This article was originally published on The Electric Agora)

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