by Caitlin Johnstone
The science of modern propaganda arguably got its start over a century ago during World War I when a young Edward Bernays was recruited to help sell the conflict to a reluctant American populace, after which he took what he’d learned on that front and folded it into a lifetime of work on the study of mass-scale psychological manipulation.
That was when propaganda as we know it today came into being, with the scientific method applied to the task of refining techniques for manipulating large-scale human behavior using modern media distribution. Those methods have been in research and development this entire time, and have advanced at least as much as our other instruments of warfare have advanced since World War I.
But that wasn’t the beginning of mass-scale psychological manipulation by the powerful. That has been going on since the dawn of civilization.
Back when humans were a nomadic hunter-gatherer species, there was no need for tribal leaders to impose mental narratives over their tribe in order to keep them moving and behaving in the way they wanted. The animal needs of food, drink, and safety were enough to keep those small societies moving, hunting, foraging, reproducing, and fighting wherever it was necessary; they would have done those things even without the existence of language, and our evolutionary ancestors probably did exactly that for millions of years before the behavior of speech first emerged in humans.
That all changed with the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Once humans began learning to trick the Earth’s biosphere into making the food appear next to them, they became capable of sticking around in one place without starving, and civilizations began to emerge. Where as hunter-gatherers humans were only organizing in groups of a few dozen, with the ability to settle and build things we began congregating in villages and cities of hundreds or thousands.
Once you’re dealing with human groups of that size with sustenance coming from farmlands and livestock, the animal impulses of hunger, thirst and safety are no longer complex enough to determine the way those humans are going to be behaving from day to day.
Copious amounts of language will now be needed. Agreements. Protocols. Rules. Etiquette. How is the civilization planned out? How are decisions made? Who does the work? How are resources allocated? How are children conceived and raised?
From here you can already see how the possibility of abuse is opening up. Someone’s going to be doing the work. Someone’s going to be making the decisions. Someone’s going to be deciding where the resources go, and potentially assigning a lot more to themselves than to others. Someone’s going to be deciding who gets to have sex, and potentially assigning that responsibility entirely to themselves and their supporters, and potentially not leaving any say in the matter to the women.
Once humans moved from organizing in villages and cities to moving in kingdoms and empires, the potential for abuses increased exponentially. Then you’ve got the matter of wars and who should fight in them. You’ve got money and the capacity for vast wealth. You’ve got laws and the ability to determine what they are and whom they benefit. And you’ve got someone holding an immense amount of power over a very large number of people.
You can’t rely on instinctual animal impulses to organize people in civilizations of that kind of complexity. To get people moving in accordance with your will, you’ve got to use narrative. You need to overlay your civilization with a conceptual world of mental stories that people believe in and move in alignment with. And that’s what has happened with every civilization that has ever existed.
Up until the last few generations, religions played a major role in this. Getting the public valuing meekness, obedience, poverty, and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (paying taxes) while teaching them that it would be sinful to murder their rulers and take their treasure was an essential component in subjugating the masses and keeping them moving in alignment with your will. The religions of Christianity and Islam look quite different from belief systems like Confucianism, but all three are narrative overlays spread on top of giant civilizations which kept the rank-and-file public marching in accordance with the will of the powerful.
And of course it wasn’t entirely bad. Civilization would have been impossible if everyone was robbing and killing everyone else all the time, and narratives about sin and eternal punishment were one way of keeping that from happening. The narratives of religion, law, government and culture preserved a given order where there would otherwise have been disorder; it may have been a tyrannical, exploitative and unjust order most of the time, but it was order.
In modern western society religion plays a less dominant role in the organizing narratives, but there’s still the same amount of thick narrative overlay as we had in ancient times. In place of the priesthood we’ve got the pundits, news reporters, politicians and thought leaders, in place of heretics we’ve got tankies and conspiracy theorists, and in place of the old scriptures and doctrines we’ve got the current mainstream worldview. Before the mainstream worldview involved Jesus and God; now the mainstream worldview involves capitalism and an entirely faith-based belief in democracy.
And just as before, it’s not all bad. It’s probably a good thing that the mainstream worldview values freedom and justice, even if our freedoms are largely illusory and our judicial systems are profoundly unfair. It’s probably a good thing that the mainstream worldview now officially opposes racism, even if that is partly because race wars and vigilante justice are inconvenient for our rulers. It’s probably a good thing that the mainstream worldview values getting children vaccinated against diseases which used to kill lots of people, even if the pharmaceutical industry does have way too much power and diseases are now used as a pretext to roll out authoritarian agendas.
It’s not all bad, but it is bad. The status quo systems we’re manipulated into accepting by the narrative overlay on our civilization are creating terrible injustices and are imperiling our entire species. Ecocidal capitalism is killing our biosphere, imperialism is threatening our planet with nuclear armageddon, people are being starved, impoverished, abused and exploited by the sociopolitical status quo we are manipulated into consenting to by the science of modern propaganda. And it’s all for the benefit of the same types of people who took control of the dominant narratives of the ancient civilizations lived in by our ancestors.
From the dawn of civilization, we have been ruled by manipulators. Those who rise to the top of our current civilization have the same qualities as those who rose to the top of the kingdoms and empires of old. People who are just a little bit more clever than the rest, and just unprincipled enough to use that to their advantage.
The next stage in our development as a species, if we get to the next stage, will be to transcend this model. To transcend the model in which our lives are dominated by mental narrative, in which manipulators are able to use the fact that humans are storytelling creatures to rise to levels of power over the rest of us, in which we are forced to trade peace, justice, sanity and a healthy ecosystem for the order and stability of our ruling systems.
This will mean becoming a conscious species. It will mean casting aside our primitive psychological delusions to such an extent that we no longer need the narrative overlay of a mainstream worldview to move in harmony with each other. That we no longer need the narrative overlay of law and government to treat each other with kindness and keep things moving in an orderly way. That we no longer need the narrative overlay of money and economy to move resources where they are needed.
If we can achieve this one day it will be a kind of return to Eden; a return to the narrative-free innocence of the hunter-gatherer days of our ancestors. But it will be the conscious, mature manifestation of that way of life, just as spiritual enlightenment is the conscious, mature manifestation of the same nondual experience lived accidentally by babies. We won’t hunt in tribes as our species did in its infancy, we will live in civilizations, but we will live in harmony with each other and with our ecosystem, because we transcended our unwholesome relationship with mental narrative and replaced it with a wide awake direct encounter with reality.
And I suspect that if we ever get there, it will feel very familiar. Very old, and very familiar.