by William Sanjour

October 17, 2003

 Capitalism –  market economy –  free enterprise – these are the jewels in the crown of civilization which, since the renaissance, have brought unprecedented wealth, prosperity and freedom to large parts of the world. Capitalism has struggled and eventually triumphed over its historical adversaries; in earlier times, popes and kings and in our time socialism and communism.  In the 21st century, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, international corporate capitalism is bursting, like fireworks, in triumph; merging, globalizing and buying governments.  What puny opposition remains is easily dispatched with a broad range of powerful weapons which have been developed over the years.  Today the only real threat to capitalism is capitalism!

 Socialists may practice socialism and Christians may practice Christianity but if by capitalism we mean a competitive market driven economic system, then capitalists do not practice capitalism.  Theorists notwithstanding, capitalism is not an ideology, it is merely a description. Capitalists are not trying to implement some philosophy, they are only trying to make a buck any way they can.   To a capitalist the biggest enemy is not socialism or labor unions or liberals or environmentalists, or even big government, the biggest enemy is risk.  Risk of not making money.  Risk of losing money.

 Making money and avoiding risk in doing so is what capitalism is all about.  But it is precisely in the risk taking that society draws its benefits from capitalism.  That is the dilemma.  Risk promotes wise investment resulting in efficiency, innovation and the creation of wealth, not just for the capitalist but for society as a whole. But a lot of capitalists fall by the wayside in the process.  It is in the capitalist’s interest to eliminate risk and society’s interest to prevent them from doing so.  The way to avoid risk is to control the market and to do that they must also control the government. This struggle has been going on for hundreds of years: capitalists forming monopolies, oligarchies and trusts and society breaking them up.

 So long as society can keep pace with all the tricks and turns that capitalists take to avoid risk, the world would continue to reap the blessings of capitalism.  But for the capitalists to succeed in eliminating risk, they would have to eliminate competition resulting in a monopoly of corporations with as much efficiency and innovation as any government bureaucracy. The ultimate risk-free climax  would be monopoly and oligarchy and the corporate-run government necessary to keep it that  way — functionally indistinguishable from a Mafia run state or a Stalinist one. Capitalism, instead of an engine which pumps wealth to society and makes some capitalist wealthy in the process,  would become an engine which sucks the wealth out of society, making a handful wealthy by impoverishing the rest.

 We see this process going on in third world countries today and we are seeing the beginnings of it at home, in America.  All three branches of government are increasingly under the control of corporations.  Both political parties are addicted to corporate financing.  Mergers, acquisitions and globalization, all techniques for eliminating risk, are rampant. The media is being merged and taken over by corporations and increasingly being used as public relations outlets for the corporations.

 Right now society is not keeping pace.  The tricks and turns that corporate capitalists use to avoid risk have gotten trickier and twistier.  Just as a mosquito injects an anesthetic so that you will not feel it is sucking your blood, corporations are coopting the very processes by which people recognize what is going on so that more and more we are living in a virtual reality without realizing it.  Sort of like a Potemkin village or like the movie The Truman Story where a boy is born and raised on a television set without knowing it.  And as corporations merge and grow larger, they have even bigger budgets to build even more elaborate and convincing “sets”.  But this is not science fiction.  The “sets” are being built around us as you read this.

 Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber of the Center for Media & Democracy have been documenting this process for years.  Their publications include a quarterly newsletter, PR Watch, and several books including:  Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry,   Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?, and now Trust Us, We're Experts*.  While flippant and amusing, these books and articles tell a very chilling story of corporate public relations manipulation and spin control growing exponentially in size, audacity and sophistication.

The “father of public relations”, Rampton and Stauber point out in Trust Us, is Edward L. Bernays, son in law and disciple of Sigmund Freud. By following Bernays’ philosophy one can see the road map to the future.  Here are some of his ideas [pp 42 - 44]:

  • scientific manipulation of public opinion is necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society
  • In almost every act of our lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
  • while most people respond to their world instinctively, without thought, there exist an intelligent few who have been charged with the responsibility of contemplating and influencing the tide of history
  • public relations is an applied science, like engineering, through which society's leaders could bring order out of chaos
  • being herd like also made people remarkably susceptible to leadership.
  • Of course that “leadership” can only be exercised by those who can afford the price of the Hill & Knowltons and APCOs of this world.

     Here are some cases of virtual reality cited in their latest book.  Big contributions, free junkets and the promise of future jobs are the more obvious ways of corrupting legislators but less obvious and more subtle is the use of public relations to actually manipulate the “facts”.  A typical example of how this works is illustrated on page 14.

     “In the Fall of 1997, Georgetown  University's Credit Research Center issued a study which concluded that many debtors are using  bankruptcy as an excuse to wriggle out of their obligations to creditors. Lobbyists for bank and credit card companies seized on the study as they lobbied Congress for changes in federal law that would make it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy relief.  Former U.S. Treasury  Secretary Lloyd Bentsen cited the study in a Washington Times opinion column, offering Georgetown’s academic imprimatur as evidence of the need for ‘bankruptcy reform’.  What Bentsen failed to  mention was that the Credit Research Center is funded in its entirety by credit card companies,  banks, retailers, and others in the credit industry. The study itself was produced with a $100,000  grant from Visa USA and MasterCard International Inc.  Bentsen also failed to mention that he himself had been hired to  work as a credit-industry lobbyist.”
     Coopting and distorting the very sources of knowledge and information which informed people, legislators, scientists,  government officials, the press, etc. rely on as being objective and scientific is one of the most clever and the most egregious techniques for creating virtual reality.  As an EPA employee I have seen many examples of self-serving corporate sponsored “scientific” studies being foisted off on EPA and used to justify weak ineffective regulations or no regulations at all.  The fraud, if discovered at all, is rarely discovered by EPA.  In the absence of high level support there is very little incentive for science bureaucrats to look closely at studies with powerful backers.

    From p. 199: If you want to know just how craven some scientists can be, the archives of the tobacco industry offer a treasure trove of examples. Thanks to whistle-blowers and lawsuits, millions of pages of once-secret industry documents have become public and are freely available over the Internet. In 1998, for example, documents came to light regarding an industry- sponsored campaign in the early 1990s to plant sympathetic letters and articles in influential medical journals. Tobacco companies had secretly paid 13 scientists a total of $156,000 simply to write a few letters to influential medical journals. One biostatistician, Nathan Mantel of American University in Washington, received $10,000 for writing a single, eight-paragraph letter that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Cancer researcher Gio Batta Cori received $20,137 for writing four letters and an opinion piece to the Lancet, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and the Wall Street Journal – nice work if you can get it, especially since the scientists didn't even have to write the letters themselves. Two tobacco-industry law firms were available to do the actual drafting and editing. All the scientists really had to do was sign their names at the bottom.”

     If the virtual reality created by public relation firms were only limited to selling toothpaste and deodorant we might not get too concerned about it.  Falsifying medical research to defend harmful and dangerous products is a troublesome escalation.  But there appears to be no limits to the uses of PR and no concern by the users of its ultimate impact.  The issue of global warming, which could possibly plunge humanity into a new dark age, is being surrounded by the fog of virtual reality by the practitioners of PR as if the stakes were no more important than the selling of mouthwash.

    Rampton and Stauber point out in pp 267-288 of Trust Us that PR firms hired by the major industrial emitters of greenhouse gasses have created dozens of influential sounding front organization such as “The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition”, “The Global Climate Information Project”, “The Information Council for the Environment” and “The Greening Earth Society” which have saturated the media, Congress and the public with industry spin so as to make their case by sheer volume and noise.  Since the facts and the scientific community are so overwhelming against them, the object of the public relations onslaught has been to slow down, confuse and defuse public clamor for resolute action.  Friends of the Earth International calls this “lobbying for lethargy”. There is legitimate scientific debate about the source and rate of global warming and a lot of the spin addresses that, but a lot doesn’t.  Some of the dirtier tricks played are:

  • An attempt to stimulate anti Kyoto Treaty email to President Clinton by promising to enter writers’ names in a $1000 sweepstakes drawing.
  • Appealing to anti-abortion activists with the claim that “Al Gore has said abortion should be used to reduce global warming.”
  • Touting phoney petitions of scientists discrediting the theory of global warming.
  • Circulating phoney “scientific” papers made up to look like they had appeared in reputable peer reviewed scientific journals.
  • Some industry flacks claim the Earth is actually cooling while other claim that global warming is a good thing.
  •  The scary thing is that lobbying for lethargy is working.

    * Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber,  Trust Us, We're Experts, (New York, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001). ISBN 1-58542-059-X.