‘Public Opinion’: The Phantom Menace By John Brissenden

19 April 2011 — New Left Project

“It remains…an axiom of conventional wisdom that the use of propaganda as a means of social and ideological control is distinctive of totalitarian regimes. Yet the most minimal exercise of common sense would suggest a different view: that propaganda is likely to play at least as important a part in democratic societies (where the existing distribution of power and privilege is vulnerable to quite limited changes in popular opinion) as in authoritarian societies (where it is not). It is arguable that the success of business propaganda in persuading us, for so long, that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant propaganda achievements of the twentieth century.” – Alex Carey (1997): 21[1]

Any 11 year old who saw Avatar or The Matrix has a basic understanding of constructed reality; teenagers carefully construct and reconstruct their online identity; politicians and pundits alike talk without shame or irony about presentation, optics and symbolism rather than policy. It is no different on the left. Resistance to the cult of austerity has been punctuated by outbursts of concern about public opinion, about how this or that tactic might “look”.

Indeed it is by now a commonplace that, following a mass protest against the coalition government, there will be a spasm of recrimination, not only from the right, but from liberals. Often, it will invoke the idea of public opinion, and argue against a particular tactic (property damage, non-violent direct action, strikes) on the basis that it risks alienating that public opinion, either directly or by “rewarding right-wing, pro-cuts media outlets with the negative headlines and imagery that they had so craved”.[2] We saw this after each of the student protests last year, and the pattern has been repeated since the events of March 26th.

I wish to question the widespread tendency to accept this frame of reference at face value.  As we shall see, from its inception a century ago, and in its current construction, the terrain of ‘public opinion’ is far from being a neutral space where a representative democracy deliberates and resolves issues. At best, ‘public opinion’, as represented in opinion polls, is a deeply flawed mechanism for gauging the extent of wider support for a particular cause. At worst, it is hostile territory, constructed and owned by the ruling class. I will argue that the left urgently needs to recognize this phenomenon if we are to escape from circular arguments set for us by our opponents.  As cuts bite deeper, and choices about strikes, protests and non-violent direct action (NVDA) become more urgent, this tendency will maintain its grip unless we subject it to proper scrutiny.

Managed democracy

The story of mass, representative democracy over the last century is a story of concerted and highly effective efforts by ruling elites to manage the popular mind, in the workplace, in the shopping mall, in the polling booth and at home, by means of increasingly sophisticated techniques of propaganda – we might say marketing – and surveillance, or opinion polling.[3] Let me give you some illustrative examples.

As Adam Curtis recorded in his 2002 BBC television series, The Century of the Self, the advent of mass democracy in the early 20th century struck fear into ruling elites. The extension of the franchise, itself the fruit of over a century of popular agitation, coincided with a concentration of power under monopoly capitalism, the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution.  Thinkers such as Walter Lippmann, his fellow propagandist (and so-called “father of public relations”) Edward Bernays, and Harold Lasswell, along with many others in elite political, media, academic and corporate circles, saw the mass of worker-voter-consumer citizens as a powerful new threat. The Progressive era’s optimistic view of democracy gave way to a deep pessimism, drawing on the ideas of the pioneering social psychologist Gustave Le Bon:

“To-day the claims of the masses are becoming more and more sharply defined, and amount to nothing less than a determination to destroy utterly society as it now exists, with a view to making it hark back to that primitive communism which was the normal condition of all human groups before the dawn of civilization. The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings.” – Le Bon, ‘The Crowd’, 1895[4]

It was during this period (broadly 1911-1930), that Bernays took the theoretical pessimism of Lippmann and Le Bon, and turned it into practical action on behalf of the American ruling class, by pioneering the techniques of propaganda and public relations, and helping to displace the active public sphere of the nineteenth century with appeals to emotion and spectacle, delivered through the newly-corporatised media that remain a central feature of life a century later.

Although the Creel Committee, which numbered both Bernays and Lippmann among its members, had pioneered the tools of mass propaganda since 1916, drumming up popular support for American entry into the First World War, it wasn’t until the Depression, and Roosevelt’s New Deal, that capital mounted a full-blooded propaganda assault on the rights of American workers. In response to the Wagner Act of 1935, which enshrined the right to collective bargaining, [5] James Rand, of the Remington-Rand typewriter company, drew up a plan to mobilise public opinion against striking workers.

The nine-point plan was distributed to members of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in 1936, and deployed by Little Steel, in alliance with NAM, the National Industrial Council and the Iron and Steel Institute, and with the active support of PR luminaries such as John Hill (of Hill and Knowlton) and James Selvage (of MSL Group). The plan, subsequently dubbed the Mohawk Valley Formula, reads like a blueprint for every ruling-class propaganda campaign since, including creating a division between activists and others as ‘agitators’, an appeal to ‘law and order’ and ‘imagined violence’, and police intimidation of strikers.[6]

The story of corporate propaganda since Mohawk Valley is of increasingly sophisticated manipulation of the public sphere, first in the United States and Britain, but now on a global scale:

“The powers of PR are not mysterious in the sense that they are magical or superhuman. They are all too human, the products of diligence, hard work, planning and conscious ideological warfare. They result in the institutional political corruption so obvious in neo-liberal societies, where governments are much more responsive to the concerns of big business and the powerful than any other section of society. The result of corporate propaganda can be seen in the contemporary ‘common sense’ that what is good for business must be good for society. This kind of thinking is fostered as a means to protect the corporations and their allies from the possibility of democratic government.” – David Miller and William Dinan (2008): 1[7]

Public opinion does not exist

Another development during the early decades of mass democracy was the opinion poll. In the 1920s, polling pioneers such as James Gallup advocated polls as a means of capturing and expressing the public will, in a more scientific – and therefore representative – way than, for example, pressure groups. [8]

40 years ago, Pierre Bourdieu mounted his influential critique of the opinion poll technocracy, when he argued that public opinion does not exist.[9] In particular, Bourdieu drew attention to the assumptions underlying the very business of opinion polling: that the ability to produce an opinion on a given question is equally open to all, that all opinions have equal value from the point of view of those commissioning, constructing, interpreting and publishing the poll, and that there is agreement on what questions are worth asking in the first place:

“[The opinion poll’s] most important function is to impose the illusion that there is something called public opinion in the sense of the purely arithmetical total of individual opinions; to impose the illusion that it is meaningful to speak of the average of opinions or the average opinion.”

“The ‘public opinion’ that is manifested on the front pages of newspapers is a pure and simple artefact whose function is to disguise the fact that the state of opinion at a given time is a system of forces, tensions, and that nothing more inadequately expresses the state of opinion than a percentage.” – Bourdieu (1971) in Bourdieu (1983)[10]

Justin Lewis does not dismiss polling as comprehensively as Bourdieu, but rather argues that we should acknowledge both the shortcomings of polling data and the constructed nature of polls as a text.  Despite Gallup’s good intentions, the outcomes of opinion polling, as Lewis demonstrates, are an inversion of classical notions of assembly (the media accord a legitimacy to polling data which they deny to crowds of protesters or striking workers); the creation of a body of poll results of which we become passive observers rather than active participants; and the manifestation of that data as an authored text – like a movie or a TV show – created by a technical elite, and so, self-evidently, at several removes from people’s lived experiences of the issues under discussion.

So we ought, at least, to remain deeply skeptical, not only of polling methodology, but of the pseudo-realism which the polling industry projects onto the complexities of social and political life. This is not a merely philosophical exercise, but has real consequences, as David Miller shows in relation to the attack on Afghanistan 10 years ago.[11]

The dominant narrative holds that the US-UK bombardment of Afghanistan in October 2001 was universally supported, and indeed media reporting across the board at the time made this claim. Yet polls actually revealed a slim majority against the attacks.  Miller’s study finds that such support as there was, was very highly qualified, that responses varied considerably according to how questions were worded, and that opinion – even as reflected in polling data – was far more complex than media reports suggested.  Despite this, the Afghan war was spun as enjoying popular support until British casualties shot up with the deployment into Helmand province in 2006.

Practical implications

There is, then, powerful evidence to suggest that public opinion has been deployed as a weapon of class warfare by capital since the 1930s; that the use of propaganda techniques by economic elites has continued, increasing in its sophistication and volume, to the present day; that the techniques and measures of opinion polling which are deployed by political, business and media elites are fundamentally flawed at a conceptual as well as a methodological level.

I maintain that, in this context, the tendency of those on the left to accept the terrain of ‘public opinion’ at face value, and to triangulate tactics in the fight against austerity in terms of how they might affect public opinion, hands our opponents a huge advantage and ensures that the campaign is played out on territory which they largely control.

This problem presents us with a number of questions:

1. To what extent should we consider public opinion at all?

I would argue that we should take mediated public opinion more seriously, in the sense of acknowledging its flaws and contradictions, while giving it less priority relative to our overall aims and to better measures of support for those aims.  For example, instead of the inquest that seems to bleed across the op-ed pages, blogs and Twitter after every protest, we should not discount from our reckoning the fact that ‘public opinion’ is both an elite construction and a severely imprecise measure of what people actually think. Any serious resistance to the austerity cult will draw noisy criticism from our opponents and, sometimes, conspicuous handwringing from liberals, while much of the opinion that counts – among those directly affected by austerity – remains unvoiced.  Such opinion may be unvoiced, but it is not unknowable.  If we are really interested in what people think – people in large numbers beyond the Twitter-blog-op-ed echo chamber – we should, like the politicians and the corporate executives presiding over the cuts, use more sophisticated measures than polls to find out. The techniques of qualitative, ethnographic research are hardly secret. Let’s use them.

2. Should we refuse to rule out any tactics for fear of how they might affect public opinion?

My position may differ from yours. My preference would be for campaigning that stops short of violence against persons.  Others may feel squeamish about anything that gives the corporate media the headlines they seek. But that triangulation ends up painting us into a corner where nothing beyond A-B marches is permitted – including strikes, occupations, and other NVDA.  I hope that I have shown that the terrain of mediated public opinion is implacable in this regard, and that by acknowledging this we may liberate ourselves to consider what is to be most effective on our terms and not our opponents’.

Let me give you one last example to show what I mean. Last November I addressed a sparsely-attended meeting of my university’s UCU branch, of which I am branch secretary. I urged the members to support the national demonstrations scheduled for 9 December, the day of the parliamentary vote on student tuition fees. One member expressed his disgust at the conduct of those who had attacked the Tory headquarters at Millbank a few weeks previously.  Three weeks ago, like 100,000 other UCU members, I took part in a one-day strike.  I was surprised to discover that the strike was very well-supported by our members, but even more surprised to discover that same member, who had expressed such disgust over Millbank, out on the picket line that day.    What had changed? In the intervening three months, branch activists had patiently explained the issues, had held regular branch meetings, had listened to and acknowledged the concerns of members of all shades of opinion – but had not given in to the agenda set by our opponents, or by the media.  Instead of triangulating against a phantom ‘public opinion’, we engaged with what real people actually felt.

[1] Carey, A (1997) Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty. Chicago: University of Illinois Press
[2] Mehdi Hasan,‘The TUC rally, hummus and me’, New Statesman, 28 March 2011
[3] Carey, A (1997)
[4] Le Bon, G. (1895) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind
[5] Miller, D., and Dinan, W. (2008) A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power. London: Pluto Press
[6] Miller and Dinan (2008): 53
[7] Miller and Dinan (2008): 1
[8] Lewis, J (2001) Constructing Public Opinion: How Political Elites Do What They Like and Why We Seem To Go Along With It. Chichester: Columbia University Press
[9] Public Opinion Does Not Exist, in Bourdieu, P (1993) Sociology in Question. London: Sage Publications
[10] Bourdieu, P (1983): 150
[11] Miller, D (2002) Opinion Polls and the Misrepresentation of Public Opinion on the War with Afghanistan. Television & New Media, 3(2), p.153-161.

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