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Spinning neoliberalism

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Propaganda played a vital role in forcing through the victory of big business in the 1980s, write David Miller and William Dinan
Issue 2092
 (Pic:» Tim Sanders )
(Pic: » Tim Sanders)

Neoliberalism and the embracing of the free market were not introduced in the US and Britain by accident or as a result only of the much vaunted hidden hand of the market. They had to be argued for, written about, and put into place by concrete actions.

This involved the political figureheads of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (and later Tony Blair and Bill Clinton).

But the impetus, the planning and the action came from corporate interests and their hirelings.

In our new book, A Century of Spin, we tell the story of the rise of neoliberalism, or as we prefer to describe it, the progressive abolition of even the limited gains of “bourgeois democracy”.

The story is a long one and it is not pretty. The roots of neoliberalism go back a long way and they do not consist simply of winning the battle for hearts and minds.

We argue that ideas are more important in making history than some on the left have credited.

But we emphasise that this does not happen in isolation from actual events.

In the book we examine the history of corporate propaganda.

The conventional wisdom is that it was invented in the early part of the 20th century in the US to transform the image of “robber barons” such as Rockefeller and JP Morgan into captains of industry, and to promote consumerism.

In fact corporate propaganda emerged roughly a century ago in Britain – in parallel to its development in the US – but this has been mostly airbrushed from the historical record.

The British business class faced the same challenge from the labour movement and democracy as its US counterparts.

Similar tactics were adopted to see off the threat from democratic reforms.

In Britain the first major capitalist class propaganda agency was created in 1919.

The organisation was called National Propaganda, an indication of the unselfconscious nature of the class interest at the time.

One of the founders of National Propaganda was the Midlands industrialist Dudley Docker, a stalwart defender of capitalism and founding president of the Federation of British Industries in 1916.

Before the First World War Docker had set up a series of “business leagues” to promote business rule. “If our league spreads, politics would be done for,” Docker wrote in 1911. “This is my object.”

From then until the first key neoliberal political victories in the US and Britain in 1979-80 business engaged in three waves of activism.

In each case it resisted the extension of popular democracy and in the end turned the tide with the elections of Thatcher and Reagan.

They did this by conscious planning to end Keynesian economic intervention and to turn back social democracy.

In 1942 business leaders set up Aims of Industry to fight plans to extend public ownership including the setting up of the NHS.

For the free marketeers of the Mont Pelerin Society, created in 1947, and the subsequent global wave of pro-market thinktanks from the 1950s onwards, capitalism needed to reject compromise and to win the battle of ideas.

In other words, the system needed to re-establish the dominance of the market.

The propaganda war was not only waged in the media, but also crucially at the factory gates and on the picket lines.

The violent repression of a strike at the Remington Rand typewriter factory in New York State in the 1930s led to the development of the Mohawk Valley Formula.

This was a strike-breaking model using intimidation, force, co-option and misinformation.

This became the template for the British government’s crushing of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike half a century later.

The campaign to abolish even limited democratic reforms has borne fruit in the dismal political choices now served up by the “democratic” system.

All the big parties are neoliberal. This occurred not just because of the need for capitalism to restructure but also because of the the ideological dominance of the market in a society in which the limited reforms of the past have been deliberately undermined or abolished.

The victory of big business has weakened structures of democratic control.

But it is also important to recognise that this was done in the teeth of opposition from ordinary people and that the vast bulk of the population has consistently opposed neoliberal reforms.

A Century Of Spin: How public relations became the cutting edge of corporate power (Pluto) by David Miller and William Dinan is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to »

They are also on the editorial board of »


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