"In the long run, illusions will aggravate what they provisionally obscure." - Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959), p. 216
"As I observe the facts, I realize that man is terribly malleable, uncertain of himself, ready to accept and follow many suggestions, and is tossed about by all the winds of doctrine." - Jacques Ellul, from his introduction to Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (Vintage, 1962), p. xv.
survey of state propaganda
- its methods, goals and consequences - remains a foundational classic on the topic even after half a century. Only Edward L. Bernays
) is more widely cited, and deals more with the mechanics of manipulation
than wider questions of ethics or democracy; PR
is one thing, after all, manoeuvring an entire polity something else. Or is it?
Though many other scholars have examined the techniques of public manipulation
in particular regimes (e.g. Richard Evans
on Nazi Germany, Czeslaw Milosz1
on Soviet-occupied Poland, Aldous Huxley2
on post-war Britain, Morris Berman
on modern corporate America), Ellul begins from the crucial premise that all governments must engage regularly in propaganda exercises; that objectively speaking, the active shaping of thought across the body politic
represents an indispensible tool of government
in urban, industrial society.
"The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process ... It is no longer to lead to a choice, but to loosen the reflexes. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse an active, mythic belief." (25)
Ellul comes to this overarching view of administrative manipulation
honestly; he was dismissed from his academic post by Vichy
officials and enrolled in the French Resistance
. He then watched as the same communication techniques of political persuasion used by an occupying totalitarian
regime were adopted by a nationalist democratic government like De Gaulle
's as it wrestled with separatism
and post-colonial violence. When it comes to propaganda, plus ca change.
Ellul examines the methods and motives of the 'convincing state', its publications and announcements, only to conclude most governments seek not to "win over" their citizenry so much as to utilize their traditional fears and prejudices for unstated, more pragmatic ends. Goals like economic advancement, military success, civil peace or cultural diversification.
"In a society where propaganda - direct or indirect, conscious or subconscious - absorbs all the means of communication or education, propaganda informs culture and, in a certain sense, is culture." (110)
That may sound like a post-modern
truism now, but fifty years ago when Ellul was first translated into English it struck Anglo-American thinkers like Neil Postman3
(Amusing Ourselves to Death
), Marshall McLuhan
(The Medium is the Message
) and Noam Chomsky
) as vitally important. The ascent of commercial television
, glossy advertising and Madision Avenue
(not to mention the Rand Corporation
and public broadcasting
, or the dinner-time war news from Vietnam contrasted against the Pentagon Papers
) seemed to confirm subtle strands of invisible influence behind most popular culture
Arguably, one of the most important sections (pp. 115-130) describes what we now call "astroturfing
", namely the role of propaganda in stimulating public demand for government intervention
. That distinction is vital, given the prevailing view of what propaganda seeks to achieve.
Mistakenly, many pundits critical of government (on both the ideological right and left) hew to the vague notion that senior officials and administrators want to 'tell people what to think'. This is simply inaccurate; few senior bureaucrats spend much time considering (or caring about) general public opinion
when matters of policy or statecraft
are debated. However, political expedience
can work wonders if public demand is engineered, provoking calls for those actions government had already planned. On that front, skillful use of sympathetic media
, off-the-record sources, anonymous leaks, funded think tank
research and strategic opinion polling can be crucial. That is the real power of propaganda. Or as Ellul puts it:
Democracy is based on the concept that man is rational and capable of seeing clearly ... this is a highly doubtful proposition ... Public opinion is so variable and fluctuating that government could never base a course of action on it ... Only one solution is possible: as the government cannot follow opinion, opinion must follow the government. The democratic State, precisely because it believes in the expression of public opinion and does not gag it, must shape and channel that public opinion if it wants to be realistic." (124-125)
The logic of this diagnosis, once established, leads to a succession of other unpalatable truths about democratic process: that the 'will of the people' and 'consent of the governed' is largely planned (p. 132); that education and media services offer up propaganda en masse, even if it has a generally humanist
bent (p. 138); that facts, values, statistics and context are often provided by government only to muddy the thinking of citizens and voters (p. 170), and; ultimately, private life
, secure communications
and personal space
are anathema to the propaganda efforts of the state.
That last point is worth mulling over: privacy
allows an individual the rational space and objective distance necessary to cultivate skepticism of government claims (p. 191). So read on, good citizen, but be mindful. The concept of the noble lie
is an ancient notion, found as far back as Plato's Republic
, but consider rather the implications of ignoble truth
. At its core, that is propaganda.
1 On early Communist Party efforts in 1940s Warsaw, Milosz noted dryly that "propaganda - pushed often to the point of the ridiculous - does not indicate a high degree of self-confidence." (From The Captive Mind, Vintage edition 1990, p. 35)
2 Huxley was wholly ambivalent about modern communications and the potential effects on thoughtful culture, stating that "in regard to propaganda, the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies, the development of a vast communications industry concerned in the main with neither the true nor the false, but with the unreal." (Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, p. 295)
3 Postman argued convincingly in the early Reagan era that political discourse had devolved into a form of forced amnesia, writing that "we do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember ... the politics of image and instantaneous news provides no such context and is, in fact, hampered by attempts to provide any. A mirror reflects only what you are wearing today. It is silent about yesterday." (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985, p. 137)