"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. While many other scholars have examined the techniques of public manipulation
in particular regimes (e.g. Richard Evans
on Nazi Germany, Czeslaw Milosz
on Soviet-occupied Poland, Aldous Huxley
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 public thought 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 Postman
(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's a critical distinction from the prevailing myth of what propaganda seeks to achieve.
After all, 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, poltical expedience can work wonders if public demand is engineered so as to provoke calls for action that 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
and you stand closer to the overshadowing reality that Ellul describes.