Jacques Ellul on the demand for propaganda

Usually I only post excerpts of very good books or very bad ones. Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda (1962) is neither—it is a pretty good book. It’s dated in many ways and has many of the faults of the postwar French intellectual. Nonetheless, Ellul lived and observed in Vichy France, a great laboratory of this black art in which fascist and communist propagandas of every conceivable flavor competed, interacted, and interbred. Here, for instance, is a great summation of the 20th-century achievement in the form:

The idea that propaganda consists of lies (which makes it harmless and even a little ridiculous in the eyes of the public) is still maintained by some specialists; for example, Frederick C. Irion gives it as the basic trait in his definition of propaganda. But it is certainly not so. For a long time propagandists have recognized that lying must be avoided. “In propaganda, truth pays off”—this formula has been increasingly accepted. Lenin proclaimed it. And alongside Hitler’s statement on lying one must place Goebbels’ insistence that facts to be disseminated must be accurate.(*)

How can we explain this contradiction? It seems that in propaganda we must make a radical distinction between a fact on the one hand and intentions or interpretations on the other; in brief, between the material and moral elements. The truth that pays off is in the realm of facts. The necessary falsehoods, which also pay off, are in the realm of intentions and interpretations.

This is Propaganda 101. The footnote is also interesting:

*—This idea is now generally accepted. In the United States it is the Number One rule in propaganda manuals, except for unbelievable and harmful truths, about which it is better to remain silent. SHAEF said in its manual: “When there is no compelling reason to suppress a fact, tell it… Aside from considerations of military security, the only reason to suppress a piece of news is if it is unbelievable… When the listener catches you in a lie, your power diminishes… For this reason, never tell a lie which can be discovered.” As far back as 1940 the American psychological services already had orders to tell the truth; in carrying them out, for example, they distributed the same newspapers to American and German soldiers. In the Communist bloc we find exactly the same attitude: Mao has always been very careful to state the facts exactly, including bad news. On the basis of Lenin’s general theory of information, it is incorrect that the dissemination of false news does not create problems. French propagandists also have discovered that truthfulness is effective, and that it is better to spread a piece of bad news oneself than to wait until it is revealed by others.

There remains the problem of Goebbels’ reputation. He wore the title of Big Liar (bestowed by Anglo-Saxon propaganda) and yet he never stopped battling for propaganda to be as accurate as possible. He preferred being cynical and brutal to being caught in a lie. He used to say: “Everybody must know what the situation is.” He was always the first to announce disastrous events or difficult situations, without hiding anything.

The result was a general belief, between 1939 and 1942, that German communiques were not only more concise, clearer, and less cluttered, but were more truthful than Allied communiques (American and neutral opinion)—and, furthermore, that the Germans published all the news two or three days before the Allies. All this is so true that pinning the title of Big Liar on Goebbels must be considered quite a propaganda success.

See, you’ve already learned something today! (And it can’t be repeated too often that when Hitler talks about the “Big Lie,” he is accusing his enemies rather than revealing his plans—not, of course, that his own propaganda is anything but propaganda.)

The core of Ellul’s work is his explanation of why both the State and the People need propaganda. The former is a straightforward matter we’ve considered many times here at UR:

Ergo: even in a democracy, a government that is honest, serious, benevolent, and respects the voter cannot follow public opinion. But it cannot escape it either. The masses are there; they are interested in politics. The government cannot act without them. So, what can it do?

Only one solution is possible: as the government cannot follow opinion, opinion must follow the government. One must convince this present, ponderous, impassioned mass that the government’s decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct. The democratic state, precisely because it believes in the expression of public opinion and does not gag it, must channel and shape that opinion if it wants to be realistic and not follow an ideological dream. […] The most benevolent State will inform the people of what it does. For the government to explain how it acts, why it acts, and what the problems are, makes sense; but when dispensing such information, the government cannot remain coldly objective; it must plead its case, inevitably, if only to counteract opposing propaganda. … And because pure and simple information cannot prevail against modern propaganda techniques, the government, too, must act through propaganda. […] The American writer Bradford Westerfield has said: "In the United States, the government almost always conducts its foreign policy on its own initiative, but where the public is interested in a particular question, it can only proceed with the apparent support of a substantial majority of the people.“ Westerfield stresses that at times concessions must be made to the people, but ”if the President really directs opinion, and if the public accepts the foreign policy of the government as a whole, no great concessions will have to be made to elicit the necessary support." Here we find confirmation that any modern State, even a democratic one, is burdened with the task of acting through propaganda. It cannot act otherwise.

In 1957, when the Soviet people were called upon to study and discuss Khrushchev’s Theses on Economic Reorganization, we witnessed a truly remarkable operation. The underlying theme of it all was, of course, that everything is being decided by the people. How can the people then not be in agreement afterward? How can they fail to comply completely with what they have decided in the first place?

The Theses were submitted to the people first. Naturally, they were then explained in all the Party organizations, in the Komsomols, in the unions, in the local soviets, in the factories, and so on, by agitprop specialists. Then the discussions took place. Next, Pravda opened its columns to the public, and numerous citizens sent in comments, expressed their views, suggested amendments. After that, what happened? The entire government program, without the slightest modification, was passed by the Supreme Soviet. […] When Fidel Castro wanted to show that his power was based on democratic sentiment, he organized the Day of Justice, during which the whole population was called upon to sit in judgment of the past regime, and to express its sentiments upon massive demonstrations. These demonstrations were meant to “legalize” the death sentences handed down by the State courts and thus give a “democratic sanction” to the judgments. In doing this, Castro won the people’s profound allegiance by satisfying the need for revenge against the former regime and the thirst for blood. He tied the people to the government by the strongest of bonds: the ritual crime. That Day of Justice (January 21, 1959) was undoubtedly a great propagandistic discovery. If it caused Castro some embarrassment abroad, it certainly was a great success at home. It should be noted that such provocation of popular action always serves to support governmental action. It is in no way spontaneous, and in no way expresses an intrinsic desire of the people: it merely expresses through a million throats of the crowd, the cry of governmental propaganda.

Second—and this is a subtler process—governmental propaganda suggests that public opinion demand this or that decision; it provokes the will of the people, who spontaneously would say nothing. But, once evoked, formed, and crystallized on a point, that will becomes the people’s will; and whereas the government really acts on its own, it gives the impression of obeying public opinion—after first having built the public opinion. The point is to make the masses demand of the government what the government has already decided to do. If it follows this procedure, the government can no longer be called authoritarian, because the will of the people demands what is being done. In this fashion, when the German public opinion unanimously demanded the liberation of Czechoslovakia, the German government had no choice but to invade that country in obedience to the people. It yielded to opinion as soon as opinion—through propaganda – had become strong enough to appear to influence the government.

Yeah, yeah. We know all this—I hope. But the People need their propaganda too:

A common view of propaganda is that it is the work of a few evil men, seducers of the people, cheats and authoritarian rulers who want to dominate a population; that it is the handmaiden of more or less illegitimate powers. This view always thinks of propaganda as being made voluntarily; it assumes that a man decides “to make propaganda,” that a government establishes a Propaganda Ministry, and that things just develop from there. According to this view, the public is just an object, a passive crowd that one can manipulate, influence, and use. And this notion is held not only by those who think one can manipulate the crowd, but also by those who think propaganda is not very effective and can be resisted easily.

In other words, this view distinguishes between an active factor—the propagandist—and a passive factor—the crowd, the mass man. Seen from that angle, it is easy to understand the moralist’s hostility to propaganda: man is the innocent victim pushed into evil ways by the propagandist; the propagandee is entirely without blame because he has been fooled and has fallen into a trap. The militant Nazi and Communist are just poor victims who must not be fought but must be psychologically liberated from that trap, readapted to freedom, and shown the truth. In any case, the propagandee is seen in the role of the poor devil who cannot help himself, who has no means of defense against the bird of prey who swoops down on him from the skies. A similar point of view can be found in studies on advertising which regard the buyer as victim and prey. In all this the propagandee is never charged with the slightest responsibility for a phenomenon regarded as originating entirely outside of himself.

This view seems to me completely wrong. […] For propaganda to succeed, it must correspond to a need for propaganda on the individual’s part. One can lead a horse to water but cannot make him drink; one cannot reach through propaganda those who do not need what it offers. The propagandee is by no means just an innocent victim. He provokes the psychological action of propaganda, and not merely lends himself to it, but even derives satisfaction from it.

Without this previous, implicit consent, without this need for propaganda experienced by practically every citizen of the technological age, propaganda could not spread. There is not just a wicked propagandist who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen. Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving. […] I think that propaganda fulfills a need of modern man, a need that creates in him an unconscious desire for propaganda. He is in the position of needing outside help to be able to face his condition. And that help is propaganda. Naturally, he does not say: “I want propaganda.” On the contrary, in line with preconceived notions, he abhors propaganda and considers himself a “free and mature person.” But in reality he calls for and desires propaganda that will permit him to ward off certain attacks and reduce certain tensions. […] We have stressed that the State can no longer govern without the masses, which nowadays are closely involved in politics. But these masses are composed of individuals. From their point of view, the problem is slightly different: they are interested in politics and consider themselves concerned with politics; even if they are not forced to participate actively because they live in a democracy, they embrace politics as soon as someone wants to take the democratic regime away from them.

But this presents them with problems that are way over their heads. They are faced with choices and decisions which demand maturity, knowledge, and a range of information which they do not and cannot have. Elections are limited to the selection of individuals, which reduces the problem of participation to its simplest form. But the individual wishes to participate in other ways than just elections. He wants to be conversant with economic questions. In fact, his government asks him to be. He wants to form an opinion on foreign policy. But in reality he can’t. He is caught between his desire and his inability, which he refuses to accept.

For no citizen will believe that he is unable to have opinions. Public opinion surveys always reveal that people have opinions even on the most complicated questions, except for a small minority (usually the most informed and those who have reflected most). The majority prefers expressing stupidities to not expressing opinion: this gives them the feeling of participation. For this they need simple thoughts, elementary explanations, a “key” that will permit them to take a position, and even ready-made opinions.

As most people have the desire and at the same time the incapacity to participate, they are ready to accept a propaganda that will permit them to participate, and which hides their incapacity beneath explanations, judgments, and news, enabling them to satisfy their desire without eliminating their incompetence. The more complex, general, and accelerated political and economic phenomena become, the more individuals feel concerned, the more they want to be involved. In a certain sense this is democracy’s gain, but it also leads to more propaganda.

And the individual does not want information, but only value judgments and preconceived positions. Here one must also take into account the individual’s laziness, which plays a decisive role in the entire propaganda phenomenon, and the impossibility of transmitting all information fast enough to keep up with developments in the modern world. Besides, the developments are not merely beyond man’s intellectual scope; they are also beyond him in volume and intensity; he simply cannot grasp the world’s economic and political problems. Faced with such matters, he feels his weakness, his inconsistency, his lack of effectiveness. He realizes that he depends on decisions over which he has no control, and that realization drives him to despair. Man cannot stay in this situation too long. He needs an ideological veil to cover the harsh reality, some consolation, a raison d’etre, a sense of values. And only propaganda offers him a remedy for a basically intolerable situation.

This is all true. Even in 2013, it is true. And yet, it offers some hope.

It is a frequently observed truth of con men that it’s impossible to con an innocent man. It is also impossible to propagandize an innocent man. It is your political ambition—an original sin if there every was one; when I translate “original sin” into 21st-century English, it comes out as “evolutionary psychology”—that makes you fall for this con. Somehow excising this libido dominandi, the lust for power, would leave you as immune to propaganda as a tonsillectomy to tonsillitis. Or a castration to porn. Indeed, what Ellul is telling us—a fact which is obvious today, though much less so in 1962—is that the modern propaganda addict (we cannot call him a victim) experiences political authority, a delicious taste instinctively desired by all men and women of true chimpanzee descent, entirely as porn. That is, as a simulation entirely without substance.

Is there life after porn? In 1962, this seemed impossible and indeed it was. Then again, in 1962, democracy, though not real, included many more living remnants of an age when it was once real. The organized political riot, for instance, remained a reality in every democratic country. Even in America, in the resistance to desegregation, we see political crowds using crude hand weapons and sheer weight of biomass to actively pursue their collective interests against the agenda of the State. It’s true that these crowds were weak and were defeated, but it’s also true that they existed. They would be unthinkable today. The Tea Party, the closest thing to their successors, doesn’t even litter.

There are two ways to imagine a realistic life after porn. First, the political libido of the average Westerner has greatly decreased, through absence of reality and overstimulation of falsity. Engagement remains, but has much diminished. Apathy is proverbial.

Apathy, which is a passive reaction, is not by any means conquest of desire. But it provides a platform for conquest of desire. Moreover, the extraordinary increase, not in the intelligence of the crowd, but in its philosophical sophistication, must be reckoned with. Imagine the impact of a movie like Inception on the audience of 1962. Irony and “meta” are old hat to quite a large population. Conquest of desire? Zen, or at least the idea of Zen (Zen is an exercise, not an idea), is familiar to essentially anyone who can read.

And second, conquest of desire need not mean elimination of desire. It can mean control of desire. It is possible to reject porn in favor of celibacy. It is also possible to reject porn in favor of sex. It is true that all superficially plausible channels of conventional political activism are more or less what Patri Friedman calls “folk activism,” i.e., porn. But when the impossible is rejected, the implausible becomes possible.

Power porn, that is, political action compatible with official propaganda (even supposedly anti-government actions can reinforce the narrative, often strongly; Timothy McVeigh was a better propaganda asset than Bill Moyers), is essentially a safety valve that prevents real and effective collective action by bleeding off its energy source. To realize that porn and celibacy are effectively the same choice is also to refocus your sex drive on achieving actual sex. To the porn addict, actual sex seems undesirable, because actual women are never as desirable as porn stars. Learning to overcome this, and becoming accustomed to actual women with actual pubic hair, is the essence of the exercise.

Of course, sex differs from power in that sex is individual, where power is collective. It is not sufficient for an individual to overcome his phobia of political pubic hair. It is necessary for a substantial number, if nowhere near a majority, to do so. Is it possible? Is there space for a new and more genuine propaganda, which would genuinely satisfy the libido of the masses, by offering at least the genuine opportunity for genuine authority? Perhaps we’ll see.